To mark the 200th anniversary of the execution of the leaders of the Scottish Insurrection, we reprint Chapter 19 of Restless Land which tells the fascinating and complex story of armed state infiltration and brutal retribution. You can also a download free pdf of the 5,000 word chapter in its original format (suitable for reading as an ebook) at the link below.
THE RADICAL WAR
One of the greatest poems ever written in the English language was composed in commemoration of one of the greatest atrocities ever to be committed on English soil. It’s stirring final stanza has since resonated down through the generations as a mighty clarion call to oppressed peoples across the globe to rise up against the tyrants who exploit them.
Rise like lions after slumber In unvanquishable numbers Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you Ye are many — they are few.
Such was the claustrophobic climate of repression in Britain in 1819 that Mask of Anarchy remained unpublished for another thirteen years, only seeing the light of day a full decade after the death of its brilliant young author, Percy Shelley
He wrote his masterpiece in a state of shock and fury. On 16 August 1819, sixty thousand people had turned out in St Peters Field near Manchester for a peaceful, pro-reform carnival. By the end of the day, the field resembled a battleground after a troop of cavalry charged into the crowd, hacking them down with sabres. When the final toll of casualties was tallied up, fifteen people were dead and over 500 wounded.
Shelley’s poem captured the essence of a state run by men with ice in their veins and hearts of granite. An updated version of the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it tells the story of a sinister pageant in which three Tory Ministers and the King ride past dressed as Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy and Anarchy.
I met Murder on the way He had a mask like Castlereagh - Very smooth he looked, yet grim Seven blood-hounds followed him. All were fat; and well they might Be in admirable plight For one by one, and two by two He tossed them human hearts to chew … Last came Anarchy: he rode On a white horse, splashed with blood; He was pale even to the lips, Like Death in the Apocalypse. And he wore a kingly crown; And in his grasp a sceptre shone; On his brow this mark I saw— ‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’
The front page of the Manchester Observer ran the headline ‘Peterloo Massacre’ – a darkly sarcastic reference to Britain’s celebrated wartime triumph at Waterloo. The name stuck.
But the state turned its fury against the protesters. The Prince Regent and the Home Secretary sent messages of congratulation to Manchester magistrates who had ordered in the cavalry. The organisers of the rally, including the rousing radical orator, Henry Hunt, were charged with ‘assembling with unlawful banners at an unlawful meeting for the purpose of exciting discontent’. The government then railroaded through six acts of parliament banning public meetings, silencing radical newspapers and bringing in harsher penalties for sedition.
In towns and cities across Scotland, collections were held to help the relatives of the victims, while rallies and marches held in protest at the atrocity. On Saturday 11 September a sombre procession, with contingents from all over the West of Scotland, converged again on Meikle Muir near Paisley. A number of speeches were delivered and resolutions carried denouncing the Peterloo. One of the resolutions even called on the people to abstain from toxic substances including tobacco, spirits… and tea.
Local magistrates had prohibited flags and banners, but a 300-strong contingent form Glasgow defied the ban to carry a number of flags edged with black borders. After the rally dispersed, a posse of special constables attacked the contingent as it reached Paisley Cross en route back to Glasgow. John Parkhill, who had briefly been a radical activist involved in the events, described what happened next.
‘The first flag was seized there, a scuffle ensued, a crowd collected in a moment, and a dreadful riot began; the council chambers windows were smashed and similar outrages were committed in other parts of the town. The Riot Act was read at 10 o’clock and the cavalry were sent for, and arrived at 1 o’clock. There was a great deal of rioting during the Sabbath, and at 7 o’clock, it became serious and general. The rioters were augmented by strong reinforcements from the villages to the West, who became active partisans.’
At another meeting in Kirkcaldy two days later, attended by around six thousand people, a Mr Mitchell moved a 14-point resolution expressing abhorrence of the bloodshed in Manchester and proposing that ‘a subscription be opened for the purpose of bringing to justice the inhuman perpetrators of the deeds done at Manchester.
He later asked the crowd, rhetorically, what Scotland had gained from the union with England.‘The massacre of our people; the debasement of our national character, the accumulation of a debt beyond all spend-thrift precedent; famine in our streets and fever in our houses; the establishment in Europe of a military despotism which leaves the very name of freedom a mockery; the payment of war taxes in the time of peace… this has been our dearly bought indemnity.’
