Iron-hearted Tories, bloated corruptionists, and hordes of other venal creatures – John Steill and William Wallace.

William Wallace at Aberdeen sculpted by William Grant Stevenson in 1888. Paid by John Steill of 38 Grange Road, Edinburgh.

‘Never was the destruction of an ancient state more complete and humiliating than that of Scotland; – never did a people consent so tamely to surrender their liberties, and submit themselves to the overbearing dictation of another kingdom, as the Scotch have done.’

These are the words of John Steill of Edinburgh. I knew that Steill left money to pay for the colossal statue of William Wallace which dominates Schoolhill in Aberdeen but nothing else. Steill would have loved Twitter, with a handle such as @Patriot for he was like the best of us, opinionated. But Twitter did not exist in Steill’s time and he had to make do broadcasting his views through letters to the press and published as pamphlets. His main interests were the union with England and Clearances in the Highlands and Ireland, all of which he vehemently disapproved. The press, mainly staunchly conservative and reactionary, vilified him describing his words as dangerous.

It was in 1844 Steill wrote his most famous letter, later pamphlet, attacking the union and to place it in some kind of perspective I clicked onto Wikipedia to see what else was happening in the UK in 1844. What I found was that nothing at all happened in Scotland that year. Any events worthy of note took place exclusively in England. I expect John Steill could have told me that.  Towards the foot of the Wiki page was a link to Scotland in 1844 which is odd since last time I looked Scotland was part of the UK – apparently an unworthy part but part all the same whose events were just not important enough to get a mention on the UK page.

The following year Steill took out his pamphlet

On the Necessity of Dissolving the Union between England and Scotland, and on Restoring Scotland to Her Ancient Supremacy As an Entire and Distinct Nation

For Steill signing the union between Scotland and England was

 ‘one of the blackest transactions in history’ which reduced Scotland to becoming a vassal nation and he questioned why any Scot would think it right that a once sovereign state could demean itself to become dependent on another –

not least as betrayal of all those Scots who fought and died for their nation – Scotland’s real heroes who

‘would utterly disown and despise us.’

Then as now apologists for the union insist it was good for the Scottish economy  – an argument that failed to dent Steill’s certainty that any margin of economic benefit was a very bad trade-off for the

‘the annihilation of our independence and very name as a nation.’

The economic advantage argument he states could be just as easily applied to justify slavery as slave owners insisted their people were well cared and even prospered under it.

Any prosperity created by Scots, Steill insists, comes not from being in union with England but through Scots using their intelligence and application to prosper.

Wreath on statue of William Wallace
Guardian of Scotland

Scotland has been the butt of an unremitting propaganda assault since before union where she is painted as uncivilised compared with England. The truth is Scotland far from being nation of savages, feckless and barbaric was one of the world’s best educated of nations with a long and significant literary tradition, its people clever, enterprising and outward-looking Europeans, more open to democratic principles than their English counterparts.

That this modern European state could find itself shackled to an insular and war-like country like England incensed Steill. England in union dominated and overwhelmed Scotland, insisted Scots travel to London to represent their Scottish constituents, no easy matter in the 18th century (even before the travails of Scotrail.) Having tackled the hundreds of miles to London over several days through difficult and uncomfortable conditions (still prior to Scotrail) Scottish MPs found their opinions drowned out by

‘iron-hearted Tories, bloated corruptionists, and hordes of other venal creatures…’

The equivalent of the little woman who could do nothing without the permission of her husband Scots were forced to seek approval for each and every policy to be introduced into Scotland from English MPs. That any Scot should regard this humiliation appropriate for a nation that was once successfully independent struck Steill as reprehensible. In short Scotland, abundantly equipped to being a normal self-governing nation was constrained by England in a way that was degrading and oppressive.

Steill writes that his country is the victim of tyrants – ‘selfish aristocrats’ who contribute nothing but are idle, spend their time hunting on horseback and living in luxury but who have power to ‘beggar, starve, and banish’ Scots men and women who do work and contribute to the wealth of the country.

Steill points to parts of Scotland devastated as a direct result of the actions of tyrant landowners and distant Westminster and advocates nationalising their estates – distributing the land between the people who live there and depend on it. Condemning landowners who sell their land as if it ever belonged to them Steill insists, correctly, they were just lineal descendants of elected chiefs with no special right of property in the soil of Scotland. The land these Highland lairds sold or cleared, he writes, was never theirs – it belonged to the people of to the clan or sept collectively.

