This week in Greenock a memorial-wall was unveiled in the town’s Cathcart Street: it commemorates those who were killed in 1820 by a Militia loyal to the British government.
Eight locals were murdered and a further ten wounded when the Militia opened fire on an unarmed crowd protesting against the arrest of five members of the Scottish Radicals movement. Later the same night, citizens of Greenock successfully freed the five Radicals from the Militia prison.
Now, if you have done your own reading on Scottish history you will know all about the Scottish Radical Uprising of 1820. However, in modern Scotland, it is remarkable the number of blank-faces that stare back at you when the radical uprising is mentioned. Of course, this is the reaction desired by the British establishment: to them, it is better if Scots do not know their own history – particularly where ordinary working-class people rose-up against the ruling elite. What the 1820 Radical Uprising also shows is how brutal the British government was prepared to be when its authority was challenged.
I wrote the article, below, in 2012 and it was first published in the Scottish Socialist Voice, as part of the newspaper’s Hidden History series.
To know who we are, we have to know where we came from, we have to know our history.
In what was to be the first tentative steps of a radical socialist movement in Scotland, many Scots came together in workers’ groups to protest against poverty wages and appalling social conditions. Significantly, from the very beginning of such agitation, that Scotland should break-free from the British Union was identified as a prerequisite to improved wages, conditions and living standards.
Relatively recent revolutions abroad fed into the growth of working class radicalism and a belief that the power of the ruling class could be challenged. In 1776, America had thrown-off the yolk of British colonialism and dispelled the idea that countries had to be ruled by a monarch. Likewise, in 1789, the French revolution had shown that an entire system of aristocratic privilege could be overthrown and replaced by a viable republic that put power in the hands of ordinary people.
Buoyed by these events, and the inspirational works of people like Ayrshire poet Robert Burns, Scottish radicals began to organise in pursuit of social and political change. However, the parliament in London and the pseudo-English ruling aristocracy of Scotland were not prepared to have their power challenged.
As the demands of radicals grew stronger and more vociferous, the British Government introduced new laws that meant individuals or groups advocating reform could be tried for sedition or treason. As a result, workers’ groups agitating for change tended to meet in secret, but significant support amongst the working class meant that details of meetings were hard to keep quiet and government spies were able to infiltrate organisations.
By 1820 radicals had assembled a Committee for Organising a Provisional Government, which consisted of people elected from within trade unions, and which was tasked with organising and putting in place the social structures for a People’s Republic of Scotland following a planned uprising against the British state. Unfortunately, during a meeting in March 1820, held at Marshall’s Tavern in the Gallowgate, Glasgow, the committee was betrayed by a government spy and all members – except one man who left the meeting early, a Glasgow Weaver known as John King – were arrested and imprisoned.
Despite such a significant body-blow, the radical movement in Scotland continued to organise and plan for an armed struggle to overthrow the unrepresentative and oppressive government of aristocrats in London. It seems though that British spies had infiltrated the organisation to such an extent that when an uprising took place, the government knew every detail in advance and were well prepared. In fact, some historians speculate that forces of the British state were so well informed - as to events and names of radicals taking part - that the ‘uprising’ may actually have been organised by agents provocateurs working to a timescale most suitable to the government. Certainly, with the leadership committee locked up in jail, it seems the rebellion was initiated by a small group, including John King, the man who escaped arrest on the night the police raided Marshall’s Tavern.
In April 1820, told that he would be met by a 7,000-strong radical ‘army’ on the outskirts of Glasgow, James Wilson, a Weaver, led a group of 23 men from Strathaven to join the uprising to establish a workers’ government in a Scotland once-again independent of England. Remembered to this day, the banner under which Wilson and the Strathaven radicals marched bore the slogan – ‘Scotland free or a desert’.
But there was no radical army waiting at Glasgow. Word of the true position reached Wilson and the others, allowing them to escape the British trap and return to Strathaven. However, government forces had been provided with the names of leading radicals, and Wilson was arrested at his home.
James Wilson was tried for treason, found guilty and executed in Glasgow on August 30 1820. Knowing he would receive no justice from the British state, Wilson asked simply that he should be remembered as having acted “in the glorious cause of liberty”.
On the same day that Wilson had set-off from Strathaven, two other groups of radicals were caught in British-inspired traps. Both groups had been told to meet at Condorrat in Glasgow, from where they were to march to the Carron Iron Works in Falkirk, which at the time was a major manufacturer of weapons.
One group was led by a man called Andrew Hardie, the other by John Baird. Under the instructions of John King, the man who had left the Marshall’s Tavern meeting before it was raided, the united group began its march towards Falkirk. King, however, indicated he had to go ahead to bring another group to meet them. It was the last anyone saw of him, and the only group that subsequently met the radicals was a force of 32 British soldiers who ambushed them at Bonnymuir. In total, 19 radicals were arrested and imprisoned at Stirling Castle.
Andrew Hardie and John Baird were tried and convicted of treason: both were executed on September 8 1820 at Stirling Castle.
As a lesson to others of like-mind, James Wilson, Andrew Hardie and John Baird were hanged and then beheaded.
Another 19 radicals were sentenced to death, but this was subsequently commuted and they were ‘transported’ to New South Wales in Australia.
Despite the unsuccessful nature of the Scottish radical uprising of 1820, the actions of Wilson, Hardie, Baird and others played a significant part in laying the foundations of Scotland’s socialist and pro-independence movements.