Siol nan Gaidheal

1820 and all that

James ‘Purlie’ Wilson. Martyr.

Wallace stands a lofty name,
Dear to freedom, dear to fame
But cold is now the sacred flame
That fir'd the knight of Elderslie!

View old slaughter'd Wilson bled -
Look where Baird and Hardie fled
Scotsmen weep for freedom fled
With Wallace knight of Elderslie!


James Wilson was born in his parents cottage in Kirkyard Street opposite Hole Close in the parish of Avondale on the 5th of September 1760. The family of James Wilson had been weavers for generations. James learned the trade from his earliest years whilst attending the parish school in Sandknowe where he gained an elementary education. Further education was not to be, the family had to struggle to survive and James’ nimble fingers were put to good use making hosiery. In his late teens his parents both died and he was left to carry on the family business in 1780 which he did from the family home.

James was part of an extended family of weavers and among the best known weavers of this name was Wilson of Bannockburn. For over 150 years, their firm wove checked cloth and tartans. They supplied the Government with the tartan cloth for the highland regiments, and following the repeal of the Act of Proscription in 1782, they collected many ancient setts, designed others to order and were naturally in the thick of the tartan revival of the 19th century.

James Wilson’s main claim to fame was the invention of the stocking-frame, on which the pearl stitch could be worked. It became well known and copied widely and due to this invention, he was commonly referred to as 'Purlie Wilson' With success came relative financial security and so he married and had six children, of which sadly only one daughter survived to adulthood, the others dying in infancy or childhood.

When James Wilson turned 50 in 1810, the process of making a living was getting steadily more difficult. The lowlands were being flooded with ‘Cleared’ highlanders seeking employment in the new mills and factories. To the east, Robert Owens water powered cotton mill was located at New Lanark. This mill could produce cheaper cloth 24 hours a day and the hand loom weavers just could not compete. There was still a market for handwoven cloth but it was diminishing and to make matters worse, displaced weavers flocked to Strathaven and by 1812 there were approximately 680 weavers sharing out the meagre gleanings of work.

The Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the American invasion of Canada caused the British state a massive debt problem and consequently new taxes had to be created to pay for it. Problems then increased when three years later the Tories, under the leadership of the Earl of Liverpool, passed the Corn Laws Act. This edict forbade the importation of foreign wheat until the price of home wheat reached 320 shillings a hundredweight, and when one notes that it takes 112 pounds of wheat to make 81 pounds of flour, bread became a luxury for the poor not a staple. The Act helped landlords, farmers, corn merchants, but placed greater hardship on the workers. Feelings soon rose and discontent swept the country. Radical changes were needed in the House of Commons if the Corn Laws were to be repealed.

The weavers of Strathaven were only a small part of the association known as Radicals. On 27th April, 1815, they held a meeting in the Relief Church (now the East Parish Church), Strathaven, to effect ways and means to repeal the unjust Corn Laws. When it had adjourned, the men went to Wilson's house to seek his valued advice and opinion on whether or not they should raise the Strathaven Radicals.

The next five years saw discontentment soaring with the cost of living and James Wilson's house became a frequent rendezvous for fellow weavers and other Radicals. Two men, Logie Robertson and Robert Stevenson (a blood relative of the famous author, Robert Louis Stevenson), emerged from the Strathaven Radicals to become prominent leaders of its militant faction. James Wilson, although a principal representative of Radicalism in Strathaven, favoured a more peaceful approach to the situation.

From 1800 onwards 'Purlie' diversified into tinsmithing, with a sideline in repairing clocks and guns. He is remembered for rearing and training pointer dogs and in shooting game. He is known to have practised in the medical profession as dentist and surgeon. James Wilson also composed scraps of satirical poetry, with good effect judging by the reactions to it. He was a freethinker in the matter of religion. He told formal Christians 'he was not of their religion.' Nothing pleased him so much as being given a tract or pamphlet that either exposed the deviousness of the British Government or the Christian Religion. He procured a copy of Thomas Paines 'Age of Reason' a work that chiefly condemned the established churches of the day by the famous radical who was surprisingly himself the son of a Quaker. Wilson also procured a pamphlet termed 'The God of the Jews,' and some other deistic tracts. He read them and repeated their tenets and lent them to all that would pursue them. Free-thinking was frowned upon by the establishment of his day and it was highly dangerous to air such views.

Purlie Wilson commenced his political activism around 1792, when some of the Whig members of parliament formed themselves into a society named the 'Friends of the People.' A society, of their circle was formed at Strathaven. It consisted at first of the Commissioners of Supply, Heritors and respectable and intelligent people of that parish. James Wilson and others of his rank, deemed fit to attend only as spectators were permitted to listen but not take part.

When it was found that the Duke of Hamilton and the noblemen and Gentlemen of the country were hostile to the visionary reforms then projected, and after the society had published their sentiments at large on that subject, most of the members became disheartened and withdrew. As they did so, James Wilson, with some weavers and other mechanics committed to the Radical cause, came forward, held frequent meetings and published new resolutions. The weavers, were revolutionary and worldly in their views — at their meetings they read Cobbett's Register (See Note 1 at end), the Black Dwarf (See Note 2.) and other radical pamphlets and held staunchly to causes such as the world-wide 'Abolition of Slavery!' A Union society of which Wilson was class leader, met in his house and others were formed in different parts of the town under his directions. James Wilson's house became the place of general rendezvous from 1795 onwards.

