BY the late-eighteenth century, Scottish artisans were in a position whereby they had been permitted to determine their own hours of work. Known as commission, this development had allowed blacksmiths, wheelwrights, weavers and shoemakers to structure their working day in accordance with allowing for enough free time for educational pursuits.
This state of affairs was the result of efforts by the comparatively liberal Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which believed that men and women should reach standards of literacy that placed them in a position to make rational judgements. Once these artisans had been acquainted with the rights of workers in other countries, however, particularly in the wake of the American and French revolutions that had brought the eighteenth century to a close, they became actively involved with the Radical Movement as a whole. One of the biggest influences was Thomas Paine (1737-1809), whose 1791 The Rights of Man had advocated rebellion in those cases in which a government does not represent the wishes of its people. This, at a time when just 1 in 250 Scottish people had the right to vote.
Between 1792 and 1793, the Scottish Society of the Friends of the People held a series of ‘conventions’ and many of its leading activists soon found themselves arrested and forcibly transported to penal colonies overseas. In 1793, for example, a minister from the Unitarian church, Thomas Fyshe Palmer (1747-1802) of Dundee, was sentenced to seven years’ deportation for disseminating reformist propaganda. Meanwhile, several activists from the Dundee Friends of Liberty – Thomas Muir (1765-1799), William Skirving (1745-1796), Maurice Margarot (1745-1815) and Joseph Gerrald (1763-1796) – were also deported for subversive behaviour. Five years later, in 1798, a politicised weaver by the name of George Mealmaker (1768-1808) was himself sent to the penal colony of New South Wales.
In the first decade of the following century, between 1800 and 1808, the earnings of Scottish weavers were effectively halved. By 1812 they had campaigned for a wage-increase and this was granted by local magistrates. This did not, on the other hand, prevent their employers from refusing to honour the new common wage and therefore the National Committee of Scottish Union Societies called for a strike. Consequently, the government infiltrated the societies in an attempt to bring the disruption to an end.
In 1816, after the Napoleonic Wars had devastated the European economy, Scottish people found themselves in an increasingly depressed and downtrodden state. After an enormous crowd of 40,000 Scots had gathered at Glasgow Green to demand more governmental reprresentation and an end to the Corn Laws that had set retrictions on imported food and grain, thus resulting in higher food prices as a whole, government agent provocateurs saw to it that the main ringleaders were charged for ‘conspiracy’ and dragged off to court over a period of several months.
When the Peterloo Massacre saw rioting and heavy-handed state repression in the city Manchester during the summer of 1819, Scottish Radicals came out in support of their English counterparts and 5,000 of them took to the streets. Despite efforts by the cavalry to disperse the crowds, a series of protest meetings were held in the weaver strongholds of Stirling, Airdrie, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire and Fife. In mid-December that same year, political reformer George Kinloch MP (1775-1833) was targetted by the authorities for organising a large-scale meeting on Dundee’s Magdalen Green and he escaped and eventually fled abroad.
With the Scottish ruling class fearful that the insurrectionist spirit of the American and French revolutions would find its way to British shores, Volunteer regiments were recruited from the Scottish Lowlands and Scottish Borders. Nonetheless, the weavers were not to be deterred and established a 28-man Radical Committee for organising a Provisional Government elected by delegates from local trade societies. A certain John Baird (1790-1820) also provided military training, which added a truly militant dimension to the proceedings.
On March 21st, 1820, just after the so-called Cato Street Conspiracy had shocked London, the leaders of the Radical Committee met at a Glasgow tavern and were seized upon by government officials. The city police announced that those arrested in the raid had
confessed their audacious plot to sever the Kingdom of Scotland from that of England and restore the ancient Scottish Parliament […] 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 […] few know of the apprehension of the leaders […] so no suspicion would attach itself to the plan at all. Our informants have infiltrated the disaffected’s committees and organisation, and in a few days you shall judge the results.
Despite this temporary setback, the main agitators who came to the fore at this time were weavers such as John King and John Craig, a tin-smith by the name of Duncan Turner and an Englishman known only as ‘Lees’. It was Turner who announced publically that a Provisional Government had been formed and both he and his comrades urged their supporters to make as many pike-staffs as possible and prepare for battle. When April arrived, the group’s official Proclamation – signed on the first day of the month – had been posted throughout the streets of Glasgow. It was a defiant call to arms:
Friends and Countrymen! Rouse from that torpid state in which we have sunk for so many years, we are at length compelled from the extremity of our sufferings, and the contempt heaped upon our petitions for redress, to assert our rights at the hazard of our lives.
