The 1820 Radical Rising

The information on this webpage was kindly supplied by The 1820 Society.

In 1820, against a background of economic depression, groups of radicals held meetings throughout the country demanding political reform.

The government panicked and fifteen people were killed and hundreds injured when troops charged a peaceful meeting at St Peter’s Field in Manchester on 16 August 2019. As a result of the ‘Peterloo Massacre’, some of the Radicals decided to arm themselves to protect their meetings, and there were disturbances in several towns which alarmed the authorities.

In central Scotland, a number of radical societies were formed and held meetings to plan action. Their aim, like that of their English counterparts, was the right to form union, which was proscribed by the Six Acts, and the right to vote, to which the Scots added a Scottish Parliament.

These groups were infiltrated by government spies and on 21 March 1820 the leaders of the radical movement’s organising committee in Glasgow were arrested, but Glasgow Chief of Police, James Mitchell, kept the arrests secret in the hope that other radicals would take action that would enable the authorities to identify and apprehend them.

The General Strike

On 1 April, posters from the ‘Committee for the Reformation for Forming a Provisional Government’ were distributed in Glasgow calling a general strike on Monday 3 April 1820, demanding greater freedom for Scotland. John King, a weaver who had left the Glasgow meeting just before the police raid, with another weaver named John Craig, a tin-smith named Duncan Turner and an ‘Englishman’ named Robert (or Thomas) Lees were particularly active in the distribution of the proclamation and encouraging workers to take up arms in defence of their rights. There is evidence that they were working for the government as agents provocateurs with the aim of bringing the more militant radicals into the open.

On Monday 3 April, thousands went on strike throughout central Scotland with support being strongest in weaving communities. Troops were used to disperse crowds at Balfron and Stewarton, weapons were found at Kilbarchan and a curfew imposed in Paisley. Police arrested a group of radicals making their way out of Glasgow and their leader, John Craig, was brought to court and fined 5 shillings, which was paid by the magistrate, Mr Houldsworth, and he was promptly released.

Battle of Bonnymuir

Around sixty men assembled at Germiston in Glasgow on 4 April to march to Falkirk to seize Carron Ironworks and its supply of weapons. The men divided into two groups and a detachment numbering thirty, led by a former soldier, Andrew Hardie, marched from Glasgow towards Falkirk. Hardie had been given half a torn card by Duncan Turner and told his group would be joined at Condorrat by others, whose leader would have the other half of the card.

Another former soldier, John Baird, who had served with the 95th Regiment on the continent and was a weaver at Condorrat, was given the other half of the card by ‘John Andrews’ (John King) and told he would be joined by men from Glasgow who would have the matching half. Baird gathered a half-dozen radicals and awaited the arrival of a larger force. Hardie’s small group of around twenty-four men concerned Baird – he questioned if the plan was feasible with such a small number, but was reassured by John King that help would be forthcoming at Camelon. King left with a man named Kean to rally this support.

Meanwhile, the authorities were fully aware of the scheme, being kept up to date by the chief of police in Glasgow. Lt. Ellis Hodgson left Perth with a troop of 10th Hussars to defend Carron Ironworks, where he was told to expect an attack on 5 April. The troops travelled to Kilsyth where they were met by Lt. John Davidson and the Kilsyth troop of the Stirlingshire Yeomanry. There is reason to believe that the spies Turner, King and Craig kept the chief of police informed of events.

Baird, Hardie and their men arrived soaked and hungry at Castlecary early on the morning of 5 April where they were given food at the inn. Their presence was noted by a traveller, a Kilsyth trooper named Nicol Baird and a sergeant of the Hussars, who told the authorities. Lts. Hodgson and Davidson left Kilsyth with 16 Hussars and 19 Yeomanry and went to Bonnybridge.

At 9am, King met the radicals and told them to wait at Bonnymuir while he went on ahead to Camelon to gather support – there was no trace of Kean. Shortly afterwards, Hodgson’s troops arrived and, after speaking to a ‘stranger’, made straight for the radicals and fire was exchanged. After a short engagement some of the radicals fled, although Baird, Hardie and a few of the others put up what Hodgson described as ‘stout resistance’ before they were routed, the troops capturing 19 of them.

