The immediate context of the 1820 rising was the economic downturn that followed the conclusion of Britain’s long war with revolutionary and then Napoleonic France. There was widespread unemployment aggravated by soldiers returning from the war and inward migration from the Highlands. These compounded an already difficult economic situation in Scotland and elsewhere: there were poor wages in early manufacturing combined with heavy taxation on necessities . The Corn Laws blocked the import of cheap grain, and this made the price of bread beyond the reach of many.
In the face of this there was a growing radical response. In 1812 over 40,000 weavers, the NUM of their day, struck for higher wages, but like the miners in 1926 and 1984/85 they were starved back to work after eight weeks.
In October 1816 a meeting of over 40,000 radicals at Thrushgrove just outside what was a much smaller Glasgow, agreed to petition Parliament for reform. The government, predictably, dismissed the petition because democracy was seen to be synonymous with an attack on class privilege.
Indeed the possibility of democratic action for change was nearly impossible. For example, only 5,000 out of a Scottish population of 2 million were entitled to vote. Hence the development of the ‘mass platform’ agitation across the UK for parliamentary reform, an approach typiﬁed by the activity of Henry Hunt and other radicals in London and the north of England.
Hunt played a central part in what became known as the Peterloo Massacre of August 1819. A mass meeting in Manchester was to be addressed by Hunt, but shortly after the meeting began, local magistrates called on the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest Hunt and several others on the stage with him. The Yeomanry charged into the crowd, knocking down a woman and killing a child, and finally arrested Hunt.
Cheshire Magistrates chairman, William Hulton, then summoned the 15th Hussars to disperse the crowd. They charged with sabres drawn; 18 people were killed and 400–700 were injured in the ensuing carnage. The event was first labelled the "Peterloo massacre" on a front-page headline on the Manchester Observer newspaper, linking the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier, and the attack on unarmed civilians.
Popular calls for reform in Scotland reached their climax in the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre, despite the repression and the government’s ‘Six Acts’, which placed restrictions on the freedoms of speech and assembly. In September 1819, thousands gathered in Paisley to protest about Peterloo. The military were deployed; the Riot Act was read and the leaders were arrested.
It is hardly surprising then some in the radical movement, felt that peaceful petitioning had run its course and that physical confrontation was necessary.
The rising began on 1 April 1820 when a proclamation signed by The Committee of Organisation for forming a Provisional Government was displayed across Glasgow and other areas of central Scotland, calling for a strike and for soldiers to rebel. There was a massive response to the strike call with around 60,000 workers withdrawing their Labour. In a letter to the Home Office, Glasgow’s Lord Provost Henry Monteith wrote in alarm, “Almost the whole population of the working classes have obeyed the orders contained in the treasonable proclamation.”
The government received further reports that there had been widespread stoppage of work in the west of Scotland, and the authorities mobilised to meet the threat of what they believed could be serious armed rising.
The signal to Scottish radicals to rise was supposed to have been the stopping of the mail coaches by their English co-conspirators. However, this did not happen, and only comparatively small and uncoordinated groups of radicals turned out in both Scotland and the north of England. It is worth noting that it was planned to be a cross border rebellion not a Scottish insurrection. During the first two weeks of April 1820, 2000 armed radicals made an unsuccessful attack on the town of Huddersfield and days later 400 Barnsley radicals marched to Grange Moor near Huddersfield. There were smaller disturbances in several other Yorkshire towns and there was strike action in Mirfield Yorkshire. Manchester radicals, however, did not confront the large military presence in their town perhaps because of the Peterloo repression.
In Scotland on 4 April, a group of some sixty men led by Andrew Hardie, an unemployed weaver, set off from central Glasgow to meet another group from nearby Anderston. The plan was to move from there to seize the Carron Iron Works in Falkirk.
When there was no one to meet them at Anderston, however and the original group dwindled to some twenty-ﬁve in number, who, early on 5 April, arrived at the village of Condorrat and were met by another ﬁfteen men led by John Baird, a veteran of Wellington’s Peninsular campaign in the Napoleonic wars.
They found little further support on the road, and rested on Bonnymuir while discussing whether to go on or not. At this point thirty-two government cavalry arrived. They called on Hardie’s men to surrender but the radicals instead engaged the troops and there were some casualties on both sides. Eighteen radicals were ultimately arrested.