In 1813, two years before the defeat of Napoleon, the trouble began with a general strike of 40,000 weavers throughout Scotland. With wages at 8s 6d. per week, and the pack of meal at 3s., their case was hard enough, but the strike did not make the times better, and with the arrest and brutal punishment of the leaders it collapsed after a couple of months.

Following the Napoleonic wars in 1815, newly discharged soldiers returning to their homes faced the dire prospect of unemployment. At the same time, among the starving and unemployed people the ideas of the French and American Revolutions were at work, to propagate discontent and instigate rebellion. The French satirist Voltaire's famous quotation: 'Work banishes those three great evils; boredom, vice and poverty' was widely propagated. The full blast of disaster descended upon Glasgow in 1816. In the first three months of that year the bankruptcies in the city (See Note 3.) involved sums amounting to two million pounds sterling. In October of that year some 40,000 persons assembled peaceably at Thrushgrove near the city, and passed resolutions demanding redress of grievances; and so alarmed were the city magnates at the risks of riots breaking out that mobilized the 42nd Highlanders at the Gallowgate Barracks under arms in readiness for action. Also the 7th and 10th Hussars, under the command of Sir Richard Hussey Vivian, the government's leading expert in cavalry tactics and expressly sent north by the Duke of York in case of disturbances.

This gathering marked the opening stages of the 'Radical' movement in the West of Scotland. In December some actual rioting did occur, but was quickly suppressed by the prompt action of the city magnates, the sheriff depute, and the justices of the peace.

The first seeds of Conspiracy

Early in 1817 the events took a more serious turn, when an attempt was made in London on the life of the Prince Regent, as he returned from opening Parliament. At the same time within Glasgow itself, serious conspiracies were said to be afoot. The desperate unemployed cotton spinners were known to be plotting lawless outbreaks, and a secret enquiry by the Government discovered the existence of a treasonable oath by which certain persons had bound themselves to secure universal suffrage and annual parliaments, either by democratic means or by force.

The Reverend Neil Douglas, a dissenting minister in the city, did what he could to inflame the crowds which went to hear him, by fierce invective against the King, the Prince Regent, and the House of Commons. Earl Grey stated in the House of Lords that Glasgow was 'one of the places where treasonable practises were said, in the report of the secret committee of both Houses, to prevail to the greatest degree.'

Acts of lawlessness became more and more common throughout 1819. A riot on the Kings birth night, 4th June 1819, did a considerable amount of damage. The spirit of rebellion, nevertheless was becoming more evident.

The Government Spy System.

Among the friends of the Radical activists it was afterwards argued that the troubles were stirred up by Government agents provacateur, who first stirred up rebellion, and then profited by betraying the rebels. Even the precautions taken by the authorities to maintain order were blamed as acts of repression which stimulated outrage. Throughout the autumn of 1819 the Town Council had found it necessary, for the preservation of peace, to have cavalry stationed in the city of Glasgow. A corps of special constables also was recruited. Night after night the streets were crowded with an idle populace, ready for riot, and again and again the cavalry were required to clear the thoroughfares. Glasgow was believed by the Government to be the headquarters of the revolutionists in Scotland, and that view was justified as it was in Glasgow that the actual outbreak took place. Towards the end of 1819, the working classes of the city of Glasgow were in great distress through want of employment and the state of affairs was caused by political actions. It was usual to see thousands of workmen parading the streets in military order demanding employment or bread. The magistrates responded as best they could with a programme of public works for the benefit of many of them. Some major improvements were effected on the aspect of the Glasgow Green by the labours of these unfortunate men.

The cry for reform arose again as people continued to demand greater liberty and a deeper interest in State affairs, but the British Government was determined to suppress what they considered rebellion against all constituted authority. Government spies were engaged and paid to ferret out all ramifications of the suspected conspiracy and these spies, faithful only in their unscrupulousness, reported that deeply laid schemes were afoot for the overthrow of King and constitution. Glasgow was believed by those in authority to be the Scottish centre of the revolutionary movement based mainly on information passed upwards from the spies. It was in fact the centre of the Government spy system and the location of a highly profitable but thoroughly dishonest and disreputable conspiracy amongst the government spies. Alexander Richmond, a weaver from pollockshaws in Glasgow, had in 1817 been revealed to be a Government Agent. Although Richmond had been exposed as a spy he remained as spymaster controlling the activities of a tiny group of British agents who’d wormed their way into the movement right upto the highest level. One of these informers, Alexander King of Glasgow infiltrated the weavers' unions early in 1819 and now sat on the Provisional Committee and informed his spymasters of a secret meeting to take place in Glasgow on 21 March.