The prisoners were held first in Stirling Castle before being sent to Edinburgh for interrogation and later returned to Stirling to await trial. ‘Granny’ Duncan, who fed the castle prisoners, was able to smuggle letters to the prisoners by hiding them in her porridge pots. Thanks to her ingenuity, Hardie’s account of the events has survived.

On the day of Bonnymuir, James Wilson led an armed party of radicals from Strathaven to assist a force they had been told was on Cathkin Braes ready to attack Glasgow. Marching under a banner that read ‘Scotland Free or a Desart’, they made their way north. Warned at East Kilbride that a party of troops had been seen waiting for them, but had just left for Hamilton, Wilson turned back. The others carried on, but finding now Radical army and told of the defeat at Bonnymuir, they returned home.

In the days after the rising, raid were carried out in several areas, with Wilson and several other arrested and taken to Glasgow to await trial.

The Trials

Lord President Hope informed the Grand Jury in Stirling on 23 June that the men taken in arms at Bonnymuir were to be tried on charges of high treason by a Special Commission of Oyer and Terminer. Scots Law, he claimed, was not equipped to deal with such offences. The decision to try the insurgents under English Law caused concern, as did the presence in court of two leading members of the English legal establishment – Sir Samuel Shepherd, the Lord Chief Baron, as advisor on English law, and Mr Sergeant John Hullock to conduct the prosecution. The clerk of arraigns, Thomas Knapp, was also English.

During the opening session of Hardie’s Grand Jury trial on 13 July, Francis Jeffrey questioned Hullock’s right to plead in a Scottish court. Hullock, in his response, was so slighting about the Scots and Scotland that the high Tory Sheriff of Scotland, Sir Ranald MacDonald of Staffa, sent Jeffrey a note saying he would second him if challenged to a duel. Lord President Hope sensed what was happening and persuaded Hullock to apologise to Jeffrey to allow the trial to continue.

On 20 July, Wilson was brought before the court in Glasgow and charged with High Treason. Witnesses testified to him being a long-time Radical and friend of reformers, while a publicity campaign tried to paint him as an atheist. The jury found him guilty on only one of the four main charges, and recommended mercy on account of his age: the judge ignored their plea and sentenced him to be hanged, drawn and quartered – the last part was, in the mercy of the King, not carried out.

On 4 August, the trial began at Stirling of the Glasgow detachment of Andrew Hardie, together with the Condorrat men, John Baird, John Barr, William Smith and Thomas MacFarlane – all weavers who had been captured at Bonnymuir. Each of the accused was to be tried separately and Lord Hope ordered that there be no press reports until all the trials had been concluded to avoid ‘popular excitement’.

After Hardie was found guilty, Jeffery advised the others to plead guilty and hope for clemency. Lord President Hope wanted mercy but felt and example had to be made of the leaders, Baird and Hardie, who were sentenced to death, while the others were transported. It is perhaps significant that the leaders who were executed had been soldiers and seen active service during the Napoleonic Wars, which may explain why they were shown no mercy.


On 8 September 1820, Baird and Hardie were hanged and beheaded at Stirling. Some years later, their bodies were disinterred and reburied at Sighthill in Glasgow, where a monument was erected to their memory in 1847.

Of the Condorrat men transported, John Barr (1793-1862) was given 14 years and lived as a ‘woollen man’ in New South Wales until his death in 1862.

William Smith (1779-1862), and Irish weaver living in Condorrat, was given 14 years. He stayed in Australia and had a successful career in the woollen industry. His family became lawyers and educationists.

Only one returned to Scotland – the weaver Thomas McFarlane (1775-1851) who had been wounded at Bonnymuir and given a life sentence. In 1839, he returned to Scotland staying again in Condorrat, and was buried in Cumbernauld Parish churchyard in 1851.

Before a crowd of 20,000 gathered at Glasgow Green, James Wilson was hanged and beheaded as the crowd shouted ‘Murder!’ at the hangman. His family recovered his body later that night and took it to Strathaven for burial. In 1846, a monument was erected at the cemetery to commemorate his sacrifice.