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The 1820 Rising
The Radical War
The 1820 Rising

There has really been very little excuse in recent years for continuing ignorance about the 1820 Rising. Even before the excellent publicity work of the 1820 Society, Scottish (and other) readers, students and teachers, have had available to them since 1970 the book by Messrs. Ellis and Mac a’ Ghobhainn. Before that there was Henry Meikle’s study of Scotland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; and Tom Johnston’s ‘History of the Working Classes in Scotland' ought to have sparked off some curiosity. The Memoirs of Peter Mackenzie, though often regarded with some suspicion, have long been known; many public libraries carry files, or at least copies, of newspapers of the period; in Glasgow and in Dundee at least there are documents generously informative on the period, and the records of the treason trials of the time have long been available. The Ellis and Mac a’ Ghobhainn book may perhaps have prompted Hector Macmillan to write his play "The Rising," performed widely and with much success some years ago; and Michael Donnelly was (and I hope is) actively researching on the topic. That ignorance and indifference should survive all this activity suggests that there is some deeper obstacle to interest and understanding. Perhaps it is the old problem that teachers generally teach what they themselves were taught. Not every course taken by potential history teachers in Scotland will include coverage of the 1820 events; and some lecturers and teachers will judge that the topic doesn’t much interest them anyway. So, it is little wonder that Scottish children in an age when the teaching of history of any sort is increasingly under furtive or even overt attack, should have no knowledge of Hardie, Baird and Wilson, or their work.

For this reason the 1820 Society is surely right in planning, as its next move, to see what can be done to encourage teachers to include the story of the Rising in their syllabuses.

A very familiar topic in traditional school syllabuses is the famous "Discontent after Waterloo," which has been studied by thousands upon thousands of Scottish pupils. How many of those thousands however, have been asked to go back to first principles, and begin by asking the question "Who was discontented" "Why?" and "What did they do about it?" In seeking an understanding of the period, there are few better case studies than the 1820 Rising.

A historical event of this nature can be expected to have its origins in intellectual climate and in social and economic conditions. How far is this expectation borne out in regard to the Rising?


Take first of all, the social and economic circumstances of the time and place. " Glasgow" at the time in question, was in the process of absorbing various small villages and hamlets around its perimeter; places like Bridgeton, Calton and Anderston. In all of these communities the main occupation was weaving, handloom and mill both. The weavers - or at least the handloom weavers - enjoyed traditionally a semi professional status, dictated by the nature of their work. They worked to commission, giving a skilled service which only they could provide. They could decide upon their own hours of work and could decide upon periods of leisure if they were willing to forego some proportion of their earnings in the short term. In these aspects they had something in common with smiths and wrights and shoemakers, all of whom had similar advantages over wage earners. These groups in a sense formed an aristocracy of labour because such options were open to them.


Given that these workers had opportunities for leisure, how then did they use it? Here it is important to appreciate the impact upon the Scottish people of the system of Church government which had by then prevailed for over a century. The Presbyterian church, at least in theory, encouraged egalitarian attitudes and defended the right of the individual to make principled judgements. It thus encouraged disputatious habits and tended to encourage preoccupation with "rights." There was also the long-standing commitment to education which had produced a level of literacy more widely among the community than in any other European community except, possibly, in Prussia. This quality may have been exaggerated, and perfection was certainly not achieved, but a high proportion of Scots were able to read, wanted to read, and debate about what they had read - and weavers, wrights and shoemakers had very commonly the opportunity to do both. It is no accident that even in modem times there has come down to us the tradition of men sitting around discussing politics in the blacksmith’s forge, the shoemaker’s workshop, or the weaver’s cottage. They might discuss public events, recent publications and their own social condition. By the early 1800’s they could have been discussing the triumph of the American revolution and of the principles of representative government which that revolution had carried to victory over the British crown and Parliament. They could have been - and frequently were - discussing the works of Bums, and the messages of liberty and equality which were there to be found. In "Common Sense" they read Tom Paine’s thoughts on the American issue, and in his "Rights of Man" they found insights into the French Revolution with its commitment to "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity."


So, our weavers did not lack intellectual stimulation. What would they conclude when they contrasted what they read with the social and political realities around them? In early 19th century Scotland only 1 in 250 people had the right to vote. If the Americans and the French were right in asserting that from political power alone would come any reform in social and economic conditions, then clearly political reform and a vast extension of the right to vote must be sought. Some attempts to make progress towards reform had been undertaken in the aftermath of the American experience by sympathetic aristocrats and other influential persons who formed groups - often under the collective title of the "Friends of the People" - to secure more representative government in burghs and counties. Another line of approach, originating in England and extending gradually to Scotland, was the use of "Corresponding Societies " among whose members political ideas were exchanged, circulated and discussed. Finally there emerged a network of "Hampden Clubs," devised by the English reform enthusiast Major Cartwright, using the name of John Hampden, the great Parliamentary hero of the English Civil War period, to indicate the political attitude of his Clubs.