Not impervious to the hardships of English people, either, Steill blames their situation on ‘an imperious obligarchy’ stretching back to William the Bastard and his ilk who claimed entitlement to pillage and destroy right across the British empire for their own enrichment.

As though he had Gordon Brown breathing down his neck Steill tackles federal parliaments being proposed to quell Scottish discontent over the dominance of England in union. Steill is not in favour of federalism which he argues still chains Scotland to England with all that such an unequal partnership brings – its only benefit is not having to send MPs to London to look after Scottish interests. Federalism is a ploy to keep Scotland as an appendage of England with Westminster regarded as the chief government where real power resides with minor parliaments dispersed around the UK as England sees fit. The English parliament at Westminster still gets to dictate how every part of the union will be taxed based on England’s needs not theirs and these subordinate parts of the UK would still be obliged to participate in England’s wars.

Steill had no time for ‘crazed “gown-men” and ‘treacherous nobles and gentry’ who sell Scotland short. These scoundrels ‘sold off their native land to her enemies’ – against the wishes of the greater population of Scotland who deplore Scotland’s fate of becoming a vassal state of England’s instead of ranking equally among the ‘States of Europe’ that was once her position.

He pleads for Scotland to become ‘free and unfettered … independent and absolute, not a controllable and subordinate’ region of the UK. Scotland, he insists, should levy her own taxes, enter her own treaties with foreign powers, have control over her defence and not be a state that interferes with other kingdoms – as England does.

Steill’s Scotland once she recovers her independence should apply universal suffrage for her people and get rid of ‘monarchy and hereditary feudal aristocracy, both these useless, tyrannical, and all-devouring institutions…’ in other words become a democratic republic free to run her own affairs.

Sculptor and his masterpiece

He concludes with a plea for Scots to demonstrate some of that spirit of the past that resisted when Scottish ‘rights were trampled on, and their national honour invaded.’ Those strengths are even more needed now, he argues, that Scotland has become a ‘contemptible province, stripped of her very name (is referred to as North Britain) , deprived of the power to remove those crying evils which afflict her, both socially and politically, and when she is left with no other memorials of her former dignity and independence but the moss-covered ruins of her palaces and citadels, whose gigantic fragments but too emphatically tell what Scotland once was, and what she now is.’

John Steill certainly had strong views but then so did those who defended the union. He was said to have been a pleasant man, intelligent and a great reader who kept a fine collection of books on Scottish history. When he died he left his money to his housekeeper, Margaret Strachan, with the proviso that what remained after her death went to erecting a sculpture of his hero, William Wallace. Money was also provided by him for repairs and upkeep of the monument, left in the hands of Aberdeen’s magistrates.

The monument he declared was to be a colossal bronze raised up on a large pediment. There would be nothing fancy or fussy about it but bold to properly represent the statesman and warrior. Aberdeen’s granite roughly hewed and imposing would be ideal for its ability to support the hero Guardian of Scotland.  

Around the base would be engraved words spoken by Wallace such as his interview with the English Ambassadors prior to the Battle of Stirling Bridge when the English envoy requested the Scots lay down their weapons and submit to the English king at which point Wallace would be pardoned of ‘all his treasons’ – i.e. where treason was defined as daring to protect his country from foreign aggression.  

Wallace, the leader who in England was called the ‘Master of thieves’ told England’s ambassadors ‘to go back to your masters and tell them that we came not here to treat, but to fight and set Scotland free’  and so these words are cut into the plinth.

It should be said this monument is magnificent and undoubtedly the most impressive Wallace statue in Scotland which means in the world. I find it impressive and I’m certain Steill would be pleased at how it turned out. However, I suspect he would have been both amazed and depressed that there are still Scots who are apologists for a union that continues to treat Scotland as a vassal state. Not an admirer of the press which he regarded as apologists and champions of the union Steill reserved much of his ire for the Scotsman with ‘its marked dislike to anything Scotch.’ He dismissed much of the press for being prejudiced against Scotland’s interests and for being “profoundly ignorant” – about Scotland – thoughts that echo through time and are just as relevant today. Yes, John Steill @Patriot would have savaged today’s toady and unprofessional press fawning over ‘iron-hearted Tories, bloated corruptionists, and hordes of other venal creatures…’

One Comment to “Iron-hearted Tories, bloated corruptionists, and hordes of other venal creatures – John Steill and William Wallace.”

  1. Fine to hear of such a dissident voice and as you say the statue he paid for is impressive, aesthetically and politically challenging the tired works close-by of Prince Albert and General Gordon.

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