The 1820 Scottish Uprising
James Wilson, Andrew Hardie & John Baird (all weavers) were accused by the Crown of being leaders of the “1820 Rising”, a group of Scots campaigning for universal male suffrage, better working conditions and a Scottish parliament.
They, together with 19 others, mostly weavers: Thomas M’Culloch, Benjamin Moir, Alex Latimer, Alex Johnstone, Andrew White, David Thomson, James Wright, William Clackson, Thomas Pink, Alex Hart, John Barr, William Smith, Thomas M’Farlane, John Anderson, John M’Millan, Andrew Dawson, Allen Murchie, Robert Gray, William Crawford and James Cleland were tried for the crime of ” high treason” at Stirling high court on 14 July 1820.
All 23 were found guilty as charged and on 4 August 1820 were sentenced to death by hanging.
Martyrs Monument Glasgow
The Executions of James Wilson, Andrew Hardie and John Baird
James Wilson was executed on 4 August 1820 in Glasgow.
On mounting the cart that was to take him to the scaffold, the headsman was seated before him, cloaked in black, his face covered, holding a large axe in his right hand and a knife in his left.
“Did you ever see sic a crowd as this?” Wilson remarked casually to his executioner.
At five minutes to three, he mounted the scaffold and several minutes later his body was convulsing on the end of a rope, where it remained for half an hour, before being lowered and decapitated by the masked executioner, who held the bloody head aloft and proclaimed: “This is the head of a traitor.”
The crowd jeered and shouts of, “It is false, he has bled for his country!” were heard and reported in the Glasgow Herald the next morning.
Barely a week later, on 8th September 1820, Andrew Hardie, from Glasgow, who told the spectators, (‘I die a martyr to the cause of truth and injustice’) and John Baird, from Condorrat, met the same fate in Stirling:
The death sentence on the other 19 was changed to penal servitude for life and on the 15 August 1820 they were transported to the colony of New South Wales in Australia.
Westminster Government Conspiracy
It later transpired that the Westminster government, through the agency and double-dealing of spies, actually incited the rising in the first place.
But why would a government, gripped by fear of a popular revolution, incite a general strike in Scotland?
To answer this question, we must unearth the roots of the 1820 Rising.
In 1795, following the public stoning of King George III’s carriage as it travelled to Westminster, parliament completely redrew the laws for treason, with the effect that holding public meetings in support of reform could lead to the stiffest penalties that the courts were at liberty to dispense.
The period following the American Revolution was a time in Scotland when groups including enlightened aristocrats, members of the rising middle classes, professional people, calling themselves “Friends of the People” pushed gently for reform.
The weavers in Scotland were skilled and literate people who traditionally worked to commission, chose their own hours, and managed their own lives in a way that was denied to many factory workers and along with other skilled artisans, they formed an aristocracy of labour and were proud, independent, and increasingly radical in their outlook.
After the Battle of Waterloo a wicked recession gripped the UK and 1816 was a particularly black year for Glasgow, resulting in major bankruptcies across the city and its environs.
This sparked a gathering of tens of thousands at Thrushgrove near Glasgow, demanding but not gaining reform and the situation worsened over the next four years so that by 1820 the stage was set for the rising that would result in the deaths of James Wilson, Andrew Hardie and John Baird and penal servitude for 19 other Scottish martyrs.
The Committee for Organising a Provisional Scottish Government
There existed in Scotland a covert group called “the Committee for Organising a Provisional government,” which consisted of committed radicals, elected by their respective unions, who would assume responsibility of organising the new social structure of Scotland in the aftermath of a successful rising.
However, it seems clear in retrospect that the committee had also been infiltrated by Westminster government spies, who were rife at the time, being one of the government’s most important defences against underground radical activities.
The committee had the misfortune to convene in Marshall’s Tavern in Glasgow’s Gallowgate on March 21 1820, in the presence of a spy. John King, a weaver from Anderston.
King left the meeting early, just before the entire committee was arrested and detained in secret by the authorities.
This is a vital point in relation to the events that unfolded over the next few weeks, because the organising committee, the body of people who would be the centre of any radical rising, were off the streets and obviously not able to organise very much from their prison cells.
King and Other Unionist Spy’s Activate the Rising
The very next day, King was present at another meeting of important radicals in Anderston in Glasgow.
It was also attended by another three men, also government government spies: John Craig, a weaver, Duncan Turner, a tin-smith, and Robert Lees, described only as “the Englishman.”
King took the initiative at this meeting and reported that a large-scale rising was imminent and that all those present should make themselves ready for armed conflict.
The 1820 Proclamation
The following day, on March 23, the spy, Duncan Turner, unveiled plans for a provisional government and revealed a draft of a proclamation, inciting widespread revolt, that was to be posted around the city for the public’s attention.
This proclamation is pivotal to the whole history of the rising, and, given that the real “Committee for Establishing a Provisional Government” was in jail, the proclamation was later identified as the work of government agents, and part of larger plan to sink the radical movement in Scotland once and for all.
The events that transpired provides the evidence against King and his associates, all pointing in the direction of the Westminster government treachery and entrapment.