The word "society" had been familiar in Scotland when the term had been applied to groups of 17th century Covenanters and to religious dissenters of later days. "The Society men" they were often called by writers of the time, and "societies" or "unions" were terms quite commonly used of such groups. So when, in the early 1790’s meetings were held under the auspices of the Friends of the People, delegates were sent by local branches of the "Friends" or of some Corresponding Society. This comparatively calm and respectable work for reform was to give way to much more robust speech and action as the French Revolution took on a more violent aspect, and as the French leaders enthusiastically set about spreading their ideas abroad. Sympathisers in Scotland circulated Paine’s "Rights of Man" and other documents and publications publicising the principles and objectives of the revolution. One such sympathiser was the Glasgow lawyer, Thomas Muir, who encouraged the study of these revolutionary writings; who established contacts with reform sympathisers in Ireland - the United Irishmen - and who played a prominent role in the 1793 Convention of the Friends of the People in Edinburgh.


Publicity, and events in Europe, had produced a greatly heightened sense of excitement and had increased the influence of the more extreme reformers; and the 1793 Convention was seen by the increasingly worried government as being a seditious gathering. For his part in its deliberations, and for his reform activities, Muir was eventually arrested, tried and sentenced to 14 years in the penal colony in Australia. When, in the summer of 1793, Britain went to war with France, any sympathy with the French Revolution was liable to bring down charges of treason or, at least, sedition, upon the head of the sympathiser. One man who suffered prosecution accordingly was Thomas Fysshe Palmer, a Unitarian minister in Dundee who, in 1793, was given 7 years transportation for helping to prepare and distribute reform tracts.


PAMPHLETSIn the trial of Palmer frequent mention was made of a much more interesting and, to the Government, more sinister, character, George Mealmaker. To the annoyance and frustration of the authorities no satisfactory evidence could be used to prosecute Mealmaker, but by 1797 they felt able to move against him. Mealmaker, a weaver in the Seagate, Dundee, was said to be the author of various pamphlets or leaflets to which the authorities took exception. His works included, according to the prosecution, "An Address to Friends and Fellow Citizens," "The Moral and Political Catechism of Man" and "John Bull starving to pay the debts of the Royal Prodigal." Mealmaker’s offence, however, did not lie merely in his writings - on which he was given grudging compliments by his prosecutors who seemed surprised that a weaver could display such literary skills. Not only publicity, but organisation too enjoyed the services of his talents.


He was, in 1792-93, a member of a society calling itself "The Friends of Liberty" which met in Dundee, and at which poor Palmer had made his dangerous contacts. With the increasing official hostility to reformist agitation the open functioning of such groups had given way to an underground organisation called the United Scotsmen, whose constitution and rules had been drafted by Mealmaker. The United Scotsmen had branches scattered throughout Fife and Angus, members paying 6 pence an evening and 3 pence dues per month thereafter. Delegates from each branch ‘union’ met in district assemblies where they remained unnamed, known to one another only by the name of the branch from which they had been sent. Their objectives were votes for all male adults, vote by secret ballot, payment of MPs and annual general elections - objectives which were to remain on the reform programme, for more than a century. Mealmaker and his United Scotsmen may not have been the originators of this programme but at the very least they must be identified as remarkably astute and farsighted persons who had the capacity to set the agenda for generations to come. One other feature, however, set Government nerves jangling. The United Scotsmen administered an oath to new entrants. Such a practice always frightened the authorities, and in their fear they were always rigorous in charging any, who administered or took oaths, with conspiracy. And, from that day to this, the law is frequently harder upon conspiracy to commit an action than it is upon the action itself.


For all these various activities, and once a witness had been obtained who would testify against him, Mealmaker was brought to trial in January 1798. The key witness "Walter Brown, Bleacher in Cupar, an Independent Quaker" testified to the revolutionary and murderous words and plans of the United Scotsmen who, he claimed, planned to establish a Republican government, relying upon the army and navy to join them. Few events had more terrified the government than the activities which had paralysed the navy in the summer of 1797, and evidence of this nature would clearly influence judges towards severity. The court concluded that there existed "a deep and secret conspiracy... founded upon illegal oaths of secrecy to overturn the laws and to establish in their room Anarchy and Universal Suffrage" and sentenced Mealmaker to 14 years "transportation beyond seas."