From December to March there had been much covert actions across Scotland, even open evidence of radicals preparing for insurrection, and many false alarms and rumours of rebellion. The authorities waited for the right moment to act and when the planned meeting took place, burst in and arrested the 27 members of the Provisional Committee. Correspondence from the time is available as this missive from the Glasgow police commander to Lord Sidmouth shows, they put their own plan into action: “A week passed we apprehended their committee of organisation due to the efforts of an informant who has served his Government well. .... The President of this rabble has confessed their audacious plot to sever the Kingdom of Scotland from that of England and restore the ancient Scottish Parliament… if some plan were conceived by which the disaffected could be lured from their lairs being made to think the day of “liberty” had come – we could catch them abroad and undefended. The military in north Britain is more than adequate to round up such vermin. Our intelligence leads us to believe that few know of the apprehension of the leaders in this odious plot and so no suspicion would attach itself to the plan at all. I have given instructions to our informants on these lines…. and in a few days time shall you judge the results. It would by the necessity of their punishment, which must be harsh – quench all thoughts of patriotic pride and Radical feeling among the disaffected.”

Long after after he was exposed in 1817, the case was reviewed in 1934 at the instigation of the Court of Exchequer. It became clear that Richmond had reported directly to Lords Sidmouth and Castlereagh on the political situation in the city. He was directly responsible for the entrapments that brought Hardie, Baird, and Wilson to the scaffold and the block in 1820. He fabricated many treasonable documents, to which under false representation, he obtained the adherence of a number of reformers, whose naivety enabled him to betray them. Hence, even today, the vile name of Richmond is as infamous as that of the detested false Menteith, the betrayer of the patriot Sir William Wallace.

Posting of a Rebellious Bill, April 1st 1820

The first sign of what appeared to be a powerful organisation against the government was the posting of a bill — a direct incitement to rebellion — on the streets of Glasgow early on the morning of Sunday, 1st April 1820. 'Friends and Countrymen,' it ran, 'Roused from the state in which we have been sunk for so many years, we are at length compelled... to assert our rights at the hazard of our lives.' It continued in glowing terms, urging the people to take arms to regenerate their country. The document was signed 'By order of the Committee of Organisation for forming a Provisional Government.'

The people read it on their way to church, and were amazed and horror-struck; the magistrates were alarmed, and called upon the aid of the military. The rifle Brigade, the 80th and 83rd Regiments of Foot, the 7th and 10th Hussars, several Regiments of Yeomanry, and the Glasgow Sharpshooters - a regiment of volunteers under the command of Samuel Hunter editor of the 'Herald' newspaper — were all ordered for duty in Glasgow and its neighbourhood.

The Magistrates Reaction to the Posting of the Bill.

On Monday morning, 2nd April, Magistrates issued a proclamation ordering 'all shops to be shut this and every following night, until tranquillity is restored, at the hour of six, and they hereby enjoin all inhabitants of the city to retire to their houses as soon as possible thereafter, and not later than seven o' clock. All strangers are hereby enjoined to withdraw from the city before seven o' clock at night. Parties or groups of people standing together, or walking on the streets after the hour of seven, will be deemed disturbers of the peace, and will be dealt with accordingly.'

On the 3rd of April, the municipal authorities informed the public that the whole military force of the district would be employed in the most decisive manner against those who assisted in the rebellious movement. Here we see some evidence of the authorities attempting to drive a wedge between the unemployed workers and the educated more prosperous merchants and intellectuals, from where the main leaders of the uprising had already come. Andrew Wilson of Camlachie is typical of this being himself a Merchant in the city, but taking on the reins of the Leading Glasgow Radical. This was precisely the way the revolution had been fermented in France - with middle-class merchant's and thinkers funding and leading the army of workers. The Government recognised this and targeted the leaders, thus attempting to prevent a repeat of what had occurred in Revolutionary France.

On the 8th of April, a Royal proclamation was read at the Glasgow Cross, offering £500 reward for the detection of the authors and printers of the treasonable document of 1st April.  Meanwhile, the government spies were busy preparing their victims; and were endeavouring to rouse the lower orders to a rebellious state, by telling them, at meetings called solely for the purpose, that England was already in arms for the cause of reform and that troops where coming from France to assist them in their movement for Liberty. Fifty thousand French soldiers were to encamp on Cathkin Braes and that Glasgow and its wealth were to be seized in the name of the Provisional Government.

Already it was claimed that a Radical army from England had advanced upon Falkirk and were about to take possession of the Carron Iron Works, then famous for the manufacture of the cannon; and the London mail was to be stopped before it entered Glasgow. Such were the scale of the lies propagated by Government Spies and believed by the starving and unemployed workers of the city of Glasgow!

The Man From Glasgow

The first arrest made was that of James Wilson the Strathaven Radical - who on the Monday following the posting of the Treasonable Proclamation, had been told by one of the Glasgow spies of the glorious news. James Wilson was doubtful of the story he was being told by 'the man from Glasgow' (who was actually a government spy attempting to dupe the Strathaven Radicals into a premature march and then profit by betraying them)! Wilson in his wisdom delegated a man to go to the Cathkin Braes to see for himself.

