The town of Strathaven lies about
twenty-five kilometres south of Glasgow on the A71 highway which links the
industrial towns of the Strathclyde region to ports on the Firth of Clyde.
The community has grown extensively since September 5th, 1760, when James
Wilson was born in his parents' home on Kirk Yard Street, opposite Hole
The Parish School in Sandknowe gave the
youth an elementary education. When he had mastered the craft of weaving,
Wilson specialised as a hosier, and after his parents' death, the young
man continued to live and work in the cottage.
Weavers have been accustomed to the
stocking frame and the purl stitch since the sixteenth century. James
Wilson redesigned the structure so that the purl stitch could be utilized
to eliminate the need for a seam. Local weavers bestowed the sobriquet,
'Pearlie' or 'Purlie' on him because of his clever modification. Long
after his demise people wrongly assumed that he had earned his nickname by
being first to introduce the purl stitch.
James Wilson was about one hundred and
sixty-seven centimetres tall and weighed sixty-odd kilos. His slight frame
was wiry and robust. Although his once dark unruly hair was both greying
and receding, he still sported fashionable sideburns and bushy eyebrows.
Wilson had a straight nose and full lips with steel-grey eyes radiating
intelligence, but his complexion varied regularly: Sallow, from spending
too much time inside at the loom, or a weathered rosy hue after a hunting
jaunt. Being mechanically inclined, his nimble fingers were adept to any
task. Wilson's dexterity enabled him to repair clocks and become a
He studied medicine and frequently
practised on family and friends. The weaver loved to read great
humanitarian works such as Sir Walter Scott's ‘The Black Dwarf’, Thomas
Paine's ‘The Rights of Man’ (1791-92) and ‘The Age of Reason’ (1796). He
avidly read ‘Cobbett's Weekly Political Register’, an influential journal
that advocated parliamentary reform and championed the working man's
At thirty-two years of age Wilson became
a member of the Friends of the People Movement, a forerunner of the
Radical Union. He wrote satirical poetry and was known as a free thinker.
Hand loom weavers outnumbered the sum
total of all other artisans in the village backwater of Strathaven. At
workaday's end, or sometimes during midday meal break, these men would
congregate daily to discuss local news, politics, or any other topic that
could influence their businesses.
For relaxation James Wilson would walk
regularly to Drumclog, seven kilometres away to the southwest, on shooting
expeditions with his good friend, William Fleming. The Avondale farmer
enjoyed his visitor's company on these occasions for he was intelligent
and extremely sociable. Pearlie was an excellent shot, an accomplishment
that filled the family pot back at Strathaven. Fleming probably kept his
friend's gun at his farm to save him the irksome task of carrying the
cumbersome weapon to and from Drumclog. Wilson trained pointers for a
hobby so this boon made the handling of lively, young dogs considerably
It must have been a pleasant break for
the weaver to stride along the Darvel road with his dogs after being
cooped up at his loom for days on end. Far in front of him loomed the
fells of Upper Nithsdale, their late summer mists tinged by the
magenta-purple pastels of heather. Below on his left Avon Water meandered
back towards Strathaven on its journey to the River Clyde while a panorama
of rolling meadows, hills of bracken, whin, and gorse, swept off to the
Married life was fraught with sadness
because five out of six of the Wilsons' children died, either in infancy
or in childhood. Only a daughter survived, my Great, great,
great-grandmother. As Wilson turned fifty, times became more and more
difficult for Stravonians. Two valleys to the east, and powered by the
Cora Lynn (the Falls of Clyde), Robert Owen's cotton mill at New Lanark
was running twenty-four hours a day and mass-producing cloth many times
faster and cheaper than by hand. Other weavers were moving into Strathaven
to nibble into the ever-diminishing pie. By 1812, about six or seven
hundred weavers lived and worked in the village.
The Napoleonic Wars and the American
invasion of Canada had Britain in the throes of massive debt, and new
taxes had to be created to pay it. Problems magnified when three years
later the Tories, under the leadership of the Earl of Liverpool, passed
the Corn Laws Act. This edict forbade the importation of foreign wheat
until the price of home wheat reached 320 shillings a hundredweight, and
when one notes that it takes 100 kilograms of wheat to make 72 kilograms
of flour, bread becomes a luxury.
