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In this second extract from A People’s History of Scotland, Chris Bambery discusses working-class movements of the early nineteenth century

Chris Bambery, A People’s History of Scotland (Verso), 320pp.

As Scotland entered the nineteenth century, class warfare was never far beneath the surface, whatever repressive measures were employed. Despite the suppression of radical groups, the a first decade of the nineteenth century saw a Scotland-wide strike by paper workers, a series of strikes by calico printers in defence of working conditions and, in 1808, the founding of the General Association of Operative Weavers in Scotland. They demanded minimum payments for their work, and to win for their members ‘. . . fair hours and proper application, to feed, clothe and accommodate himself and his family’.[36]

When their demands were rejected, they struck, with some 30,000 looms lying idle. They also went to court, using legislation that allowed Justices of the Peace to regulate wages, and won. The employers ignored the verdict and the courts did not enforce their adjudication. The sheriffs of Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire instead had the strike organisers arrested, and as the strike crumbled the law regulating wages was scrapped.

Between 1780 and 1820 the number of weavers increased from 25,000 to 78,000, but that increase served to cut wages. In addition, the years immediately after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 saw an economic depression and rising food prices. The English reformer William Cobbett, touring Scotland and blaming bad government for people’s ills, advocated a complete change of government. In October 1816, an estimated 40,000 people came to hear him talk at Thrushgrove outside Glasgow. This was the biggest political gathering in the country’s history and heralded a new age of mass political involvement.

On 18 August 1812, Edinburgh’s new police force, together with soldiers from the castle, were sent to deal with ‘a riotous crowd in the Grassmarket who had seized meal carts and attacked the homes of meal-sellers after an extraordinary rise in the price of oatmeal’.[37] A further riot broke out in December 1818 after the bungled execution of one Robert Johnson outside the main post office in the High Street. The rope was too long and the crowd rescued Johnson before magistrates and police took him back, revived him and hanged him to death. In the rioting that followed, ‘nearly 200 panes of glass were smashed in the vicinity’.[38]

In September 1819, the Edinburgh Magazine reported on events from the 11th of that month, when a crowd of 12,000–18,000 had gathered for a reform rally at which sheriffs had banned flags and banners, sending in constables to seize them: ‘The crowd resisted and commenced throwing stones and other missiles, by which the council chamber windows were broken.’

In the wake of the cutting down of scores of demonstrators demanding parliamentary reform at Peterloo in Manchester, a protest rally in September 1819 drew 15,000 to 18,000 to Meikleriggs Moor outside Paisley. As the rally ended, a crowd marched down Paisley High Street carrying flags in defiance of orders from the authorities banning such protest. Special constables, the magistrates and the town provost blocked their route, and the provost ordered the flags to be seized. In the fighting that followed, the forces of law and order fled, leaving the rioters in control of the town. For five days the people had control, with running battles taking place whenever the authorities tried to interfere. Eventually troops were brought in to restore order.[40] Radicals also demonstrated in Johnstone, with banners proclaiming, ‘Sir William Wallace like our ancestors we’ll defend our liberty and our laws’ and ‘We are the descendants of Wallace and Bruce’.[41]

The Radical War of 1820, as it became known, and the preceding social unrest marked the emergence of the working class as an organized social force in Scotland, and one that, in however a rudimentary form, had already employed the highest forms of class struggle: a general strike and an attempt at armed insurrection. Yet this was also the last gasp of the insurrectionary tradition, which had existed from 1789 onward. In the immediate aftermath, attention switched to securing parliamentary reform and the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, which was blocked by the Tories with their majority in the House of Lords – despite it being a very modest step extending the vote to £10 tenants in the burghs, and £10 owners (only males, of course) in the counties.


[36] T. M. Devine,  The Scottish Nation 1700–2000, Allen Lane, 1999, pp. 222–23
[37] John McGowan, Policing the Metropolis of Scotland: A History of the Police and Systems of Police in Edinburgh & Edinburghshire, 1770–1833, p. 202
[38] Ibid., p. 214
[40] T. Clarke and T. Dickson, ‘Class and Class Consciousness in Early Industrial Capitalism, Paisley 1770–1850’, in T. Dickson (ed.), Capital and Class in Scotland, John Donald, 1982, p. 38
[41] Linas Eriksonas, National Heroes and National Identities: Scotland, Norway, and Lithuania, p. 142

This article is an extract from A People’s History of Scotland  (pp.93-7)

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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