IT never ceases to amaze me that people are kind enough to take the time and interest to send me emails suggesting possible subjects for me to cover.

Reader Gordon Bryce from Greenock certainly knows how to charm me into writing on a subject dear to his heart and I thank him for the following words which have inspired today’s column.

“I have enjoyed your articles in The National about Red Clydeside. I found your articles very interesting and highly informative and encapsulated what was the mood of the times. It was very educational to the youth of today and to the older generation like myself who were never taught about this aspect of Scottish history in school.”

You know my feelings on that, Gordon. The tide is turning but we still have a long way to go before every child is taught Scottish history as a matter of course.

Gordon added: “The main point I wish to make is something that happened in my hometown of Greenock on the April 8, 1820, that up to several years ago I knew absolutely nothing about due to lack of education about the subject in school. I am referring to the Radical War of 1820, otherwise known as the Scottish Insurrection.”

We’ll return to Gordon later, but let’s take a look at this largely unknown time a century before Red Clydeside when the Scottish and British establishments were shocked to their core by the rising of ordinary people. The authorities reacted savagely, just as they had done almost three decades previously after the French Revolution when Thomas Muir and his fellow Scottish political reformers were transported to Australia for the crime of sedition.

The radicalism of Muir and his colleagues did not go away, but went underground. The wars with France and the USA in the early years of the 19th century tended to occupy most people’s attention across the UK but by the late 1810s the British economy was in a depression and what we would now call left-wing – the description had not then been invented – causes were prospering, particularly “secret society” radicalism, though in 1817, Glasgow magistrates clamped down hard, jailing 26 people for being part of secret societies.

The English radical Joseph Brayshaw had conceived the idea of “union societies”, in which all members would agree not to purchase goods on which excise was payable. The societies also wanted radical reform including universal suffrage – for men only, most agreed – and then in August 1819, at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, a peaceful demonstration for reform was put down by a bloody cavalry charge. In what became known as the Peterloo Massacre, 15 people died and anywhere between 500 and 700 people were injured.

The Government in Westminster, instead of finding out why unarmed civilians were slaughtered by cavalry sabres, reacted by clamping down on reformers, passing the hated Six Acts which included banning meetings of more than 50 people.

The National:

All that did was drive the Scottish radical societies even more underground and a plan for war against the ruling classes was drawn up – and they also practised armed drills with pikes and other weapons.

On April 1, 1820, three weavers from Parkhead in Glasgow, writing as the Committee of Organisation for forming a Provisional Government, published an “Address to the Inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland” calling for a general strike to gain rights for the working classes. Sixty thousand Glasgow workers joined the strike and a general insurrection was planned, but for various reasons failed to take place.

Then it all got a bit messy. Some groups of radicals decided to take action on their own. At Strathaven in Lanarkshire 100 radicals took over the village and declared it “free”.

In Glasgow a group of 20 radicals met on Glasgow Green and decided to march on Carron ironworks near Falkirk and take some cannon. Other radicals joined them so that some 30 to 40 men were on the march, led by two former soldiers, John Baird and his second-in-command Andrew Hardie.

THANKS to the National Library of Scotland, we can read about what happened next in a contemporary account of the Battle of Bonnymuir.

“Kilsyth, 5th April 1820. This morning a gentleman residing in this parish belonging to the Falkirk troop of Yeomanry Cavalry left home to join his troop at Falkirk, and had proceeded a short way from his own house, when he came up with between 25 to 30 Radicals, all armed with pikes, muskets, and pistols, who stopped him and requested him to give up his arms, which he refused to do, and showed them a disposition to resist. They told him (at the same time presenting at him several pistols) that resistance would be vain, as they would kill him on the spot. He, however, got off retaining his arms and meeting with an Orderly from Kilsyth going with dispatches to Stirling, informed him it would be improper to proceed.

“They accordingly both returned to Kilsyth and reported, when the Commanding-Officer there ordered ten men and a serjeant from the 10th Hussars and as many of the Yeomanry Cavalry, to escort the Orderly and the other Gentleman on their several roads, and to endeavour to fall in with these armed Radicals if possible. The Radicals, in the interval, had been joined by a number more, who proceeded along the Canal Bank towards Bonnymuir, having taken several fowling-pieces and a pitch-fork from farmhouses in the neighbourhood of Bonnybridge.

