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The Cumnock Poaching Riot of 1833

© Rob Close 2001.

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In February 1833 notice was given to the debtors and creditors of the late David Reid, mason in Barshare, Cumnock, that his estate was to be settled and his debts cleared.(1)  Such notice was a regular part of the settlement of an estate, either after sequestration or bankruptcy or, as in Reid’s case, after death. This notice, though, has a certain poignancy because Reid’s death was sudden, unexpected and accidental. He was the main victim of an affray which took place in Cumnock following the arrest of a number of poachers, believed to be part of a highly organised gang from Glasgow or elsewhere in Lanarkshire.

Poaching, and the poacher, holds a particular romantic appeal for many: an appeal not dissimilar to that felt for the smuggler, and based on a perhaps erroneous concept of the poacher and the smuggler as latter-day Robin Hoods, striving to put into effect an equable distribution of resources. A journalist in 1826 noted that it was ‘difficult to make an uneducated man appreciate the sanctity of private property in game’ when ‘the produce of a single night’s poaching was often more than the wages for several weeks’ work’,(2) while Roy Campbell has noted that ‘the drift of legislation from the eighteenth to the early nineteenth centuries to preserve game for the proprietor led to increased resentment at the ensuing damage to crops, especially by rabbits, and to the sympathy already felt for tenants being extended to poachers’.(3)  ‘Broadly speaking, until 1831 only the owners of very large estates and their heirs could legally kill game; no one could buy or sell it. But since many wealthy and otherwise respectable citizens like to have it for their dinner, they were willing to break the law to get it. Poulterers pandered to their demand, and bought from poachers; but these were not merely hungry labourers looking for their dinner; in 1818 a gang captured in Bedfordshire was reported to earn between £50 and £70 a week in wages. Even after the sale of game was made legal, in 1831, and men could take out licences to kill it, unlicensed taking continued; it was difficult to stop it, and poachers still found it easy to sell. But it was rare for men to poach from distress ... the poor could not afford "the beautiful description of nets that were used". Poachers formed part of a highly organized and profitable trade; after all, pheasants and hares were easy to steal, and the loot was easy to dispose of’.(4)

Shaw notes that juries were often reluctant to convict poachers, and quotes an English case where a poacher was acquitted ‘because though he had a gun, which had just been fired, and was holding a "warm pheasant", there was no proof that he had actually fired the gun.’(5)  Poachers were front-line foot-soldiers in the war between the haves and the have-nots who, besides, provided a useful service in supplying food. For many people in early 19th Century Britain - as at other periods - it was difficult to see wherein lay the crime that the poachers were committing. Consequently, those engaged in suppressing poaching and apprehending poachers often found the public at large unhelpful and, as we shall see, on occasions proactively obstructive. It is against this background that we can now turn to consider the events that unfolded in Cumnock in January 1833.

In late 1832, ‘a band of poachers, regularly organised, and acting under commanders of their own number and choosing, said to be from Glasgow and its neighbourhood, and who are supposed collectively to amount to no less a number than twenty-five’(6) began to operate in the area around Cumnock and Auchinleck. This ‘daring’ band were ‘infesting and sweeping the game’(7) from estates in this area, such as Dumfries House, Auchinleck House and Ballochmyle. This band acted in the most blatant and outrageous manner and, in individual parties of between two and five in number, ‘carried on their avocation of poaching in the most open and daring manner, at once setting the laws of the country at nought, and bidding open defiance to the numerous gamekeepers who had charge of the game on these estates. Indeed it is said they carried their audacity to such an extent that they not only ventured to kill game in the presence of the gamekeepers, but, quite in a Robin Hood style, compelled the keepers, at least on one occasion, to carry the bag with the dead game’.(8)  The members of the band were undoubtedly armed: a Cumnock correspondent of the Ayr Observer stated that ‘a stranger can form but little idea of the ferocious and reckless nature of these desperadoes. Their threats and imprecations and personal appearance yielded in nothing to what one is apt to conceive of the most thorough-paced bandit’.(9)

