IF there is one episode in the history of Scotland which is more ignored and misunderstood than the Radical War of 1820, then I cannot think of it.

Also known as the Scottish Insurrection, it was a very short period in Scottish history that could have seen this country torn out of the unequal Union with England and put on a progression to true democracy 100 years before that was achieved with votes for women. Workers’ rights could have been won decades before the trade union movement arose, and Scotland could have been a beacon to the world in enlightened proper government of a nation.

Instead, the British state mercilessly suppressed the workers’ movement and executed three of its leaders – James Wilson, John Baird and Andrew Hardie. There were other “judicial murders” and deportations, and innocent civilians were gunned down in the streets, especially in Greenock.

I consider these events of 1820 and their preceding reasons and bitter, but ultimately triumphant, aftermath to be among the most under-reported matters in Scottish history. Many histories – and I have a collection of them – either ignore it completely or play it down as an aberration at a time when Scotland was really starting to play a part in the British imperial project.

The 200th anniversary of the Radical War will take place in April, and next week the new Paisley Book Festival will launch with an evening dedicated to the work of Maggie Craig, a real expert on Scottish radicalism which will be the theme of the festival. The organisers state: “Drawing on the Paisley Radicals of 1820 as inspiration, the Paisley Book Festival will explore how we can honour their challenging ideas and vibrant energy 200 years later.”

I wish them every good fortune, and to tie in with the festival, today and over the next fortnight I am going to deal at length with an insurrection that might – just might – have succeeded in changing Scotland and this nation.

I first wrote about the Radical War in 2018, concentrating in the bloody slaughter in Greenock after the insurrection had ended, and I was amazed at the response from people who confessed they knew nothing about these events. Over the last two years, I have returned again and again to a study of a period that is actually well documented and from which modern proponents of independence and societal reform could learn much.

I will argue that far from being an aberration, the Radical War really did change Scotland because it politicised people in a way not surpassed to the days of Red Clydeside – indeed, I will argue that the Radical War paved the way for the upheavals of 1919.

I will also try to show the lessons from history that the Yes movement can learn. Some of my conclusions will not be popular.

Next week I will deal with the actual “war” itself – a one-sided State slaughter in fact – and in week three I will show how the aftermath changed Scotland.

Today, however, I want to deal with the events which led up to the 1820 Scottish Insurrection – and yes, that is exactly what it was, a violent uprising against the government.

The seeds of the Radical War were sown abroad. After the Jacobite Rising of 1745-46, the monarchy and the UK Government concentrated on suppressing Highland society and culture, aware that much of lowland Scotland had not been involved in Jacobitism – indeed, many areas opposed Charles Edward Stuart and there were plenty Scots in the forces of the Duke of Cumberland.

The emigration of Scots to the USA continued apace and while many of them remained true to the Crown, there were many who fought for the Congress forces under George Washington – his friends General Hugh Mercer and General Adam Stephen, Brigadier General Arthur St Clair and his personal physician Dr James Craik were all Scots.

The American Revolution and the American War of Independence were known to all Scots, not least because a quarter of all the British forces in the war were Scottish.

That so many subjects of the King were prepared to take up arms to forge a new nation made a big impression on many Scots, and when the French Revolution came along in 1789, it was watched with great interest by many Scots who were agitating for political reform in the UK.

Among them, though operating in secret, was Robert Burns, the exciseman who was in regular contact with many radicals.

He even wrote an ode for George Washington’s birthday which made clear where his sympathies lay.

“See gathering thousands, while I sing,

A broken chain exulting bring,

And dash it in a tyrant’s face,

And dare him to his very beard,

And tell him he no more is feared-

No more the despot of Columbia’s race!

A tyrant’s proudest insults brav’d,

They shout-a People freed!”

WITH the French Revolution ongoing, the British establishment was terrified of the reformers who fought with words, pamphlets and even cartoons – some of the depictions of King George III bordered on the treasonable.

The most influential document of the time was the Rights of Man, published by Thomas Paine in 1791 as a direct reply to Edmund Burke whose Reflections on the Revolution in France contained these words: “Those who attempt to level, never equalise.” No wonder Burns called him a “poisonous reptile.” Paine hit back hard, and in contrast to Burke’s sales of 30,000, mainly to the land-owning class, Rights of Man is said to have sold half a million copies worldwide. It contained revolutionary ideas such as the abolition of hereditary rights – he did not, however, advocate the overthrow of the monarch – and a written constitution for the UK.

