The subject of sectarianism is one I’ve often deliberately not chosen to dwell on much in Blantyre Project, but the truth of the matter is this town DOES have an early history of violent disorder relating to party division. There’s sometimes no escaping it when researching articles, particularly just over 100 years ago and it was unfortunately being caused in EQUAL measures by both Catholics and Protestants.
At the turn of the 20th Century, whenever a marching band took to the streets of Blantyre, fighting and arrests almost always followed with the police commenting in 1910 that they couldn’t remember a year in ‘living history’ where there were no public clashes and fighting as bands paraded.
There were numerous flashpoints, especially annually around July and following WW1, as Irish Home rule was fought for. Blantyre had many marching bands supporting the Irish cause, indeed a number of bands outweighing those of any Orange nature. Skirmishes were sadly organised by supporters and could be bloody.
These incidents, weren’t just a few angry folk shouting in the street as the bands went past. Some incidents were frightful in nature, violent and extremely disruptive. The police were ‘run ragged’ around the time of marches, drafting in many other officers and by the 1920’s had started to ban some marches, confining flute bands to play in empty field in Auchentibber, away from populated centres.
As mentioned, we should never brush any part of Blantyre history under the carpet just because it’s a difficult subject. History needs told as it unfolded. Tackled head on. Not toned down, nor exaggerated. These events happened. They were real for all involved and had a lasting effect with sectarianism unfortunately still being felt in the west of Scotland a century later.
To give an example of the gravity of disorder, one incident which took place on the first Saturday in July 1907 had the police on high alert from the off, rounding up street spectators who had been shouting abuse. Several arrests were made. At 7.30pm in the evening, the Conservative Flute Band marched towards High Blantyre and spectators made angry attempts to rip down their banner. A massive free fight ensued as spectators hurled themselves into the band, with police making more arrests, coming back to the scene to find people still fighting. At High Blantyre, the band were attacked again and several more arrests made with those offending taken into custody in an early motor van. As the band marched back to Low Blantyre, around Merry’s Rows at 11pm, it met with the Temperance Flute Band, with a huge, organised crowd of nearly 2,000 people. Tempers flared and sporadic fighting broke out between the opposing band members with instruments being destroyed and used as weapons. One band broke up and fled from the crowd. The other band had their drums smashed in, with bottles, sticks and other missiles thrown at them causing bloody injury around Elm Street. Amongst the crowds, were of course some people standing watching the scenes, including children and unfortunately, one of the most serious injuries was to a young boy, Michael Starrs who was quickly taken into a nearby house after being accidentally struck.
This was not an isolated incident and subsequent reports in other years were just as serious. There were no winners. I’ve struggled to find a neutral illustration for this article so have simply used an image of Merry’s Rows.
As an unbiased, neutral historian looking at this subject matter, I made some private notes of what else happened during these skirmishes, which won’t appear here anytime soon. Meantime, I can only hope my daughter grows up in a modern, changed Blantyre where we continue collaboratively to make every effort to all get along and leave those darker times far behind.