It is probable that this was only one of a number of gangs of professional poachers who operated out of Glasgow. In 1836, Thomas Hogg, junior, of Toftsmill, Dalry, in the Garnock Valley, reported that ‘a number of years ago, the parish’ [i.e. Dalry] ‘was infested by a gang of notorious poachers, persons of idle, drunken, disorderly habits and profligate manners’. By 1836, however, they had ‘been broken up and dispersed’, and there were by 1836 in Dalry only ‘one or two individuals at present ... addicted to this demoralizing pursuit’.(10)

It was generally believed that the ‘greater part of the game which they killed’ was sent to Glasgow for sale, but it was also known that what was not sent to Glasgow found a ready sale in two public houses, one in Cumnock and one in Auchinleck. It was stated that on occasion more that twenty hares were sold in a single night in each of these public houses, besides unnumbered pheasants and partridges. Clearly there was a market for their catch - a market which probably went fairly well up the social ladder. The poachers, it was said, spent their nights together in one or other of these pubs, passing the night ‘in jollity and riot’.(11)

These depredations were obviously a matter of considerable concern to the estates, and on the 10th January 1833, the gamekeepers on the Dumfries House estate learnt that a party of four poachers was active in the vicinity of Cumnock. A thorough search was made and a poacher was disturbed at his work on the Marquess of Bute’s farm of Roseburn: he was pursued and eventually captured on the lands of Garlaff. With some difficulty, he was brought into Cumnock and, at his request(!), conveyed to, and secured in, the house of Hugh Campbell, grocer and innkeeper. After his capture, the three other poachers came into Cumnock to ascertain his fate;(12) they were seen by the writer, William White, ‘passing down the street’, and he recognised them as three men for whom a warrant was out.(13)  They appear to have been in Campbell’s house when they were arrested: certainly they were held there.(14)

Quite why Campbell’s house was chosen, and quite why the captured poacher was allowed to choose it, remains unclear. It is natural to suspect that this was because this was the public house in Cumnock in which they engaged in their nights of jollity and riot, and through which their game was sold. Campbell felt obliged to write to the Ayr Observer, strongly denying this: he avers that he never gave ‘the poachers the slightest encouragement, nor countenanced them in any shape whatever’.(15)  Regardless of the truth of this, it is abundantly clear that Cumnock in 1833 lacked any form of public lockfast place of detainment.(16)

The poachers were secured in Campbell’s house under a warrant granted by a local JP, Alexander Allason of Glaisnock, ‘in terms of the new Trespass Act’; of them, the one who had been detained on Garlaff was taken from Campbell’s to the Dumfries Arms, where he was tried, ‘convicted on the clearest evidence’, and, after he had refused either to give his name or to pay the fine imposed, ordered to be conveyed to the jail in Ayr. While in the Dumfries Arms, he tried to escape, and it was found necessary to secure him with ropes until the cart which would take him to Ayr arrived.(17)  In the meantime, word had obviously spread through Cumnock that some of the poachers had been captured, and ‘in consequence of considerable excitement prevailing, and a disposition to riot being manifested’ the powers-that-be decided to postpone the trial of the other three until the following day.(18)  At this point, presumably, a party of constables was brought together to secure these three at Campbell’s until then: the hope being that the strong feelings exhibited would have subsided.

A cart and driver having been found, they were brought to the Dumfries Arms at about six o’clock in the evening.(19)  ‘When the cart arrived at the inn door, a crowd had collected, amounting to from two to three hundred; and from the cries and groans which they uttered, it was now evident that they were taking part with the poachers, and had their feelings completely biased by some mistaken political notion, which some crafty interested individuals had taken the pains to mix up and connect with the misdeeds of the poachers. The cart, with the prisoner, had not proceeded two hundred yards when a few of the ring-leaders in the mob commenced an active and determined attack upon the constables who were in charge of the prisoner, and having overpowered them, cut the ropes, and rescued him out of their hands’.(20)  The cart was driven by David Smith, a carter in Cumnock, while amongst the constables assigned to convey the prisoner to Ayr were John Goldie, a sheriff officer, William Drennan and James McMillan.(21)

After he was rescued the poacher was ‘conveyed through the town of Cumnock in triumph’ before making his getaway. James Johnstone, assistant schoolmaster, recalled having seen him, after he had been liberated, ‘running round the Relief Church and down a close’, where he climbed a wall with another man: he also saw James Patrick, a sawyer in Cumnock, preventing people from following the poacher down the close.(22)  The mob, having tasted success, were now intend on freeing the other three poachers, and began to assemble in front of Hugh Campbell’s house.