By early 1820, Britain was hurtling towards all-out class war. For a decade, King George III had suffered from dementia, leaving his son, the Prince Regent in charge. The heir to the throne had once flirted with the Whigs in his younger days, before the French Revolution. But as he grew older he hardened into a bigoted reactionary, ranting against Catholic equality, denouncing wicked reformers, and waging a vendetta against his estranged wife. But most of the time, he just indulged himself in ever more grotesque acts of drunken debauchery. Then, on 29 January, his father died and George IV acceded to the throne.
Two weeks later, fourteen police officers, with a company of the Coldstream Guards waiting in the shadows as a back-up force, raided a house just off the Edgeware Road in London. In the loft of the house, a group of 25 men had gathered to finalise plans to assassinate the entire British cabinet at a dinner party in nearby Grosvenor Square. Amidst chaos that followed, shots were exchanged and one police officer killed when the leader of the group, Arthur Thistlewood, plunged him with a sword.
Ten working men were arrested –four shoemakers, a few carpenters, a butcher and a tailor – and a cache of arms and ammunition was recovered, including pistols, muskets, carbines, broadswords, blunderbusses and stiletto knives. Others had managed to escape, including Thistlewood, but were later arrested.
After a sensational trial, five of the men were publicly hanged and another five transported. But the architect of the plot had been absent during the raid on Cato Street and now vanished into thin air. George Edwards had been Thistlewood right man. He had paid for the arms and ammunition. He had persuaded the rest of the group to plan the mass assassination. And, as it transpired at the trial, he was another government agent provocateur who had set the whole conspiracy in motion. During the trial, he had been whisked off to Guernsey, where he was given a new name and identity before resettling in South Africa.
The whole affair had been engineered by the state to provoke fear and hysteria among the population at large, and to isolate and demoralise the radical wing of the reform movement in London.
Meanwhile 400 miles away, the British state’s men in Edinburgh and Glasgow were planning their own campaign of entrapment designed to decapitate the strongest, best organised and most militant working class movement anywhere in Europe.
‘Lured out of their lairs’
By March 1820, the simmering political unrest in the west of Scotland was
about to blow its lid. In three villages in Galloway, workers set fire to the mills.
In Paisley, angry weavers torched another mill and attacked soldiers with
stones. Ayrshire was ablaze with mass meetings and radical rallies.
Colonel Alexander Boswell, the commander of the Ayrshire Yeomanry, and
Tory MP for a Devon seat, provided a stream of reports to the Home Secretary,
Lord Sidmouth, about the state of affairs in his area. His father James,
the famous sidekick and biographer of Dr Samuel Johnson, had been a cantankerous
reactionary, whose poem No Abolition of Slavery; or the Universal
Empire of Love was a celebration of the joys of bondage: ‘The cheerful gang!
– The negroes see; Perform the task of industry. Ev’n at their labour hear them
sing, While time flies quick on downy wing.’
Boswell Junior seems to have inherited not just his father’s flair for invective,
but also his contempt for reform. He wrote of villages such as Newmiln and
Galston in Ayrshire being ‘contaminated’ and ‘poisoned’ by the ‘festering evil’
of radicalism. And he warned that ‘in all the villages where there are weavers
of cotton goods, a large proportion are radicals’.
But the most dangerous centre of revolution anywhere in the empire was
the densely packed city on the Clyde, with its flammable cocktail of Irish migrants
with rebel hearts, Highlanders burned out of their homes and driven
from their lands, and Lowland Scots steeped in the militant egalitarianism of
On 18 March, the Glasgow Police Commander, Captain James Mitchell, wrote
to the Home Secretary in London warning him of plans for an armed uprising:
‘The Scottish radicals have been making preparations for some little time now for
a general rising in Scotland and to this end they have kept in close communication
with the disaffected in England. Their plan is to set up a Scottish Assembly or
Parliament in Edinburgh, likewise similar assemblies are to be set up by the dis-
affected in England and Ireland. As far as can be gathered by our informants they
are imbibed with the republican ideals that were preached by that odious band of
disaffected called United Scotsmen, who, after their abortive attempt to overthrow
Government in ‘97, it was generally accepted, had disappeared at the beginning of
the century, but whose aim was also the destruction of the unity of our kingdoms.’