On the same day, another group of radicals in Strathaven led by James Wilson, a veteran radical weaver, took over their town and seized arms from other inhabitants. The following day, some twenty-four set off to meet the non-existent radical army, with a banner proclaiming ‘Strathaven Union Society, 1819’ on one side and ‘Scotland Free or a Desert’ on the other.
They camped on a hill near Rutherglen, where they learned from local radicals that there was no army to join up with. Most returned to their homes safely, but Wilson was arrested.
The ﬁnal significant episode occurred in Greenock on 8 April, when a large crowd successfully released ﬁve radical prisoners from the burgh jail. They had been put there by the Port Glasgow Volunteers, a pro-establishment militia. The rescue was at the cost of eight radicals dead and ten wounded. By the end of the week, though, there was no more military action by radical groups in Scotland.
As in other rebellions against the British crown, for example Dublin in Easter 1916, there was bloody state revenge. On 24 July 1820 the Lord President of the High Court in Glasgow sentenced the radical activist James Wilson to be hung, drawn and quartered. He was executed in front of a crowd of over 20,000. A few weeks later his fellow radicals John Baird and Andrew Hardie, captured at Bonnymuir, were also executed for high treason.
Whereas there is little debate about the main facts of rising, there remains significant debate surrounding its nature and meaning. Some nationalist historians argue that the rebellion failed because government agents provoked the rising before the radicals were fully prepared and that the rising itself in Scotland was nationalist aimed at setting up an independent Scottish parliament.
A major source of this perspective is the book by Berrisford Ellis and Seamus Mac A Ghobhain’s “The Scottish Insurrection of 1820”. This is how they see the insurrection:
“But as well as the Radical Reform aspect, there was also a strong Scottish national aspect, for it was the intention of the 1820 radicals…to set up a Scottish Assembly or Parliament in Edinburgh.”
They also argue that government spies played a central part in provoking and then betraying the rising.
This perspective has shaped the Scottish nationalist perspective on 1820 and it is embedded in the thinking of the 1820 society, set up in 1969.
It has been dismissed by a range of historians for example FK Donnelly writes in his paper “The Scottish Rising of 1820 a reinterpretation”:
“The popular nationalist interpretations of the Rising are distorted by two fundamental errors. First …that the general rising in Scotland was a secessionist or separatist movement which occurred in virtual isolation from the parallel unrest in England…
Second that the rising is thought to have been triggered by actions of agent provocateur.”
He attacks the first assertion by demonstrating close cooperation between the Scottish and especially Northern English radicals and the second by undermining the credibility of the main source of the spy thesis, Peter MacKenzie, whose views are not borne out by the records of the Home office or Scottish authorities.
In any case the address posted over the west of Scotland referred to above, is clearly not an address calling for a Scottish uprising as, say the Easter proclamation of 1916 called for Irish insurrection. To begin with it is addressed to the “ Inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland” and it calls for those reading it to “support the laudable efforts, which we are about to make, to replace to Britons those rights consecrated to them by Magna Carta, and the Bill of Rights…”
It could hardly be clearer, with its direct address to Britons and references to Magna Carta and not the Declaration of Arbroath, that this was a long way from a call for a Scottish nationalist uprising.
Instead we should acknowledge the importance of the sacrifice of those radicals in helping push forward the movement for democracy which culminated in the Great Reform Act of 1832. This at least broadened the franchise even if it still depended on property.
Perhaps more importantly the 1820 radicals informed and inspired Chartist agitation across Britain in the 1830s and 40s and that eventually led to full male suffrage in the early 20th Century and later still to full suffrage of men and women, and laid the foundations of the radical political tradition across the British Isles.
There may be a view on the Labour Left that the celebration of 1820.is best left to Scottish nationalists and the 1820 society. That would be a great pity. In 1920 on the 100th anniversary of the uprising the ILP, Labour’s progenitor, held events in Glasgow, Stirling and Strathaven. The ILP used these not only to honour the sacrifice the 1820 martyrs but also to advocate their own vision of economic and political democracy, including Home Rule, as devolution was then called.
Should we get the opportunity, the Scottish Labour left, in cooperation with comrades in England, should reclaim 1820 in whatever way we can, as part of the long march from serfdom to socialism.