Making Sense of the 1820 Uprising

200 years ago three weavers, James Wilson, Andrew Hardie and John Baird, were hanged and beheaded for treason in the summer of 1820. Nineteen more men were transported to Botany Bay. They had taken up arms against a corrupt and nepotistic parliament, and the aristocratic government that refused to reform it.

The history of the events is contested and the anniversary offers an opportunity to reassess to what extent this was a flowering of a pan-UK working class revolt, and to what extent it was an early rising of Scottish nationalism.

This ‘Radical War’ was the culmination of five years of agitation and mass petitioning of Westminster by working people in Scotland and England. The contempt and intransigence of the Tory government forced an escalation in tactics, and on Easter Monday of 1820, the call for a general strike was answered throughout the western counties of Scotland. Their demands were threefold:

the vote for all men
annual parliaments
equal constituencies

Coupled with an armed rebellion, the strike was met by the full military might of the British state; hundreds were arrested and imprisoned without trial, while hundreds more fled the country.

This month Bella was due to launch The 1820 Club, but that, like everything, has been postponed. The University of Glasgow’s Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies was to commemorate 200 years of the Scottish Radical Uprising with a special conference, it’s been put back until next year (the date of 8th Jan 2021 has been put as a placeholder). They planned to present a special performance of James Kelman’s radio play ‘Hardie and Baird: The Last Days’ (you can read it here). It was broadcast in November 1978 on BBC Radio Scotland, then later revised for the stage (performed in the Traverse in 1990).

To coincide with the 200th Anniversary of the Radical Rising of 1820, Erasmus Research is launching a new Radical History Project. Focusing on the complex Story of the Radical martyrs Baird and Hardie, this project will reconstruct and reassess the relevance this ‘suppressed history’ has for Scotland today.

They write: “Erasmus Research has discovered a unique source in the form of a serialisation of The Story of Baird and Hardie in the Stirling Sentinel published in 1889. It is unclear who wrote this history, but what is clear is that the serialisation, in 21 chapters over as many weeks, provides some new insights into this intriguing story of a radical period in Scotland’s history that has largely been suppressed.”

“Having transcribed this history from the original microfiche of the 1889 Stirling Sentinel, Erasmus Research will publish the entire serialisation on our website. Each chapter will appear in two parts, published weekly. We will also post supplementary information as well as a series of guest blogs. The big idea here is that collectively, we can share our sources as well as thoughts and analyses in order to obtain as profound an understanding as possible of this complex and controversial period in history.

The Sentinel serialisation makes a strong, and indeed compelling, case that the involvement of government spies was much greater than most contemporary historians have thought. Indeed the infiltration of what appears to be a vast and sophisticated network of spies, seems to have a much greater impact upon not only the capture of the brave martyrs, but upon the events that lead to Battle at Bonnymuir itself.”

Follow the Erasmus project here.

This contrasts strongly with Murray Armstrong’s account published by Pluto Press  ‘The Fight for Scottish Democracy, Rebellion and Reform in 1820’. Murray is the author of The Liberty Tree: The Stirring Story of Thomas Muir and Scotland’s First Fight for Democracy (2014).

Armstrong’s is a re-evaluation of the historical account. He writes:

The general strike and attempted insurrection in the west of Scotland during Easter 1820 was for democracy. It was the first known united action of the newly formed working class for a voice in government, and a new contract between the people and the lawmakers. The action took place after more than five years of unsuccessful petitioning to parliament. The radicals developed a formidable organisation in the teeth of repressive legislation and military opposition and forged links with workers who had similar political objectives in the north and midlands of England.

The attempt failed because the military might of the state was too much for them and the links with England were too fragile to ensure coordinated action. After just a week, the Scottish general strike was over, hundreds were arrested or fled the country, and punishment began. Three men were hanged and beheaded for treason and nineteen more were transported to the penal colonies of New South Wales. In England, twenty-five were arrested and charged for the near simultaneous uprising at Grange Moor in Yorkshire. Twelve of them were transported as well.

The organisations, both north and south of the border were, of necessity, secretive and so only fragments of their history survived, leaving an open book in which many different interpretations of the so-called Radical War could be written.

“In 1968, as radical nationalism was taking root in Scotland, a pamphlet, The Rising of 1820, by Scottish National Party member Frank Sherry, with a foreword by the SNP MP Winnie Ewing, repeated the myth and added a new one — that the rising was nationalist as well as radical. This interpretation was taken up in the only book-length treatment of the events so far, The Scottish Insurrection of 1820, by P Berresford Ellis and Seumas Mac A’Ghobhainn, published in 1970. They stood in the nationalist camp and, as well as repeating the conspiracy of spies, asserted that its purpose was to encourage untimely action to flush out the leaders and thwart a separatist or secessionist rising for an independent Scotland.

Berresford Ellis and Mac A’Ghobhainn’s book is well researched but it does not reveal the origin of its sources. They have no footnotes or references. Their book was received with mixed, generally unfavourable reviews because of this, but also because it tries to shoehorn the early radicalism into a nationalist box.

The book’s only direct reference to a possible secessionist plan is in a pair of letters from the Glasgow police chief, Captain James Mitchell, to Lord Sidmouth in March 1820. In the first letter he claims that the radical ‘plan is to set up a Scottish assembly or parliament in Edinburgh, likewise similar assemblies are to be set up by the disaffected in England and Ireland’, a claim repeated in the second letter later that month. The problem is that there is no clue as to the whereabouts of this correspondence. Academics have searched different archives and found nothing. There is nothing from Mitchell in the Home Office Scottish correspondence at the National Archives. That’s not to say that the letters don’t exist, they may be in a private collection somewhere, but until they are found the evidence must remain questionable. In any case, two letters from one individual does not alter the overwhelming evidence that the focus of the radicals was a reform of representation in the House of Commons. Of course there were enthusiastic expressions of attachment to national symbols, heroes and history, but that did not amount to a campaign for national independence.

There is little evidence to support the separatist interpretation, as the links between workers in the manufacturing districts of Scotland and England clearly show. The outlook of these radicals was shaped by the American and French revolutions, their sentiments were international, and their shared consciousness was firmly rooted in the fast-moving urban and industrial revolutions.”

Read Murray’s The Myths of Scotland’s Radical War here.

Birlinn have published ‘One Week in April, the Scottish Radical Rising of 1820’ by Maggie Craig.

Maggie is the author of the ground-breaking and acclaimed Damn’ Rebel Bitches: The Women of the ’45, the recognized authority on female involvement in the Jacobite Rising of 1745.

She is also the author of its companion volume, Bare-Arsed Banditti: The Men of the 45.

Buy it here.

Birlinn organised a virtual book launch and Q&A session with Maggie. Watch it here.



Comments (7)

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  1. Muiris says:

    Really interesting stuff. I was totally unaware of these events. I’m reminded of two things:
    1) The folk song ‘Parcel of Rogues’, where ‘English gold’ is much more feared than English steel’, (’twas the spies that done it, again & again).
    2) James Stephens, founder of the originally unnamed Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in 1860s, an organisational genius. The government were aware of different branches of the organisation, but with different names, unaware that it was the same organisation. Spy proofing/need to know brought to an unprecedented level for the time.

    I look forward to being educated.

  2. Sceptical says:

    This is Murray Armstrong of the Guardian, yes?

    It might be fair to say that Berresford Ellis and Mac A’Ghobhainn ‘s book reflects a partisan view of the 1820 insurrection, but it could be argued that rejection of it reflects another.

    Armstrong tells us that the radicals “forged links with workers who had similar political objectives in the north and midlands of England”, but “the links with England were too fragile to ensure coordinated action”. In other words, not really links. It depends what you would like to make of the notion.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      There is a monument to the Scottish Radicals in Nunhead Cemetery in the London Borough of Southwark. The plaque mentions supporters from England.

      1. marion mcmillan says:

        thanks for this. a must see and visit now planned for my next london jaunt.

        marion (1820 society).

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Sceptical, Henry Hunt, the radical who was due to speak when the authorities instigated the Peterloo massacre of 1819, had apparently addressed Scottish delegates, maybe even Scottish crowds. Hunt wrote a series of letters from captivity in Ilchester Jail collected as Addresses to the Radical Reformers, Male and Female, of England, Ireland and Scotland (1820–1822). I am sure that radical links extended between Scotland and England around the time of the 1820 uprising, but after the crackdown following Peterloo, many of them would have been in jail, in hiding, in their graves or otherwise incapacitated.

      The UK government’s legislative response became known as the Six Acts:

  3. Fay Kennedy says:

    These are such important books and look forward to being better educated in the history of my native land. I am aware of these writers through reading the brilliant James Kelman’s books and how good to hear his play will be performed next year. One of the few bonuses is time to read more Scottish writers. Thanks Mike

  4. Helen says:

    It’s iteresting that you were planning an 1820 Club. Do you still intend to do this? Can you give any other details?

    This year, various groups had plans to commemorate the bi-centenary, including ours.

    We are a small group of amatuer researchers from local history groups, who are members of the U3A s from Glasgow West End, Paisley & District, Perth and Falkirk.

    Over the past 18 months we’ve been finding out what we can and had planned to host an open public event in Paisley on the 25th April.

    Our group has looked at specific topics, e.g; the role of women; the role of the church; emigration; George 1V, political song of the period, as well as lives of individual radicals and a jury member.

    Like other events, this has been postponed although we hope to do this in the future.

    During this past year, a few of us have given talks about the 1820 Rising to other U3a groups across the country. In general, we find that very few people of our age have even heard of it.

    We’d be interested to hear about your 1820 Club and look forward to hearing more about the Erasmus Research.

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