The message was based on detailed intelligence provided by spies who had
infiltrated the central leadership of the radical movement in the west of Scotland,
a 28-strong ‘Committee for Organising a Provisional Government’. The
body was due to meet in a few days’ time, said Mitchell.
His information was accurate. Three days later, on the evening of Tuesday
21 March, the committee, made up of delegates from local radical groups, met
in a tavern in the Gallowgate. One of those present, John King, was a shady
character. He called himself a weaver, but according to observers, he ‘had no
conspicuous occupation’, and sometimes used the name John Andrews. Just
before 9 o’clock, he excused himself from the meeting with some vague excuse
about other business elsewhere.
A few minutes later, a large body of police officers and soldiers, led by Glasgow
magistrate Baillie James Hunter, smashed their way in and arrested everyone
present. They seized some documents, though many were thrown in the
fire and burned before they could be confiscated. The raid was kept secret
from the press and the public.
A week later, on 29 March, the Glasgow Police Commander sent a further
letter to Lord Sidmouth, urging the Home Secretary ‘that action must be
taken immediately to quench the treasonable ardours of the disaffected before
they grow too strong’. He went on to report the successful rounding-up of
the radical leadership, which he explained was ‘due solely to the efforts of an
informant who has served his Government well’.
He also reported a confession they had managed to extract from the leader of
the group, who admitted to ‘an audacious plot to sever the kingdom of Scotland
from that of England and restore the ancient Scottish Parliament’. He continued:
‘We know many of the vipers involved in this treasonable plot but I would say,
indeed I would stake all on such a hazard that the disaffected are too weak and
disorganised at this date to carry out their wicked intent. Thus my lord, 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 would catch them
abroad and undefended. The military in North Britain is more than adequate
to round up such vermin. Our intelligence leads us to believe that few know of
the apprehension of the leaders in this odious treasonable plot and so no suspicion
would attach itself to the plan at all. I have given instructions to our informants
on these lines – all good men, and true to our principles, who at
tremendous hazard to their life and limb, have infiltrated the disaffected’s committees
and organisation, and in a few days you shall judge the results. It would,
by the severity of their punishment which must be harsh – quench all thought
of patriotic pride and Radical feeling among the disaffected.’
A few days later the disaffected were lured out of their lairs. In the dead of
night, sometime between Saturday 1 and Sunday 2 April, an Address to the Inhabitants
of Great Britain and Northern Ireland appeared on hoardings, gable
ends and even church walls across Glasgow, Paisley, Kilmarnock, Girvan,
Strathaven, Hamilton, Airdrie, Kilsyth and Dumbarton. It purported to come
from the ‘Committee of Reformation for Forming a Provisional Government’,
and called for nothing less than violent revolution, urging not just the people
to rise up, but for the army to join them.
The language of the proclamation was clumsy and tedious, in contrast to the
highly literate pamphlets and speeches that were the hallmarks of the radical
movement in Scotland during these years. It lacked any clear demands, making
do with vague, hasty demands for ‘just and equal laws’. Tellingly, it threatened
the ‘severest punishment’ to anyone who violated private property; hardly the
pressing issue for desperate radicals with no private property to speak of.
Again rather oddly, rather than appeal to the spirit of Wallace and Bruce,
which was almost obligatory for radical gatherings and publications in Scotland,
it invoked the Magna Carta – the charter of rights agreed by King John
and his nobles half a millennium before Britain even existed. The fact that it
was addressed to the people of Great Britain and Ireland seems to imply that
the proclamation had been posted across both islands, and that a simultaneous
rising had been declared across Scotland, England and Ireland.