By this time, the crowd was becoming more riotous - using threatening behaviour and turning violent - so that it was ‘judged prudent for the Court to issue orders for the constables and the gamekeepers present to keep the three poachers in custody in Campbell’s’.(23)  With the benefit of hindsight, one may wonder what chance of so doing they thought they had, but it is also difficult to see what else they could have done.

At this point, the chain of events becomes somewhat confused. What follows must have taken place around seven o’clock on a January evening, so that, withal, it would also have been dark. A reasonably coherent account was given by James Baird, merchant in Cumnock. He was among the constables detailed to detain the poachers within Campbell’s house. According to him there was shouted conversation between the crowd and the poachers: the crowd asking them if it was time yet to free them. Soon afterwards the force of the crowd pushed in the window and shutter of the room they were in; the shutter was put up again, and one of the assistant constables stood with his back against. It was however again pushed it, with such force that it, and the man holding it, were thrown across the room. At this point, according to Baird, the mob rushed into the room through the door. Before the room was invaded, Peter Bannatine had fired a shot out of the window above the heads of the crowd.(24)

Again according to Baird, when the mob came into the room, they grabbed at the gun of Robert Collins, gamekeeper at Ballochmyle, and in the ensuing mêlée it had gone off, killing David Reid, mason at Barshare, who had been one of the constables guarding the three poachers. Baird, and other witnesses, stated that Collins had called out to the crowd to be careful, for the gun was loaded and cocked.(25)  After Reid was shot, there was general confusion, and the three poachers escaped.(26)  Another witness, George Patrick, one of the gamekeepers, averred that one of the poachers, whom he named as Lindsay, had been the first to grab Collins’ gun.(27)

The death of Reid may have had a sobering effect on the crowd: at all events, they had achieved their objective of liberating the poachers. A rider was sent, post haste, to Ayr, and the Sheriff Substitute and the Procurator Fiscal came to Cumnock, examined witnesses and took precognitions. As a result, Robert Collins was charged with culpable homicide, and a number of people from Cumnock were charged with mobbing and rioting, deforcement and assault. They were David Reid, plasterer, James Patrick, sawyer, John Thomson, carter, John White, carter, George Dickie, shoemaker, John Robertson, nailer, John Hunter (also known as Hunter Downie), labourer, John Miller, weaver, and Hugh Murdoch, sheriff officer. All were to appear at the next Circuit Court of Justiciary in Ayr, which was to be in April 1833.

In the days following the liberation of the poachers, it was reported that they were back at their work. On the 11th January - the day when the authorities had planned to try them in the Dumfries Arms - they were seen hunting for game on the Auchinleck House estate, and in the course of the same month, they were seen poaching in and around the parishes of Sorn and Muirkirk.(28)

The trials resulting from these events took place in Ayr on the 22nd April 1833. The case against David Reid, plasterer, and his co-accused was heard first.(29)  From the point of view of the prosecution, this was not without its disappointments. One of the accused, Hugh Murdoch, failed to appear: as he had been employed as a sheriff officer, it is perhaps not surprising that he had chosen to flee: he was outlawed. Next, the defence successfully argued that the libel against John White had been incorrectly drawn up, as he lived at Stepends, which was in Auchinleck parish, not Old Cumnock. The point was proved, and White was allowed to walk free. The cases against Hunter (or Downie) and Miller were passed down to a lower court.(30)  Finally, the defence argued successfully that as neither the petition nor the warrant for the detention of the poachers bore their names, these were not legal arrest warrants, and that therefore the poachers detained at Campbell’s had not been legally detained, and thus they could not have been illegally freed.(31)