With the punishment of Mealmaker, the activities of the United Scotsmen appear to have ceased, though ex-members and supporters would nurse their hopes in secret through the ensuing years. The next upsurge in reform directed activity had a rather different character, less ideological and more material in its motivation. Between 1800 and 1808, it has been calculated, the earnings of weavers were halved; and the fall in income continued between 1808 and 1820. In 1816 weavers in Glasgow were working for just over £1 per week; and by 1820 their income was down to between 55 and 60 pence per week. Magistrates were empowered to fix wage rates. In 1812 the weavers petitioned for an increase which, surprisingly perhaps, the magistrates granted. Despite this, the employers ignored this legal ruling, and refused to pay, whereupon the weavers called a strike. Although they were legally on thoroughly sound ground and the employers were the law-breakers, the fact they had gone on strike diverted attention from the original dispute, and enabled employers and magistrates to return to their more normal friendly relationships united in their determination to break the strike.


The strike lasted for nine weeks, and was supported by a "National Committee of Scottish Union Societies," echoing and, very probably, reviving the organisational structure of the United Scotsmen. The "Unions" were territorial, not occupational. The widespread participation by weavers was a consequence of the conditions and militant attitudes of weavers. It does not mean that the "unions" were weavers’ unions, in the Trade Union sense. The events of 1812 placed the authorities in a state of alarm sufficient to prompt them into creating an apparatus of spies and informers to ward off any revival of reformist activity. The sheriff of Lanarkshire had, as his main agent, a man named Biggar; and Glasgow’s leading citizen, Lord Provost and MP, Kirkman Finlay, employed Alexander Richmond, formerly active in the weavers’ strike, but now engaged to observe and report upon the activities of his former associates.


Between 1812 and 1815 Major Cartwright made tours of Scotland, establishing Hampden Clubs in a variety of locations; and government agents were able to find enough evidence to bring about conspiracy trials in 1816 and 1817.

By 1819 the position was that many workers were suffering hardship and were feeling a mounting sense of grievance. They had a programme of political reform, by now at least 30 years old, which they could use as an objective to be pursued; and they had an organisation, semi-clandestine though it was, through which they might be able to act. All that remained to bring about some confrontation with the government was some immediate spark or crisis. That spark was provided by events in England, where in Manchester on 16th August 1819, a reform meeting in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, was attacked and dispersed by military force. The deaths at "Peterloo" provoked widespread demonstrations of protest in Scotland. On 11th September a memorial rally in Paisley led to a week of rioting in that town, which required the use of cavalry to control a crowd of around 5000 "Radicals" as the rioters were coming to be collectively called.


In October, Gilbert McLeod’s newsheet, "The Spirit of Union" began to carry forward the publicity war; a meeting in Stirling had 2000 people in attendance, and in Airdrie a demonstration was led by a band playing "Scots Wha Hae," for which action the entire band was arrested.

November saw demonstrations in Renfrewshire, Ayrshire and Fife - still, especially, in weaving areas; and on 13th December a prominent reformist leader, the "Radical Laird" Kinloch, was arrested for addressing a mass meeting on Magdalen Green in Dundee. On 22nd December Kinloch escaped and fled abroad, where, it was widely assumed, he would be planning further rebellious acts.


1820 began restlessly with the so-called "Cato Street Conspiracy" in which a group of English dissidents plotted to assassinate the Cabinet. The exposure of this plot understandably frightened the government, but it gave them also the excuse to suppress reform agitation while enjoying wide-spread public support in so doing. It is not unreasonable to guess that the authorities, encouraged by an excited and frightened electorate, felt that they might safely go over to the offensive against reformers who could now be caricatured as assassins in the making. Certainly, in Scotland, the government now had an apparatus of spies and agents provocateurs. On 18th March, Mitchell of the Glasgow police was able to notify the Home Secretary in England that he was fully aware of the activities of the Radicals in Scotland, reporting that "a meeting of the organising committee of the rabble.. . is due in this vicinity in a few days hence." On the 29th March, Mitchell was able to report that "a week past, we apprehended their committee of organisation, due solely to the efforts of an informant who has served his government well."

We have to turn to other sources of information to find out what had happened between the 18th and the 29th which had satisfied Mitchell.