Some twenty of the village reformers then met in Wilson's house after being 'harangued' by the spy from Glasgow who was attempting to force Wilson and the other reformers into a premature march. The sent man had returned after only a few minutes and said, that he had saw no sign of French soldiers on the Braes, yet the spirited Radicals enthused by the Glasgow Spies news, started on their doomed march to the city. With their nine guns and as many pikes to overthrow the throne and the altar, and to assume the reins of Government. One of them announced on the street at their departure 'to give no quarters.'

Thus the Government emissaries had succeeded in fooling the detachment of Strathaven radicals into a premature march — with their leading banner, 'Strathaven, Liberty or Death!'. After a night of terrible disappointment, waiting for the battalions which never came; in the morning light, their spirit broken and knowing now they had been duped by government agents and were now fugitives, the Strathaven Radicals wisely scattered for home. James Wilson had carried a banner in the march with the words, 'Scotland free or a desert! Strathaven Union' inscribed upon it. Wilson was no sooner in his house than he was seized by the police and taken, first to Hamilton barracks, and afterwards to Glasgow on a charge of High Treason.

On July 20th, 1820, he was formally charged for high treason in the High Court, Glasgow. Knowing that Wilson had been voicing his opinions on reform for many years, prosecuting attorneys felt that this case would serve as an ideal example before the populace. James Wilson pled not guilty to the charge and appointed John A. Murray to defend him. (In later life Mr. Murray became Lord Advocate for Scotland.)

Near the end of the second day the jury retired to deliberate. Two hours later the foreman of the jury, Charles Stirling of Cadder and a commander of Glasgow Yeomanry (Light Horse), announced their unanimous verdict of guilty, but under the circumstances, begged the court to temper justice with mercy, recommending the accused to the Clemency of the Crown. Wilson's composure remained steady when he heard the verdict. Then Lord President Hope asked him: " . . . as to what he had to say for himself".

A defiant Wilson drew himself proudly upright and retorted: "I am not deceived. You might have condemned me without this mummery of a trial. You want a victim. I will not shrink from the sacrifice. I am ready to lay down my life in support of these principles which must ultimately triumph."

The judge Lord Hope, began his address: "The intermediate evils your mischief might have produced are terrible to think of. I advise you to prepare for the utmost extreme; and if mercy be extended to you, you will not be the worst man for the attention which you may give to your religious concerns."

This ominous statement forewarned that the Lord President had failed to heed the jury's recommendation of clemency. In fact the sentence was made purposely cruel pour encourager autres. He immediately went on: "The sentence of the law is . . ." he paused briefly, ". . . that you be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution, on the 30th August, and after being hung by the neck till you are dead; that your head be severed from your body; and your body be cut in quarters; to be at the disposal of the King; and the Lord have mercy on your soul." The weaver eloquently replied to the court: "My Lords and Gentlemen, I will not attempt the mockery of a defence. You are about to condemn me for attempting to overthrow the oppressors of my country. You do not know, neither can you appreciate, my motives. I commit my sacred cause, which is that of freedom, to the vindication of posterity."

As the Lord President began to comprehend the theme of Wilson's speech, he arrogantly interrupted the prisoner's every paragraph. But Wilson stubbornly continued: "You may condemn me to immolation on the scaffold, but you cannot degrade me. If I have appeared as a pioneer in the van of freedom's battles; if I have attempted to free my country from political degradation; my conscience tells me that I have only done my duty. "Your brief authority will soon cease, but the vindictive proceedings of this day shall be recorded in history. The principles for which I have contended are as immutable, as imperishable, as the eternal laws of nature. My gory head may in a few days fall on the scaffold and be exposed as the head of a traitor, but I will appeal with confidence to posterity.”

"When my countrymen will have exalted their voices in bold proclamation of the rights and dignity of humanity, and enforced their claim by the extermination of their oppressors, then, and not till then, will some future historian do my memory justice, then will my name and sufferings be recorded in Scottish history - then my motives will be understood and appreciated; and with the confidence of an honest man, I appeal to posterity for that justice which has in all ages and in all countries been awarded to those who have suffered martyrdom in the glorious cause of liberty." And at last he was finished.

Lord President Hope warned the newspaper reporters 'to use discretion in their journals.' They not only obeyed (just like the modern media puppets), at least one of them (The Glasgow Herald) blatantly lied, reporting " . . . he (Wilson) stammered out a few words in an incoherent manner". "I acknowledge that I die a true patriot for the cause of freedom for my poor country, and I hope that my countrymen will still continue to see the necessity of a reform in the way of the country being better represented, and I am convinced that nothing short of universal suffrage and annual parliaments will be of any service to put to the present corrupted state of the House of Commons; therefore I hope my dear countrymen will unite and stand firm for their whole rights."

On Wednesday afternoon, 30th August, 1820, dressed in prison garb and securely shackled, Wilson was led from the gaol and bound onto a hurdle or gate. The horse-drawn hurdle sounded hollowly as it trundled over filthy cobbled streets on its way to Glasgow Green where a multitude of more than twenty thousand people waited in silence. It was just a few minutes to three o'clock when the prisoner, his head high, dignified and proud, calmly walked to the scaffold steps where his executioner waited.

Thomas Moore was a twenty-year-old medical student who had volunteered for the macabre task. He was sombrely attired in a grey coat with black trousers and fur hat. A strip of black crepe masked his face. At his feet lay the black bag containing tools of his trade: The scalpels and saws that would soon be utilized to surgically eviscerate, decapitate, and finally quarter the victim.