Much of the evidence that was led by the defence centred on the action of the mob in attacking David Smith and his cart, and freeing the lone poacher.(32)  William Drennan testified that he had been hit by David Reid, and this was corroborated by another of the constables with the cart, James McMillan. Drennan also identified James Patrick and John Thomson as being among the crowd which attacked the cart. As we saw above, Patrick was also seen assisting the man’s escape down a close near the Relief Church, and he and Thomson were also seen in the mob at Hugh Campbell’s.(33)  In his summing-up, the presiding judge, Lord Gillies, said to the jury that he believed the case against Reid had been clearly made: the jury concurred and found Reid guilty. They returned verdicts of not proven on the others: i.e. Patrick and Thomson, together with George Dickie and John Robertson, against whom no material evidence appears to have been led at all. Reid was sentenced to nine months imprisonment.(34)

The case against Robert Collins followed. Many of the witnesses were the same as in the previous trial: the most pertinent again being the merchant, James Baird. It was clear that there was no desire to convict: the Advocate-Depute, in addressing the jury, said that ‘he had felt it his duty to investigate and bring forward this distressing case, for the public satisfaction; and from the evidence led it was quite clear that the gun had gone off in the general confusion, and that the death of the unfortunate man was entirely accidental’. Lord Gillies, in another pointed address to the jury, said ‘he was happy to find .. that the person placed at the bar was perfectly innocent’. The jury ‘having conversed with each other’, agreed, Collins was found not guilty, and set free.(35)  On 21st June 1833, John Hunter (alias Hunter Downie) and John Miller appeared before the Sheriff Criminal Court in Ayr. The case against Miller was found not proven, but Hunter was found guilty, and given a jail sentence of two months.(36)

The outcome of a day of communal madness, therefore, in Cumnock was that the poachers had escaped, and had resumed their depredations, one man had died, leaving a widow and five children,(37) while two men went to jail for riotous behaviour.

The Observer’s correspondent asked a question which, perhaps, we can no more answer confidently at this distance than he could at the time:

‘It is naturally and uniformly asked by every individual in this quarter, and at a distance, in whose presence the subject is mentioned, what could have induced the inhabitants of Cumnock to take part with these poachers, seeing that their whole conduct was of that description which every good member of society ought to deprecate in the most unqualified manner’.(38)

He does, however, have some thoughts on the subject:

‘The impression on the minds of the thinking part of the community is that a number of individuals whose duty it was to have prevented riot and kept the peace acted behind the curtain and instigated some of those desperate characters who are to be found in every place to riot; and a crowd having collected, and ardent spirits having been liberally supplied to them from the house of Campbell, it was industriously inculcated on their minds that they ought to view the matter in a political point of view - that the poachers were to be made the victims of the aristocracy, and that it was oppressive and unjust to punish any man for killing game - that game was free to every person - and that the law would soon come to be administered in such a way so that no country gentleman would have it in his power to punish any person whatever therefor. Such specious arguments as these coming from individuals, heads of families, who ought to have conducted themselves in a respectable manner, and accompanied by the war-whoops of radicalism, aided with the supply of ardent spirits above mentioned, converted the congregated crowd to one mass of frenzy and madness’.(39)

As we have seen, there was, nation-wide, much sympathy for poachers: in that Cumnock was no different from anywhere else, and, no doubt, there were individuals ‘who ought to have conducted themselves in a respectable manner’ who enjoyed their hares and pheasants, and saw no reason why this trade should not continue. To what extent issues of radicalism, in the period immediately after the Great Reform Act of 1832, were raised to excite the mob, is a question that remains unanswered. Certainly the Observer’s correspondent believed so, and his belief is supported by the evidence given, in the trial of Hunter and Miller, by Hugh Robertson, the 10-year-old son of the waiter at the Dumfries Arms. He watched the crowd outside the inn, and heard many of their cries, such as ‘Rescue’ and ‘Liberty’, and others, which could be construed as having a radical political message, such as ‘Let Every Man for Liberty’ and ‘Let the Fowls of the Air be Common Property’.(40)

