The 1820 Rising - Halliday


Following the great victory at Waterloo in 1817, discontent amongst the working classes in Britain began to increase significantly. The underlying ideals and economic circumstances which helped to create the French and American revolutions were not so vastly different from the situation in Scotland. Suppressed and despised by the ruling classes, and almost forgotten by historians, the fascinating struggle of the 1820 rebels is gradually becoming better known through the work of the 1820 Society. Hector Macmillan's play "The Rising," also helped to raise awareness, as did books by Ellis and Mac a’ Ghobhainn.

Rennie describes their pay and conditions of Kilsyth handloom weavers in the late 1790's as excellent in comparison to other workers. The next twenty years saw their pay and conditions gradually deteriorating whilst their aspirations for a better life for their families continued to rise.

The Presbyterian church had strong roots in Kilsyth, and encouraged workers education, human rights, and debate. Some would have been familiar with the writings of Paine, Byron and  Bums and even Voltaire.

Social, legal and political injustice meant that only a tiny number of people were eligible to vote. The heritage of the covenanters encouraged a certain amount of free thinking as well as political aspirations for Scottish independence, and the example of the Irish radicals was not far away.

The government had persecuted Scottish reformers and agitators such as Muir, Mealmaker, and Palmer in the 1790's with transportation to the colonies, and this acted to create martyrs and stimulate dissidence. An underground organisation called the United Scotsmen was formed to campaign for universal male suffrage vote by secret ballot, payment of MPs and annual general elections - objectives which were to remain on the political agenda for more than a century. The secrecy and efficient organisation of these societies caused the government major concern, and government spies and informers were active.

With war came recession, and between 1800 and 1808  the earnings of weavers were halved; and the fall in income continued between 1808 and 1820. In 1816 weavers in Kilsyth were working for just over £1 per week; but by 1820 their income was down to between 11 and 12 shillings per week. This widespread discontent came to a head with a two month long strike in 1812. 

A reform meeting held by "radicals" in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester on 16th August 1819 was attacked and dispersed by military force. The deaths at "Peterloo" provoked widespread protest in Scotland, and rioting broke out in Paisley on 11th September which lasted for a week. The cavalry were called in to reintroduce order. There were mass meetings in Airdrie and Stirling, and many weavers from Kilsyth were involved in agitation across the country.

On Sunday 2nd April, 1820, a Proclamation was issued calling for a general strike. Some theorists consider that it was actually issued by the Government as a means of bringing the radicals out into the open and destroying them through force - it was certainly curious timing as many of the leaders were already in custody.

In any event, most of central Scotland came out on strike the next week, especially in the weaving communities. The lessons of Peterloo and Paisley had been learned, and many of these strikers now carried out revolutionary preparations to defend themselves by force with firearms and other home made weapons. 

A group of about 25 men from Glasgow led by Andrew Hardie marched towards Condorrat to meet up with John Baird, with a design to gather a force to march on the Carron Iron Works near Falkirk, and capture the munitions there. Meanwhile Lt Ellis Hodgson of the 11th Hussars, quartered in Perth, set off for Kilsyth via Stirling in order to protect Carron where an attack was expected on the 5th April. The government spies and informers had provided good information, and by 6 o’clock on the morning of Wednesday 5th April, Baird, Hardie and their followers had reached  Castlecary Inn where they stopped briefly for for breakfast before heading on. Troops in Kilsyth got wind of their movements. Lt Hodgson left Kilsyth with 16 Hussars and 16 Yeomanry troopers. At Bonnybridge they left the main road and made for Bonnymuir to intercept the rebels..

When the two forces met,  the radicals started firing. After a few more volleys on both sides, the cavalry flanked the rebels, and the end was swift. Nineteen of them were taken prisoner and confined to Stirling Castle.. . . Lt Hodgson and a sergeant of the 10th Hussars were both wounded, the sergeant quite severely hurt, and four of the radicals were also wounded. Seven firearms and eighteen pikes were captured. Thus ended the battle of Bonnymuir.

Other events and disturbances were taking place in Glasgow - Bridgeton, Tradeston, Dalmarnock and Pollokshaws.  Outside the city there were arrests made in  Duntocher, Paisley and Camelon, as well as Strathaven.

On Saturday 8th April prisoners from Paisley were taken under escort to jail in Greenock. Their escort came under attack, and the soldiers opened fire killing 8 people, including the 8 year old James McGilp, and wounding 10 others. In the evening angry rioters stormed the jail and set the prisoners free. 