None of it proves conclusively that the address was a forgery. But research
conducted at the time by journalist and pro-reform activist Peter MacKenzie,
and augmented by the work of Ellis and Mac a’ Ghobhainn, seems to prove
beyond all reasonable doubt that the proclamation was the work of a group
of agents provocateurs run by Captain Mitchell and Captain James Brown, the
Superintendent of Edinburgh City Police, who in turn reported to the Lord
Advocate. The four spies have been identified as John King; Duncan Turner,
a tinsmith; John Craig, a weaver from Anderston; and Thomas or Robert
Lees, a solicitor from England, and unofficially credited as the author of the
It was an audacious plan to incite a premature, chaotic and leaderless rising,
solely to draw out and isolate the most radical elements of the working class. With
Habeas Corpus long since suspended, the militants could be rounded up and interned.
Some at least could be prosecuted for High Treason, and a few executions
would surely extinguish the fire in the belly of even the most ardent radical?
That Sunday morning in Glasgow, the 1st Rifle Brigade set up cannons on
every bridge across the Clyde to stop any mobilisation of insurgents into the
city centre. At the same time, the volunteer Glasgow Yeomanry – commanded
by Samuel Hunter, the 18-stone editor of the pro-Tory Glasgow Herald – surrounded
and barricaded the city’s treasury, the Royal Bank in Queen Street.
Just after noon, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army in Scotland, Sir
Thomas Bradford, set off on horseback from Edinburgh Castle along with his
entire General Staff, protected by a 60-strong squadron of the 10th Hussars.
Seven miles away in Paisley, radicals gathered with the few bits and pieces
of ammunition they could muster, to await instructions from the Provisional
Government in Glasgow. All across west-central Scotland, fragmented bands
of radicals gathered in their hundreds, in town and village squares, waiting
for messengers that never came.
For those who had set the trap, everything was going to plan. But those
pulling the strings from on high had underestimated the hunger for radical
change and were about to discover the law of unintended consequences.
Events began to escalate beyond their control, rapidly. The proclamation may
have been a fake, but there was nothing artificial about the general strike that
it incited. Journalists and historians would later pore over the text of the
proclamation, searching for clues that might help them piece together its origins.
But the mass of people had seen only the bold headlines and the rousing
call to action – ‘Liberty or Death!’
By Monday morning, the whole of west and central Scotland – a heavily
populated area covering almost 3,000 square miles – had ground to a standstill.
The press estimated that 60,000 workers joined the general strike, though the
real figure was probably higher still. Upwards of 5,000 troops – all the regulars
available in Scotland – were flooded into Glasgow, Paisley and other strongholds
of the rebellion, while English regiments were mobilised north to defend
Edinburgh. Major-General Bradford sent a message to London urgently
requesting 10,000 flintlock firearms and half a million ball cartridges.
The atmosphere of dread was expressed tersely in an anonymous eye-witness
report sent to the Duke of Hamilton from ‘A British Subject’, who is now thought
to be the eminent geographer and journalist James MacQueen. Under the heading
Events of the Late Rebellion in the West of Scotland, the letter describes how radical
leaders immediately denounced the proclamation as an effort by ‘Government
spies to trap the people’. Nonetheless, on the first day of the strike, ‘almost all the
labouring population abandoned their work’. Horrified by this colossal mutiny,
panic-stricken employers, fearing retribution, sent home those few who had run
the gauntlet of the picket lines, and locked up their factories.
According to MacQueen, ‘the manufacture of arms was continued by night
and by day with astonishing celerity and perseverance’. Pikes, pistols, muskets,
catapults, lead-weighted darts and ammunition were being churned out in
huge quantities in makeshift workshops across the Lowlands. Raiding parties
roamed the countryside, scouring farm buildings for firearms.
Meanwhile, radicals were preparing to defend themselves against a bloodbath.
‘Drilling in large bodies at all hours was open, extensive and undisguised. Parties
of many hundreds drilled during the day in the Green of Glasgow, at Dalmarnock
Ford, at the Point House, at Tollcross, and many other places without interruption.’
MacQueen goes on to describe how respectable families fled Paisley and other
towns in terror, as ‘workmen openly and boldly declared to their masters that they
would work no more till the Government of the country was changed.’
The crisis provided a glimpse of the potential power of the fledgling Scottish
working class. Janet Hamilton, who became a prominent working class poet during
the Victorian era, was 25 years old at the time, and living in Monklands. In
her Reminiscences of the Radical Time in 1819-20, she describes how local radicals
advised that ‘when the rising took place, every man should help himself as best
he could to the possessions of the rich and that property of every kind was no longer to be monopolised by the few but divided among the many’.