While the Observer’s correspondent seems to detect a plot, and deliberate orchestration of the crowd, the events do appear to have unfolded spontaneously, if tragically. For many, perhaps, it was nothing more than the chance of a little excitement on a dark Thursday night in the middle of winter. For them, perhaps, Friday may have dawned accompanied by a sore head and a hoarse voice, but otherwise their lives remained unchanged. For some, however, life however would never be the same again. Alexander Allason of Glaisnock, the JP who authorised the arrest warrants, died on the 30th June 1833, his end perhaps hastened by the events of 10th January, and their consequences.(41)

David Reid, the mason, was dead. He left a widow and family to mourn his loss. His wife, Marion Murdoch, had given birth to a daughter, Margaret, on the 5th January 1833, 5 days before David Reid was shot. The birth is registered thus: ‘Margaret, lawful daughter of David Reid, mason, and Marion Murdoch, was born the 5th of January 1833 - and baptized [blank] - omitted by the mother to be registered at the proper place, the father having been accidentally shot before the baptism’.(42)  Marion Murdoch or Reid died at Milzeoch Farm, Cumnock, on the 9th May 1870.(43)

Although acquitted, Robert Collins seems never to have recovered from this incident. He had been born c.1794, and had been a gamekeeper on the Ballochmyle estate since at least 1826,(44) and probably before that: he was a resident of Mauchline parish when he married, on 27th December 1822, Mary Hunter from the neighbouring parish of Sorn.(45)  On 10th September 1833, nine calendar months after the riot, the Ayr Observer reported that ‘this morning -- Collins, gamekeeper to Claud Alexander, Esq., of Ballochmyle was engaged in cleaning a double-barrelled gun, and not being aware that one of the barrels was loaded, it went off and wounded him so severely, that he died in half an hour’.(46)  Accidents do happen, even to experienced gamekeepers, but coupling Collins’ role in the events that had unfolded during the course of 1833 with the very real distress that suicide could bring in its wake, it seems probable that Collins had been unable to come to terms with his part in these events, and that his death had been reported as an accident to preserve his, and his family’s, dignity. His wife, Mary Hunter, did not long outlive him and died, aged 37, on the 5th November 1837. They are buried in the churchyard at Catrine.(47)

Rob Close

© 2001


  1. Ayr Observer, 5th February 1833, 1b.

  2. Huntingdonshire, &c Weekly Journal, 18th March 1826, quoted in A G L Shaw, Convicts and the Colonies, [Dublin], 1998 ed., 156.

  3. R H Campbell, Scotland Since 1707: The Rise of an Industrial Society, 2nd ed., Edinburgh, 1985, 125.

  4. Shaw, op cit, 156. The position in Scotland was broadly similar to that in England, and was prescribed by the Night Poaching Act, of 1828, and the Game (Scotland) Act of 1832: although they have been amended by subsequent legislation, both these Acts remain on the statute book. The best general introduction to the history of poaching is probably C Chenevix Trench, The Poacher and the Squire: A History of Poaching and Game Preservation in England, London, 1967.

  5. Shaw, op cit, 158.

  6. Ayr Observer, 22nd January, 1833, 4c. There is evidence from England at this period that poaching had ‘on occasions at least, become more highly professionalized’. [George Rudé, Criminal and Victim: Crime and Society in Early Nineteenth Century England, Oxford, 1985, 21]

  7. Ayr Observer, 15th January 1833, 4a.

  8. Ayr Observer, 22nd January 1833, 4c.

  9. Ayr Observer, 22nd January 1833, 4c.

  10. New Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol V, Ayr - Bute, Edinburgh, 1845, 224.

  11. Ayr Observer, 22nd January 1833, 4c.

  12. Air Advertiser, 17th January 1833, 4c.

  13. Air Advertiser, 25th April 1833, 4a.

  14. Ayr Observer, 22nd January 1833, 4d.

  15. Ayr Observer, 5th February 1833, 1c. Hugh Campbell remained in business in Cumnock as a grocer and spirit merchant. He died there on the 16th February 1850. [Ayr Advertiser, 21st February 1850, 4f]

