Regency Happenings: The 1820 Scottish Insurrection

Stirling Tolbooth and Cross where a plaque commemorates Baird and Hardie

Stirling Tolbooth and Cross where a plaque commemorates Baird and Hardie

The Radical War, also known as the Scottish Insurrection of 1820, was a week of strikes and unrest, a culmination of Radical demands for reform in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which had become prominent in the early years of the French Revolution, but had then been repressed during the long Napoleonic Wars.

An economic downturn after the wars ended brought increasing unrest. Artisan workers, particularly weavers in Scotland, sought action to reform an uncaring government, gentry fearing revolutionary horrors recruited militia, and the government deployed an apparatus of spies, informers and agents provocateurs to stamp out the movement.

A Committee of Organisation for Forming a Provisional Government put placards around the streets of Glasgow late on Saturday 1 April, calling for an immediate national strike. On Monday 3 April work stopped in a wide area of central Scotland and in a swirl of disorderly events a small group marched towards the Carron Company ironworks to seize weapons, but while stopped at Bonnymuir, they were attacked by Hussars.

Another small group from Strathaven marched to meet a rumoured larger force, but were warned of an ambush and dispersed. Militia taking prisoners to Greenock jail were attacked by local people, and the prisoners released. James Wilson of Strathaven was singled out as a leader of the march there, and at Glasgow was executed by hanging, then decapitated. Of those seized by the British army at Bonnymuir, John Baird and Andrew Hardie were similarly executed at Stirling after making short defiant speeches. Twenty other Radicals were sentenced to penal transportation.

It became evident that government agents had actively fomented the unrest to bring radicals into the open. The insurrection was largely forgotten as attention focused on better publicized Radical events in England. Two years later, enthusiasm for the visit of King George IV to Scotland successfully boosted loyalist sentiment, ushering in a new-found Scottish national identity.

In the 18th century, artisans such as handloom weavers, shoemakers, smiths and wrights worked to commission and so could set their own hours of work, which often left them time to read and debate what they had read with friends. The national Presbyterian Church of Scotland was founded on egalitarian attitudes and rights of the individual to make principled judgements, and so encouraged disputatious habits and preoccupation with “rights” as well as continuing the Scottish education tradition, which achieved more widespread literacy at that time than other countries. In Scotland only 1 in 250 people had the right to vote and these artisans were ready to join the Radical movement in welcoming the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and be influenced by Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man.

The Scottish Friends of the People society held a series of “Conventions” in 1792 and 1793. The government reacted harshly, sentencing successive leaders to penal transportation, and in 1793 Dundee Unitarian minister Thomas Fysshe Palmer was also given 7 years transportation for helping to prepare and distribute reform tracts. Dissent went underground with the United Scotsmen whose activities were curbed with the trial of George Mealmaker in 1798.

Between 1800 and 1808 the earnings of weavers were halved, and in 1812 they petitioned for an increase, which was granted by the magistrates, but the employers refused to pay, and so the weavers called a strike, which lasted for nine weeks with the support of a “National Committee of Scottish Union Societies,” organized in a similar way to the United Scotsmen (“Unions” being area related, not Trade Unions). The authorities were further alarmed and set up spies and informers to forestall any further reformist activity. Between then and 1815 Major John Cartwright made visits to establish radical Hampden Clubs across Scotland.

Post War Unrest
The end of the Napoleonic Wars brought economic depression. In 1816, some 40,000 people attended a meeting on Glasgow Green to demand more representative government and an end to the Corn laws, which kept food prices high. The Industrial Revolution affected handloom weavers in particular, and unrest grew despite attempts by the authorities to employ the workless and open relief centres to relieve hardship. Government agents brought conspiracy trials to court in 1816 and 1817.

The Peterloo massacre of August 1819 sparked protest demonstrations across Britain. In Scotland, a memorial rally in Paisley on 11 September led to a week of rioting, and the cavalry were used to control around 5,000 “Radicals.” Protest meetings were held in Stirling, Airdrie, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire and Fife, mainly in weaving areas. On 13 December the “Radical Laird” Kinloch was arrested for addressing a mass meeting on Magdalen Green in Dundee, but he escaped and fled abroad.

The gentry feared that the kind of revolutionary turmoil that had been seen in France and Ireland could take place in Britain, and there was a great recruiting of volunteer regiments through the Scottish lowlands and Scottish Borders. Walter Scott urged his Borders neighbours to “appeal at this crisis to the good sense and loyalty of the lower orders… All you have to do is sound the men, and mark down those who seem zealous. They will perhaps have to fight with the pitmen and colliers of Northumbria for defence of their firesides, for those literal blackguards are got beyond the management of their own people.”

