The Murder of Maxwell and the Hanging of M'Lean - The Shearers' Invasion - Spleen against the Irish
While the works were developing, the houses a-building, and the population swelling with the increased demand for labour, one need not be surprised that the wildness of the district pervaded the spirits of the youths of the village to such an extent as to cause them to perpetrate acts of lawlessness that could never be dreamt of nowadays. One of these acts came near being punished with severity, which would not have been deplored had the retribution been likely to fall upon the guilty parties, instead of their sins being visited upon a whole population.
A .policeman had taken the place of the batonman, a duty that was vested in Mr. Thomas Forsyth, the village blacksmith (the father of Mr. James Forsyth, Armadale's oldest native citizen), who reported law-breakers and otherwise endeavoured to keep peace, for which purpose he was furnished with a truncheon, or baton, bearing the Royal coat of arms.
The murder of a man named Maxwell at Boghead Bridge, and the hanging of M'Lean at Linlithgow for the crime, in February, 1857, had caused great excitement in the district, more especially since many believed M'Lean innocent of the murder.
The evidence that weighed greatly against M'Lean at the trial was given by a witness, a young man, who was returning home from Bathgate on the Saturday night on which the crime was committed. On passing the spot where the murdered man Maxwell lay bleeding, in the presence of John M'Lean, his wife, and their lodger Mansfield, he inquired what they had been doing, when M'Lean answered by telling him to pass on quietly or they would do the same to him.
Those who knew the parties believed that there had been a misunderstanding throughout the whole case.
Of the Maxwells there were two brothers, residing at Durhamtown, one of whom was at variance with Mansfield, and known to be at Bathgate on the Saturday night. The other brother, who was of a very peaceful disposition, was also at Bathgate on the same night, and it was believed that Mansfield had mistaken the one for the other in the dark, as it was the inoffensive brother that was stabbed to death. M'Lean and his wife, being along with Mansfield, in their endeavour to save him from the gallows, made the suspicion all the stronger against themselves, with the result that M'Lean was found guilty and hanged, and Mrs M'Lean (on whose person the knife that was supposed to be used in the commission of the murder was found) and Mansfield were acquitted.
Be that as it may, a more bloody deed came near being enacted the following year through the foolishness of a number of youths. As was customary in those days before the reaping machine was known, the crops were mown. by the assistance of the sons of the Emerald Isle, who came over the water at the proper time and marched along the highways from Glasgow in large and small crowds, every man having under his arm or over his shoulder a small parcel and a reaping hook. As these crowds passed along to the east, shortly after the arrival of the Irish boat at the Broomielaw, they were a sight to be seen, and between their Donegal tweeds of every cut and colour, their primitive and grotesque appearance called forth much merriment. It was considered an act of bravery on the part of the youths to collar some of the "bhoys" and test how green they were. The shibboleth or password was "Peas"; if they could say "Peas," they were let off, but, if in the vernacular and pronounced " pays," they were often roughly handled. It so happened that on one Saturday night, at the beginning of the harvest season, a number of wild youths had been drinking all through the night, and were in such a state of intoxication on Sunday morning as to fit them for any crime, when a small party of shearers made their appearance, bound for the east country. On this particular Sunday morning the "gallantry" was performed with such severity that Armadale was marked for vengeance on the return journey should they be interfered with.
At the end of the harvest season the shearers were returning homewards along the same .road, to take the boat for Ireland, but Armadale being a dangerous place for them to pass through, they were afraid to venture without being in a sufficiently strong body to repel an attack, should one be made upon them. It was therefore arranged by several small bands to gather together at the outside of Bathgate, on the main road, so as to have a strong force to pass through the village. Consequently a large number had met on that particular Sunday evening, and were discussing their plan of campaign should they be molested, when their conversation was heard by a young man named Brash, one of those who had been the cause of the trouble, and who had ventured to crawl behind the dyke where they were seated at the roadside. Getting alarmed for the safety of Armadale people, he stole away by the old road, and made the condition of affairs known. Women and children were hurried off to a place of safety, and the men set to work to put themselves into a position to defend the village. Every gun was loaded, and those who were unable to procure a gun armed themselves with the next most defensive weapon, such as picks and axes. Scouts were sent out to watch the approach of the enemy, and after a while they returned in feverish haste with the ominous information that a large body of shearers were advancing on Armadale with bared hooks.
