Radicals, reformers and Red Clydeside

“Keep your eye on Paisley! – Benjamin Disraeli

This quote attributed to the then-UK Prime Minister in many ways encapsulated the radical spirit and traditions in Paisley.

Disraeli knew that the educated and organised workforce of the textile industry was a potential source of unrest for the establishment.

Artisan workers, in particular weavers, had been central to the Radical War of 1820 – a week of strikes and unrest motivated by the economic downturn after the Napoleonic Wars, ruthlessly fought by the establishment through a network of spies, informers and even armed militia.

The weavers’ fight to be recognised for their work is best remembered for the famous victory over the sma’ shot – a small piece of unseen but crucial thread in a finished garment for which the weavers went unpaid until 1856. The spirit of the weavers lives on today in the tradition of celebrating Sma’ Shot Day.

Two of the leading figures in the Red Clydeside movement of the early 20th century were shaped by their upbringing in Renfrewshire.

Willie Gallacher was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the last Communist Member of Parliament (MP). Born in Paisley in 1881, he fought his entire life to improve workers’ conditions and was jailed on more than one occasion.

Mary Barbour was born in the village of Kilbarchan in 1875. Also closely associated with the Red Clydeside movement, Barbour rose to prominence when she led the South Govan Women’s Housing Association during the Glasgow rent strikes of 1915.

With landlords increasing rent charges for an overcrowded and dilapidated housing stock, Barbour was a driving force behind refusal to pay and mass demonstrations against evictions. The pressure of the strike eventually forced the authorities to freeze rents at pre-war levels and agree to new legislation protecting tenants.

A cairn dedicated to Willie Gallacher is located on High Street, Paisley.

A cairn dedicated to Mary Barbour is located on New Street, Kilbarchan.

More about Paisley's radical traditions

Celebrate Paisley's radical traditions

Paisley has a wonderful historic heritage from the medieval until very recently, and is simply one of Scotland's most important places.

Professor Gerard Carruthers
Professor of Scottish Literature
University of Glasgow