Thistle Cottage hadn’t always been a domestic property. Shona and Luke had come across a short history of the village in the local library and were delighted to find a mention of their cottage. Up until at least 1900 it had been the Thistle Hotel or Inn standing on the opposite corner of Kerrix Road to the Old Smiddy, now Trinity Cottage. Ploughmen would leave their horses at the Smiddy, then go for a few drinks in the Thistle. Supporters of the radical Society of the Friends of the People would meet secretly in the back room to discuss the achievements of the French and American Revolutions and the radical activities springing up all over Scotland and beyond. They would alternate their meetings between the Thistle Inn and the Black Bull (now the Wheatsheaf Inn) to avoid drawing too much attention to themselves. Similar groups were meeting in Mauchline, Irvine, Tarbolton, Strathaven, Dumfries and Paisley. In Ayrshire the Radicals had a champion in the poet Robert Burns. Burns was under some pressure because of his job as a Government Exciseman to deny that he had radical sympathies but he hid his politics in plain view. He would sometimes use historic or Masonic language to cloak the real meaning of poems like Scots wha hae and A man’s a man.
Wherever there were radical groups there were also “Pitt’s informers” - agent provocateurs in the pay of the authorities - spying on activities, stirring up unrest and reporting the names of those involved. William Pitt had become the youngest ever British Prime Minister in 1783 at the age of 24. Throughout the 1790s, the war against France was presented as an ideological struggle between French republicanism and British monarchism. The Pitt government waged a vigorous propaganda campaign contrasting the ordered society of Britain dominated by the aristocracy and the gentry with the "anarchy" of the French revolution, and always sought to associate British "radicals" with the revolution in France. The Pitt government drastically reduced civil liberties and created a nationwide spy network with ordinary people being encouraged to denounce any "radicals" that may have been in their midst. There were about 200 prosecutions of "radicals" suspected of sympathy with the French revolution in British courts in the 1790s. This network of government agents was ultimately successful in crushing radical dissent and having the ‘ringleaders’ rounded up, imprisoned, executed or transported to the colonies. In Scotland, the leaders of the Radical Movement, John Baird, Andrew Hardie and James Wilson were executed in 1820 after taking part in an abortive uprising in Glasgow.
I don’t know if John McKinlay had any radical ancestors but he came highly recommended as a builder who always did a good job at a reasonable cost. It didn’t take him long to discover the cause of the dampness problem. Breaking through the chimney breast to the right of the wood burner fire, he found that some of the masonry had been chiselled out leaving a cavity into which had been wedged a bronze casket. The resulting debris had blocked off ventilation causing the damp. Once the casket had been levered out, he was able to fill in the cavity and insert an air brick, leaving just a bit of cosmetic decoration to be done.
As soon as John left, Shona lifted the casket onto the table and Luke set about prising it open. Inside they found a copy of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man; a tattered red banner; a tricolore cockade of red white and blue once worn on the bonnet of a French revolutionary ; a silver quaich with the inscription “Symington’s Society of Friends of the People” and a parchment scroll bound with a purple ribbon. Shona carefully slipped off the ribbon and unrolled the scroll. Together they read the words written in a now fading green ink.
To Symington’s brave Friends of the People:
Thou of an independent mind,
With soul resolved, with soul resigned;
Prepared Power’s proudest frown to brave,
Who wilt not be, nor have a slave;
Virtue alone who dost revere,
Thy own reproach alone dost fear--
Approach this shrine, and worship here
Signed in my own hand