IMAGINE if you will, and I daresay some people would like to, a massive violent mob rampaging through Central London and attacking Parliament, the Bank of England and the Prime Minister’s residence in Downing Street.

Imagine the mob destroying prisons and freeing inmates, and assaulting members of the House of Lords. Imagine, too, the leaders of the British state meeting in fear and dread and ordering the army on to the streets to fire at will at unarmed people, killing and wounding hundreds.

You do not have to imagine all of these things, you just need to know your history, for such events have already happened in this benighted United Kingdom, and they bear the name of a Scot – the Gordon Riots.

The narrator of Barnaby Ridge describes the Gordon Rioters as being “sprinkled doubtless here and there with honest zealots, but composed for the most of the very scum and refuse of London"

They happened in this month 240 years ago, and the eponymous riots made a legend out of Gordon and almost toppled the state of the day, with some historians viewing them as the closest Britain ever came to a French-style revolution.

Inspired by happenings in Scotland in 1779-80 and fomented by Scottish nobleman Lord George Gordon, the riots are an often-forgotten piece of Scottish and British history even though they feature hugely in Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge, the full title of which isBarnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty, and which features a fictionalised version – though apparently quite accurate – of Lord Gordon.

READ MORE: ‘Glasgow Girl’ Roza sets sight on Holyrood election bid

There’s every chance that our current UK State leadership would like us not to know about Gordon and his riots for several reasons – people might get revolutionary ideas or think they can get away with attacking followers of one religion. The riots had an unsavoury element from the outset but are often misunderstood as simply a popular – in the sense of people’s – uprising that targeted Roman Catholics.

That is undoubtedly how they started, but they very soon deteriorated into that phenomenon often dubbed King Mob, in which the riots have an internal dynamism of their own and the participants move from the initial cause to the sheer anarchic destruction of everything in their path, including the appendages of the State itself.

Dickens knew about King Mob in 1780, and has the narrator of Barnaby Ridge describe the Gordon Rioters as being “sprinkled doubtless here and there with honest zealots, but composed for the most of the very scum and refuse of London, whose growth was fostered by bad criminal laws, bad prison regulations, and the worst conceivable police”.

There is also no doubt of the role played in the incitement of the riots by Lord George Gordon, who was not even 30 at the time of the riots and who would survive only to the age of 42, yet still packed enough eccentricity into his relatively short life to gain the ultimate blue riband for any unconventional Scot, namely being chosen by Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) as one of this country’s most famous eccentrics.

Over the next three weeks I am going to profile people listed in Hugh MacDiarmid’s book, first published in 1936 and superbly updated and edited by National columnist Alan Riach in 1993 in an edition published by Carcanet.

In what are extended biographical essays, MacDiarmid profiles ten Scots from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and given that he was possessed of eccentricity himself, his choice of subjects is fascinating – some would even say eccentric.

READ MORE: Michael Fry: The plan for Scottish economic recovery has one startling omission

The definition of an eccentric is someone who thinks or acts in a strange or unconventional manner. I prefer my late father’s own definition of an eccentric – “someone who, if they were working class or poor, would be called a daftie”.

MacDiarmid’s first essay is on Lord George Gordon, who was born on Boxing Day, 1751 in London. He was the third and youngest son of Cosmo, the 3rd Duke of Gordon, and his wife Catherine, the daughter of William Gordon, the 2nd Earl of Aberdeen. King George II was one of his godfathers.

No British politician ever soared up into public notice like a rocket so spectacularly and none ever came down like the stick so quickly and so abjectly

Cosmo died before his son George’s first birthday, and Catherine subsequently married General Staats Long Morris, an American landowner who served in the British Army during the American war of independence and was also MP for Elgin Burghs in Scotland.

The disruption to his family life may have been crucial to his personality. Educated at Eton, Gordon showed his waywardness early as he joined the Royal Navy at the age of 12 despite his family having the connections to let him forge a career in the Army.

He began as a midshipman, and advanced to an acting lieutenancy before deciding he would rather try politics than the sea. He moved to Scotland and decided to tilt at windmills by challenging the former Jacobite clan chief General Simon Fraser of Lovat in his own constituency – only this handsome, debonair and articulate Don Quixote won.

Fraser was shocked to his core, but in one of those quirks of British parliamentary procedure he was able to buy Gordon another seat and retain Inverness-shire for himself. Thus, in 1774, the new MP for the pocket borough of Ludgershall in Wiltshire entered his political career.

There were three parties in Parliament – the Ministry, the Opposition, and Lord George Gordon

It was to be tumultuous. MacDiarmid wrote: “No British politician ever soared up into public notice like a rocket so spectacularly and none ever came down like the stick so quickly and so abjectly.”

From the start he spoke in the House against the British state’s suppression of the American colonists and their desire for independence. He called the conflict “the mad, cruel, and accursed American war,” and his stance was never going to make him popular with King George III or his Government, led by Tory prime minister Lord North.

