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The rising in 1820 was a challenge to the state

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The Radical War in Scotland two centuries ago saw a mass strike movement, plans for armed rebellion—and then bitter government repression, writes Charlie McKinnon
Issue 2652
A mural remembering the later movement for parliamentary reform
A mural remembering the later movement for parliamentary reform

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.

Wilson who had been found guilty of high treason, then stood up and defiantly addressed the court.

“I have neither expected justice nor mercy here,” he said. “I have done my duty to my country. I have grappled with her oppressors.

“I am ready to lay down my life in support of these principles which must ultimately triumph.”

The brutal history of Peterloo
The brutal history of Peterloo
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Wilson was later executed in front of a crowd of over 20,000. A few weeks later his fellow radicals John Baird and Andrew Hardie were also executed for high treason.

So ended the Scottish insurrection of 1820. Variously known as the Radical War of 1820, the Radical Rising or Scotland’s Peterloo, it has not attracted the coverage that one might have expected of a major upheaval that shook the British state.

The rebellion was a revolutionary insurrection against the government by a radical movement for political reform that had grown frustrated by the government’s contemptuous and repeated dismissal of its demands. The radicals wanted universal suffrage, annual Parliaments and payment of MPs.

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.

It called for a strike but also urged soldiers to rebel.

Around 60,000 workers obeyed the strike call—a remarkable number at a time when the working class was very small.

In a letter to the Home Office, Glasgow’s Lord Provost Henry Monteith noted with alarm, “Almost the whole population of the working classes have obeyed the orders contained in the treasonable proclamation.”

The strike and the rebellion that followed were supposed to be coordinated with a rising by English radicals.

The Scottish radicals had been stockpiling weapons and were drilling in preparation for revolt. But the rising in England did not materialise.

Nonetheless a small group of 35 radicals led by Hardie and Baird marched on the Carron Iron works in Falkirk in an attempt to seize arms and munitions.

They were intercepted near Kilsyth by troops of the 10th Hussars and the Stirlingshire Yeomanry.

After a brief skirmish, in which both soldiers and radicals were wounded, 20 of the radicals including Baird and Hardie were taken prisoner.

Another group of radicals led by James Wilson marched from Strathaven 15 miles outside of Glasgow to link up with radicals thought to be planning an attack on Glasgow.

At a meeting before they set out John Stevenson, one of the leaders, said, “If we succeed it will not be a rebellion, it will be a revolution and we shall receive the gratitude and thanks of a free and happy nation.”

However, hearing news that the insurrection had failed they disbanded and tried to return home. Twelve were arrested including Wilson.


A further disturbance took place at Greenock, outside Glasgow, when soldiers escorting radical prisoners came under attack from an angry crowd determined to free them. Ten people were killed by the soldiers.

The catalyst for the radical rising was the Peterloo massacre at Saint Peter’s Field Manchester on 16 August 1819. Then cavalry and yeomanry charged unarmed demonstrators calling for parliamentary reform.

The bloody repression at Peterloo triggered a wave of solidarity protest meetings across Scotland. A memorial rally of about 5,000 radicals in Paisley resulted in clashes between protesters and cavalry which provoked a week of rioting. However, the causes of the radical rising ran deeper than Peterloo.

Widespread economic distress fuelled political discontent. It was made worse after 1815 by the huge increase in unemployment at the end of the Napoleonic wars.

Returning soldiers sought employment and workers in the armaments industry were laid off.

Increased competition for jobs encouraged ruthless employers to cut wages.

The Tory government’s shift to taxation on the products people bought led to big increases in the prices of staple goods.

This meant widespread poverty and near-famine conditions in some parts of Scotland.

The number of trade unions had also grown in the first decade of the 19th century, formalising divisions between workers and bosses.

This led to a number of bitter strikes which helped radicalise workers.

In 1812 over 40,000 weavers, regarded as the vanguard of Scotland’s radical reform movement, struck for higher wages.

After eight weeks they were starved back to work.

In the years leading up to Peterloo and the Radical Rising of 1820 the radical reform movement in Scotland put its energies into petitioning Parliament for reform.

In October 1816 a meeting of over 40,000 radicals at Thrushgrove just outside Glasgow agreed to petition Parliament for reform.

The government contemptuously dismissed the petition.

Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth said the radicals “had Parliamentary reform in their mouths but rebellion and revolution in their hearts”.

The failure of the petitioning movement convinced many radicals that “moral force” would not shift the government and that “physical force”—armed rebellion—was necessary.

This was reinforced by the memory of the brutal suppression of the radical reform group the Friends of the People and its successor the United Scotsmen in the 1790s.

There is debate surrounding aspects of the 1820 rising.

Some nationalist historians argue that the rebellion failed because government agents provoked the rising before the radicals were fully prepared.

They also argue that the rising was a nationalist uprising which aimed to set up an independent Scottish parliament.

But there is no real evidence for either claim.

The failure of the Radical Rising convinced many radicals of the need to continue establishing trade unions as a means of securing gains for working class people.

It also inspired the movement for reform which culminated in the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the Chartist agitation across Britain in the 1830s and 40s.

The rising showed an emerging, militant and combative working class engaging in a revolutionary struggle against the British state.

Central to its strategy was a mass general strike and an attempt at a general insurrection.

The Radical Rising of 1820 was a hugely significant event and should be celebrated as an important part of our shared radical history.

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