THE SCOTTISH Language Society last year produced a series of small articles commemorating what it pleased to call ‘Scotland’s last uprising’ of April 1820: ‘Long overshadowed by the publicity given to events in neighbouring England (merely the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and the February 1820 Cato Street Conspiracy to assassinate the prime minister and his cabinet!), the 1820 Rising combined a number of elements, including class struggle, electoral reform, early socialism and Scottish national identity. And it is that last factor—Scottish national identity—that led many in some schools of history to play down or even ignore the events of 1820.’
This is pure nonsense. For example Christopher Harvie, the distinguished professional historian who supports the SNP, in his contribution to the ‘Oxford History of Britain’ covering the period 1789-1851, merely mentions in passing ‘a weavers’ rising in Scotland’ in 1820 without assigning it any particular historical significance whatsoever. This is clearly because in his view it had none. Still, the Scottish Language Society insists that both the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and even the later trial and transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs of Dorset in 1834, ‘pale in comparison with the significance of the events that took place in Scotland during 1820 when an attempted uprising led to open clashes with the military, the occupation of parts of the country, the state trials of 88 people, violations of the Treaty of Union, and the grim pubic executions of Baird, Hardie, and Wilson—the 1820 Martyrs’.
It describes a rising planned for 1821 after which radicals would set up a Scottish Parliament. Unfortunately branches of these radicals were infiltrated beforehand and ‘misled into action by a network of spies.’ Thus an address or proclamation by the ‘provisional government’ appeared calling for an uprising in April 1820.
In fact, although spies were indeed used to counter radicalism at this time, thorough research has proved that none was at work in Scotland in April 1820 when events clearly took the authorities by surprise. Moreover, the proclamation of the ‘provisional government’ was partly or mainly written by Joseph Brayshaw, an English radical visiting Glasgow at the time. Indeed, the ‘Glasgow Herald’ on 3 April 1820 suggested that the proclamation had been printed in England given its references to Magna Charta and the Bill of Rights, references, which in its view, suggested English composition. Government papers, however, suggest it was composed by Brayshaw and some weavers in Parkhead Village and then printed in Glasgow.
The leaders of the Uprising, if it can be called that (see below), were in fact imbued with respect for British liberties and constitutional precedents. Wilson’s followers may have had a banner inscribed ‘Scotland free or a desert’ and sung ‘Scots Wha Hae’, but it was he who housed the English agent Brayshaw and this, together with all his previous political activity, reflected his concern to reform the Westminster Parliament. Indeed, Sir Francis Burdett confirmed Wilson’s part in the British reform struggle with a £10 gift to his widow. Baird, another ‘martyr’, confessed he had taken part in events to ‘win reform of the Commons House of Parliament’.
Most of the plans of the radicals were purely imaginary. Their hopes for English support from Manchester and Lancashire had fallen through and there was no viable revolutionary network in Scotland. Besides, the whole idea of an armed uprising leading to parliamentary reform was inherently ridiculous.
The best account of the events of 1820 contains the sentence: ‘’In retrospect, pathetic abortive rebellions always seem unreal and the convictions of their leaders almost unintelligible.’ This may smack of hindsight but a contemporary judgement by one of those involved reinforces the sentiment. A Paisley radical recalled that ‘everything was left to a chapter of accidents, and that the leaders, although not spies or absolutely liars, were nevertheless crazy fools and that by always talking about revolution, they at length imposed upon themselves and became possessed of one fixed idea, that a revolution would be the result of their crazy projects.’
At the end of 1819 Glasgow radicals had sent one of their own, a John McIntryre, to Manchester in an attempt to win over radicals there for a coordinated strike which would lead to an insurrection but he got nowhere. In fact links between the Glasgow and Manchester radicals were weak although what little contact there was appeared to signify strength. The same exaggeration existed in the minds of the Glasgow radicals concerning their network in Scotland. There were no links with Edinburgh and Dundee far less with the Highlands or Borders and even in the industrialising West of Scotland organisation was primitive consisting largely of talk. But this talk imagined forces of ten or twenty thousand rebels precipitating an insurrection in conjunction with English counterparts. They even believed this would win the blessings of Whig and Radical MPs who would in turn institute some sort of Convention to reform both government and constitution.