READ MORE: Asylum seekers speak out on Glasgow hotel living conditions

He had no truck with the opponents of the Government either. He picked quarrels with just about everyone of note and it was written of him that “there were three parties in Parliament – the Ministry, the Opposition, and Lord George Gordon”.

IN 1778, Gordon found the cause with which he to become most associated when Parliament passed the Papists Act, which was supposed to restore some rights to Roman Catholics, including the removal of the need for an oath rejecting popery when joining the British Army.

Lord North and his colleagues thought it a minor gesture which would have significant help for the army fighting in America as it was thought that thousands of Catholics in Scotland and Ireland would soon be recruited.

The Roman Catholics must know as well as we do that ‘popery’ when encouraged by government has always been dangerous to the liberties of the people

Instead they got a furious reaction from the Presbyterians of Scotland, one that soon spread to England. Though there is no record of Gordon being devoted to his faith’s version of Christianity – quite the contrary, as we shall see – he soon co-founded the Protestant Association which was backed by the Kirk and which took off all over Scotland where the populace never needed an excuse to jump on an anti-Catholic bandwagon. Catholic homes and chapels in Edinburgh were ransacked and both Glasgow and Edinburgh town councils had to pass decrees that they would oppose any relaxation of the laws on Catholics.

Gordon’s arguments were specious but struck home. His main point was that if Catholics could join the army without abjuring the Pope, they could switch their loyalties in an instant and undermine the British attempts to defeat real or imagined enemies. There was no evidence of Catholics doing so but Gordon hammered home the point and widened his argument to claim that Catholics being restored to full citizenship could damage the whole state, writing: “The Roman Catholics must know as well as we do that ‘popery’ when encouraged by government has always been dangerous to the liberties of the people.”

READ MORE: No amount of press-ups will make Boris Johnson fit for office

As the Association’s first president, Gordon showed a genius for campaigning and with the movement spreading throughout the UK and growing in numbers by the day, on June 2, 1780 he marched at the head of 40,000 to 60,000 people through London to hand in a petition calling for the repeal of the Papists Act.

At some point the protests turned violent, and despite pleas for peace and some people leaving, Gordon lost control and riots began. They were fierce and bloody and included politicians being assaulted – Lord Boston had his clothes torn off – and the embassies of Sardinia and Bavaria being set on fire, as they were known to have Catholic chapels.

Irish enclaves in London were attacked and King Mob now began to run amok, threatening the Bank of England and even invading Downing Street and breaking the windows of Lord North’s home. Newgate Prison was occupied and more than 300 inmates freed. Then Bow Street, Fleet and Clerkenwell jails got similar treatment. It really did look as if the people were on the brink of revolution and most historians have concluded that the original anti-Catholic virus had mutated into a contagion against the machinery of the state.

MacDiarmid recorded with apparent glee: “At this time the British metropolis may be said to have been entirely in the hands of a lawless, reckless, and frenzied mob. The vilest of the rabble possessed more power and authority than the King upon the throne; the functions of government were, for a time, suspended; and the seat of legislation had become the theatre of anarchy and misrule.”

The Scottish lawyer and biographer James Boswell said that the riots exemplified “the most horrid series of outrages that ever disgraced a civilized country”.

Parliament’s agreement to debate the Papists Act again seemed to mollify the crowd which acclaimed Gordon for his role, but more importantly the Riot Act was read and King George authorised martial law. The army was authorised to fire on any group of five or more people, and they soon did so.

‘Well’, said the lunatic apostle, ‘but you must give me your honour that you will read it out’

Estimates of how many died range from 300 to 500, and the same again were wounded. The rioters went home while Lord Gordon was arrested and went to prison. Some months later he was sent for trial on the capital charge of treason but thanks to a brilliant defence by the Scottish lawyer and future Lord Chancellor Thomas Erskine, Gordon was found not guilty and set free.

That would have been enough for most people, you might think, but Gordon continued to annoy just about everybody in his cause, even King George III.

READ MORE: The story of an indy radio station’s lockdown transformation

Horace Walpole recorded: “The King had the patience to hear him do so for above an hour, till it was so dark that the lecturer could not see. His Majesty then desired to be excused, and said he would finish the piece himself. ‘Well’, said the lunatic apostle, ‘but you must give me your honour that you will read it out’. The King promised, but was forced to pledge his honour. It is to be hoped this man is so mad that it will soon come to perfection.”

Turning to pamphleteering, Gordon went too far when he libelled French queen Marie Antoinette and charged over that libel and a “fake” petition, the jury found in the Government’s favour. Gordon escaped to the Continent but returned to face his five year sentence having been converted to Judaism. He underwent circumcision and lived as an orthodox Jew in Newgate Prison where he contracted a fever and died on November 1, 1792. He was buried in the grounds of St James’s Church in London.