She also underlined the extraordinarily advanced cultural level of the west of Scotland weavers
– ‘the most intelligent, enlightened and by far the most independent body of working
men in the Kingdom’. In her own local library, founded by weavers, ‘half the
books were works of divinity, then biography, travel, voyages, and several sets of
the British Essayist, a fair proportion of history and geography’.
For the Tory Government in London, and their henchmen in Edinburgh and
Glasgow, the existence of this huge concentration of highly literate and politically
militant workers represented a mortal danger to the status quo. Thus, a public
meeting of ‘prominent citizens’ was called to ‘consider what steps it may be proper
to take regarding the future employment of those who have obeyed the command
of a treasonable confederacy to desist from their normal labour’. Addressing the
meeting, the commander of the Glasgow Yeomanry warned that ‘all the lower
classes are contaminated and ready to enter any plan of rebellion’.
The gathering agreed on a declaration, signed by 155 employers, that they
would ‘withdraw our employment and support from every person who may
have lent, or who in the future shall lend, his aid to the purpose of their wicked
and treasonable conspiracy’. It resolved not to employ anyone who took part
in the strike – a bellicose piece of rhetoric which would have been to impossible
to implement without sacking almost every weaver in the west of Scotland.
But key government figures had other tricks up their sleeves. As Tom Johnston
notes in his History of the Working Classes in Scotland, ‘The Government
was in no hurry; the troops could bide their time until a Radical army of illarmed,
ill-disciplined rebel weavers had been gathered, and then, in one great
carnage, would be taught a lesson that would serve to humiliate two or three
generations of the discontented common folk.
The Battle of Bonnymuir
Meanwhile, the state agents who had penetrated the inner circle of the radical
movement worked in the background, almost certainly under orders from
the Home Secretary in Westminster, to bring it all to a head.
John King reported to the authorities that the radicals were planning two
simultaneous armed offensives on Wednesday 5 April. One unit would lay
siege to Glasgow city centre; the other would attempt to seize control of Carron
Iron Works in Falkirk, the biggest heavy industrial factory in Europe, with
a 2,000-strong workforce. The ironworks specialised in manufacturing
firearms and ammunition, and was famed for developing the pioneering short
naval cannon, which became known as the ‘carronade’.
King, along with his tightly-knit band of spies, then set about provoking the
raids. His right-hand man Duncan Turner met with the radical committee in the
north of Glasgow and told them an insurrection was now underway in England
and in other parts of Scotland. Claiming to speak for the Provisional Government,
he reported that the workforce of Carron Iron Works had joined the strike, and
seized several cannons and a hoard of other arms. He assured the group that if
they marched on the factory ‘there was no doubt whatsoever of their success’.
But Dougald Smith, the leader of the radical forces in the area, was adamant
that the group was too small to carry out such a mission. When the promised
reinforcements from Anderston, on the western edge of Glasgow, failed to
appear, he outright refused to take command of the operation. After a heated
debate, the men split into groups. One stayed with Smith, while a small faction
of around 30 – commanded by Andrew Hardie from Castle Street, near the
site of Glasgow Royal Infirmary – set off on the 35-mile hike to Falkirk.
En route, they passed through the village of Condorrat, now part of Cumbernauld
new town. Before they arrived, John King had appeared at the door
of two brothers in the town, John and Robert Baird, to persuade them to join
the attack on Carron Iron Works. To gain entry, he had shown them a headed
manuscript from the Provisional Government of Scotland, apparently signed
by a number of well-known radicals. He told them that a successful rising
had already taken place in England, and that the Provisional Government
had robust intelligence that the magistrates of Glasgow and other parts of
Scotland were ready to support an insurrection in Scotland. Even the military
were ready to switch sides. By way of icing on the cake, he even produced a
letter confirming these facts from the ‘Secret Committee of the Provisional
Robert Baird, a married man, was suspicious. But his brother John, a veteran
of the Napoleonic Wars and the key leader of the radical movement in the
area, was fired up. He agreed to raise a group of local activists to join Andrew
Hardie’s men in a march on the Carron Iron Works.