There had come into being sometime before March, a Committee for organising a Provisional Government, consisting of 28 men, elected by delegates of local "unions." The Committee elected officers and decided that it should arrange for its supporters to receive military training. Some responsibility for the military training programme was given to a Condorrat weaver, who had served in the army, John Baird. (Ex-soldiers turn up quite frequently as reform activists both in England and in Scotland at this time). This is the Committee of whose existence and plans Mitchell was aware, thanks to "our informants," on the 18th. On 21st March, the Committee met in Marshall’s tavern in Glasgow’s Gallowgate to carry forward their plans. Among those present was one John King, a weaver from Anderston. King left the meeting early, and shortly thereafter the premises were raided and the entire Committee was arrested. This was kept secret by the authorities, however, and the Committee’s supporters and agents were unaware of what had happened.


On the 22nd, a local meeting was held in Anderston, attended by some 15 or 20 people, and among them John King (once again); John Craig, another weaver; Duncan Turner, a tin-smith, and one Robert or Thomas Lees, described, not by his occupation but simply as "an Englishman." King, ever the optimist, reported that a rising was imminent and encouraged all present to hold themselves in enthusiastic readiness for the call to arms. On the 23rd some proportion of the group met on Glasgow Green, but from there adjourned, at the suggestion of Duncan Turner, to Rutherglen. On reconvening in Rutherglen, Turner revealed plans to establish a Provisional Government and secured from those present a resolution to "act accordingly." He then handed over a copy of a draft Proclamation to one John Anderson, who was to pass the draft on to a printer.


Meanwhile, from Mitchell’s report of the 25th we can find out something of the situation following upon the arrest of the Committee. The Committee, said Mitchell, had "confessed their audacious plot to sever the Kingdom of Scotland from that of England and restore the ancient Scottish Parliament." He went on to explain his plan to bring the whole reformer plan out into the open. "If some plan were conceived by which the disaffected could be lured out of their lairs - being made to think that the day of "liberty" had come - we could catch them abroad and undefended." Mitchell’s scheme was merely an updating of an old government tactic. His predecessors had used it back in the 1670’s against the Covenanters - goad members of an underground movement into open rebellion and they can then be easily crushed. The plan, Mitchell was confident, would work beautifully because "few know of the apprehension of the leaders. . . so no suspicion would attach itself to the plan at all". "Our informants" Mitchell concluded, "have infiltrated the disaffected’s committees and organisation, and in a few days you shall judge the results. "So Mitchell’s plan was clear. The reformers were to be deceived by false information circulated by his agents, that a rising had been called; many would respond to the call to arms, and would then be easily identified and destroyed


The leaders of the Committee were in custody, and could not therefore be the authors of any such call. Who then was the author of the Proclamation which Turner had revealed, and which Craig and Lees had presented to a printer in the Saltmarket on 25th March? On the 30th Lees visited the printer and paid him a sum on account for his work thus far; while Lees with companions, King and Turner, had been going the rounds of supporters encouraging them to make pikes for use in the battles to come. During Saturday 1st April, Craig and Lees collected the printed copies of the Proclamation; and, on the morning of the 2nd, Glasgow’s citizens awoke to find copies of the document displayed throughout the city.


The Proclamation, claiming to be the work of the "committee of organisation for forming a Provisional Government," described its authors as being driven by "the extremity of our sufferings, and the contempt heaped upon our petitions for redress" into "taking up arms for the redress of our common grievances" . . . "Equality of rights (not of property) is the object for which we contend" . . . "Liberty or Death is our motto, and we have sworn to return home in triumph - or return no more." So much for the motives and the oratory. What was suggested in the way of practical action? The Proclamation went on "we earnestly request all to desist from their labour from and after this day, the first of April... not to recommence until. . . in possession of those rights. . . of giving consent to the laws." In other words, the call was for a general strike; and violence was threatened in retaliation for any violence which might be used against those who responded to the call.


As we have seen, the Committee for Organising a Provisional Government had been in custody since 21st March, and its members could hardly have been the authors of the Proclamation which Craig, Turner and Lees had been submitting to printers on the 28th. Had some other Committee been created to carry on the struggle? This seems hardly likely, since the arrest of the original committee was unknown to the rank and file of the reformers, and they would not, therefore, have felt any need to select an alternative committee. It is no doubt just possible that the original committee had drafted the Proclamation before the arrests took place, and that King, Craig, Turner and Lees had delayed in doing anything about it for a week, for reasons which cannot be explained. Unfortunately, it seems much more probable that the Proclamation was a fake, concocted by the authorities for the reasons given by Mitchell - to provoke an open display of rebellion. If this is so, then those who circulated the Proclamation and sought to recruit support in its name, must have been the agents and "informants" organised by Mitchell. Some study of the later exploits of these men might help us to arrive at an opinion. However, real or fake, the call for a general strike met with a response which must have given the authorities a very considerable fright. On Monday 3rd April work had stopped in a wide area of central Scotland from Stirlingshire into Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire - especially in the weaving communities in those districts. The strike call, as an official ruefully reported, had been "but too implicitly obeyed."


