The Background to 1820
In the late 18th century Scottish men and women began agitating for improved political rights, better working conditions, against slavery, and the right for every adult to vote. The American War and the French Revolution further fanned the flames and there was a growing spirit of resentment against an English-dominated establishment in London which regularly dismissed and derided Scottish aspirations and rights, sometimes expressed in overtly ethnic language. This spirit is well illustrated in a letter written in 1793 by Basil William Douglas (1763-1794), lord Daer and heir to the earldom of Selkirk, himself a member of the privileged class, and yet who was a supporter of Scottish political reform and an acquaintance of Robert Burns. Addressing Charles Gray in London, Daer listed at length all the disadvantages Scotland had suffered since the Union of 1707 and declared that the “Friends of Liberty in Scotland have almost universally been enemies of the Union with England” as a result of the treatment of his country. When Robert Burns (1759-1796) wrote the song Scots, Wha Hae in the same era he was also echoing the resentment that many Scots felt.
Still humiliated by their recent defeat in the American War (1783), the London hierarchy were terrified by the unfolding events of the French revolution which began in 1789. To them any talk of political reform or votes for all sounded like French extremism and such talk coming from Ireland and Scotland sounded particularly dangerous because of the differences in national identity. From 1793 the authorities began to crack down on political reform societies such as the Friends of the People and the United Scotsmen the latter of which tried to instigate a rising in 1797. Arrests, trials and transportation forced these movements underground but by 1809 Scottish union societies – formed and led by weavers and modelled on the United Scotsmen – had begun to appear, calling for better wages, improved working hours, and soon political reform too. Those calling for reform were branded Radicals.
By 1816 a whole network of Radical committees existed in Scotland with the initial purpose of petitioning for reform of the London parliament, but they were infiltrated by spies working for a London hierarchy fearful of an armed rising. In 1819 came the news that a mass meeting of over 60,000 people in favour of political reform, held at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, England was charged by the yeomanry injuring between 400 and 700 and leaving 18 dead. It was dubbed the Peterloo Massacre in derision of the Battle of Waterloo. That same year Scottish Radicals held a large open meeting at Paisley, condemning Peterloo, calling for reform in Scotland, and employing a band to play Scots, Wha Hae which was then regarded as both as a highly political and nationalist song. Afterwards trouble between the authorities and people led to a week of confrontations and riots which saw Paisley occupied by soldiers and hussars. In the months following, Radicals held demonstrations throughout the Central Belt often carrying banners calling for liberty with portraits depicting Sir William Wallace and once again playing Scots, Wha Hae. By December 1819, with London arresting Radical leaders, passing acts to crush Radicalism, and both sides becoming highly agitated, the scene was set for a showdown in Scotland.