The Proclamation went on to explain that the Radicals were taking up arms for the redress of common grievances and that its protagonists wanted equal rights. Furthermore, they were not prepared to back down in the face of government repression:
Liberty or Death is our motto, and we have sworn to return home in triumph – or return no more […] we earnestly request all to desist from their labour from and after this day, the first of April in possession of those rights […] To show the world that we are not that lawless, sanguinary rabble which our oppressors would persuade the higher circles we are but a brave and generous people determined to be free. Britons – God – Justice – the wish of all good men, are with us. Join together and make it one good cause, and the nations of the earth shall hail the day when the Standard of Liberty shall be raised on its native soil.
On April 3rd, the following day, strikes broke out in the central weaving communities of Stirlingshire, Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, involving a staggering 60,000 workers. Military drills were also taking place across central Scotland and men were stockpiling pikes, gunpowder and various other weaponry. In addition, one rumour had it that Étienne Jacques Joseph Alexandre MacDonald (1765-1840), 1st Duke of Taranto and a military veteran of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, had assembled an army of 50,000 French soldiers at the Campsie Fells. It was, as you would expect, completely untrue.
Government troops were also preparing for the worst and the Rifle Brigade, the 83rd Regiment of Foot, the 7th and 10th Hussars, and the Glasgow Sharpshooters were each ready to spring into action. John Craig, one of the more prominent Radicals, had intended to seize control of the Carron Company ironworks in Falkirk but was apprehended by a detachment of Hussars. When he was taken to court, however, the magistrate stepped forward to pay the fine on his behalf.
On April 4th, when Duncan Turner led 60 men to the same ironworks, many lost their nerve along the way, but on the following day a man called Andrew Hardie took a further 25 men to Carron. Unbeknownst to the Radicals, 16 Hussars and 16 Yeomanry troopers had left Perth and were also on their way to the ironworks. As one newspaper reported:
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. Four of the radicals were wounded.
Despite the small number of Radicals involved, the authorities were nonetheless worried that the insurrection was beginning to spread throughout Scotland and those who were caught in possession of weaponry at Duntocher, Paisley and Camelon were duly arrested. On the afternoon of April 5th, Lees ordered his own group of Radicals to meet with sympathetic politician George Kinloch and another large force, but when they received news of a possible ambush they returned to Strathaven. This did not prevent ten of their supporters being arrested and jailed two days later. When other ringleaders were arrested and taken through the streets to Greenock, the prison escort came under attack from local people who supported the Radical cause. A detachment of Volunteers was forced to fire shots into the air to disperse a large mob of protestors, but they were attacked with stones and bottles. Sadly, around eighteen of the demonstrators were shot and killed. The victims included an eight year-old child and an elderly woman of sixty-five.
At a series of show-trials, 88 men were charged with treason and a revolutionary by the name of James Wilson (1760-1820), otherwise known as “Perley Wilson,” was hanged and beheaded in front of a crowd of 20,000 people. On September 8th, Hardie and Baird were executed at Stirling and the latter announced from the gallows that
Although this day we die an ignominious death by unjust laws our blood, which in a very few minutes shall flow on this scaffold, will cry to heaven for vengeance, and may it be the means of our afflicted Countrymen’s speedy redemption.
Theirs was the last judicial beheading to take place in the British Isles. Others faced deportation to Australia: Thomas McCulloch, John Barr, William Smith, Benjamin Moir, Allan Murchie, Alexander Latimer, Andrew White, David Thomson, James Wright, William Clackson, Thomas Pike, Robert Gray, James Clelland, Alexander Hart, Thomas McFarlane, John Anderson, Andrew Dawson, John McMillan and Alexander Johnstone. Thankfully, by 1835 they had all been pardoned.
Following the Scottish Insurrection of 1820, further rebellion was heavily discouraged and even those who had participated in minor incidents – such as fashioning weaponry – were punished in one way or another. It wasn’t until 1832 that the Scottish Reform Act finally led to the election of the first Glasgow MP, but the real victory lay in the revival of a common Scottish identity that had been crushed at Culloden and Glencoe in the previous two centuries but which now brought people together up and down the land.
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Dodgshon, Robert A.; From Chiefs to Landlords: Social and Economic Change in the Western Highlands and Islands, 1493-1820 (Edinburgh University Press, 1998).
Mac A’Ghobhainn, Seumas & Ellis, Peter Berresford; The Radical Rising: The Scottish Insurrection of 1820 (John Donald, 2001).
Pentland, Gordon; Radicalism, Reform and National Identity in Scotland, 1820-1833 (Royal Historical Society, 2008).
Pentland, Gordon; Spirit of the Union: Popular Politics in Scotland, 1815-1820 (Pickering & Chatto, 2011).
Prebble, John; The King’s Jaunt: George IV in Scotland, August 1822 ‘One and Twenty Daft Days’ (Birlinn Publishers, 2000).
Smout, T.C.; A History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 (Fontana, 1985).