Not only had men gone on strike, but reports came flooding in of military-style activities on the part of the strikers. Men were reported to be drilling on Glasgow Green, in Dalmarnock, Tollcross and at Pointhouse. Foundries and forges had been raided, and iron files and dyer’s poles taken to make pikes. In Kilbarchan soldiers came upon men engaged in making pikes; in Stewarton a group of around 60 strikers was dispersed, and in Balfron some 200 men had assembled as though bent upon some sort of action. There were some enterprising persons who saw a commercial opportunity, and offered pikes for sale at around 5p each. Gunpowder was offered at 2p per pound or thereabouts; and weapons known as "wasps" (a sort of javelin), and "clegs’ (a shuttlecock with a barb on its end, very damaging when thrown at horses) were also on offer. Meanwhile reports also speak of persons stripping lead from roofs, presumably to make bullets. Among the men engaged in these activities, rumours of a military significance began flying around. An army was said to be mustering at Campsie under the command of Marshal MacDonald, a Marshal of France and son of a Jacobite refugee family. This army was going, so it was whispered, to join forces with another array at Cathkin, under Kinloch, the fugitive Radical laird from Dundee.

In Paisley the local reformers’ committee met with apparent military purpose under one Parkhill, an ex-soldier who had been their drill instructor, but his group scattered when Paisley was put under curfew. In Glasgow an old acquaintance, John Craig, is found leading a party of around 30 men along Sauchiehall Street, making, he told them, for the Carron works, where weapons would be available for the taking. Before this little group reached Germiston it was intercepted and scattered by a police patrol. Craig was caught, brought before a magistrate and fined 25p. The magistrate paid his fine for him.

We must surely wonder why. We might also spare a thought for a detachment of Hussars which was waiting in ambush at Port Dundas Toll with the intention of catching men marching off from Glasgow to Carron. Perhaps they were clairvoyant; and in any case they would be none too happy to be robbed of their prey by an over-zealous police patrol. The fiasco may well have been blamed upon Craig who now seems to have vanished from the story.


His colleagues were still busy. On Tuesday 4th April, we find Duncan Turner assembling a group of around 60 men in Germiston, the plan being, Turner told them, to march to Carron. He, Turner, could not unfortunately go with them, as he had some very important organising work to do elsewhere, but he was very anxious to stir them into action. The company divided almost exactly, between those who felt that they were far too small a group to proceed any further, and those who felt that they should carry on in the hope and belief that they would pick up supporters along the way. This, Turner assured them, would happen, especially at Condorrat. He handed over to the leader of the 30 or so who would actually march, a torn half of a card which was to be matched against the other half which would be found in the possession of a supporter in Condorrat. Thus it was that Andrew Hardie, member of the Castle Street Union, set off at the head of his 30-strong force carrying his half-card towards Condorrat, where, holding the other half of the card, there was waiting John Baird. Baird had not actually received his half-card until he was visited around 11 pm by John King, who handed over the token to him, and instructed him to wait and match the card with the leader of the force from Glasgow which would be along very soon. King at this stage was calling himself Andrews, but his alias seems to have fooled nobody in particular, as he seems to have been known under his real name (if indeed King was his real name) to some of the men in Condorrat. At around 5 am, Hardie and 25 men reached Condorrat, soaked through and in no very great heart. Baird, who had expected a small army, was much taken aback, but King, always a great source of encouragement, urged them to stick to their task. He would go on ahead, he said, to rally supporters at various points between Condorrat and Carron.


The Condorrat men may perhaps have begun to harbour some doubts about King, because when he left they sent with him one of their number called Kean, possibly to keep an eye on King’s doings. So King and Kean left, and after a short rest, Baird and Hardie set off with Hardie’s 25 men from Glasgow, reinforced by the 6, including Baird, from Condorrat. Others had been on the road that night. In response to orders received during 4th April, Lt Ellis Hodgson of the 11th Hussars, quartered in Perth, set off for Stirling in readiness to protect Carron where an attack was expected on the 5th. Once again the authorities enjoyed either remarkable powers of foresight or very accurate and regular information. By 6 o’clock on the morning of Wednesday 5th April, Baird, Hardie and their followers were at Castlecary, where the soaked and hungry men found some food at the inn. Setting off again they met a traveller making for Glasgow. Trusting him to keep quiet about what he had seen, they let him go. It was their bad luck that he shortly afterwards met a soldier, Nicol Baird, returning from leave. The traveller told Baird what had happened, and the two men now turned to carry their news to the authorities, Baird to the army at Kilsyth and the traveller to Stirling Castle.