One passage has always seemed correct to me: “Individuals, themselves, each, in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a contract with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.”

In other words, sovereignty resides with the people. No wonder Paine’s work had such an impact in Scotland, nor that the establishment sentenced him to death for seditious libel against the Crown, a sentence never carried out because he fled to France – his prosecutor, by the way, was a Scot, Sir Archibald Macdonald.

Paine’s Rights of Man heavily influenced the reformers in Scotland in the 1790s, of whom the most famous is Thomas Muir of Huntershill, the radical lawyer who was an ardent campaigner for democracy – he is known as the Father of Scottish Democracy.

Muir came to prominence in the Society of the Friends of the Scottish People, a reforming organisation which held conventions in 1792 and 1793. He thought it simply wrong that Scotland should have just 3000 people electing all its MPs, or that so many seats were uncontested because the electorate knew the result in advance. This was a time when local authorities were often self-selected, and lords and lairds dictated how people voted.

Muir was charged with sedition, particularly for speaking against the Union, and after a show trial was sentenced to be deported to Australia for 14 years.

Lord Braxfield, Scotland’s hanging judge, said in his summing up: “A government in every country should be just like a corporation; and, in this country, it is made up of the landed interest, which alone has a right to be represented. As for the rabble, who has nothing but personal property, what hold has the nation on them?”

Muir’s own speech has gone into history: “What then has been my crime? Not the lending to a relation a copy of Mr Paine’s works; not the giving away to another a few numbers of an innocent and constitutional publication; but for having dared to be, according to the measure of my feeble abilities, a strenuous and active advocate for an equal representation of the people, in the house of the people; for having dared to attempt to accomplish a measure, by legal means, which was to diminish the weight of their taxes, and to put an end to the effusion of their blood.

“From my infancy to this moment, I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause. It will ultimately prevail. It will finally triumph.”

Muir was not the only one to suffer such a fate simply for arguing for political reform. The government crackdown on reformers saw several more people deported, and Muir was accompanied on his ship to Australia by fellow radicals William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Thomas Palmer.

After war with France broke out and the conflict escalated, the cause of reform dwindled away as the government made a plea to patriotism in the face of the enemy. They made a serious mistake, however, with the Militia Act of 1797, which was resented across Scotland but which was imposed without armed revolution against the authorities. Resentment was building up, albeit quietly.

Radicalism and reform went underground in the final years of the 18th century and the first years of the 19th century. An organisation of radicals called the United Scotsmen briefly flirted with the idea of joining the United Irishmen in a rising against the government, but there simply was not the support for it and it collapsed in 1798 with the trial and deportation of its Dundonian leading figure, George Mealmaker.

If truth be told, though there had been local committees across Scotland, there was no mass uprising for the cause of reform, and that remained the case until well into the second decade of the 19th century, especially as Britain was soon fighting not just France but also the USA from 1812.

In the first decade of the 19th century, Scotland saw economic decline despite the advance of the industrial revolution, largely because weavers, then a large part of the working class, saw their earnings halved on average. Organising themselves into local unions, in 1812 they petitioned the courts for an increase in wages. This was granted but employers would not pay, and so the first major strike in Scottish industry in the 19th century took place, lasting nine weeks and ending only when the authorities arrested the leaders in Glasgow and put them in jail for months at a time.

The growth of the Luddite movement is often credited to that Scottish strike. It embraced weavers, factory workers and miners, and was soon a real threat to the authority of the capitalist class. Yet wherever potential revolution broke out, the various arms of the government, including the military, reacted with ferocity and reform was kept at bay.

In 1815, Waterloo ended the Napoleonic Wars and in a few short months, economic hardship across the UK proved disastrous for working people. Discharged soldiers came back into the community but there were precious few jobs for them. In 1816, a huge meeting on Glasgow Green which apparently involved 40,000 people heard calls for governmental reform and an end to the hated Corn Laws which blocked the importation of cheap grain from abroad.

Scotland was ripe for radical reform. It started in England.