The “Radical War”
As 1820 began the government, frightened by the “Cato Street Conspiracy” in London, acted to suppress reform agitation and drew on its apparatus of spies and agents provocateurs in Scotland. A 28 man Radical Committee for organizing a Provisional Government elected by delegates of local “unions” elected officers and decided to arrange military training for its supporters, giving some responsibility for the training programme to a Condorrat weaver with army experience, John Baird. On 18 March Mitchell of the Glasgow police notified the Home Secretary that “a meeting of the organising committee of the rabble.. . is due in this vicinity in a few days hence.”

On 21 March the Committee met in a Glasgow tavern. The weaver John King left the meeting early, shortly before a raid in which the Committee was secretly arrested. Mitchell reported on 25 March that those arrested 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.” King, Craig, Turner and Lees would now be repeatedly involved in organiZing agitation.

At a meeting on 22 March, the 15 to 20 people present included the weavers John King and John Craig, the tin-smith Duncan Turner, and “an Englishman” called Lees. John King told them that a rising was imminent and all present should hold themselves in enthusiastic readiness for the call to arms. The next day some of them met on Glasgow Green, then moved on to Rutherglen where Turner revealed plans to establish a Provisional Government, got those present to resolve to “act accordingly,” then gave over a copy of a draft Proclamation to be delivered to a printer. Lees, King and Turner went round encouraging supporters to make pikes for the battles. On Saturday 1 April, Craig and Lees collected the prints, which Lees had paid for the previous day. By the morning of Sunday 2 April, copies of the Proclamation were displayed throughout Glasgow.

The Proclamation, signed “By order of the Committee of Organisation for forming a Provisional Government. Glasgow April 1st. 1820,” included references to the English Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights.

“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.” by “taking up arms for the redress of our common grievances”. “Equality of rights (not of property)… 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 [until] in possession of those rights…” It called for a rising “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.”

A footnote added: “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.”

Strike and Unrest
On Monday 3 April work stopped, particularly in weaving communities, over a wide area of central Scotland including Stirlingshire, Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, with an estimated total of around 60,000 stopping work.
Reports came in that men were carrying out military drill at points round Glasgow, foundries and forges had been raided, and iron files and dyer’s poles taken to make pikes. In Kilbarchan soldiers found men making pikes, in Stewarton around 60 strikers was dispersed, in Balfron around 200 men had assembled for some sort of action. Pikes, gunpowder and weapons called “wasps” (a sort of javelin) and “clegs” (a barbed shuttlecock to throw at horses) were offered for sale.

Rumours spread that England was in arms for the cause of reform and that an army was mustering at Campsie commanded by Marshal MacDonald, a Marshal of France and son of a Jacobite refugee family, to join forces with 50,000 French soldiers at Cathkin Braes under Kinloch, the fugitive “Radical laird” from Dundee.

In Paisley the local reformers’ committee met under command of their drill instructor, but scattered when Paisley was put under curfew.

Government troops were ready in Glasgow, including the Rifle Brigade, the 83rd Regiment of Foot, the 7th and 10th Hussars and Samuel Hunter’s Glasgow Sharpshooters. In the evening 300 radicals briefly skirmished with a party “of cavalry,” but no one came to harm that day.

March on Carron
In Glasgow John Craig led around 30 men to make for the Carron Company ironworks in Falkirk, Stirlingshire, telling them that weapons would be there for the taking, but the group scattered when intercepted by a police patrol. By coincidence a detachment of Hussars was waiting in ambush with the intention of catching men marching off from Glasgow to Carron, but was disappointed. Craig was caught, brought before a magistrate and fined, but the magistrate paid his fine for him.

On the next day, Tuesday 4 April, Duncan Turner assembled around 60 men to march to Carron, while he carried out organising work elsewhere. Half the group dropped out, the rest accepted his assurances that they would pick up supporters along the way. Their leader Andrew Hardie was given a torn half card to be matched with the other half in the possession of a supporter in Condorrat, on the way to Carron. There, John Baird was visited around 11 P.M. by John King, who gave him the other half card.

At around 5 A.M. on 5 April, Hardie arrived with 25 men, soaked through. Baird had expected a small army, but King urged them on, saying he would go on ahead to rally supporters. One of the men named Kean went with him, and Baird and Hardie set off with a total of 30 men. On the way they twice came across travellers, but let them go. The travellers passed the information on to authorities at Kilsyth and Stirling Castle. King arrived again, though Kean was not with him. and told them that he had instructions that he had to go quickly to find supporters at Camelon, while Baird and Hardie were to leave the road and wait at Bonnymuir.

Sixteen Hussars and sixteen Yeomanry troopers had been ordered on 4 April to leave Perth and go to protect Carron. They left the road at Bonnybridge early on 5 April and made straight for the slopes of Bonnymuir. As the newspapers subsequently 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.” The Glasgow Herald sniggered at the small number of radicals encountered, but worried that “the conspiracy appears to be more extensive than almost anyone imagined… radical principles are too widely spread and too deeply rooted to vanish without some explosion and the sooner it takes place the better.”

