Saturday, April 04, 2020

The Real Freedom Fighters

While Scottish “patriots” recall the 700th anniversary of the 1320 Arbroath Declaration, there will be far fewer remembering the bicentennial of the weavers uprising in April 1820.

The neglected Battle of Bonnymuir took place on the 5th of April, 1820, during the ‘Radical War’ . It wasn’t much more than a skirmish, an event that hardly constitutes a major rising. Sixteen Hussars and sixteen Yeomanry routed a band of twenty-five, poorly armed, striking weavers. The leaders were captured, tried and sentenced, with the outcome being a judicial execution of John Baird and Andrew Hardie, who came to be known as the ‘Radical Martyrs’. For some historians, the whole incident 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 ordinary people from all over a growing industrial Scotland being inspired to rise up and overthrow the government in order to secure their rights and better working conditions. It should not be forgotten.

Glasgow was just a collection of small villages like Bridgeton, Calton and Anderston. In all of these communities the main occupation was weaving. The handloom weavers traditionally enjoyed skilled 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. Given that these workers had opportunities for leisure a high proportion were able to read and wanted to debate about what they had read and would be discussing the American and French revolutions.

 A slump in the economy after the Napoleonic Wars  resulted in workers, particularly weavers in Scotland, seeking reforms from an uncaring government and from a gentry in fear of revolution. Their pay and conditions deteriorated drastically. Between 1800 and 1808, the earnings of weavers were halved and this trend continued up to 1820. In 1816, weavers in Kilsyth were working for just over £1 per week and, by 1820, their weekly income was down to between eleven and twelve shillings. This widespread discontent came to a head with a two-month long strike in 1812. 

The Weavers Uprising was a culmination of earlier protests where the government had persecuted Scottish reformers such as Thomas Muir in the 1790's with transportation to the colonies. An organisation called the United Scotsmen had been 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 protests across Britain including at various meetings across Scotland often in weaving communities. A rally in Paisley led to a week of rioting and cavalry were used to control around 5,000 demonstrators.

 A Committee of Organisation for Forming a Provisional Government put up placards around the Glasgow districts 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.

The proclamation began:
 ’Friends and Countrymen! Rouse from that state in which we have sunk for so many years, we are at length compelled from the extremity of our sufferings, and the contempt heaped upon our petitions for redress, to assert our rights at the hazard of our lives.’ 

And, it called for a rising:
 ’To show the world that we are not that lawless, sanguinary rabble which our oppressors would persuade the higher circles we are, but a brave and generous people determined to be free.’

Most of central Scotland, especially in the weaving communities, came out in support the following week.

One group of strikers decided that attack was the best form of defence. With the purpose of increasing their puny arsenal of weapons, about twenty-five weavers led by Andrew Hardie and John Baird, marched on the Carron Iron Works near Falkirk to capture weapons which were manufatureed there. Tragically for that group due to underground societies like the United Scotsmen gave the government major concern, its spies were active which meant the march on Carron was already known about. Having received intelligence from their informers, the Army was given its own marching orders. The two forces met and the radicals began firing. After a few volleys on both sides, the cavalry flanked the rebels and the inevitable end was swift. And so ended the Battle of Bonnymuir. Later, the militia taking prisoners to Greenock jail was attacked by local people and the prisoners released. James Wilson of Strathaven was singled out as a leader and was later hung and decapitated.

 Nineteen of the weavers, including the leaders, were taken prisoner. Hardie and Baird were condemned, hung and beheaded, and twenty men, including a fifteen-year-old youth named Alexander Johnstone, were transported to the penal colonies in Australia.
On the day of his execution, Hardie spoke saying:
 ’Yes, my countrymen, in a few minutes our blood shall be shed on this scaffold…for no other sin but seeking the legitimate rights of our ill used and down trodden beloved countrymen.’

At that, an irate Sheriff ordered him to stop, ‘such violent and improper language’. 

Hardie retorted:
 ’What we said to our countrymen, we intended to say no matter whether you granted us liberty or not. So we are now both done.’ 

We can look at the 1820 Rising as an early emergence of the mass movements that would later gather under the Chartism.

The Salisbury Crags path at Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh is known as the Radical Road built by unemployed weavers, at the suggestion from Walter Scott in the aftermath of the abortive 1820 Rising. The Martyrs' Monument was erected in secrecy in 1847 at Sighthill Cemetery, Springburn as a reminder of the sacrifices made in the cause of democracy.

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