Meanwhile Hardie’s force encountered another off duty soldier, Hussar Sergeant Cook. Again they let him go, and he too set off speedily to Kilsyth. By 9 am Hardie, Baird and their men were at Bonnybridge, where they were no doubt heartened by the arrival among them of King.

Kean was not with him and be does not reappear in the story. We are left wondering just what might have happened to him. As always, King had instructions from some unspecified superior body. This time his story was that he had now to go quickly, still in his gallant quest for supporters, to Camelon; while Baird and Hardie were to leave the road and await developments on Bonnymuir. They didn’t have long to wait. Lt Hodgson, brought up to date by Nicol Baird and Sergeant Cook, left Kilsyth with 16 Hussars and 16 Yeomanry troopers. At Bonnybridge he left the road and made with remarkable accuracy on to the slopes of Bonnymuir.


"On observing this force the radicals cheered and advanced to a wall over which they commenced firing at the military. Some shots were then fired by the soldiers in return, and after some time the cavalry got through an opening in the wall and attacked the party who resisted till overpowered by the troops who succeeded in taking nineteen of them prisoners, who are lodged in Stirling Castle.. . . Lt Hodgson received a pike wound through the right hand and a sergeant of the 10th Hussars was severely wounded by a shot in the side and by a pike.

...Four of the radicals were wounded... Five muskets, two pistols, eighteen pikes and about 100 rounds of ball cartridges were taken." So much for the newspaper reports which appeared on 6th and 7th April. As the authorities and their supporters had had something of a fright it was to be expected that they would now dismiss the whole episode as an action of deluded men, and to sneer at the defeated leaders. Baird in particular, who had taken command during the actual fighting, was characterised as "the greatest boaster," deferred to because he had been in the army.


In the press there are echoes of Mitchell’s wish to see an open insurrection attempted so that the disaffected might be identified and destroyed. The Glasgow Herald in particular couldn’t quite make up its mind whether to snigger happily over the pitifully small number of men actually fighting, or to continue to worry over the possibility that the 19 men taken at Bonnymuir were only the tip of the iceberg of conspiracy and rebellion. The Herald on the whole, was still inclined to urge the need for vigilance, as "the conspiracy appears to be more extensive than almost anyone imagined" and opined that "radical principles are too widely spread and too deeply rooted to vanish without some explosion and the sooner it takes place the better." Meanwhile the employers in the cotton trade had resolved to employ no-one who could not prove himself "a peaceable man." The defeat of the rising was clearly going to be merely the beginning of a campaign by the victorious government to restore discipline and obedience among the working population at large.


However, there was more to the rising than the battle at Bonnymuir. Throughout that day, 5th April, Glasgow itself had been a scene of considerable excitement, contributed to very handsomely by the authorities who had brought into the city quite an army. In the Gallowgate were the 1st Rifle Brigade and the Ayrshire Yeomanry. In Eglinton Street were the 7th and 10th Hussars (less, no doubt, the 16 troopers with Lt Hodgson). Yeomanry detachments were in position in St Enoch Square and St Vincent Street, and artillery was deployed at the Clyde bridges. Four further regiments had been summoned, and were on their way. Some attempts to organise resistance were reported. In Bridgeton a drum was used as a signal to call together around 200 men, many "armed with pikes, blunderbusses or pistols." "In Tradeston the radicals were summoned with a large bugle. They amounted to 60, armed with pikes." Radical banners were reported flying in Dalmarnock Road, and Pollokshaws was said to be "the headquarters of the radicals." Faced with these signs of unrest the army stood on the alert well into the night but no radical attack materialised. Outside the city arrests were made of persons found, or reported, to be drilling, or making pikes, in Duntocher, Paisley and Camelon. Most spectacular of all, however, were the events in Strathaven.