The Act helped landlords, farmers, corn
merchants, but placed greater hardship on the workers. Feelings welled and
discontent swept the country. Radical changes were needed in the House of
Commons if the Corn Laws were to be repealed.
The weavers of Strathaven were only a
minority of the association known as Radicals. On 27th April,
1815, they held a meeting in the Relief Church (now the East Parish
Church), Strathaven, to effect ways and means to repeal the unjust Corn
Laws. When it had adjourned, the men went to Wilson's house to seek his
valued advice and opinion on whether or not they should raise the
The next five years saw discontentment
soaring with the cost of living and James Wilson's house became a frequent
rendezvous for fellow weavers and other Radicals. Two men, Robertson and
Stevenson (a blood relative of the famous author, Robert Louis Stevenson),
emerged from the Strathaven Radicals to become prominent leaders of its
militant faction. James Wilson, although a principal representative of
Radicalism in Strathaven, favoured a more passive approach to the
During this period there had been many
gatherings with ineffectual results until finally on Monday evening, April
2nd, 1820, Robertson and Stevenson poured some lively rhetoric into the
smouldering convention at Threestanes Farm. Decisions reached that night
would change the course of many lives.
William Semple of East Overton, John
Cullen, Thomas Alexander of Flemington, and other locals, were badgered
for firearms. A gun, seven pounds of gunpowder, and a dozen or so flints
were purloined from John Cochrane, a local merchant. Other households were
also induced to give up their guns. Old muskets and other weapons were
cleaned and oiled. Pikes were sharpened and lead was filched from various
sources and given to an old artilleryman, John Wilson (no relation), to be
melted down and cast into bullets.
Glassford is now part of Strathaven, but
in 1820, it was a separate community. A contingent of men, William Howat,
William Steele, John Morrison, William Robertson, James Russell, William
and Robert Hamilton, marched into the hamlet to gain support from the
weavers there, but the Glassford Radicals were reluctant to lend
assistance. A few days later, the insurgents were ready to take whatever
action the Radicals deemed necessary.
A man called Shields delivered a
message, supposedly from the Radicals in Glasgow, stating that a rally was
being organised at Cathkin on the following day to unite the Radical
forces. The assembly would then march to Glasgow and engage the military
forces. Pearlie's distrust of the bearer made him sceptical of this
communication and he voiced his suspicions, but to no avail. That night
many wives pleaded unsuccessfully for their husbands to desist in this
Dawn light mottled the cobbles in front
of James Wilson's house as almost fifty men rallied under a flag that had
been unfurled by William Watson. It bore the inscription, ‘Scotland Free
Or A Desert’. Nervous inhabitants watched them leave the village. Robert
Hamilton and William Howat were both armed with guns and delegated to
guard the High Ballgreen Toll (now Glasgow Road). After ensuring that no
anti-Radical groups were following, they would bring up the rear. Pearlie
had serious misgivings on the first leg of the eighteen kilometres journey
to Cathkin but the hotheads could not be dissuaded. They rested briefly at
East Kilbride after travelling two thirds of the journey. This was far
enough for Wilson, and since his reasoning had fallen on deaf ears, he
reluctantly decided to return to Strathaven.
Not one of the five thousand Radicals
expected at Cathkin had shown up when the Stravonians arrived at noon.
Undaunted and under the leadership of John Morrison, they elected to march
on to Glasgow but sent a runner on ahead first to make contact with the
other Radicals. Almost at once, a missive returned urging them to disband
immediately because civil and military authorities had been alerted. In
two and threes, the men dispersed and made their way back home by taking
William Howat was known as 'a young
daredevil' and one account stated that he was "Determined to keep his gun,
which he had risked his life to get". He refused to conceal his arms at
Cathkin Braes with the rest of the Radicals. On his return from Cathkin he
hid his gun, bandoleer, coat and hat under a hedge and passed the
unsuspecting soldiers, to all appearances a weaver out for a stroll.
Twelve of the Strathaven party were
arrested on their return by a body of merchants who feared reprisals by
government forces. Pearlie was back at Kirk Yard Street (now Castle
Street) scarcely an hour before some of his former friends burst into his
home to arrest him. Wilson treated his capture with great indifference
although James Grebbie, a local writer, constantly had to remind him of
the very serious predicament that he was in. The weaver was taken to
Hamilton Barracks, some thirteen kilometres away.
On July 20th, 1820, he was formally
charged for high treason in the High Court, Glasgow. Knowing that Wilson
had been voicing his opinions on reform for many years, prosecuting
attorneys felt that this case would serve as an ideal example before the
populace. James Wilson pled not guilty to the charge and appointed John A.
Murray to defend him. (In later life Mr. Murray became Lord Advocate for
Near the end of the second day the jury
retired to deliberate. Two hours later the foreman of the jury, Charles
Stirling of Cadder and a commander of Glasgow Yeomanry (Light Horse),
announced their unanimous verdict of guilty, but under the circumstances,
begged the court to temper justice with mercy, recommending the accused to
the Clemency of the Crown. Wilson's composure remained steady when he
heard the verdict. Then Lord President Hope asked him: " . . . as to what
he had to say for himself".
A defiant Wilson drew himself proudly
upright and retorted: "I am not deceived. You might have condemned me
without this mummery of a trial. You want a victim. I will not shrink from
the sacrifice. I am ready to lay down my life in support of these
principles which must ultimately triumph."
The judge began his address: "The
intermediate evils your mischief might have produced are terrible to think
of. I advise you to prepare for the utmost extreme; and if mercy be
extended to you, you will not be the worst man for the attention which you
may give to your religious concerns."
This ominous statement forewarned that
the Lord President had failed to heed the jury's recommendation of
clemency. In fact the sentence was made purposely cruel pour encourager
autres. He immediately went on: "The sentence of the law is . . ." he
paused briefly, ". . . that you be drawn on a hurdle to the place of
execution, on the 30th August, and after being hung by the neck
till you are dead; that your head be severed from your body; and your body
be cut in quarters; to be at the disposal of the King; and the Lord have
mercy on your soul."
The weaver eloquently replied to the
court: "My Lords and Gentlemen, I will not attempt the mockery of a
defence. You are about to condemn me for attempting to overthrow the
oppressors of my country. You do not know, neither can you appreciate, my
motives. I commit my sacred cause, which is that of freedom, to the
vindication of posterity."
As the Lord President began to
comprehend the theme of Wilson's speech, he arrogantly interrupted the
prisoner's every paragraph.
But Wilson stubbornly continued: "You
may condemn me to immolation on the scaffold, but you cannot degrade me.
If I have appeared as a pioneer in the van of freedom's battles; if I have
attempted to free my country from political degradation; my conscience
tells me that I have only done my duty.
"Your brief authority will soon cease,
but the vindictive proceedings of this day shall be recorded in history.
The principles for which I have contended are as immutable, as
imperishable, as the eternal laws of nature. My gory head may in a few
days fall on the scaffold and be exposed as the head of a traitor, but I
will appeal with confidence to posterity.
"When my countrymen will have exalted
their voices in bold proclamation of the rights and dignity of humanity,
and enforced their claim by the extermination of their oppressors, then,
and not till then, will some future historian do my memory justice, then
will my name and sufferings be recorded in Scottish history - then my
motives will be understood and appreciated; and with the confidence of an
honest man, I appeal to posterity for that justice which has in all ages
and in all countries been awarded to those who have suffered martyrdom in
the glorious cause of liberty." And at last he was finished.
Lord President Hope warned the newspaper
reporters 'to use discretion in their journals.'
They not only obeyed, at least one of
them (The Glasgow Herald) blatantly lied, reporting " . . . he (Wilson)
stammered out a few words in an incoherent manner".
Many Radicals in Glasgow were
influential people and they strived unsuccessfully to save the life of the
accused. Pearlie Wilson was incarcerated in the Iron Room of Glasgow Jail
for the next forty days but was permitted to see his wife and daughter.