Two clergymen attended Wilson, the Rev. D. Dewar of the Tron Church, and the Rev. Grenville Ewing of the Independent Church. Cries of sympathy exuded from the gathering and "Shame, Shame, he dies for his country!" could be heard as Wilson climbed the scaffold. The crowd's noisy manner caused an officer of 3rd Dragoons to panic, and surmising that a rescue was about to be attempted, ordered his men to charge and disperse some of them. The mass of people remained sullen but tense.

As the noose encircled Wilson's neck, a handkerchief was placed in his hands to be used to signify that he was ready to meet his Maker. The handkerchief dropped to the boards and the executioner did his duty. 'Wilson's body was convulsed with agitated jerks for five minutes and some blood appeared through the cap opposite the ears, but upon the whole he seemed to die very easily' The Glasgow Herald callously reported the next day. One account tells of people fainting.

Perhaps the crowd's mood deterred Thomas Moore from completing his task, but for whatever reason, Wilson's body was not mutilated. The young man immediately left Scotland and was last heard of in Mayrowe, Co. Londonderry.

In another week's time this unruffled, grey-haired man would have been sixty years old. The corpse was cut down, laid in a rude coffin, and transported to pauper's ground near the High Church of Glasgow then buried.

In the gloaming of that same day, Purlie Wilson's daughter and niece reopened the grave and manoeuvred the coffin over the cemetery wall into a waiting cart that was probably owned by Wilson's friend, William Fleming. The remains were back in Strathaven before dawn where a large crowd waited to show respect to the deceased. There was no demonstration, a condition made to allow the "stealing" of the body. When the coffin lid was raised, it was noticed that the dropped handkerchief had been retrieved to cover the deceased's countenance. (This handkerchief is preserved and can be viewed in the John Hastie Museum, Strathaven.)

The next day James "Purlie" Wilson was buried in the Old Graveyard just a few metres from his back door, not as a traitor, but as a revered patriot. Mrs. Wilson never recovered from the tragedy and spent many a sad and weary night mourning by her husband's grave.

Hardie & Baird

Late on the night of Tuesday 3rd April, about seventy men — headed by a Glasgow weaver, Sgt. Andrew Hardie - met on the Fir Park, now the Necropolis, and having been furnished with pikes, swords, muskets and ammunition by the spies, who then made their excuses and departed - the men were directed to march to Falkirk, where they would meet their English radical comrades. On the way a halt was made in the village of Condorrat, and a weaver named John Baird, with a small party of weavers — was persuaded to join the expedition. The next day they neared Falkirk but no English Radicals were to be seen.

This demoralised many of them who left the company, fearing something was amiss and the thirty who remained were resting among some enclosures at Bonnymuir in the vicinity of Castlecary, when a troop of the 7th Hussars came upon them. The misguided men refused to surrender, hastily formed a solid square — as was employed in the recent battle of Waterloo - and attempted to withstand the overwhelming charge of the cavalry. They were overcome, nearly every one of them was wounded — although they are said to have fared well — all were made prisoners. Carts were procured for the conveyance of the injured and all were taken to Stirling Castle, where they were placed in the military prison.

The news of all these doings created a great sensation throughout the country; and the King appointed a Special Commission for the trial of the rebels. Scots law was pushed aside and an eminent English Lawyer, John Hullock, supervised the prosecution according to the English law of Treason! Hullock had been sent up from London to see that Jeffrey and the other Whig counsel who might defend the radicals would be matched fully in legal subtlety, for Lord Castlereagh wanted a 'lesson on the scaffold.' This was necessary as Hullock had no legal standing under Scots law.

72 'wanted' rebels fled from the Bridgeton district of Glasgow - but under bogus names they shot up again in other districts, with a fiercer revolutionary temper, with new secret oaths, and with terrible threats upon spies and informers. There are many parts of the story missing here since the British government purposefully destroyed important records regarding radicals who were arrested and imprisoned and physically removed several pages of records from the public records office, which effectively made people and their families non-persons! The only other copy of these records remains to this day, tightly under lock and key and is the exclusive right of the Scottish Secretary of State.

Due to the measures employed by the Authorities to wipe the events of 1820 from history — the story has survived mainly through the government biased newspaper accounts of the radicals trials and through the written work of the then radical historian Peter McKenzie - but mostly it has survived by being passed down by word of mouth, within the families of the Scottish Radicals, who rigidly maintained this tradition in defiance. So effective was the Governments obliteration of the history of the Uprising, that only in the last 10 years has it become part of the History course taught in Scottish secondary schools through public pressure although it is still considered by 'the powers that be' to be an act of Sedition and is not discussed openly!

A special court of Oyer and Terminer (English Law, not Scots) met at Stirling on the 23rd of June and eighteen of the prisoners captured at Bonnymuir were brought up on a charge of high treason. Among the accused were John Baird, the Condorrat weaver and Andrew Hardie of Glasgow. With the exception of Baird and three others, all of the accused belonged to Glasgow.