It was, of course, a trap. As they headed east to Falkirk, two troops of light
cavalry were riding south from Perth. One took position inside the Carron
Iron Works, while the other, the 10th Hussars, commanded by Lieutenant
Ellis Hodgson, teamed up with the Stirling Yeomanry to halt the insurgents
in their tracks. They confronted each other on a desolate stretch of open
moorland outside Falkirk.
On the spectrum of military conflict, the Battle of Bonnymuir was closer
in scale to a 1970s Glasgow gang fight than to Stalingrad. The few dozen
who marched under Baird and Hardie believed they were participating in a
wholesale rising to overthrow the British state. In reality, the movement was
without any central leadership. There was no strategy, no tactics, and no clear
goal. It was a premature rebellion, doomed from its inception. The ragged
band of exhausted, half-starving weavers, armed mainly with pikes, were no
match for the professional cavalry.
They fought bravely, refusing repeated demands by Hodgson to surrender,
and at one point charging down a hill straight towards the Hussars while
cheering. But it was a kamikaze action. Had it been left to the Stirling Yeomanry,
who by all accounts were thirsting for blood, they would in all probability
have been massacred on the spot. But Lieutenant Hodgson seems to
have been a humane man. Or perhaps he was under orders to bring back the
leaders alive, to be tried for High Treason and hung from the gallows as a
warning to any future would-be rebels, rather than be slaughtered on the battlefield
as martyrs. Either way, there were no fatalities.
After a brief skirmish, 18 radicals were arrested, the rest escaping. When
the prisoners arrived at Stirling Castle, John Baird made a short plea to the
Fort-Major: ‘Sir, if there is to be any severity exercised towards us, let it be on
me. I am their leader, and have caused them being here. I hope that I alone
may suffer.’ He then asked for food and treatment for the wounded men.
According to Ellis and Mac a’ Ghobhainn, when the news reached Glasgow,
‘there was great excitement and the church bells were rung as if another Waterloo
had been won. Public meetings were afterwards held by merchants and
manufacturers, and resolutions adopted congratulating the Government and
their success.’ The Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, sent a letter of thanks to
the Yeoman of Stirlingshire, and published an ‘Extraordinary Bulletin’ to all
parts of the British empire to celebrate the fact that ‘Our glorious constitution
in Church and State, the envy of surrounding nations and the admiration of
the world, is still to be inviolably preserved for all posterity.’
‘Scotland free or a desert’
Elsewhere there were sporadic shows of strength by armed groups of radicals.
On the Wednesday night, as the Bonnymuir prisoners were being locked
up in Stirling Castle, around 500 weavers armed with muskets, pikes and pistols
gathered under a Saltire and a radical banner in the Bridgeton-Calton
area. In Tollcross, men, women and children began to arm themselves after
hearing that a radical army had defeated government troops at Bonnymuir.
In the early hours of Thursday, after receiving a report that radicals planned
to seize Dumbarton Castle, the Dunbartonshire Fencibles threw a cordon
around the town of Duntocher, and arrested eight radical leaders.
In the absence of a cohesive leadership, rumours and misinformation spread
like fireweed. According to one story, Marshall MacDonald – an ex-general in
Napoleon’s army and the son of one of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s closest aides –
had arrived on the Ayrshire coast with a shipload of arms and cash to support
the rising. The day after the Bonnymuir arrests, a messenger arrived in the town
of Strathaven, a weaving town steeped in radicalism, with a slightly different
version of the rumour. James Shields brought information, supposedly from the
Provisional Government, that George Kinloch, a radical laird living in exile in
France, had returned to Scotland and set up camp on Cathkin Braes, to the
south of Glasgow, with between 5,000 and 7,000 troops. Meanwhile, another
army was said to be gathering on the Campsie Fells, to the north of the city.
Shields, by all accounts, had acted in good faith. Some historians, including
Peter MacKenzie and the authors of The Scottish Insurrection of 1820, argue
that he had been duped by John King. Others, including John Stevenson, a
local radical activist who later penned his own personal account of events, dismissed
suggestions that government agents played a role locally.
