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The 1820 Society

Honorary President
Peter Berresford Ellis

The 1820 Rising

‘Scotland Free or a Desert’Unlike the Jacobite rising of 75 years previously the action of 1820 came directly from Scotland’s working people and was wholly unrelated to the power struggles of aristocratic and social elites.

Economic and Social Conditions

The main driving force was economic. Britain had been in a state of war with revolutionary and Napoleonic France for almost 25 years and when this finally ended at Waterloo in 1815 the economic consequences were enormous.

Large numbers of ex-service personnel were released into a labour market already shrinking due both to the technological change of the industrial revolution and the disappearance of continental markets behind the French embargo on British goods.

No Right to Vote

Without pensions or any state social security the condition of thousands was desperate. There was no possibilitv of changing the government since the franchise was restricted to the propertied classes.

Armed Insurrection

In Scotland substantial numbers of working people decided on armed insurrection against the British state. Ideologically they were motivated, at a time when serious socialist thinking remained undeveloped, by the republican ideas of the American and French revolutions, by the writings of Thomas Paine and the egalitarian poetry of Robert Burns. James Wilson, one of the oldest of the 1820 radicals, probably knew Thomas Muir, the Glasgow-born advocate who had attempted to get military assistance from revolutionary France in 1795 to establish a Scottish republic.

Battle of Bonnymuir

The immediate military objective of the rising was the capture of the armaments factory at the Carron Ironworks near Falkirk. The radicals were however intercepted by the British army at Bonnymuir and routed. Three of its leaders, James Wilson of Strathaven, John Baird of Condorrat and Andrew Hardie of Glasgow were hanged. Nineteen others were transported to Australia.

Murder of Peaceful Protestors

In Greenock the British army fired into a peaceful demonstration protesting against the presence of political prisoners in the town jail, killing eleven men, women and children and seriously injuring dozens of others. No court martial or public enquiry whatsoever followed the tragedy. There is no memorial, street name, or any commemoration whatsoever in Greenock to these working class martyrs. This remains one of the 1820 Society’s main projects.

The 1820 Society

Originally founded in 1969 as the ‘1820 Comemoration Committee’, the Society exists precisely in order to publicise and commemorate the Scottish Radical Insurrection of 1820.

It carries out its commemorative function by holding Annual Rallies at the three 1820 Monuments at Sighthill Cemetery. Glasgow, burial ground of Baird and Hardie, at Strathaven, home town and last resting place of James Wilson, and at Woodside Cemetery, Paisley.

Throughout the 1970s the Society was kept going by its principal founding father, John Murphy, now an Honorary Vice-President. In 1984 it was reconstituted - with Jack Fuller as Chairman, Ian Bayne as Secretary, and Renfrew District councillor, Jim Mitchell, now also an Honorary Vice-President, as Press Officer.

In 1985 the new Committee launched a financial appeal for the Renovation of the sadly dilapidated Sighthill Monument. It raised almost £5,000, a sum matched by a further £5,000 from Glasgow District Council.

Plaque In October 1986 the renovated Memorial was unveiled by pupils from the nearby Sighthill Primary School - in the presense of invited civic dignatories and political and Trade Union representatives.

In 1989 the Society welcomed the publication of the paperback edition of the only full-length account of the Rising. ‘The Scottish Insurrection of 1820’ by Peter Berresford Ellis and Seumas Mac A’Ghobhainn. Its surviving co-author, Peter Berresford Ellis was elected Honorary President. In the same year the society also purchased a new Banner.

In 1990 – the 170th anniversary year of the Rising – as a culmination of extensive representation made by the Society a new headstone was erected by East Kilbride District Council at the probable site of James Wilson’s hitherto unmarked grave in Strathaven Cemetary.

And in 1992 Glasgow City Council erected a plaque on the Sighthill Memorial in memory of the 19 Scottish Radicals transported to Australia for their part in the 1820 Rising – with the Society itself bearing half of the cost.

James Wilson: The Strathaven Martyr

James Wilson was a weaver, an artisan, an educated man. He died in 1820. Born in 1760, he lived during a period when the poor were without liberty or guarantees of life; when all expressions of desire for change and every aspiration towards democracy were ruthlessly crushed. Wilson has been a radical all his life. He has been prominent in the Friends of the People, set up in the 1790s to achieve political reform. After the Napoleonic Wars, there was an economic slump. The country was seething with rebellion. The government decided to act by flushing out leading radicals. Wilson was to be caught in their trap.

Induced by a belief that a radical army of 7,000 had assembled outside Glasgow, he led, in April 1820, a group of 23 armed men from Strathaven with a banner declaring: ‘Scotland Free or a Desert’. By the time he reached Kilbride he was informed of the true situation , and returned home. Arrested, he was tried for treason and executed in Glasgow on 30th August.

At his trial Wilson, realising his fate was sealed, that he could obtain no justice from his condemners, appealed to posterity to do justice to his name, as a martyr "in glorious cause of liberty."

Wilson is buried in Strathaven. A headstone, erected in 1990, marks his grave. A monument from 1846 also stands in his honour.


The Society holds marches every year to the Martyrs Memorials at Strathaven, Paisley and Glasgow. These were formerly held by the Chartists and subsequently by the Independent Labout Party. They lapsed for many years until revived by the 1820 Society.

You can join the 1820 Society by sending a membership fee of £5 waged / £2 unwaged to William Douglas, Membership Secretary, 1820 Society, 252 Nether Auldhouse Road, Glasgow, G43 1LS

Visit their Web Site Here

Click here to read the book - The 1820 Rising - by James Halliday