Along both sides of the road in East Main Street the defenders lined up, ready for the charge. The Irishmen advanced, but were very much alarmed to see how the village was prepared to meet them. Afraid to advance into the heart of the defenders' ranks, they made a halt and wavered, as if they were going to turn and flee, when one young fellow, with a show of fine bravado, stepped out on to the turnpike road with a gun in his hands, and ordered them to pass along, at the same time warning them that the first that would attempt to leave the road would fall a dead man. The poor, ill-guided harvesters appeared to be glad to be allowed to pass, and did so quietly. As they passed through the Toll-bar, the defenders gave a loud cheer, and escorted them outside the village. Pickets were placed outside to watch in case a return might be made during the night, but the affair, which was long spoken of as "The Irish Invasion," passed off without mishap. There can be no doubt that but for the prompt action of the young man at the critical moment, the consequences might have been serious, as the infuriated harvesters were bent on having it out, and innocent people would have suffered.
The village could boast of a Flute Band at that date, and the members hurriedly gathered together, and, with beating drums, marched up and down the streets, giving a martial air to the bloodless victory. Many who had loaded their guns specially for the occasion were very much disappointed at not getting a shot fired, and, to show what havoc they would have wrought in the ranks of the invaders, emptied their guns into the air, proving that the barrels were almost full to the muzzle with every conceivable missile calculated to work destruction among the enemy. The following day a mass meeting was held at Wylie's Pit, between Armadale and Bathgate, to consider what steps should be taken should the shearers renew the attack, when one of the speakers enthusiastically held out for the weapon chosen by Bailie Nicol Jarvie - a red-hot poker.
There were no churches in the town, but various bodies were working the district in that direction. The Free Church had a missionary station, and Mr. Harvie's house was always open to receive the clergymen, and on the occasion of the "Irish Invasion," when Mr. Harvie opened his barn doors to a panic-stricken people, two ministers happened to be living at the "Mill," and they improved the occasion by remaining all night out of bed preaching to a terrorised congregation.
As might be expected, all parties of Irish harvesters who chanced to pass through Armadale, along the main road, after this experience, were looked upon with ill favour, and should they innocently make any inquiry for work, or the route they should take, the chances were that the answer they got was not very reliable. On two noteworthy occasions this was proved. The Cross, as has been stated in a previous chapter, was heavily gated and barred, and at the north-west corner stood a large stone trough for horses and cattle to drink out of. This trough, sheltered by a stone dyke, was the favourite meeting-place just as the same corner is at the present day, for all the worthies of the town.
One old man, Nisbet Easton to wit, who was better known by his sobriquet, "The Dasher." was a regular frequenter at the trough-atone at the toll, and was invariably in his shirt sleeves and red "cool." Seated one day at this spot, smoking his clay pipe, he noticed a group of shearers approaching from the west, and by the time they reached the "Dasher," he had his mind made up as to how he was going to deal with them if they made any inquiries of him for a job. They advanced and saluted him with "Good morning, sir," and as they mistook him for a farmer, they inquired if there was any chance of getting some oats to mow. With a twinkle in his eye, the "Dasher" rose and told the party he was just waiting for them, and at once conducted them to a field of oats, scarcely ripe yet, on the site of the Volunteer Park, off North Street, and, making a bargain with them, they set to work to mow it down, their employer leaving them with a promise to return soon to see how they were getting along, amid the blessings of the poor deluded harvesters.
The oats were falling fast before a dozen sickles when Mr. Harvie, the farmer, whose crop it was, happened to come that way.
"Hoot, toot, toot! What's a' this? What's a.' this?" was Mr. Harvie's greeting of the party as he approached them to put an end to their operations. But the harvesters were not to be interfered with by a man whom they believed had nothing whatever to do with the business, and so they cut on, until at last they were convinced and made to desist by a threat to put them all in jail. Their anger was great, and had they been able to find the "ould man" that engaged them before they left the place, there would have been some counting and reckoning.
On another occasion, a party of shearers inquired at the Toll of the "Dasher" which was the road to Whitburn, when, without hesitation, he directed them to Torphichen, in the opposite direction, and at the same time gave them counsel not to heed any of these young rascals, who would as likely as not turn them and send them the wrong road. This party, like the one that went before, did not find out that they had been hoaxed until it was too late, and then, like their countrymen who were engaged to cut the corn, they would have liked to meet again with the "nice ould gintleman," but the old gentleman took good care of that.
Much spleen, no doubt, existed for a long time against that section of the Irish who came across to mow the corn - a state of affairs, however, that was created by the fraternity known as Orangemen, many of whom had rushed into Armadale during the sudden boom in the mines, and it was some time before their fellow-countrymen of the different belief could find a footing in the town, and when they did so, they have since grown to considerable numbers, and proved themselves worthy enough citizens.