“The Cavalry, on their arrival at Loanhead, being informed of their proceedings, immediately went to Bonnymuir in search of the Radicals, and, on coming up with them, they showed a disposition to fight rather than fly; having taken their position behind an old dyke, they allowed the Cavalry to come within thirty yards of them, when they fired a volley; the Cavalry instantly charged, firing a few shots when going over the dyke; the Radicals received the charge with their pikes, and made all the resistance in their power, but they soon found themselves in a bad situation, and throwing away their arms, endeavoured to escape, when the Cavalry secured nineteen prisoners; three of whom are wounded, two remained on the field so badly wounded as not to be able to be carried to Stirling Castle, where the prisoners are lodged.

The National:

“Eight or ten of those who escaped are said to be wounded, and have not been able to go from the place where the affair happened. The whole number of the Radicals did not exceed forty or fifty. None of the Cavalry are severely wounded; two are slightly in the hand; and one horse severely wounded in three different places (since dead) and a number of horses slightly.

“It is reported that the whole of the prisoners belong to Glasgow, except one of the name of Baird, said to be their leader, who lately resided at Condorrat. It is said that the whole had been drilling in the Calton Green of Glasgow this morning, that they left that place about four o’clock, and went over the country in a straggling way till they arrived at Bonnymuir, where they expected to be joined by a number from all parts of the country during the evening and tomorrow.”

AT that point, unbeknown to the Bonnymuir group, the Strathaven men were marching to Glasgow. The leader of the Strathaven group, James Wilson, had been involved with Muir and his group in the early 1790s, and now he marched with a banner that said “Scotland Free or a Desart” (sic).

They got as far as Rutherglen before discovering the revolution had not happened. They dispersed, but the magistrates of Glasgow and elsewhere were now on high alert and soldiers began arresting the radicals in numbers. Baird and Hardie were already in jail when the dreadful events of Saturday, April 8, 1820, took place in Greenock.

Let Gordon Bryce take up the story again: “Paisley was a weaving town and its weavers were actively involved in the Radical War for social change within the weaving industries.

“Five weavers from Paisley were arrested and sent to Greenock Prison, which was situated in Bank Street, Greenock. This is when Greenock’s sense of social injustice and drive for social rights kicked in. When news of these arrests and imprisonment of these prisoners reached the ears of the citizens, a mob of Greenockians, angered by the social injustice to these prisoners, stormed the prison. Reminiscent of the Storming of the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789, they released all the prisoners.

“It was now Greenock’s turn to be made pay for their actions. The militia were called in to dispel the mob. This they did by opening fire on the mob reminiscent of the Nazis opening fire on the citizens of Oradour-sur Glane on June 10, 1944, and on Lidice on une 10, 1943.”

Gordon notes that “18 citizens were shot, six dying in the street and two dying later in hospital. The youngest, James MacGilp, was only eight years old and the oldest, John MacWhinnie, was 65. No-one was ever tried or convicted of this atrocity.

“There is a permanent Radical War Memorial sculpture on Bank Street, Greenock, and a plaque further up Bank Street on the wall listing the names and ages of those who died.”

For those who have never visited it, here is the full list of the dead: Adam Clephane, 48; James Kerr, 17; William Lindsay, 15; James MacGilp, eight; Archibald Drummond, 20; John MacWhinnie, 65; John Boyce, 33; Archibald McKinnon, 17. The last named died of his wounds on May 5, 1820.

Three more fatalities of the Radical War must be recorded: Baird, Hardie and Wilson were all tried for treason along with 85 other men also charged with the capital offence, of whom around 20 were either transported or jailed.

Wilson was tried first in Glasgow and even though the jury recommended mercy, he was hanged and then beheaded in front of 20,000 people in the city. He asked his executioner on the scaffold: “Did you ever see such a crowd?”

The trials were not foregone conclusions as jurors found many of the accused not guilty. The main radicals were not so fortunate. The judge at Stirling told Baird and Hardie they could expect no mercy as they were the leaders. Another radical, James Clelland, was also sentenced to death but this was later commuted.

Baird, 31, and Hardie, 27, faced death bravely. They were hanged and beheaded at Stirling on September 8, 1820. Hardie’s last words were: “I die a martyr to the cause of truth and justice.”

The last word goes to Gordon Bryce: “In your article in The National on Tuesday, April 10, 2018 you mentioned several plays that portray events that have occurred in previous articles. I feel at this juncture I should mention an excellent play by the Greenock Riverview Players called The Day We Stood In The Square, which is about the events that happened in Greenock on April 8, 1820.”

That’s one play I would very much like to see and we are long overdue a major documentary series on the whole radical movement.

For as we shall see next week, its failure in 1820 led directly to the rise of the greatest transforming force in Scottish political and economic history – the trades unions.