So, what really happened in 1820? The account by that remarkable woman, Harriet Martineau, in the first volume of her ‘A History of the Thirty Years’ Peace, AD 1816-1846’ gives a more realistic view than the romantic, nationalist one already discussed.
It begins by stating that after the spreading of a ‘vague alarm’ of some approaching disturbance at the end of March, with ‘peaceable work-people’ being visited ‘by commands from unknown quarters’, a ‘treasonable proclamation’ was found posted up on walls all over Glasgow on Sunday, April 2nd, calling on the people to stop work and effect a revolution. The people did indeed remain idle the following few days to see what would happen, but nothing happened save the calling out of the military and preparations made by the magistracy against some attack whose nature remained a mystery.
Two days later one of the Stirlingshire Yeomanry was met near Kilsyth by a party of armed men, who demanded his weapons. Some shots were exchanged and the man returned to Kilsyth. A detachment of twenty troops was immediately sent out to scour the roads and they found a party of rebels about fifty in number posted on some high ground in Bonnymuir. The rebels made some resistance but were soon overpowered, some being wounded and nineteen being made prisoners. It transpired that most of these ‘poor creatures’ had been tempted from Glasgow in the expectation of joining an army of four or five thousand men, who were to take the Carron Iron Works, and thus supply themselves with artillery. No soldiers were killed but the commanding officer and three of his men were wounded and one horse died. In Martineau’s words: ‘This was the affair that goes by the name of the Battle of Bonnymuir.’
Numerous arrests were made in various parts of Scotland afterwards ‘but the excitement caused was not great and soon at an end’. She added: ‘In a few days everybody was at work again, as if nothing had happened; and the trials that took place in July and August engaged little attention.’ Of the ‘martyrs’ she wrote that two had been active at Bonnymuir, while the third ‘was one of those reckless agitators who were at that time, the curse of the suffering classes of society.’
In short, in her view, the events of April 1820 in Scotland were historically a non-event.
And she was right.
Two points need to be stressed. First, given the previous failure of all attempts to challenge the government outside Parliament, given the repressive legislation of the time and the determination of the local authorities to use every means to maintain order, it was sheer lunacy on the part of radicals, as hopelessly disorganised and military unsupported as those in Glasgow, to even contemplate an insurrection.
Secondly, and ironically, 1820 represented the last spurt of ‘revolutionary’ activity in Britain. These events in no way heralded the future. They were not protean in any sense. In fact the spirit of the times was to become in every way more conciliatory: the Six Laws and anti-trade union laws were repealed in 1825; the role of the Dundases in managing Scotland ended in 1826; Catholic Emancipation came in 1829 and the Reform Act In 1832. There had been no need for insurrection. In any case, the British government had never been as reactionary as its Continental contemporaries. Lord Liverpool, prime minister from 1812, had rejected the pleas of many country gentlemen that all discontent be suppressed by the military and flatly refused to augment the army at home. Nor had Wellington any desire to use the army as a political weapon.
In conclusion, perhaps the authority I quoted before should be quoted again: ‘Following the debacle of 1820 Scottish radicalism turned away from ideas of revolution and the use of ‘physical force’ towards the ‘moral force’ of the 12,000-strong Glasgow Political Union of the 1830s and the strong Chartist organisations of 1838-42. It is not of course possible to know the extent to which the lessons of 1820 were responsible for the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of later Scottish radical movements in the hundred years before ‘Red Clydeside’ re-established its reputation for militancy.’ But one thing is clear. The sad events of 1820 in Scotland provide no precedent for insurrectionary nationalism and certainly should provide no inspiration for it. They are yet another warning from history.
Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen’s School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. @profsked
Photo of Bonnymuir Inscription, Paisley memorial by Stephen C Dickson – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61960677