Some accounts say that James Wilson was
coerced into marching out with the dissidents for a day or so before his
execution, the following declaration was allegedly penned by Wilson:
"On the morning of that day (April 6th)
about twenty men, mostly belonging to Strathaven, came to my house and . .
. they were determined I should go along with them . . . I refused to go;
but they threatened to blow my brains out if I did not accompany them. I
said I had no arms; when the persons noticed the blade of a sword, which
had no hilt and was broken at the point, and which I used as a bow for my
"At length, carrying this useless blade
with me, we left my house for Glasgow, but when near to Kilbride, which is
halfway, we heard that we were deceived by the Glasgow committee having
turned all traitors. I then left these persons, and, stopping for a short
time a friend's house by the way, I returned home, where I had scarce
arrived when I was secured by officers of the law.
"I most solemnly deny that I took up
arms to levy war against the king. I indignantly reject the imputation
that I committed or intended to commit high treason.
"I acknowledge that I die a true patriot
for the cause of freedom for my poor country, and I hope that my
countrymen will still continue to see the necessity of a reform in the way
of the country being better represented, and I am convinced that nothing
short of universal suffrage and annual parliaments will be of any service
to put to the present corrupted state of the House of Commons; therefore I
hope my dear countrymen will unite and stand firm for their whole rights."
On Wednesday afternoon, 30th
August, 1820, dressed in prison garb and securely shackled, Wilson was led
from the gaol and bound onto a hurdle or gate. The horse-drawn hurdle
sounded hollowly as it trundled over filthy cobbled streets on its way to
Glasgow Green where a multitude of more than twenty thousand people waited
in silence. It was just a few minutes to three o'clock when the prisoner,
his head high, dignified and proud, calmly walked to the scaffold steps
where his executioner waited.
Thomas Moore was a twenty-year-old
medical student who had volunteered for the macabre task. He was sombrely
attired in a grey coat with black trousers and fur hat. A strip of black
crepe masked his face. At his feet lay the black bag containing tools of
his trade: The scalpels and saws that would soon be utilized to surgically
eviscerate, decapitate, and finally quarter the victim.
Two clergymen attended Wilson, the Rev.
D. Dewer of the Tron Church, and the Rev. Grenville Ewing of the
Independent Church. Cries of sympathy exuded from the gathering and
"Shame, Shame, he dies for his country!" could be heard as Wilson climbed
the scaffold. The crowd's noisy manner caused an officer of 3rd
Dragoons to panic, and surmising that a rescue was about to be attempted,
ordered his men to charge and disperse some of them. The mass of people
remained sullen but tense.
As the noose encircled Wilson's neck, a
handkerchief was placed in his hands to be used to signify that he was
ready to meet his Maker. The handkerchief dropped to the boards and the
executioner did his duty.
'Wilson's body was convulsed with
agitated jerks for five minutes and some blood appeared through the cap
opposite the ears, but upon the whole he seemed to die very easily' The
Glasgow Herald callously reported the next day. One account tells of
Perhaps the crowd's mood deterred Thomas
Moore from completing his task, but for whatever reason, Wilson's body was
not mutilated. The young man immediately left Scotland and was last heard
of in Mayrowe, Co. Londonderry.
In another week's time this unruffled,
grey-haired man would have been sixty years old. The corpse was cut down,
laid in a rude coffin, and transported to pauper's ground near the High
Church of Glasgow then buried.
In the gloaming of that same day,
Pearlie Wilson's daughter and niece reopened the grave and manoeuvred the
coffin over the cemetery wall into a waiting cart that was probably owned
by Wilson's friend, William Fleming. The remains were back in Strathaven
before dawn where a large crowd waited to show respect to the deceased.
There was no demonstration, a condition made to allow the "stealing" of
the body. When the coffin lid was raised, it was noticed that the dropped
handkerchief had been retrieved to cover the deceased's countenance. (This
handkerchief is preserved and can be viewed in the John Hastie Museum,
The next day James "Pearlie" Wilson was
buried in the Old Graveyard just a few metres from his back door, not as a
traitor, but as a revered patriot. Mrs. Wilson never recovered from the
tragedy and spent many a sad and weary night mourning by her husband's