During 5 April, more regiments arrived in Glasgow, causing considerable excitement. Some signs of resistance being organised were reported and the army stood on the alert well into the night, but no radical attack materialised. In Duntocher, Paisley and Camelon people thought to be drilling or making pikes were arrested.

The March from Strathaven
On the afternoon of 5 April, before news of the Bonnymuir fighting got out, “the Englishman” Lees sent a message asking the radicals of Strathaven to meet up with the “Radical laird” Kinloch’s large force at Cathkin, and next morning a small force of 25 men followed the instructions and left at 7 A.M. to march there. The experienced elderly Radical James Wilson is claimed to have had a banner reading “Scotland Free or a Desart” [sic]. At East Kilbride they were warned of an army ambush, and Wilson, suspecting treachery, returned to Strathaven. The others bypassed the ambush and reached Cathkin, but as there was no sign of the promised army they dispersed. Ten of them were identified and caught, and by nightfall on 7 April they were jailed at Hamilton.

Other Radical disturbances occurred at weaver villages around the central lowlands and the west central Scotland, with less obvious activity in some east coast towns.

Prisoners to Greenock
On Saturday 8 April, prisoners from Paisley were being escorted by the Port Glasgow Militia to Greenock jail when the militia were attacked by local people who fought the them in the streets and from the windows and doorways of their houses. The escort managed to get through and lodge the prisoners in the jail by 5 P.M., but then had to fight their way out again. In reaction to insults and stone throwing they opened fire, killing eight including an 8 year old boy and wounding ten others. The militiamen escaped, then angry Greenockians stormed the jail and freed the prisoners.

Trials and Executions
In various towns a total of 88 men were charged with treason. At both Glasgow and Stirling a special Royal commission Court of Oyer and Terminer was set up to prosecute.

James Wilson was arrested and on 20 July was put on trial at Glasgow charged with four counts of treason The jury found him Not Guilty on three counts, Guilty of “compassing to levy war against the King in order to compel him to change his measures” and recommended mercy, but he was sentenced to death.

Five of his colleagues were found Not Guilty, another was discharged. On 1 August a jury ignored the abrasive judge and refused to convict two weavers.

At Stirling on 4 August the judge advised “To you Andrew Hardie and John Baird I can hold out little or no hope of mercy” since “as you were the leaders, I am afraid that example must be given by you.”

James Wilson was hanged and beheaded on 30 August watched by some 20,000 people, first remarking to the executioner “Did you ever see such a crowd, Thomas?”
On 8 September Hardie and Baird were executed in Stirling, watched by a crowd of 2,000. The Sheriff of Stirling, Ranald MacDonald, required that they make no political speech from the gallows, but agreed that they could speak upon the bible. Baird concluded his brief speech by saying “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.” Hardie then spoke of “our blood [being] shed on this scaffold… for no other sin but seeking the legitimate rights of our ill used and down trodden beloved Countrymen”, then when the Sheriff angrily intervened he concluded by asking those present to “go quietly home and read your Bibles, and remember the fate of Hardie and Baird.” They were hanged and then beheaded.

Thomas McCulloch, John Barr, William Smith, Benjamin Moir, Allan Murchie, Alexander Latimer, Andrew White, David Thomson, James Wright, William Clackson, Thomas Pike, Robert Gray, John Clelland, Alexander Hart, Thomas McFarlane, John Anderson, Andrew Dawson, William Crawford and the 15 year old Alexander Johnstone were in due course transported to the penal colonies in New South Wales or Tasmania. Peter Mackenzie, a Glasgow journalist, campaigned unsuccessfully to have them pardoned, and published a small book: The Spy System, including the exploits of Mr Alex. Richmond, the notorious Government Spy of Sidmouth and Castlereagh.
Eventually, on the 10th August 1835 an absolute pardon was granted.

The effect of the crushing of this staged insurrection was to effectively discourage serious Radical unrest in Scotland for some time. Lord Melville, the right hand man in Scotland of Lord Liverpool’s government, saw the suggested Visit of King George IV to Scotland as a political need, to engage the feelings of the common people and weaken the Radical movement. The event, largely organised by Sir Walter Scott, succeeded brilliantly and brought a new-found Scottish national identity creating widespread enthusiasm for the tartan “plaided pageantry” that Sheriff Ranald MacDonald of Stirling was already enthusiastically engaged in as a Clan chieftain at Ulva and member of various “Highland societies.”

At the suggestion of Walter Scott, unemployed weavers from the west of Scotland were put to work on paving a track round Salisbury Crags in Holyrood Park adjoining Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh. The path is still known as the Radical Road.

The cause of electoral reform continued, and with the Scottish Reform Act 1832 Glasgow was given its own Member of Parliament for the first time. The event was largely overshadowed by English Radical events and forgotten by school history, but in the 20th century the Scottish National Party historian J. Halliday brought the event back into the curriculum. At an anniversary debate in the Scottish Parliament members of the various parties each found lessons for their different causes in the “Radical War.”

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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