Scotland Free or a DesertDuring the afternoon of 5th April after the Bonnymuir fighting, but before news of it had spread, our old acquaintance, "the Englishman" Lees, colleague of King, Craig and Turner, approached James Shields, a weaver, and asked him to carry a message to the radicals of Strathaven. Shields was wholly innocent and, acting in all good faith, delivered the message in Strathaven some time after 5 o’clock. Prominent among the Strathaven radicals was the veteran James Wilson, now aged 63, active in his younger days in the Friends of the People and possibly too in the United Scotsmen. His experience and service in the reform cause was lifelong. He was determined and loyal, but no fool. Lees’ message, conveyed by Shields, was convincing enough to persuade the Strathaven men that great things were afoot in Glasgow and to the north, and they seem to have had little hesitation in deciding to Join in the rising. At 7 o'clock in the morning of 6th April a small force of 25 men left Strathaven making, as instructed, for Cathkin. Wilson marched with them carrying. so tradition has it, his banner with its slogan "Scotland Free or a Desert." At East Kilbride the party was warned in the nick of time that soldiers lay ahead of them in ambush. Wilson, like the cunning old fox he was, sniffed treachery in the air, and returned to Strathaven. His colleagues, taking the warning given, skirted around the army’s ambush and reached Cathkin. Finding nothing happening there - (no Kinloch and no army) - they dispersed. Ten of them, however, were identified and caught and by nightfall on the 7th were in jail in Hamilton.


Storming og Greenock GaolNow the punishments could begin. On Saturday 8th April prisoners from Paisley were taken under escort to jail in Greenock. Their escort - the Port Glasgow Militia - came under attack from the citizens of Greenock, who fought the militia in the streets and from the windows and doorways of their houses. The escort managed to struggle through, and the prisoners were lodged in the jail by 5 o’clock. Then the soldiers having fought their way into Greenock had to fight their way out of it. Coming under attack from stone throwing citizens, they opened fire killing 8 people, including the 8 year old James McGilp, and wounding 10 others. By such means the militiamen made their escape, but in the evening the angry Greenockians stormed the jail and set the prisoners free. This ended the fighting, but not the killing. In Glasgow on 20th July, James Wilson, hosier, was put on trial on 4 counts of treason. His record was examined, and he was revealed as a reader of the Manchester Observer, the Black Book and the Spirit of the Union. He was identified as having been seen sword in hand on the march from Strathaven. He was further identified as a maker of pikes - "more effective than those taken at Bonnymuir," said the prosecution and a very damning case was built up against him. His defence argued that he had acted under compulsion, and his age was presented as meriting some measure of clemency. He was found Not Guilty on 3 counts, but Guilty of "compassing to levy war against the King in order to compel him to change his measures." The jury recommended mercy, but the death sentence was passed none the less.


It is worth noting that juries in 1820 were not behaving as had the juries in the 1790’s. Five of Wilson’s colleagues were found Not Guilty and another was discharged. On 1st August, in spite of efforts by the prosecution and the Bench, a jury refused to convict James Spiers of Johnstone, and John Lang of Kilbarchan, both weavers; and got the rough edge of the judge’s tongue for their obstinacy. On 4th August in Stirling, two men from Camelon Andrew Dawson and John McMillan, changed their pleas to Guilty whereupon a further six radicals were discharged.

Dawson and McMillan were to face the same sentence as the Bonnymuir prisoners who also faced trial and conviction on 4th August in Stirling. John Baird, John Barr, William Smith and Thomas MacFarlane, all of Condorrat and all weavers. Andrew Hardie, Thomas McCulloch, Alexander Latimer, Alexander Johnstone, David Thomson, Thomas Pike and Robert Gray, all weavers from Glasgow. From Glasgow there were the blacksmiths James Cleland and Allan Murchie (who survived to write verses about his experiences and his thoughts); the shoemaker William Clarkson, Andrew White, bookbinder; Alexander Hart, cabinet maker; Benjamin Moir, labourer and James Wright, tailor.


Execution of Wilson, Glasgow GreenAll of these men had been captured on the actual battlefield and their prospects had to be grim. The judge, Lord President Hope, expressed his wish that mercy might be shown to most of the accused, but for Hardie and Baird he had no good news. "To you Andrew Hardie and John Baird I can hold out little or no hope of mercy." The Crown would feel the need to make an example of somebody "and, as you were the leaders, I am afraid that example must be given by you." And so it worked out. Twenty men including the 15 year old Alexander Johnstone - were in due course sent to the penal colonies in New South Wales or Tasmania, where they survived and some even prospered. On 30th August, in Glasgow, James Wilson was hanged and beheaded, not before remarking "Did you ever see such a crowd, Thomas?" to the executioner who sat with him in the cart en route to the scaffold. As last words go, Wilson’s are not without gallantry. On 8th September Hardie and Baird died together in Stirling, and the "Radical War" was finally over.