On April 1 1820, the citizens of Glasgow awoke to find the proclamation posted around the city, urging them all “to desist from their labour from and after this day…and attend wholly to the recovery of their Rights…”
The proclamation opened with a rousing ideological plea for liberty: “Equality of Rights (not of property) is the object for which we contend, and which we consider as the only security for our Liberties and Lives.”
The plea continues to the soldiery, asking if they could really, “plunge…Bayonets into the Bosoms of Fathers and Brothers at the unrelenting Orders of a Cruel Faction…”
Strong words, and if the proclamation had been a government plan to draw underground radicals out into the open, they would have perhaps been shocked at the level of response from ordinary people and workers all over West and Central Scotland.
The following Monday, people from many different trades, but especially weaving, stopped work.
They were not only refusing to work, but were in many cases preparing for war.
Reports flooded in of groups of men engaged in military drills, and making weapons such as pikes from any material that could be obtained. Revolt was in the air.
On Tuesday 4 April, the spy, Duncan Turner, the issuer of the proclamation, was mustering a group of about 60 men in Germiston, and using all his arts of persuasion to convince the men to march to the Carron Works in Falkirk, where they could obtain arms for the coming battles.
Not all were convinced, but he rallied those that would go with promises of meeting more men on the way to help them in their mission.
He himself would be engaged in organising other initiatives and wouldn’t accompany them on their long march.
The leader of the group was the ill-fated Andrew Hardie, and Turner gave him half a card, which, he assured him, would match exactly with another half card held by a man waiting for him in Condorrat; a man at the head of another group of fighters.
In this way the group would grow, swelling its ranks until it arrived at Carron.
The Carronshore Ambush
Waiting in Condorrat was John Baird, at the head of five men, holding his half card that had been given to him by none other than John King in one of his many guises.
Both Hardie and Baird were no doubt expecting to unite with a small army when they matched their cards, and were obviously disappointed when they did match cards in the early hours of the morning.
However, John King promised more support before they reached Carron, and he himself would ride ahead to rally these supporters.
It is known that by this time the army already knew of a plot to take Carron, as a Lt. Hodgson had set off from Perth to protect Carron from an attack expected that day, Wednesday 5th April.
Also, the band of radicals were spotted and reported twice following their departure from Condorrat, confirming for the authorities that trouble was afoot.
The next time the band met King, they had been marching all night, and King told them to leave the road and wait at Bonnymuir while he mustered support from Camelon.
This was the last the group were to see of King.
Nor did they see more armed men rallying to their cause: instead they were shortly to meet opposing troops, with Lt Hodgson at their head, who had also left the road and incredibly found their way straight to Hardie and Baird’s band on Bonnymuir.
The ensuing battle was nothing more than a skirmish, whereby Hodgson’s force of 32 soldiers, after a volley of shots from the radicals, easily overpowered them with a cavalry charge.
Two soldiers and four radicals were wounded. In total, 19 of the radicals were taken prisoner and sent to Stirling Castle.
The event in itself hardly constitutes a major rising, but other isolated disturbances were taking place across West and Central Scotland, and the journey of Hardie and Baird showed that at the fore of radical thinking was union with other groups in different parts of the country.
However, the government seemed always to be one step ahead of the radicals, with inside knowledge at every step; also, the core organisers had been in jail since March 21st, without public knowledge, and some very suspicious men were acting on their behalf.
The whole event was a plot hatched by Westminster government agent provocateurs in order to draw the radicals into open battle.
On the fateful day of April 5th, troops took up position all over Glasgow, and although radical movements were reported all day, no attack was forthcoming.
Betrayal of James Wilson
Also on April 5th, the awful fate of James Wilson was starting to unfold.
Again, one of the spies was involved, this time the “Englishman” Lees, who sent a message to the Strathaven radicals that the rising had started.
Wilson left with a small force of 25 the following morning, carrying a banner that declared “Scotland Free or a Desert.”
By the time they neared East Kilbride, they were tipped off that an army ambush lay between them and their destination at Cathkin.
Wilson returned to Strathaven, while his men avoided the ambush and reached their destination to find no action at all at Cathkin.
By the following evening, the authorities had discovered the identity of 10 of the group, including Wilson, and held them under lock and key.
English Soldiers Massacre Citizens of Greenock
The worst violence against civilians occurred on Saturday 8th April when the authorities tried to move a group of the prisoners from Paisley to Greenock.
The citizens of Greenock attacked the soldiers who had been ordered to move the prisoners.
Even after they had completed their task, the soldiers still had to fight their way back out of the town as the crowd pelted them with stones.
The army opened fire, killing eight people, including an eight-year-old child, and injuring 10 others.
The government’s retribution was harsh, examples were to be made, and they took the form of the executions of Wilson, Hardie and Baird and the transportation to the colony’s of 19 others.
The rising was over.
There are some who regard the tragic events of 1820 as minor and of little historical importance in comparison to other Scottish rebellions.
But they marked an intensification of the desire of Scots for human rights reform and their own government and the martyrs, James Wilson, Andrew Hardie and John Baird serve as examples to those who feared that nothing can be done in the face of such a powerful centralised state as Westminster governance. Further reading: