Lewes Bonfire night 2014: the return of Scottophobia and the ’45

On November 5th we English burn effigies of that rascally traitor Guy Fawkes in memory of his attempt to blow up Parliament and the King in 1605. Seems a bit violent of us I know, but in some ways we’re making progress – we no longer stuff the guy with live cats to make him scream when burnt.

Unfortunately if there’s one thing the English find tricky to give up it’s bigotry. This is especially true of that directed against our Neighbour to the North, Scotland. The ‘no’ result of the independence referendum sent a message that although a lot of people don’t like the United Kingdom in it’s present form we’re all going to have to work at it for now. The town of Lewes in East Sussex responded with their own version of British solidarity by burning an effigy of Alex Salmond at their bonfire night celebrations.


Lewes’ effigy of Alex Salmond, source: BBC news

Although Lewes may not realise it, they’re rather eerily echoing the activities of English crowds 250 years ago. In the 1760s a number of English towns burnt effigies of the Scottish Prime Minister of Britain, Lord Bute. Bute’s unpopularity stemmed mainly from a treaty ending the Seven Years War, in which he gave up land in Canada to France and Spain. He also imposed a tax on cider, which understandably faced fierce opposition in the West Country. The Bath Chronicle reported the following on April 14th 1763:

Last week a great Number of true Lovers of Cyder and Perry assembled in Hereford, and having prepared an Effigy of a certain Great Man, finely plaided, first exposed it in the Pillory, then exalted it on a Gibbet, and lastly threw it into a large Bonfire, where it was consumed to Ashes, amidst a general Huzza.

Eighteenth-century cartoons also showed English crowds lynching and burning Bute:

The Roasted Exciseman, or The Jack Boot's Exit, (1763), © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Roasted Exciseman, or The Jack Boot’s Exit, (1763), © The Trustees of the British Museum

You may think that English people burning an effigy of a Scottish politician today as well as in the 1760s isn’t that much of a coincidence. Where it gets weird however is in that little number Salmond is holding – 45.

45In this case 45 represents the 45% of people who voted for independence in Scotland, and it’s a number that just won’t go away when it comes to Anglo-Scottish social relations. First off we have the Jacobite uprising of 1745. Bonnie Prince Charlie led an army from the Scottish Highlands into England in an attempt to reclaim the throne for the House of Stuart. For many years afterwards Scottish Jacobites venerated ‘the 45’, whilst authors such as Walter Scott romanticised the uprising into a truly national tale.

To the English meanwhile, 45 became a symbol of hostility towards Scotland. In 1763 John Wilkes published issue #45 of his newspaper the North Briton (a jibe at Scots) in which he fiercely attacked Bute’s Scottish nationality and policies. Parliament responded by imprisoning Wilkes and ordering the offending North Briton #45 to be burnt by the common hangman. However, supporters of Wilkes stormed the pillory and rescued the paper from the flames. From then onwards ’45’ became an icon of Wilkite radicalism and Scottophobia. The cry of ‘Wilkes, Liberty, and number 45!’ echoed in towns across the country. In Sawney Scot and John Bull, a belligerent Englishman sports the number derisively in the face of a Scotsman:

Sawney Scot and John Bull

Sawney Scot and John Bull (1792), © The Trustees of the British Museum

If you wanted you could even buy ’45’ pins to show off your love for (a certain brand of) liberty:

© The Trustees of the British Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum

45 became so great a symbol of Anglo-Scottish animosity that merely mentioning it aloud was almost enough to provoke violence. The Bath Chronicle of Christmas day 1766 reported:

A few nights ago a Scotch gentleman went into an auction room, at the time that the forty-fifth lot was selling, and on asking what lot it was? A gentleman that stood next him told him that it was No.45, which the Scotchman imagined was intended as an affront, and demanded satisfaction; and a quarrel must have ensued, had not it been prevented by another Scotch gentleman of a less warm disposition

Scottish crowds responded in kind. The Leeds Intelligencer of May 3rd 1768 reported that a mob in Aberdeen hanged an effigy of John Wilkes before setting it on fire with 45 torches.

45 has been, and continues to be, a symbol of both Scottish nationalism and English Scottophobia. Whilst Lewes burns Salmond and the 45 in effigy, supporters of Scottish independence rally together as ‘We are the 45%’. It doesn’t look like the ’45 (or Anglo-Scottish tension) will be disappearing any time soon.


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