The trial was conducted in the English fashion, and the case was first of all put before a grand jury, who after two days' hearing found true bills against all the prisoners for high treason; and the Lord President fixed the trial for 6th July. On the 6th July - 'trial commenced amid the greatest excitement' — eighteen of them were brought up for trial at Edinburgh on a charge of high treason and notwithstanding the eloquence of Francis Jeffrey, who was retained for their defence, all were convicted.

The celebrated Francis Jeffrey - later to become the Lord rector of Glasgow University - was retained for their defence, but his eloquence was unavailing. Sentence of death was pronounced on Hardie and Baird as ringleaders and the day of doom was appointed for Friday, 8th September.

ADDENDUM. Newspaper reports of Wilsons Trial and Execution.

Extracts from the Glasgow Herald; detailing Wilson's Trial and Execution
The court met this day at nine o' clock, consisting of the Lord President of the Court of Session, Lord Hope, the Lord Justice Clerk, the Lord Chief Baron of the Court of Exchequer, the Lord Chief Commissioner of the Jury Court, and Lord Pitmilly.
On the part of the Crown the Counsel are, The Lord Advocate, the Solicitor - General, Mr. Hullock; Mr. H.H. Drummond and Mr. Hope, the Lord Advocate's Deputes; Mr. Menzies, Mr. Knapp; and Mr. James Arnott, W.S., agent.
On the opposite side of the table, Mr. J.K. Murray, Mr Grahame, Mr Montieth, Mr. Pyper, Mr. Cullen, Mr. Miller, and Mr. Sandford Advocates. Agents, Mr. Harmer, the English Attorney, who conducted the trials which lately took place at Manchester, and Messrs. Fleming and Strang of this city. James Wilson was put to the bar, having been brought from Bridewell Prison.

The Lord President prohibited, in the most positive manner, the publication of the evidence, or the speeches of the Counsel; in the case of Wilson or any of the other trials which are to take place in Glasgow or elsewhere, until the whole proceedings against the persons accused of High Treason are finished; his Lordship observing, that the cases were all in some degree connected together as one grand conspiracy, and that it would be inconsistent with public justice, if the witnesses in one trial could read in the newspapers, previous to their own examination, the evidence of other witnesses. His Lordship trusted his prohibition would be attended to, as it's violation would bring down on the heads of violators the severest penalties of the law.

The case for the prosecution opened on July 20th 1820. James Wilson was put to the bar. The Indictment was read by the Clerk of Arraigns, charging the prisoner with sticking up in various places, and acting upon the recommendation of, the Glasgow Treasonable Address of the 1st April, which was read as part of the indictment; with procuring arms and ammunition for the purpose of levying war against our Lord the King, and, along with others, marching in military array, with arms in their hands, for the purpose of making war on the soldiers of the King; with appointing commanders to lead them against the troops of the country, with imprisoning various subjects of the King, for the purpose of forcing them to accompany them in levying war against the government of the country, and arraying themselves in military order in the parish of Avondale, on or about the 6th April, with Arms in their hands, for the avowed purpose of assisting to overthrow the constitution. The Indictment occupied two hours in reading.

Mr Hope then stated to the Jury the heads of the several Counts of the Indictment, charging the prisoner with levying war against the King and constitution. Wilson was charged also with the further iniquity of imagining the death of the king.

Thursday 20th July 1820:

Twenty-eight witnesses were examined on the part of the Crown. The prisoner emitted two declarations. The court concluded at twelve o' clock, to meet on Friday 21st at ten. It is interesting to note that one of the chief witnesses against Wilson was Sheriff Aiton of Hamilton, Aiton had already proven himself an unreliable witness and had actually confessed to having attempted to bribe men into forging pikes so that they should be liable for a charge of treason.

Friday 21st July 1820:

The court met at ten o' clock. The court was engaged in the examination of exculpatory witnesses. Thirty-two witnesses were examined in exculpation in the case of James Wilson. The Jury retired at seven o' clock; and after being absent two hours, they returned in to the court and delivered the verdict. Finding him Guilty on the 4th count — and Not Guilty on the other counts. The Fourth count on which the prisoner has been convicted, is 'compassing to levy war against the King, in order to Compel him to change his measures.' The Foreman, Mr. James Ewing, merchant of Glasgow, in the name of the Jury recommended him to the mercy of the crown.

Monday 24th July 1820:

James Wilson found Guilty before the Court of the High Commission was sentenced to be executed as a traitor on the 30th of August. He has been recommended to the mercy of the King. The death sentence passed on Wilson was as follows; 'The sentence of the law is - To be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution on the 30th August, and after being hung by the neck till you be dead, that your head be severed from your body, and your body cut in quarters at the disposal of the King; and the Lord have mercy upon your soul.'

After the sentence was passed. The prisoner was then taken from the court without showing any signs of agitation and taken to one of the iron rooms of Glasgow Jail.

Glasgow Herald; September 1st 1820:

The day previous to the execution, he was visited by his wife, daughter and grandchildren. The interview was short, all parties conducted themselves in the most becoming manner, but none of that excess of feeling shown on these distressing occasions was displayed by any of the parties. It is worth noting that the jury who found Wilson guilty likewise recommended him to the Royal Clemency; but notice was shortly afterwards received that he was not considered a proper object of mercy by the Government.

