This week is the 200th anniversary of the Radical Rising or Radical War as it is also known. A less well-known part of Scotland’s working-class history, often overshadowed by events like the Peterloo Massacre, which took place the previous year.
The radical movement in Scotland was influenced by the American and French revolutions as well as tracts like Thomas Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’. Increasing literacy in Scotland, thanks to the education system, brought these ideas to a wider audience. Scotland had eight newspapers in 1782, and that had grown to twenty-seven by 1790.
There was also a nationalist element brought about by disaffection with the Treaty of Union - exacerbated by measures including Scotland being described officially as ‘North Britain’ and the abolition of the office of Secretary of State for Scotland. The Burns song ‘A Parcel of Rogues in a Nation’ sums up this view.
The uprisings in Ireland had a limited synergy in Scotland with envoys from the United Irishmen attending a convention in Edinburgh in 1793. The Scottish ‘Friends of the People’ planned an uprising, but its leaders Watt and Downie were arrested. Watt was executed, and Downie was transported. A new republican organisation was formed after this based around secret United Scotsmen societies. Plans for an uprising died away after the Government’s success in Ireland.
While republican uprisings may have had limited support, there was a big growth in radicalism. The end of the Napoleonic wars brought economic depression. From 1760 to 1813 wages rose by 60% while the cost of living rose by 130%. Labourers were deprived of their smallholdings, and common land was enclosed. The profits from industrialisation went into the pockets of employers while the price of wheat trebled in less than 20 years.
Radical organisation was based on weavers’ union societies based in most villages, until broken by the Government in 1812. After the employers refused to abide by a court decision on wage levels, 20,000 weavers went on strike. It was eventually broken in February 1813, having lasted nine weeks.
By 1819 the radical movement had continued to grow along with the wider British movement. The Paisley Radical Committee was the strongest in the country with some 30,000 people attending a rally on Meikleriggs Muir on July 17 1819 – a month before Peterloo. After that military style drilling took place most evenings and the CinC of the army sought to strengthen security at Yeomanry depots. A Peterloo protest meeting on September 11 in Paisley, attracted 14-18,000 people from across Ayrshire, Renfrewshire and Glasgow. These were followed by riots and meetings across the central belt, and the military was called in to suppress them.
The Government was convinced a large-scale uprising was planned by the 28-man Committee for Organising a Provisional Government, formed to coordinate the Radical Committees. They paid agents to infiltrate the movement, and most of the committee were arrested following a meeting in Glasgow on March 21 1820. These informers then turned agent-provocateurs by announcing that a rising was imminent and helped organise the collection of weapons.
They also organised the printing and distribution of a proclamation on April 1. 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”. The English references to Magna Carta probably point to it being written by a government spy.
Some 60,000, mainly weavers, downed tools on April 3. A few badly organised risings were provoked by government agents including the march on the Carron Ironworks and in Strathaven. The aim was to flush out the radical leadership while large numbers of troops were billeted in the central belt. In Greenock, rioters freed prisoners from the local jail.
Hundreds of radicals fled by ship to Canada to escape persecution, while 88 men were charged with treason. A number were acquitted, but James Wilson was hanged and beheaded in Glasgow on August 30, and a similar fate befell Andrew Hardie and John Baird in Stirling on September 8. Nineteen more were transported, although subsequently pardoned in 1835.
The 1820 Society seeks to publicise and commemorate the Scottish Radical Insurrection of 1820. It carries out its commemorative function by holding rallies at the three 1820 Monuments.
There was a debate in the Scottish Parliament on 5 September 2001 (motion S1M-2101) on the subject of 1820 and the education curriculum. It would be fair to say that politicians of all parties picked their own lessons from the uprisings in the debate, but it at least highlighted the event.
The 1820 insurrection may not have been an immediate success, but it did reflect a much wider radical feeling in Scotland and Britain during the period. It also forms part of the radical tradition that did eventually lead to political reform. Albeit using different tactics.
The family of Keir Hardie liked to speculate on their kinship to Andrew Hardie, something Keir Hardie did not discourage despite it being his adopted name. When asked about this, his daughter Nan said simply ‘my father …. had some queer notions.’
The Radical Rising: The Scottish Insurrection of 1820 by Peter Berresford Ellis and Seumas Mac a’Ghobhainn. Originally published in 1970, the 2016 paperback is in print. The authors arguably put something of a nationalist spin on events, but it is well researched and remains the best study of the insurrection.