Scotland’s Revolutionary Past: The Radical War of 1820

Calum Macdonald
— Edinburgh

Looking up towards the Salisbury Crags that protrude below Arthur’s Seat in the capital, a path around the bottom known as the Radical Road can be seen from most of the city centre. Few, however, know the origin of its name and the story of the workers who built it.

The Radical Road was built by the defeated workers of, arguably, the one of the world’s first proletarian insurrections: the Radical War of 1820. These events struck fear into the ruling classes across the central belt and further afield. 

In the run up to 1820, Britain and Scotland in particular, was close to revolution. The end of the Napoleonic wars had brought economic and political turmoil. The price of kelp fell dramatically, and landowners made space for more profitable sheep farming by clearing people off their lands, sending masses of dispossessed people to the coasts and the central belt.

The introduction of infamous Corn Laws also kept bread prices artificially high and added to the bitterness that was sweeping the country. Less and less land was sought after for modern agriculture, further clearing people and resulting in huge rent increases on the fertile lowlands.

Scottish weavers, particularly those around Glasgow and the West, many of whom had formed some of the first embryos of modern trade unions, were some of the most radical workers at the time. They had been educated in the “Schools of War”, as Engels put it, when in 1787 a strike and demonstration in Calton (East Glasgow) was fired upon by government troops, killing six.

“Scotland Free Or A Desert” banner raised by Radical James Wilson and others. Wilson was executed for his part in the insurrection.

Before the spectre of Communism had risen to haunt the bourgeoisie, workers were inspired and led by Radical ideas and Radical activists — the left-wing of the democratic petty-bourgeoisie, which was a significant force in this era.

The ringleader of the 1787 strike, the Radical James Granger, was found guilty of “forming illegal combinations”; such was the attitude of the state towards the nascent trade union movement. He was deported to Australia for his seditious activity.

Granger returned to help take part in another weavers strike in 1811-12 that lasted for nine weeks. After losing half of their wages from cuts, 60,000 workers across Central Scotland engaged in strike action and the leaders even attempted to proclaim a republic.

In this period, fewer than 30,000 people had the right to vote in Scotland, with MPs representing just a few percent of the adult male population. Councillors were not elected to their positions, rich landowners and powerful elites — such as Lord Henry Dundas — controlled the majority of the country; a fact that has barely changed 200 years later!

In 1816, political reformers and Scottish Radicals organised the biggest political meeting ever seen until that time at Thrushgrove, a field just north of the Glasgow City boundary. The meeting was blocked multiple times by the authorities, yet 40,000 people managed to gather to demand more parliamentary representation and protest against the Corn Laws. The latter demand was very much supported by the industrial bourgeoisie who wanted cheaper bread so they could reduce the price of labour power — i.e. wages.

Class antagonisms grew stronger in 1819 when cavalry charged into a similar crowd of 60,000 peaceful protestors who were demanding parliamentary reform and an extension of voting rights in Peterloo, Manchester, leaving 18 dead and hundreds injured.

Scottish Radicals held protests and rallies for the victims of the Peterloo Massacre throughout the central belt. The ruling class was further on edge after uncovering the Cato Street conspiracy which had planned to murder all ministers and the Prime Minister in February of 1820.

By the 1st of April 1820, radicalisation and poor living conditions had pushed workers to the brink of revolution. Possibly spurred on by government provocateurs, a proclamation was made, first in Glasgow, “by order of the Committee of Organisation for forming a Provisional Government.”

The proclamation read:

FRIENDS AND COUNTRYMEN: ROUSED from that torpid state in which We have been 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 proclaim to the world the real motives, which have reduced us to take up ARMS for the redress of our Common Grievances …

“Let us show to 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. LIBERTY or DEATH is our Motto, and We have sworn to return home in triumph — or return no more!

By the 3rd of April over 60,000 weavers, shoemakers, smiths, and other artisans and workers had downed tools. Over the next few days armed insurrections broke out.

At Strathaven, led by James Wilson, one hundred Radicals took the village and started to march on Glasgow. Another group of striking weavers met on Glasgow Green, led by John Baird, a weaver and former army officer, and his second-in-command Andrew Hardie, were intercepted on their way to the Carron Ironworks, with the intention of taking weapons.

The workingmen, armed with spikes, muskets and pistols, were ambushed by the army at Bonnybridge (Bonnymuir), having been betrayed by government spies. The Radicals fired upon the troops but were eventually outnumbered and overpowered.

There were many reports of other smaller actions and protests in weaving villages across the central lowlands and western Scotland, with less noticeable activity in some east coast towns.

The lack of a proper plan from the leaders of the movement, infiltration by agents provocateurs, the superior armed force of the State, and the fact that there were no efficient means of quick communication in 1820 doomed the movement and the attempted insurrection.

Eighty-eight men were accused of treason, though only a few were actually tried as many had fled the country. Of those tried and found guilty, 19 were transported to Australia, whereas the three ring-leaders — James Wilson, John Baird and Andrew Hardie (a relative of Keir Hardie), were executed in Glasgow and Stirling. Hundreds of other Radical activists escaped to Canada from Greenock. Many weaving communities were broken up and many were left unemployed and destitute.

A visit to Scotland from King George IV in 1822 — the first of a British Monarch in nearly 200 years — aimed to combat the Radical movement by promoting Scottish-British national identity and loyalty to the monarch.

It was in fact Sir Walter Scott who suggested that unemployed weavers from the West of Scotland should be given a task of building a path around the Salisbury Crags, as a symbol of national unity. This was, however, very clearly a punitive exercise meant to discourage further unrest. The work was tough and closely scrutinised by the King’s Men in Holyrood park. The Radical workers were removed far away from their communities and underground Radical networks that were still in operation at the time.

The 1820 Radical War in Scotland stands as a testament to a vibrant history of radicalism and revolutionary aspirations of working people. The working class, however, was still relatively immature as a political force in 1820, not yet fully steeled by the class struggle under capitalism. The lack of an organised party of the working class and a well-developed revolutionary political theory hindered their chances of success.

The Radical War is often forgotten about and sometimes overshadowed by the latter Chartist movement in the 1830s — what Marx and Engels would recognise as the first proletarian political movement.

It would take another 97 years, the expansion of capitalism across the globe and many more failed revolutions before Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks would refine the principles of proletarian revolution and successfully lead the Russian masses to victory.

Nevertheless, the legacy of the Radical War and the Radical Road under Salisbury Crags should serve as a reminder of Scotland’s rich revolutionary heritage and the enduring struggle for the emancipation of the working class — a struggle that continues to this day.

Salisbury Crags and The Radical Road