The Rising and its associated demonstrations was very much a West of Scotland phenomenon. If its leaders had managed to prolong it no doubt its effects would have been more widely extended, but we cannot now know how much support and how many organised groups might have emerged to add strength to the Radical Cause. As it actually happened it was an event localised especially in the textile working areas in the shires of Stirling, Dumbarton, Lanark, Renfrew and Ayr.

Within Glasgow the reported activity was in the industrialised villages from Pointhouse and Anderston in the west of the city through Port Dundas to Germiston and Townhead and on eastwards to the textile working strongholds of Camlachie, Calton, Bridgeton, and Tollcross, then south to Poliokshaws and along the Clyde to Tradeston and Dalmamock.

West and north of Glasgow the movement was most obviously active in Dumbarton and Duntocher and moving into the Blane Valley and Campsie areas through Milngavie and Balfron, Kirkintilloch and Kilsyth. Eastwards, on the road taken by Hardie and Baird, lay Condorrat and then Camelon and Falkirk, St Ninians and Stirling.

The significance of the weavers’ support is even more obvious when we look to Paisley, a major centre of Radical activity, and a town whose economic and social sufferings were only just beginning. In twenty years time Paisley and its people would endure misery and destitution beyond that ever suffered by any Scottish town. In 1820 the instincts of its working people were very sound.

Around Paisley reported Radical activity and support for the General Strike was most apparent in Elderslie, Johnstone, Kilbarchan and Neilston, then over the moors to Eaglesliam and the north Ayrshire craft villages of Beith, DaIry and Stewarton. The Irvine Valley, strong weaver territory, produced solid indications of Radical power in Newmilns arid Galston, from where there were communication links north-east to Strathaven arid south-west to Tarbolton and Mauchline. Kilmarnock and Ayr both saw Radical activity and even south of Ayr there was a spirit of rebellion in Minigaff, Ballantrae and Portpatrick.

In the east of Scotland there was less apparent activity and such as there was took a more centralised form rather than revealing itself in the villages. Thus all Fife strength seems to have been exercised in Kirkcaldy and, similarly, Angus strength in Dundee. The east had its fingers burned a generation earlier with punitive conspiracy trials in Dundee, arid the display of military force in Tranent. It would be understandable if politically reform - minded people there waited to see what the prospects were before coming forward with open support.

What can be our response as we reflect upon the story of that remarkable summer of 1820? I would guess that most of our fellow-countrymen have never heard of it. Some of those who have heard it will have heard it as part of their school lessons and will have mislaid the memory along with most of what they were told in school. Some of those who remember will follow the strange Scottish instinct to denigrate arid diminish whatever is native to Scotland. The Scot cannot bear to be thought naive or gullible and so he must sneer and mock in case he should stand accused of letting his emotions run away with him. So it has been with the Rising and even academics have overlooked the significance because they have been preoccupied with the arithmetic. They have considered only the Bonnymuir part of the story. An army of 20 men they have argued, was no army at all, and a rising supported by such numbers is pitiful and absurd. But they have overlooked the strike, and the extent of the area affected by the strike. They have overlooked the 88 treason charges which were brought against men in many different towns. They have counted the deportees but have forgotten the refugees who, in what they saw as permanent defeat, left for America and Canada and despaired of democracy in their own homeland. They have carelessly ignored the fact that the men of 1820 were merely the cast in one act of a longer drama; and the Rising was a sequel to the reform movements of earlier generations just as it in turn was to lead on to the Chartist movement in the 1830’s and 1840’s. They have failed to grant any significance to the fact that once again the Scottish people had proved capable of producing leaders from among their own ranks when the need arose. Finally there is surely significance in the fact that no bad men were deported - the men who were sent to Australia proved in their later lives that rebellion and criminality are two very different things. The men who died were good men, with courage, dignity and character far superior to those who set out to deceive and betray them. And for all of us who work to a political purpose, there is the lesson that these men of 1820 worked for a political objective and saw in political change the potential - the necessary and exclusive potential - for social and economic justice. That is how democrats go about their task.


‘THE SCOTTISH INSURRECTION OF 1820’ (Gollancz 1970, Pluto Free 1989) P. B. Ellis & S. Maca’Ghobhain

‘THE SCOTTISH RADICALS. TRIED AND TRANSPORTED FOR TREASON IN 1820’ (Australia 1975, SPA Books 1975) M. & A. MacFarlane

‘SCOTLAND: A CONCISE HISTORY BC - 1990’ (Gordon Wright Publishing 1990 ) James Halliday

‘MUIR OF HUNTERSHILL’ (OUP 1981) Christina Bewley

‘A HISTORY OF THE SCOTTISH PEOPLE 1560 - 1830’ (Collins 1969) T.C. Smout

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