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The Billy Boys: A Concise History of Orangeism in Scotland.

William Marshall.  Mercat Press, Edinburgh, Scotland.  1996.  £12.99.  ISBN 1 87364 452 3.

 WRITING The Billy Boys presented William Marshall with two main problems.  Firstly, as the Orange Order hasn’t lodged records with any Scottish library, there are very few primary sources of information.  Secondly, an impartial look at the Orange Order isn’t very Politically Correct.  As the author notes: “Orangeism is an unpopular and controversial subject shrouded in misunderstanding, half truths and mythology”.  Despite this, The Billy Boys successfully outlines the turbulent social, political and religious history of the Orange Order in Scotland from its origins in the late eighteenth century to the present day.  Like many folk, my knowledge of the Orange Order was sketchy to say the least.  I knew that the Orange Order originated in September 1795 after the Battle of the Diamond in Loughall, Co. Armagh, when Protestant residents successfully beat off an attack by a Catholic secret society called the Defenders.  Needless to say, I didn’t know a thing about the Scottish Orange and learned a lot here.

   The Billy Boys shows how the Scottish Orange was founded by Ulster Protestants who emigrated to lowland Scotland for economic reasons – recession in the linen industry forced many handloom weavers into ruin and the only way many of them could continue their trade was by migrating to Scotland where work was plentiful.

   The first lodges were formed around 1807 by ex-servicemen, who had returned to Scotland after serving in government militia regiments used to suppress the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion.  Marshall notes that initially, the Scottish Orange was “predominantly Irish in ethnic origin and overwhelmingly working class”.  These lodges had trouble collecting monthly dues and plagued with drink-induced indiscipline: the first recorded ‘Twelfth’ in Scotland (Glasgow, 1821) ended in a bloody riot!  Early growth was very slow – but all this changed during the 1830s with the transformation of Scotland’s industrial landscape.  The modern textile industry replaced handloom weaving, and the coal and iron industries developed, as did shipbuilding.  This scale of industrialisation ensured the survival of Orangeism – as Marshall notes “Scottish Orangeism is essentially a by-product of the Industrial Revolution”. 

   The Billy Boys has some interesting revelations.  I didn’t know that the Scottish Orange had been so politically active.  Their 'Use and Wont’ campaign – to keep bible study in Schools – saw many Orangemen being elected to school boards in 1873.  After the Great War there was even an Orange and Protestant political party in Scotland!  Also of great interest was the Scottish Orange’s response to the Home Rule crisis.  Around 6,000 heard Carson at a meeting in Glasgow – where seven UVF companies were raised. 

   One revelation that genuinely amazed and shocked me was the report of an 1835 House of Commons Select Committee investigation.  This uncovered a bizarre yet treasonable plot to place the Duke of Cumberland (Imperial Grand Master of the Loyal Institution of Great Britain and the Loyal Institution of Ireland) on the throne in place of Princess Victoria.  The reigning monarch, King William IV was to be deposed for sanctioning reform!  (Understandably, the King wasn’t too happy with this ‘Orange Conspiracy’ and sought to ‘discourage’ the Loyal Orange Institution of Great Britain and Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland.  They dissolved but reformed in 1836 as the Grand Protestant Confederation of Great Britain, later known as the Grand Protestant Association of Loyal Orangemen of Great Britain).

   The Billy Boys should be read by anyone with an interest in family and kinship traditions.  There is much more to the Scottish Orange than the annual 12th walk or Burns’ supper – entire communities have “evolved based on an ethic of communal solidarity and mutual aid”.  (A fact echoed particularly in rural Ulster where Orange halls also provide accommodation for community initiatives such as Credit Unions and playgroups).  It certainly whetted my appetite for exploring more of Orange history and culture.  I’d also be very interested in how the Scottish Orange viewed its future – for as the author notes “A major difficulty for the Order now is that whilst the world has moved on, its ideology has remained static and anchored in the Age of Imperialism”.  How would they relate to, say the very real possibility of a future independent Scottish republic?  Perhaps that could be the subject of William Marshall’s next book?

                                                                                                                                                  John Field.

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