I’ve always had a very soft spot for Paisley. Through one line of my father’s family, I’m descended from Paisley weavers.
It’s a cherished Craig family tradition that Robert Tannahill sits somewhere in the branches of our family tree. When I was a wee girl, my parents took me to Paisley to see the statue of our famous forebear, standing there in the Abbey Close. When I had children, I took them there too.
In the late 1980s, while I was training to be a Blue Badge Scottish Tourist Guide, we were asked to research and write up a project with a strand of Scotland’s heritage as its theme. I thought immediately of Paisley shawls and the Paisley pattern. A visit to Paisley museum left me entranced by the colours and patterns of these beautiful textiles.
Liberty or death…!
Taking a walk around the other exhibits, I spotted a small placard. With a printing date of 3rd April 1820, it called upon workers and artisans to go on strike until they had won back their ancient rights. In the slump which followed the end of the Napoleonic wars, wages had plummeted. Many of the poor were starving, struggling to put food on the table and clothe their children. They were ground down too by a corrupt system of government locally and at the Westminster parliament, where seats could be bought by wealthy men. Many of those who made the decisions were interested only in securing power, rank and money for themselves. The new King George IV, formerly the Prince Regent, clearly did not care that so many people throughout his kingdom were suffering.
The placard I’d noticed was an Address to the Inhabitants of Great Britain & Ireland, issued from Glasgow, ‘by order of the Committee of Organization for forming a Provisional Government.’ ‘Liberty or death is our motto and we have sworn to return home in triumph – or return no more!’ These were words to stir the blood.
The radicalisation of the weavers
I learned a lot of Scottish history from my parents. Both were great story-tellers. My father Alexander Dewar Craig, who was involved in Labour politics in the 1940s and 50s, told me a lot about the Red Clydesiders, whom I eventually went on to write about in When the Clyde Ran Red. It was from my dad that I initially heard about the great personalities of that period, including of course Willie Gallacher of Paisley.
However, I’d never heard about a popular uprising to try to win universal suffrage and better living and working conditions in Scotland in 1820. While researching and writing my book on the Scottish radicals of this period over the past 18 months I’ve discovered I wasn’t alone in my ignorance.
Weavers in Paisley, Johnstone, Glasgow, Ayrshire, Balfron, Duntocher and south of the border in places like Manchester and Nottingham played a pivotal role in the radical movement of the early 19th century. Support for the radical cause in Paisley was high. A huge pro-democracy meeting at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester in August 1819 was charged by sabre-wielding hussars. At least 15 people were killed and over 650 wounded. One month later 15,000 people gathered from Paisley and the surrounding area at Meikleriggs Moor to protest against the Manchester Massacre, which had swiftly been dubbed Peterloo.
In April 1820, 60,000 people throughout the Central Belt and Ayrshire answered the strike call, downing tools. As far as the authorities were concerned, radical reformers were now the enemy, to be suppressed in every way possible. In her book, Paisley: A History, Sylvia Clark wrote of constables raiding Maxwellton to arrest suspected radicals. An unseen person called out a defiant challenge. ‘You’d better take all of us. We’re all radicals here!’
This radical tradition, this refusal to accept what’s aye been, continued on into the 1840s, when the Chartists throughout Britain called for similar reforms to those demanded by the earlier radicals. Patrick Brewster, minister at Paisley Abbey, was an active Chartist and a champion of working people. The line continues through to the Red Clydesiders, people like Willie Gallacher and Mary Barbour of Govan, originally from Kilbarchan and the daughter of a weaver, who led the fight during the rent strikes of the First World War.
Remembering the radicals of 1820
There’s a statue to the Reverend Brewster in Woodside Cemetery in Paisley, as there is a monument there to the radicals of 1820. It’s a slender obelisk, sculpted by William Robin to a design by Alexander (Greek) Thomson. The monument remembers the three martyrs of Scotland’s Radical Rising: John Baird of Condorrat at Cumbernauld, Andrew Hardie of Townhead in Glasgow and James Wilson of Strathaven. All three men were tried and condemned to death, hanged and then beheaded, all of this done in public to provide ‘a warning from the scaffold.’
Although none of the Paisley radicals were found guilty of treason, there were many arrests and some trials. A number of men spent months in prison. One was John Fraser of Viewfield in Johnstone, a former weaver, schoolmaster and gifted musician. As a young man, a year or so before the 1820 rising, he went to an oratorio in Paisley Abbey, where he heard singers accompanied by organ music. It was the first time he had ever heard the instrument and he was profoundly moved by the sound as it filled the magnificence of the abbey.
As a much older man, John Fraser was at the unveiling of the martyrs’ memorial in Woodside cemetery in 1867. Following in his footsteps over 100 years later, I remember thinking I had to write about this. It’s taken me a while but I’ve got there. Throughout the research and the writing, I’ve been struck again and again by the similarities between then and now.
It’s hard to resist the conclusion that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Too many families are having to turn to food and school uniform banks. Workers’ hard-won rights are in peril. If the privileged and the entitled ever ceded any of their power, they’re clawing it back now. We need radical voices and rebel stories more than ever. I’m looking forward very much to coming to Paisley to take part in the inaugural Paisley Book Festival.