The Scotch Cattle
In the early 19th century employment rights were rather rudimentary and working conditions often intolerable. With the onset of the industrial revolution the landscape of South Wales was scarred by pits and brooding iron works. Workers were exploited and seen as expendable by their employers.
But the miners and steel workers in the area were not prepared to be intimidated and to meekly accept their fate. They formed a secret collective whose aim was to inculcate a spirit of unity amongst their fellow workers and their motto was “Y gelyn pob dychryndod”, the enemy of all fear. It is not quite clear why they called themselves the Scotch cattle. Some suggest that it is an appropriation of the word scotches which was used on the railways to prevent waggons from moving, the implication being that they could bring production to a halt. Another theory is that they named themselves after the magnificent Highland cattle which the rich at the time kept as a sort of status symbol. Others suggest that it is a reference to the leather jackets the miners wore which together with their blackened faces gave them the appearance of bulls while others take it to be a reference to the verb scotch, meaning causing injury or harm to someone.
Whatever the origin of their name the Scotch Cattle adopted as their insignia a bull’s head which they included on their notices and daubed on their targets. They targeted anyone they saw as siding with the bosses – blacklegs who worked when their colleagues were on strike, corrupt landlords, bailiffs and owners of truck shops in which the workers had to shop because part of their wages were paid in vouchers only redeemable there.
As they operated as a secret society numbers are uncertain – one report suggested as many as 9,000 but this is likely to be an over-estimate. What we do know is that they would congregate in isolated areas to meet and discuss possible targets, guards prowling around to ward off unwanted visitors. Ordinary members would form what was known as the herd and the leader of the group was the bull. When an attack was to be carried out it would be done by a herd from another village to reduce the possibility of someone being recognised.
The Scotch Cattle were remarkably disciplined and concentrated their efforts on property rather than individuals. Their main MO was industrial sabotage, smashing up coal trains, ripping up railway track and sinking canal barges. In 1822 they set fire to 30 coal wagons at Llanhilleth, a conflagration that burnt for 4 days, according to contemporary reports. But their main weapon was instilling a climate of fear on the communities, with blood-curdling messages.
In 1832 the Home Office offered a reward of £100 for information leading to the arrest of some of the Cattle and in 1834 a breakthrough of sorts was made. A gang of Scotch Cattle tried to break into the home of a strike-breaker, Thomas Thomas, and in the ensuing scuffle Thomas’ wife, Joan, was shot and died two days later. One of the gang, Edward Morgan, was fingered for the murder and was hung in Monmouth Prison in 1835, although it is almost certain he didn’t do it.
This didn’t entirely curtail the activities of the Scotch Cattle. Rather it was the rise of Chartism and organised Trades Unionism and by the 1840s they were a thing of the past.