The fate of these unfortunate men excited the utmost commiseration, and influential petitions in their favour were forwarded to Government, but without success. It is believed that one or two other applications were made, but they were equally ineffectual.

Glasgow Herald Friday September 1, 1820:


Wednesday, pursuant to his sentence at the Court of Oyer and Terminer, held here on the 24th July. James Wilson, hosier in Strathaven, underwent full sentence of the law commonly executed found guilty of High Treason.

On Wednesday 30 August 1820, the day was fine and the crowd assembled was some 20,000 spectators. The ground was well guarded; by a party of the rifle brigade, the 33rd regiment and a number of the 3rd dragoon guards. Wilson was dressed in white trimmed with black. After the customary prayer Wilson took a glass of wine and Dewar read various passages of scripture, providing the love and forgiveness of the Saviour for sinners, provided they confessed their sins and called upon him for mercy.

The Doctor beseeched him in an impassioned and earnest plea to lay hold of the Saviour, and look only to him for forgiveness; and hope that God in his infinite mercy would give him repentance of his sins. Part of the 51st Psalm was sung again beginning in the 7th and ending in the 12th verse, which Wilson appeared to join in with considerable earnest — frequently making a slight inclination of his head when the words appeared to suit his situation.

When he advanced a pretty firm step to the South door of the Hall, where he waited about a minute for the headsman, who came from the prison by the passage for the criminals dressed in a loose black dress, his face covered with crepe, and carrying a large axe in the right hand and a knife in the left. The cavalcade then proceeded to the South gate of the jail, where a hurdle, painted black, with seats in each side was waiting inside of the iron railings to convey Wilson to the scaffold.

He was assisted into it by the officers, the headsman was seated before him holding up his axe, and they were drawn along by a horse attached to the car, to the foot of the scaffold; 'Did you ever see sic a crowd as this', he said carelessly to the executioner. At 5 minutes to three he mounted the scaffold, when a tremendous shout, mixed with hissing, was set by the crowd, and cries of 'Murder,' and 'He is a murdered man,' were heard from all quarters.

The rope was speedily adjusted by the ordinary executioner; and Wilson being told according to stature, when all was ready, instantly gave the signal and the drop fell. Immediately amidst disapprobation cries, the outer part of the crowd were seen flying off in every direction, principally towards the Calton, and loudly bawling that 'the Cavalry were coming.'

A scene of great confusion was produced and some persons were severely bruised from the falls and the trampling they received.

In three minutes all was quiet again, and many of those who had fled returned to witness the conclusion of the horrid business. About five minutes after the body was suspended, convulsive motions agitated the whole frame, and some blood appeared through the cap, opposite the ears, but on the whole he appeared to die very easily.

At half past three, after hanging half an hour, his body was lowered upon three short spokes laid across the mouth of the coffin. His head was laid on the block with his face downwards, and the cap taken off, when there was again a repetition of disapprobation of the crowd.

The person in the mask, who had retired into the Hall when Wilson ascended the scaffold, was now called, he advanced to the body, which was placed at the front of the scaffold, amidst the execrations of the people, and after calmly feeling the neck for a moment, he lifted the axe, and at one blow severed the head from the body, which he held up, and proclaimed, 'This is the head of a traitor'. Vehement cries of 'It is false, he has bled for his country!', were heard from different quarters.

The headsman appeared to be about 20 years of age, of a genteel appearance, and executed his obnoxious task with the most determined coolness. The whole ceremony of the decapitation did not occupy above a minute, and at four o' clock the ground was clear, without any material accident having happened.

Although spared the final barbarity of being quartered, the weavers remains were buried in a paupers burying ground in Glasgow's High Church.

Note 1. Cobbetts Register.
COBBETT, William, editor. Annual Register [from 1804, Political Register]. London, various printers and publishers, 1802-12.
William Cobbett (1763-1835) a Unitarian Christian, started his political life as a Tory, but later became a radical, and this change is reflected in Cobbett's Political Register, a periodical he founded in 1802 and which continued for the rest of his life. Cobbett's Register 'ranks as one of his greatest achievements. He wrote a great part of it himself, overcoming even such obstacles as prison or exile, and under his hand (although there were frequent changes in publisher and printer until 1821), it became a pioneer of Radical journalism, and a power to be feared'

Note 2. The Black Dwarf (Radical Press)
On January 29th, 1817, the first edition of 'Black Dwarf' went on sale. The frontispiece of the first volume depicted Pan - holding the Black Dwarf's arm in the air — declaring his Victory! While a wig lay on its side by a set of Slaves Shackles that had been cast off. Elsewhere in the picture money and a wig is being burned on a bonfire, while a 'Jesters' cap sits upon a crown, telling us plainly 'The King of England is a fool!'. Pan's presence informing us — that this is a satirical publication.

The Black Dwarf was the major reformist paper which was read aloud by James Wilson and friends at their meetings. It was also very humorous, and reads well even today — which perhaps reflects the high standard of literacy of that time.

