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Poems from Francis Kerr Young
Pearlie


News articles these days are filled with demonstrations, protest rallies or sit-ins, and we think little or nothing of it. At worst, offenders may be fined a mere few dollars for being a public nuisance or an obstruction, not even enough to pay for the policemen's time to haul them away. In the long run, most causes are resolved by peaceful, non-violent means that are part of our democratic heritage.

My Great, great, great, great-grandfather was a reform activist and protested against injustice only to discover that it could retaliate with deadly effect . . .

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 Close.

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 proficient tinsmith.

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 rights.

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 easier.

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 west.

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 Strathaven Radicals.

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 situation.

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 foolhardy endeavour.

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 indirect routes.

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 Scotland.)

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."

Author's note: the same sentence was carried out on Sir William Wallace, one of the Guardians of Scotland, about six hundred years earlier.

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 stocking frame.

"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 people fainting.

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, Strathaven.)

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 grave.

 

FOOTNOTE:

The following year the Radicals, outlawed by their part in the Rising, were pardoned as part of the commemoration of King George IV's coronation. Others had scattered across the globe. In fact Stevenson, one of the fiery ringleaders, turned up in Australia, and having made his fortune, became Mayor of Melbourne. The Corn Laws, the main cause of the Radical Uprising, were repealed in 1846. On a festive August Saturday of that same year and to the sound of bands, a monument erected in honour of James Wilson, was unveiled by his niece. Its inscription reads:

Erected by public subscription in affectionate memory of James Wilson, a patriotic Scotsman, who suffered death at Glasgow, 30th August 1820, for enunciating the principles of progress and reform, by the adoption of which Great Britain has secured domestic peace, and consolidated her power among the nations . . .

Born at Strathaven, 5th September, 1760.

Legend on James Wilson's headstone:

THIS

IS THE BURIAL PLACE OF

JAMES 'PURLIE' WILSON

HANGED

30TH AUGUST 1820

GLASGOW

MARTYRED IN THE CAUSE OF

FREEDOM

AND THE EMANCIPATION OF

WORKING PEOPLE

SOURCES:

A History of Strathaven and Avondale by William Fleming Downing
Eric Moore & Company 79 Robertson Street, Glasgow, Scotland (1979)
THE PIONEERS: A Tale of the Radical Rising at Strathaven in 1820
J. M. Bryson, Townhead Printing Works, Strathaven, Scotland


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