Whatever the circumstances, the news created a buzz amongst the radicals
of the town. James Wilson was a 60-year-old grandfather, poet, clockmaker,
tinsmith and doctor and, according to John Stevenson, ‘a man of much reading
and reflection, his natural abilities placed him above mediocrity’. Wilson
greeted the news from Shields with elation: ‘I am glad to hear that my countrymen
are resolved to act like men. We are seeking nothing but the rights of
our forefathers – liberty is not worth having if it’s not worth fighting for.’ That
night his home was turned into a miniature pike-making factory.
But the women of the town were more sceptical, and by the following morning enthusiasm for the mission had dwindled. In A True Narrative of the Radical Rising in Strathaven, Stevenson wrote:
‘The night was dark and comfortless; we however succeeded in procuring a
number of guns; and there was a good deal of bustle and confusion during the
night. Mothers, with maternal solitude, were inquiring after their sons; wives
were exhorting and entreating their husbands to return home. In short, the
screams of women might occasionally be heard… Although our number at one
time amounted to nearly one hundred, by the time the sun rose on morning of
the 6th, we could scarcely muster twenty-five; the wetness of the night, the
sagacious advice of friends, and the report that all was quiet in Glasgow, will
account for the desertion of three quarters of our number; the rest of us, however,
were firmly resolved to join the division which Shields positively assured
us were to rendezvous on Cathkin that morning.’
The next morning a group of 25 men, with pikes, three guns and a broken
sword brandished by James Wilson, marched towards the nearby towns of Kilbride
and Maxwellton, hoping to raise reinforcements. They carried a banner
which on one side carried the words ‘Strathaven Union Society’ and, on the
other, ‘Scotland Free or a Desert’. But no new recruits were forthcoming. By
this time, the stirring news of an army of thousands mustered on the Cathkin
Braes was beginning to look like either a flight of fancy or disinformation.
As it became apparent that they had been misled, Wilson and others returned
to Strathaven, but a dozen or so carried on, including John Stevenson
and James Shields, hope prevailing over realism. After seeing for themselves
the deserted hillside, they hid their weapons among the bracken and returned
home, dejected. The last man to leave the scene was Shields, desperately
apologetic, blaming himself for the debacle.
In contrast to Bonnymuir, there was no cavalry or yeomanry there to arrest
the insurgents, a fact that lends some weight to John Stevenson’s argument
that they had been victims of nothing more sinister than wishful thinking.
Yet as he wrote in his memoirs, they returned home with a sense of dread:
‘We left the hill with fearful prognostics of the future. We knew well the vindictive
disposition of the old monarchial governments, and that they rarely forgive those who have the hardihood to rise in arms against their despotic proceedings; and while we were hurrying down the hill I felt a strong presentiment that some of us would expiate this on the scaffold.’
His ‘presentiment’ was well-founded. Fourteen of the Strathaven rebels were
arrested that night, while the remainder fled the country. In all, 88 people across
the west of Scotland would be charged in the next few days with the capital
offence of High Treason, and hundreds more with lesser offences. Three would
face the scaffold. Yet the rebels had killed no-one during the Radical War.
Their firearms and pikes had been carried for defensive purposes. The influential
pro-reform Edinburgh Review described the episode as ‘a war of the rich
against the poor – of the Government and soldiery against the people’.
The punishments were atrocious and disproportionate, and yet the greatest
atrocity of all went unpunished. The incident began when a troop of soldiers
from the Port Glasgow Militia was asked to remove five ‘prominent Radical
leaders’ from the now overcrowded Paisley prison and escort them to
Greenock Jail. As the regiment marched into the busy port town at 5 o’ clock
on Saturday 8 April, they were jeered by local bystanders. As the troops
reached Cathcart Street in the town centre, a few stones were thrown from
the sidelines. The soldiers responded with a volley of shots into the air, wounding
a few protesters. But instead of dispersing, the crowd turned on the troops,
pelting them with debris. Discipline went to hell, and the soldiers fired indiscriminately.
Eight people were killed, including an 8-year-old boy and a 65-year-old man. Another 10 were seriously wounded, including a 65-year-old woman who had to have her leg amputated.