Note 3. Bankruptcies in Glasgow.
There was a severe economic downturn in the five years following the end of the Napoleonic wars. Trade which was artificially stimulated during the war years then slumped. Merchants and Tradesmen who had speculated and invested heavily in stocks were left with goods they could not sell. Shops were stocked with goods but no-one had the wherewithal to purchase them and so the Merchants and traders were forced into bankruptcy.

This had a knock on effect upon those who supplied them and depended on the income generated were suddenly left with nothing and had to compete in a contracting buyers market. Prices fell sharply and many Weavers and small tradesmen could no longer afford the Rents and other costs of production and were ruined.

However not all these bankruptcies were genuine. More than half of them were fraudulent in that Merchants and traders deliberately salted away their assets and filed for bankruptcy. One merchant who was adjudged bankrupt in 1819 with assets of only £7/11/9d then emigrated to Australia and was given a grant of 4000 acres in New South Wales. Within two years he was one of the wealthiest men in the state. Good on him you may say but you needed a lot of capital to be given a large grant of land, so where did the money come from? Within two years he owned 35,000 head of sheep so how did a bankrupt find the ready cash to buy his breeding stock? (There are still Business people using the same tricks today because of weaknesses in Company law.)

Of the remainder some 70% were forced into bankruptcy by debt speculators who would buy up a persons debts at a healthy discount from the Creditor, then force the debtor into sequestration where by the debtors possessions and assets became the property of the pursuer.

This is how it works. Weaver MacA is owed £500 by Trader MacZ. Speculator Mr MacScrooge buys the debt for say £150. Mr MacScrooge then demands the full payment within 7 days. Trader MacZ cannot pay so Mr MacScrooge applies as pursuer to the court for a petition of Sequestration on the grounds of non payment. This is granted and so Mr MacScrooge owns Trader MacZ’s assets but not his liabilities. Now those assets also include goods purchased from other people but not yet paid for. Result.... Many other suppliers lose their goods and the money due on them.

Mr MacScrooge sells the assets for what he can get and makes a handsome profit for little or no effort. Nowadays this process is euphemistically called ‘Asset Stripping’ or ‘being taken to the cleaners.’ I have in my possession a Glasgow accountants journal dating from 1821 which tells the story of how a merchants debt of £487/16/8d was purchased for £240/10- then the merchant was forced into Bankruptcy by the new debt owner (nowadays called ‘Loan Sharks’) and subsequently the traders assets realised £812/19/6d which gave the loan shark a tidy profit of £572/9/6d which is 238% return on outlay.

Francis Kerr Young

The Ballad of Pearlie Wilson
A true story

In a kirkyard grave in Strathaven town
there lies a brave, brave man,
who was hanged for treason by the Crown,
here's how it all began:

James Wilson knew the weaver's trade,
the purl stitch brought him fame
for seamless hose that his loom made
on a revamped stocking frame.
Scots weavers hailed this accolade:
"Noo Purlie is yer name!"

The Corn Laws brought on discontent,
great strife spread far afield,
when folk cried for abolishment,
the Tories would not yield;
soon Radicals became hell-bent
to have this Act repealed.

Pearlie cautioned each Radical
and gave them good advice:
"No violence . . . Be practical . . .
Petitions will suffice!"

James Wilson loved the Avondale,
he hunted, fished and laughed,
he lived on porridge, game and kale,
and weaving was his craft:
it seemed his wisdom would prevail
for Pearlie wisna daft!

A mob prepared for armed sedition,
as planned at Threestanes Farm,
they purloined guns and ammunition
which caused townsfolk alarm.

Hotheads ran wild, though Pearlie pleaded,
till came an army troop,they marched from Glasgow,
so was needed
an unsuspecting dupe.

Oh Purlie, Purlie, gang on hame,
an' kiss yer wife, Guidbye.
Oh Purlie, Purlie, Life's nae game
when ye're aboot tae die!

His trial was a mummery,
all Scotland did agree;
the jury urged for clemency,
the judge ignored their plea,
and promised Pearlie: "Hanged ye'll be
upon the gallows tree!"

For oan yon day, he left his loom
tae march for liberty,
auld Pearlie strode aff tae his doom
an' intae history:
Noo, Strathaven kirkyard hauds his tomb
(the ithers were set free).

Oh Purlie, Purlie, whit became
o' Justice, Truth, an' Richt?
Oh Purlie, Purlie, took the blame
for ither folk yon nicht.

The warp beam holds the upright thread,
the loom's our world so wide;
the weft is but the life we've led,
the heddles were our guide:
On Judgement Day our cloth is spread
revealing flaws we hide!

Sources and references:
Based on article by kind permission of David Cramb Wilson: "The work o' the weavers!" Copyright 1980-2006. His website can be found at:
The Scottish Insurrection of 1820' (Gollancz 1970, Pluto Free 1989) P. B. Ellis & S. Mac a'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
For more background economic and social history I recommend this book even though the 1820 rising is only mentioned obliquely.
A HISTORY OF THE SCOTTISH PEOPLE 1560 - 1830 (Collins 1969) T.C. Smout

Return to topReturn to History
On-Line Copyright © Siol nan Gaidheal 1995 - 2020, All Rights Reserved