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The History of Stirlingshire
Chapter XIV. The Radical Rebellion (1820)


Again we have another skirmish of a still less historical character. During the revolutionary fever of 1820, a farce of a fight took place a few miles westward of Falkirk, which has been called the battle of Bonnymuir. Without entering into the details of the abortive and fatal rebellion, the wretched expedition deserves a passing word. Thus, at the outset, it may be well to note the deep political discontent and general disaffection of the kingdom at that memorable period, when not a few of our patriotic countrymen dared even to imperil their lives in the assertion of what they deemed their legal rights. All disorders, political as well as social, have their climax; and the years of which we speak were, in Scotland at least, the culminating era of constitutional martyrdom.

The original radical party, who, by the emissaries of the government, were treacherously decoyed to Bonnymuir, left Germiston early in the morning of the 25th April. Following up the treasonable address, which, as the first step of the infamous plot, was freely posted over Glasgow, one Turner gets a few of the more impulsive city radicals gathered together, and gives them to understand that the men at Carron had all struck work for rebellion, and were moreover just waiting the arrival of a force of "friends," before seizing from the iron-works a full supply of arms and ammunition that had been secretly mustered for the radical service. No doubt their numbers were few to start with, but then they had the plausible story that a numerous body would be sure to join them in their route at Condorrat, whither King, another avowed agent of the provisional government, had gone as forerunner. 

Under this delusion, Hardie, who has been appointed commander of the Germiston party, sets out hopefully on the radical expedition; and, when within a mile of Condorrat, puts his little army into regular marching order – forming a front and rear rank. Reaching the tiny hamlet, no additional force, however, makes the slightest appearance; but here, King, deceitfully busy, has made another dupe of a villager named Baird, who, on the faith that "a party of two hundred well-armed men, all old soldiers, were on their way from Glasgow," succeeds in persuading some dozen of his neighbours to turn out and be in readiness with himself, to join the radical army on their arrival in the village. Of course the few raw volunteers brought up by Hardie were all that represented the promised numbers, and the metropolitan leader is now quite chapfallen. 

Still King, with some further diabolical coaxing, gets the deluded party to continue their offensive expedition, in the likelihood, as he alleged, of meeting with their truant friends, who, in their marching, had possibly found it necessary to leave the public thoroughfare. Baird and Hardie are now made joint-commanders of the thirty men, who walk bravely eastward, two deep, and have each a pike in hand for the demolition of the British government. On nearing Bonnybridge, King recommends that the "army" should take to Bonnymuir – a bleak moorland which lay a short distance south – and rest there until he returned with a reinforcement from Camelon. 

Again, and we may add finally, were the poor fellows sold. Not a solitary radical came from the "ancient city" to strengthen their ranks; and, as for the Carron men, they too had wit enough to know, as was once expressed by Chief-Baron Richards, "that the law is too strong for rebels, and that they always carry the halter around their necks." Both Baird and Hardie saw forcibly now that it was utterly hopeless to make any movement with such a mere handful of men. They had, in fact, resolved to return at once to their homes; and were just on the eve of so doing, when up rode Lieutenant Hodgson of the 10th hussars, and Lieutenant Davidson of the Stirlingshire yeomanry, with a detachment of their respective corps. 

The villainous trap was at last clearly seen through; and we cannot speak of the despicable plot but with unrestrained scorn. The record of such barbarous thirst for the life-blood of even political rebels, does not reflect much luster upon the antecedents of our "glorious constitution." The radical party were naturally thrown into the greatest consternation on finding themselves face to face with an enemy fully accoutred and trained to action. For a time they hold both hussars and yeomanry at bay, taking shelter behind an adjoining wall; and, for defence, fill the slap with pikemen. Repeatedly is the attempt made by the military to get through upon the radicals, but they are successfully repulsed by a thick mustering of pikes. Eventually, however, the horsemen get round to the rebel ranks, when the majority of the civilians, on Lieutenant Hodgson calling out for a surrender, throw down their pikes and run. Resistance by the remaining few is entirely useless. Eighteen of the radicals, several badly wounded, are taken prisoners, chief of whom are the leaders – Baird and Hardie; while two, more seriously injured than the rest, are left on the field for dead. 

One of these latter was a printer from Glasgow, named Black, who had an uncle in the person of Allan M’Clymont, weaver, Larbert. According to Black’s own story, he was flying a fugitive from the muir, when a hussar unhappily overtook him, but who, simply "dirling" the pike from his hand, told him to make quickly off. He had not gone far, however, when he encountered three of the yeomanry; and these, less humane and considerate than the hussar, cried with one voice, "Cut the radical rascal down!" when the foremost, suiting the action to the word, wounded him dangerously about the head and shoulders. He was, in fact, thought finished. But, as good luck would have it, a neighbouring farmer, at Damhead, named Alexander Robertson, happened to be about the field shortly after the skirmish, and seeing Black lying, not lifeless, though evidently at the point of death, had him carried to his house, and, with his wounds dressed, put snugly to bed. Restoratives were also prudently administered; and, what with these and good guiding, Black so far recovered as to be able, with some little assistance, to leave Damhead for the weaver’s at Larbert the night following. 