Then came a series of trials, with some remarkable dramas unfolding. 88 treason charges were brought against men from across West Central Scotland. There were some surprise acquittals from sympathetic juries. However, Wilson, Hardie and Baird were executed. Twenty men - including the 15 year old Alexander Johnstone - were sent to the penal colonies in Australia.  

The tragic events did not entirely suppress the flame of freedom, and were followed in the 1830's and 1840's by the Chartist movement.

Sources: - a detailed online article for scholars which forms the basis of the above account.


The 1820 Rising, The Radical War by James Halliday Foreword by Peter D. Wright, Illustrations by Jeff Fallow Printed and Published by: Scots Independent Newspapers Limited
51 Cowane Street, Stirling, FK8 JW8 1993 ISBN 0 951820 4 2

‘THE SCOTTISH INSURRECTION OF 1820’ (Gollancz 1970, Pluto Free 1989) P. B. Ellis & S. Maca’Ghobhain

‘THE SCOTTISH RADICALS. TRIED AND TRANSPORTED FOR TREASON IN 1820’ (Australia 1975, SPA Books 1975) M. & A. MacFarlane

‘SCOTLAND: A CONCISE HISTORY BC - 1990’ (Gordon Wright Publishing 1990 ) James Halliday

‘MUIR OF HUNTERSHILL’ (OUP 1981) Christina Bewley

‘A HISTORY OF THE SCOTTISH PEOPLE 1560 - 1830’ (Collins 1969) T.C. Smout



The 1820 Rising
The Radical War
Letter from Thomas McCulloch to his wife 12th October 1821

New South Wales,
October 12, 1821,

My Dear Wife,

I send you those few lines, hoping they will find you and the children in good health, as they leave me at present thank God for it. We arrived here. on the 18th of May, all in good health, (after being at sea five months; I was taken off the stores by a Mr. Panton (Paton ?) a native of Scotland, and employed by him as a labourer; but not agreeing with me, he was so kind as to transfer me to a Captain Irvin, and I am to be with him as a house-servant, and I am going to remove about 40 miles up the country.

If you think of coming here, there shall be nothing wanting on my part to bring you, as I have every encouragement from several Gentlemen that can enable me to do so, as your presence here will free me from bondage; as any man’s wife that comes out here as a free settler, can take her husband from Government employment or being a servant to any man. Captain Irvin has promised to do every thing for us to make us comfortable. By our friends applying to the Secretary of State at London, you could obtain for us 300 or 400 acres of land. It is Andrew Dawson’s wish that his wife would come here also, and we will endeavour to get you out both together; but if you do not think of coming, I hope that you and the rest of my friends will do all they can to obtain a mitigation of my sentence, as my mind never can be at rest till I be with you and the rest of the family.

Sir Thomas Brisbane arrived here two days ago; he is to be our new Governor and the Governor can pardon any man he thinks proper; a great many have obtained their liberty since we arrived here; Captain Irvin. Mr Wyeems, Commissary-General, and other Gentlemen, have promised to befriend us; and the whole of our party is much respected here by the most respectable people in this country, and if you will only come out, a steady man and women can do very well, as they are very rare articles to be found here.

Andrew Dawson, James Cleland, John McMillan, and Allan Murchie, are kept in Government employment, on account of their being blacksmiths, who are very valuable in this part of the world; W. Clarkson and John Anderson is with Mr Lord, a respectable Gentleman, who much esteems them. Alex. Johnson is principal servant to the Commissary-General; Thomas McFarlane and Thomas Pink are with the Barrack Master; James Wright is shopman to a Dr. Phillips; Benjamin Moir, John Barr, and David Thomson is with Sir John Jameson: Andrew White, Bookbinder and Alex Hart, cabinet-maker, are in Paramatta with Dr Douglas; Wm. Smith is also at Paramatta with Mr. Marsden; Robt. Gray and Alex. Lattimer, is in Van Dieinans Land with Mr Mulgrave.

This is a fine country. and will grow any thing that will grow in any other country, and in, general have three crops a year. Loaf bread 3d. per lb., butter 2s per lb., beef and mutton 10d, eggs 2s a dozen, tea 2s. 6d. per lb. sugar 6d, potatoes 10s per cwt. A free labourer gets from 25s to 30s a-week, and a tradesman who has a trade to suit this country the country can make it a great deal better. I see Gilbert McLeod, (late Printer of the "Spirit of the Union") often, he is very well, and is acting as a schoolmaster.

Yrs. etc