At 7 o’clock, an enraged horde marched on the heavily guarded prison,
smashed open the wooden gates and released the five radicals, leaving the
non-political prisoners locked up in their cells. Rumours now spread across
Scotland that the radicals had captured Greenock. In the early hours of the
morning, two troops of cavalry galloped into town, and a few hours later a
steamboat packed with footsoldiers arrived from Glasgow. But all was quiet.
Across the west of Scotland, the state forces now went to town. In Glasgow
alone, 100 radicals were arrested in dawn raids by the army, while others managed
to flee. Although there were still a few splutters of resistance to come, it
was all over bar the brutal recriminations.
The summer of retribution
James Wilson was hanged on Wednesday 20 August outside the High
Court of Glasgow, facing south across the River Clyde. A sullen, hostile assembly
of over 20,000 had gathered in bright sunshine to witness the execution
of the prisoner, who was dressed in a white suit trimmed with black. ‘Did
you ever see sic a crowd, Tammas?’ he asked the nervous executioner, a 20-
year-old medical student called Thomas Moore.
Wilson was now a hero of the working people. Before being condemned to
death, he had told his judges:
‘My gory head may in a few days fall upon the scaffold and be exposed as the
head of traitor, but I 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 suffering be recorded in Scottish history…’At his execution, leaflets were circulated, printed with the words, ‘May the
ghost of the butchered Wilson haunt the pillows of relentless jurors – Murder!
Murder! Murder!’ The cry was taken up by sections of the gathering as Wilson mounted the scaffold at 2.55pm. Amid scream and hisses, groups of cavalry
charged the crowd, fearing attempts to liberate the condemned man.
The Glasgow Chronicle reported that ‘Wilson was especially cheered when
he came to the scaffold, and the sentiments of the mob showed that they regarded
him in quite a different light from that of a traitor. Cries of ‘he’s died
for his country’ and ‘he’s murdered’ were quite general.’ After the hanging,
Wilson’s body lay for half an hour before it was beheaded by the executioner.
‘This is the head of a traitor!’ he roared, as was a customary part of the ritual
fashion. But the crowd roared back, ‘He is a martyr!’
Wilson’s corpse was taken to the Cathedral and contemptuously thrown
into a pauper’s grave. But that night, his daughter and niece dug up the turf
and carried his remains back for a proper burial in his beloved Strathaven.
Eighteen days later, at 1 o’clock on Friday 8 September, John Baird and Andrew
Hardie, dressed in black, were taken in a horse-drawn hurdle from their
cells in Stirling Castle to Broad Street. Along the way, women lined the streets
in tears. At the scaffold, both briefly addressed the 2,000-strong crowd, defending
their role in ‘the cause of truth and justice’. As in Glasgow, there were
hisses and cries of ‘Murder!’
Eighteen others had also been condemned to death, but feeling the heat
from below, the authorities commuted their sentences to transportation to New
South Wales. Hundreds more were jailed for lesser charges. Although the government
had been given a fright, the objectives of the British state had been
achieved. The radical workers’ movement on Clydeside had been left decapitated
and demoralised. The executions ushered in a decade of grim reaction.
Yet as with the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre
in South Africa, or the 1930s Spanish Civil War, history would later honour
the vanquished and shame the victors. Those who conspired to crush
the radical weavers have long since been judged as backward bigots, defenders
of an oppressive and decaying political system. In contrast, those who were
sent to the scaffold are commemorated as the Nelson Mandelas of their day,
placing their lives and their liberty on the line to overthrow tyranny.
Indeed, in 1832, an absolute pardon was granted to all those who had been
transported for their part in the 1820 insurrection. By that time, only 10 could
be traced; the others had either died or disappeared. Almost two centuries
after their judicial murder, John Baird, Andrew Hardie and James Wilson are
commemorated in marches and rallies, songs and poetry. As James Wilson
prophesied, they were, ultimately, vindicated by posterity.
Their persecutors have become a footnote in history. The spies and agents
provocateurs vanished into the mist. Lord Sidmouth died in 1844, a bitter opponent
of Catholic Emancipation and an enemy even of the gutless 1832 Reform
Act. In 1822, his associate, Lord Castlereagh, cut his own throat.