23 June 1725: The Malt Tax riots break out across Scotland

What with the ‘West Lothian question’, the Barnett Formula and ‘English votes for English laws’, we’ve all become familiar with the endless bickering over whether or not Scotland pays its way in the Union.

But these arguments are nothing new. In fact, they go right back to the early 18th century when the Union was still very much in its infancy. And it was one such attempt in 1725 to get the Scots to pay more that threatened to break up the Union when it was just 18 years old.

That year, a group of English MPs pressured the government to extend the Malt Tax north of the border at a rate of 3d a bushel. (Malt, for those who don’t know, is a vital ingredient in whisky.)

The idea was to harmonise duties across the country, and raise an extra £20,000 in Scottish revenue for the Treasury. Imposing the tax, it was hoped, would also help to crack down on the smuggling and illicit distillation of whisky, and make the industry more accountable.

But from a Scottish perspective, it was just another example of English meddling, and many suspected the money collected would simply end up in London. So it wasn’t too surprising that when, on 23 June, the excise commissioners arrived with their clipboards, they weren’t welcomed with open arms.

The commissioners, reported the Daily Courant newspaper, “…were threatened to be stoned if they should attempt to take an account of the stock of malt in the hands of any person there; and that some of the town’s people [in Glasgow] had laid at the door of every malt-house great heaps of stones to convince the officers they were in earnest”.

The town’s people were very much in earnest. Erupting in Hamilton, in the Scottish central lowlands, the protests quickly turned into running battles with soldiers dispatched to quell the rioting. The next day, the violence spread to Glasgow, where the fallout became known as the Shawfield Riots. During the unrest in that city, the home of MP Daniel Campbell was plundered by an angry mob, and the soldiers battling the rioters were forced to beat a hasty retreat.

Throughout the rest of the summer, the rioting continued across Scotland. Together with the threat from Jacobite uprisings, it looked to many in England that the very survival of the Union was at stake.