Scotlands History

Radical War, 1820

The 'Radical War' of 1820 was an abortive attempt to stage an insurrection against the government in the south of Scotland. Its background was provided by a period of intense economic hardship and political activity that had followed the end of the long wars against Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France in 1815. A mass movement which explained economic distress as a result of corruption within the political system and called for radical reform of the representative system had emerged between 1816 and 1819.

Two factors created a situation where insurrection seemed either desirable or unavoidable to many contemporaries. First, the Peterloo Massacre of August 1819 (when troops and yeomanry had charged on unarmed protesters in Manchester) created a tense political situation and an escalation in violent words and actions both by the government and by radicals. Second, legislation at the end of 1819 limited the available means of constitutional protest, including freedoms of speech and assembly.

On the evening of 1/2 April 1820 a proclamation, which purported to be the work of the 'Committee of Organisation for forming a Provisional Government', was posted in public places in Glasgow and large parts of west and central Scotland. It called upon 'all to desist from their labour from and after this day, the First of April, and attend wholly to the recovery of their Rights'. Estimates vary, but some 60,000 workers seem to have struck work in and around Glasgow during the first week of April.

Far fewer seem to have responded to the call to arms. The week witnessed a group of radicals from Glasgow defeated and captured at the 'Battle of Bonnymuir' (5 April); further arrests after a contingent of men from Strathaven marched out armed, before returning home (6 April); and a bloody encounter, which left eleven dead, when a crowd rescued radical prisoners who were being escorted to Greenock gaol (8 April). Three men (Andrew Hardie, John Baird and James Wilson) were executed for their role in the events and nineteen others were transported to Botany Bay.

There have been different explanations for the 'failure' of 1820. The response to the call for a general strike, albeit a localised one, was a marked success: the failure lay in the lack of response to the call to follow this up with a general rising. One interpretation sees the rising as largely the work of agents provocateurs in the first place, who operated at the behest of government to entrap ardent Scottish nationalists. This interpretation has been strongly challenged and both the nationalist agenda of the strike and the rising and the role of government spies have been called into question.

The events of 1820 retained an important place in popular memory and have intermittently provided inspiration for political and industrial action by Chartists and Scottish nationalist and labour activists as well as appearing in novels, poems, plays and paintings.

Written by Dr Gordon Pentland, University of Edinburgh.

  • Photograph of the Stirling tollbooth
  • Photograph of memorial plaque

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