  16. ‘No complaint ever had to be offered over the efficiency of the local police provision. J.P. Courts met in the old parish school in the Square (with jail attached) till 1839 and thereafter in a Court House built in the Townhead. This became also the police station after the creation of a County Constabulary in 1858’. [John Strawhorn, The New History of Cumnock, Cumnock, 1966, 98]. It is clear from the events discussed here that in 1833 the J.Ps. met in the Dumfries Arms, and no thought appears to have been given to securing the poachers in a local jail. It is possible that these events precipitated a re-structuring of judicial processes in Cumnock.

  17. Ayr Observer, 22nd January 1833, 4d.

  18. Ayr Observer, 15th January 1833, 4a.

  19. Air Advertiser, 17th January 1833, 4c.

  20. Ayr Observer, 22nd January 1833, 4d.

  21. Ayr Observer, 23rd April 1833, 4a.

  22. Ayr Observer, 23rd April 1833, 4b; Air Advertiser, 25th April 1833, 4a.

  23. Ayr Observer, 22nd January 1833, 4d.

  24. Ayr Observer, 23rd April 1833, 4b. Bannatine was a gamekeeper on the Auchinleck House estate of Sir James Boswell. [Air Advertiser, 17th January 1833, 4c]

  25. Ayr Observer, 23rd April 1833, 4b.

  26. They left ‘in the room two very finely finished guns’. [Air Advertiser, 17th January 1833, 4d]

  27. Ayr Observer, 23rd April 1833, 4b; Air Advertiser, 25th April 1833 4b.

  28. Ayr Observer, 22nd January 1833, 4d.

  29. It will be noted that the primary victim of these events, David Reid, mason in Barshare, and the man most heavily punished for his part in them, the plasterer David Reid, bear the same name. I am not aware of any family connection.

  30. Ayr Observer, 23rd April 1833, 4a. It emerged later that both Miller and Hunter or Downie had also absconded after the events: Miller for eight days or so, and Hunter for some months. It is not clear why they are treated differently from Murdoch; it was perhaps common knowledge that Murdoch had fled completely, while his role as an officer of the state increased the seriousness of his offence.

  31. Ayr Observer, 23rd April 1833, 4b.

  32. When questioned about the rescue, David Smith claimed that he had his back to the cart, and had thus not seen the rescue. [Air Advertiser, 27th June 1833, 3f]

  33. Ayr Observer, 23rd April 1833, 4ab.

  34. Ayr Observer, 23rd April 1833, 4b.

  35. Ayr Observer, 23rd April 1833, 4b.

  36. Ayr Observer, 25th June 1833, 4c.

  37. Ayr Observer, 22nd January 1833, 4d.

  38. Ayr Observer, 22nd January 1833, 4d.

  39. Ayr Observer, 22nd January 1833, 4d. In his letter which appeared in the Ayr Observer, 5th February 1833, 1cd, Campbell vehemently denied supplying ‘ardent spirits’ to the crowd, claiming that wine had been taken from his shop during the confusion.

  40. Air Advertiser, 27th June 1833, 3f.

  41. Ayr Observer, 2nd July 1833, 4e.

  42. New Register House, [NRH], OPR 610/4, Old Cumnock, Births and Marriages 1819-1854, 86. [Microfilm copy in Carnegie Library, Ayr]

  43. Pre-1918 Gravestone Inscriptions in Cumnock and Doon Valley District [Cumnock], [c.1980], [GI, CDV], Vol II, Cumnock Old Cemetery, no.479. The stone also records David Reid, ‘shot during a riot’.

  44. A game license was issued to him in September 1826. [Air Advertiser, 7th September 1826, 1e]

  45. NRH, OPR 604/4, Mauchline, Births Marriages and Deaths 1807-1854, 262. [Microfilm copy in Carnegie Library, Ayr]

  46. Ayr Observer, 10th September 1833, 4b.

  47. GI, CDV, Vol II, Catrine Kirkyard, no.33.