The exit arrangements were these: - The uncle and his son James were trysted to reach Damhead about midnight, when Black would make his escape by a back-room window, wearing the farmer’s blue bonnet in lieu of his own battered and haggled hat. The radical’s object was to get fairly out of the sight of the yeomanry. News of his proceedings, however, somehow reached the ears of Carnock; and the said gentleman, as may be guessed, was not long in setting out upon his track. Yet he got to Larbert just a post behind. The wounded bird had again fled. M’Clymont’s house, and outhouses were thoroughly searched by a company of "sour-milkers," and an apprentice lad, of the name of Craig, who lay sick in the garret with his head bandaged, was at first sight taken for the wanted fugitive. But the mistake was soon seen; and after the family had been put on oath, that they knew nothing of Black’s whereabouts, the yeomen left the house, emitting a volley of curses. 

One would imagine that they might have been fairly content; for, in their blood-hunting expedition that day, they had picked up no fewer than three radicals out of Camelon – M’millan, M’Intyre, and Dawson – all of whom were afterwards tried, and sentenced to banishment for life. The first-mentioned, was, until lately at least, enjoying a ripe old age, amid fields of plenty, in the far uplands of Australia; and a Camelon veteran, who was also apprehended at the time as a decided radical, but who got off clear, in speaking to the writer regarding the latest news from his old neighbour and friend, remarked – "Weel, sir, had I got justice, I micht hae been jist as guid as him: a laird, tae, abroad."

But to return to Bonnymuir. Such of the revolutionists as were able for the journey, were at once marched off to Stirling castle. It was, however, the 13th of July ere the trial of the political prisoners took place. Hardie, who was first dealt with, was found guilty on the following counts: - (2) "Levying war." (4) "Compassing to levy war against the king, in order to compel him to change his measures." Baird was found guilty only on the second count; but both prisoners were sentenced to be hanged by the neck till dead, on the 8th of September, and afterwards beheaded. The execution was a ghastly spectacle. Yet the poor men went through the trying ordeal bravely. "Hail, harbinger of eternal rest!" exclaimed Hardie, as he raised his eyes to the gibbet; and, just before ascending the grim instrument of death, he prayerfully wished "a speedy deliverance to his afflicted country."

And what shall we say of the extreme severity of the government in executing, as traitors, two humble weavers, who were simply the victims of a diabolical machination? No doubt both were thoroughly in earnest for the success of the great political cause. "The rights I want," said Hardie, on his examination in Stirling castle, "are annual parliaments, and election by ballot;" and he must have known that he who, by treason, would subvert the state, is punishable by its laws. Yet theirs, assuredly, was no bastard patriotism. Then, as now, nothing intrinsically dreadful could be seen by the mass of the people in the demand of those popular privileges. The only execution, indeed, the public feeling of that day would have sanctioned was that of Richmond, the spy, and his base and cowardly accomplices. As for Andrew Hardie and John Baird, they were, in the very dignity of their death, regarded as pure martyrs in the cause of constitutional liberty; and now, in these more enlightened times – for the conviction that the House of Commons should be an epitome of our national life was not to be quenched – when there is an almost general recognition of the fundamental principles of self-government, which is neither more nor less than the just and equitable representation in parliament of all classes of the community; they stand out from the dark pictorial canvas of the British constitution, in its stormy spring-time, as the gallant pioneers of reform at last triumphant.

"All the past of time reveals
A bridal dawn of thunder-peals,
Whenever thought hath wedded fact."

In July, 1868, the Hon. Mr. John Bright, M.P., thus wrote the present editor of these volumes, relative to the Bonnymuir skirmish, and after tragedy: -

"A darker page in our history is scarcely to be found. The ministers who sent Hardie and Baird to the scaffold, and Richmond who betrayed them to their death, were infinitely more guilty than the men they legally murdered.

"Scotland now is the surest home of freedom in the three kingdoms, and I hope before long you will be able to add more strength to the Liberal party in parliament.

"If England, Wales, and Ireland were as intelligent and incorrupt as Scotland, we might have the best government in the world.

"I hope we can see some improvement throughout the United Kingdom, and that we shall see reform carried into every department of the state."

In the encounter, Lieutenant Hodgson received a pike wound through the right hand, and a serjeant in the hussars was more severely injured by a shot in the side. Five muskets, two pistols, and about one hundred round of ball cartridge were taken by the military. This battle, as we have already said, was a miserable affair, but the result showed the hopelessness of any attempt on the part of the radicals to cope with regular troops, and the political disturbances of that period speedily subsided.

Note: You can read more about the 1820 Rising here!


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