Kate Mosse introduces Jenny Uglow as one of the UK’s leading biographers and historians, adding that one of the things that has always stood out is that in all her work the women are just as present as the men. Uglow’s latest book, In These Times, is about life in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. It is essentially a crowd biography, based on diaries and letters, of the people left at home during 22 years of war. Since we were in Edinburgh Uglow had decided to focus on life in Scotland for the event. A great number of the troops fighting in the war were from Scottish regiments and thanks to some drawing that were published the image of the kilted highlander became one of heroism and celebrity. When they eventually returned home crowds came out to meet them and accompany them on their march up to Edinburgh Castle.
The Scots were also just as involved in the politics of the war as the English. In fact before the treason trials happened in London, Scotland had led the way in groups standing up to declare they supported the French Revolution and subsequently finding their views suppressed. Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott had different reactions. Burns was privately a believer in the cause of the revolution and had many radical friends. However he was anxious about keeping money for his children and ensuring a pension, so publicly he remained patriotic. Scott’s brothers joined the army but as he was lame he had to wait for the formation of the Edinburgh Volunteer Light Dragoons before he could become involved himself.
Between the volunteers and the army were drafted militia, recruitment for which became a source of great resentment. When a call went out for 6,000 Scots to become militia there were riots, parish registers were torn up to prevent able bodied men being identified, and the recruiting squad were attacked. Scotland was a small country but it was pouring people into the war. Often, when they came home on leave, they did not want to return so the countryside filled up with men hiding from their drafted duties.
A great deal of building and development was also going on at the time. One man wrote of leaving Edinburgh when the New Town was floating in agricultural land and essentially ended at Charlotte Square, then returning to find the city had almost doubled in size and felt like an entirely different place. Glasgow was also racing to put up buildings, including St Andrew’s Chapel, which was built almost entirely by public subscription. There was a sense of industry creeping across the land, both to support the war and as a result on technological development. Iron works appeared, the Glasgow shipbuilding yards expanded, the first steamboat launched on the Clyde, cotton mills were opened, the nature and social structure of farming shifted.
Much of this industry boom was beneficial, and after the war Scots were invited to Russia, Poland and France to take the new technology there, but there was also a kind of war happening across the Highlands. The clearances began and there were discussions in Edinburgh of the need to ‘civilise’ the Highlands. Complaints also arose of the way Westminster had exploited and betrayed Scotland, demanding soldiers and then brutally evicting the veterans who had fought so hard.
The war also led to boom in local newspapers, which were densely packed with official dispatches and news from Westminster. However letters from those fighting began to erode the official news as they complained of the conditions they were living and fighting in and the quality of the food. The picture that emerges is one of a country deeply invested in the war but also deeply invested in itself and pushing for every possible development that it could manage.