‘Every person, from the age of sixteen to fifty’
In the not so distant past, joining the local militia was not a choice. All able bodied men in the area were accounted for and the only way to escape one’s duty was by engaging a substitute or paying a princely sum. Edinburgh City archives hold a collection of six volumes of Army Attestation Registers dating from 1796 to 1857. Aside from listing the names, ages and parish of local men, the registers contain exceptionally detailed information about the appearance of individuals. Entries describe the height, eye and hair colour of each man- terms such as fair, fresh, tallow, ruddy and freckled are used to describe complexion. Edinburgh City Archives also hold ‘Registers of Substitutes’ from the early 19th century which documents the transfer of militia duty from one man to another. Although these records don’t give voice to the opinions of local residents concerning militia service, they do provide an uncommon opportunity to build up a visual and demographic picture of local people from an era that pre-dates photography or the census.
Historically, local county militia forces were raised by landowners and made up of volunteers. By 1797, ongoing conflicts with France and Ireland created an exceptional need for domestic and external military forces. In an effort to raise a further 6000 men for militia service, the government introduced the Militia Act Scotland, 1797. A principal feature of the act was the conscription of local men within the county by ballot, for a fixed term of five years compulsory service. There were exemptions to the ballot-seaman, ministers, schoolmasters, professors, articled clerks, apprentices and poor men with more than two children or those with a persistent illness or disability were all precluded from service.
The act was almost universally opposed and resented by both the working and middle classes. To many, the ballot system represented an encroachment on civil liberties and raised fears of enforced deployment overseas. Those who were nominated for service by ballot did have the option of arranging for a substitute to take their place however; a substitute could prove difficult to secure. Failure to report for duty or to organise a stand in resulted in a fine of between ten and twenty pounds.
Protests surrounding the act developed into riots all across Scotland. In the autumn of 1797, objections demonstrated by the inhabitants of Tranent, East Lothian resulted in a riot. The Cinque Port Dragoons became involved in quashing the disturbance which resulted in the deaths of several townspeople. Although the incident was not widely reported or acknowledged at the time, a monument to Joan (Jackie) Crookston, a woman who was shot dead during the riot, commemorates the event.
To look at the examples of the Army Attestation Registers and the Registers of Substitutes held by the Edinburgh City Archives, browse the gallery below: