Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Radical's Road in 1820

The Salisbury Crags path at Arthur's Seat is known as the Radical Road but few have little inkling about its origins. The suggestion of putting unemployed weavers, many from the west of Scotland to building the track came from Walter Scott in the aftermath of the abortive 1820 Rising, also called the Radical War.

"Glasgow" at this time, was various small villages and hamlets; places like Bridgeton, Calton and Anderston. In all of these communities the main occupation was weaving, handloom and mill both. The weavers - or at least the handloom weavers - enjoyed traditionally a semi professional status, dictated by the nature of their work. They worked to commission. They could decide upon their own hours of work and could decide upon periods of leisure if they were willing to forego some proportion of their earnings in the short term. In these aspects they had something in common with smiths and wrights and shoemakers, all of whom had similar advantages over wage earners. These groups in a sense formed an aristocracy of labour because such options were open to them. Given that these workers had opportunities for leisure a high proportion were able to read and wanted to debate about what they had read. By the early 1800s they would be discussing the American and French revolutions.

The Insurrection of April 1820, was a week of strikes and unrest. An economic downturn after the Napoleonic Wars ended brought resulted in  workers, particularly weavers in Scotland, seeking action for reform from an uncaring government and from a gentry fearing revolutionary horrors. It was a culmination of earlier protests.The government had persecuted Scottish reformers and agitators such as Thomas Muir, Mealmaker, and Palmer in the 1790's with transportation to the colonies. An underground organisation called the United Scotsmen was formed to campaign for universal male suffrage vote by secret ballot, payment of MPs and annual general elections.  In 1816 some 40,000 people attended a meeting on Glasgow Green to demand more representative government and an end to the Corn laws which kept food prices high. The Peterloo massacre of August 1819 sparked protest demonstrations across Britain including Scotland where a rally in Paisley on 11 September led to a week of rioting and cavalry were used to control around 5,000 "Radicals". Protest meetings were held in Stirling, Airdrie, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire and Fife, mainly in weaving areas.

The event in itself hardly constitutes a major rising, but other isolated disturbances were taking place across West and Central Scotland. 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 theory that the whole event was a plot hatched by agent provocateurs in order to draw the radicals into open battle is difficult to resist.

A Committee of Organisation for Forming a Provisional Government put up placards around the streets of Glasgow on Saturday 1 April, calling for an immediate national strike.Some believe that it was actually issued by the Government agent provocateurs as a means of bringing the radicals out into the open as the leaders of the Committee were already in custody. On Monday 3 April work stopped in a wide area of central Scotland and a small group marched towards the Carron Company ironworks to seize weapons, but while stopped at Bonnymuir they were attacked by Hussars. Another small group from Strathaven marched to meet a rumoured larger force, but were warned of an ambush and dispersed. Militia taking prisoners to Greenock jail were attacked by local people and the prisoners released. James Wilson of Strathaven was singled out as a leader of the march there, and at Glasgow was executed by hanging, then decapitated. Of those seized by the British army at Bonnymuir, John Baird and Andrew Hardie were similarly executed at Stirling after making short defiant speeches. Twenty other Radicals were sentenced to penal transportation.

To some, the whole episode may appear minor and of little historical importance. The rising had been doomed from the outset. However, the rising must seen in the context of reformist, radical and revolutionary traditions. Ordinary people from all over an increasingly industrial Scotland had been inspired to rise and overthrow the state in order to secure their rights and better working conditions. The 1820 Rising must be seen as a prototype of the mass movements that would gather under the Chartist or socialist banners later in the century

2 comments:

workingclasslass said...

Thank you for that wee bit of history i wasn't aware of an uprising then.

prolerat said...

Thanks for that.I learned some of this at my grandparents. My grandmother was a weaver from the Calton and my grandfather came from Paisley with some tales of his own,sent over to Canada as a boy to slave for a farmer before escaping,ending up back in the slaughter of WW1.I worked in Hollins's weaving sheds down in Bridgeton briefly in between jobs in the'70's.

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