The Battle of Bonnymuir took place on the 5th of April, 1820,
The oft forgotten Battle of Bonnymuir took place in Scotland during the ‘Radical War’ of the early 19th Century. It wasn’t much of a battle as battles go and in terms of an engagement, deserves no more than to be called a skirmish. Nevertheless, it should not lie forgotten in the annals of Scottish history. Despite the numbers on each side, it was a one-sided affair from the start. A professional and properly armed, symmetric government force, made up of sixteen Hussars and sixteen Yeomanry troopers, easily routed a band of twenty-five, poorly armed, striking weavers. The leaders were captured, tried and sentenced, with the outcome being a judicial murder and the martyrdom of John Baird and Andrew Hardie, two men who came to be known as the ‘Radical Martyrs’.
In the early 19th Century as a war fuelled recession deepened, revolutionary discontent increased amongst the working classes. In fact, the underlying ideals and economic circumstances, which helped to create the French and American revolutions, were not vastly different from the situation in Scotland at that time. The workers were suppressed and despised by the ruling classes and their pay and conditions deteriorated drastically. Between 1800 and 1808, the earnings of weavers were halved and this trend continued up to 1820. In 1816, weavers in Kilsyth were working for just over £1 per week and, by 1820, their weekly income was down to between eleven and twelve shillings. This widespread discontent came to a head with a two month long strike in 1812.
Also, as a legacy of the government persecution of Scottish reformers, agitators and martyrs, such as Muir, Mealmaker, and Palmer, in the 1790’s, dissidence was stimulated and the United Scotsmen movement was formed. That underground organisation campaigned for universal male suffrage, vote by secret ballot, payment of MPs and annual general elections – things we take for granted today (except we’re not so happy about MPs pay and expenses these days). There was a lot of unrest at the time and prior to the Scottish ‘stushie’, there had also been problems in England. A precedent for Bonnymuir had taken place at ‘Peterloo’, actually St Peter’s Fields, in Manchester, in the August of 1819, when a radical reform meeting was attacked and dispersed by military force. That event provoked widespread protest and rioting. In one incident, in Paisley, the cavalry was called in to reintroduce order and there were other mass meetings in Scotland, with many weavers from Kilsyth being involved in forms of agitation.
Events neared a climax, when, on Sunday, the 2nd of April, 1820, a Proclamation was issued calling for a general strike. Most of central Scotland, especially in the weaving communities, came out the following week. The proclamation began, “Friends and Countrymen! Rouse from that state in which we have sunk for so many years, we are at length compelled from the extremity of our sufferings, and the contempt heaped upon our petitions for redress, to assert our rights at the hazard of our lives.” And, it called for a rising, “To show the world that we are not that lawless, sanguinary rabble which our oppressors would persuade the higher circles we are, but a brave and generous people determined to be free.”
Taking a lesson from Manchester and Paisley, one party of strikers decided that attack was the best form of defence. With the purpose of increasing their puny arsenal of weapons, a collection of about twenty-five weavers from Glasgow, led by Andrew Hardie and John Baird, marched on the Carron Iron Works to capture the munitions there. Tragically for that group, its movements didn’t go unnoticed. The secrecy of societies like the United Scotsmen had caused the government major concern and its spies and informers were ever active. Those clandestine infiltrators, who were the real traitors in the whole sorry business, were the reason why the march on Carron was anticipated.
Having received the intelligence of the undercover government agents, the Army was given its own marching orders. Lietutenant Ellis Hodgson, of the 11th Hussars, quartered in Perth, set off for Kilsyth, via Stirling, in order to protect Carron. By breakfast on the morning of the battle, Baird, Hardie and their followers had reached Castlecary Inn. That same morning, Lt. Hodgson left Kilsyth with his even numbered force of sixteen Hussars and sixteen Yeomanry troopers, intent on encountering the weavers. At Bonnybridge, they left the main road and made for Bonnymuir to intercept the rebels. The two forces met and the radicals began firing. After a few volleys on both sides, the cavalry flanked the rebels and the inevitable end was swift, albeit not so bloody. Lt. Hodgson and a sergeant of the 10th Hussars were wounded, with four of the radicals being also injured. A haul of five muskets, two pistols, eighteen pikes and about one hundred rounds of ball cartridges were taken. Thus ended the little remembered Battle of Bonnymuir. Nineteen of the weavers, including the leaders, were taken prisoner and brought to Stirling Castle.
Coincidentally, at some stage in the aftermath of the battle, a number of prisoners from Paisley were being taken separately under escort to jail in Greenock. That escort came under attack from a different group of strikers and the soldiers retaliated by opening fire. The result of that tragic reaction was the killing of eight people, including eight year old James McGilp, and the wounding of a further ten. Later, angry rioters stormed the jail and set those prisoners free. A series of dramatic trials then unfolded as a total of eighty-eight charges of treason were brought against men from across West Central Scotland. Hardie and Baird were condemned, hung and beheaded, and twenty men, including the fifteen year old Alexander Johnstone, were transported to the penal colonies in Australia.
On the day of his execution, Hardie spoke saying, “Yes, my countrymen, in a few minutes our blood shall be shed on this scaffold…, for no other sin but seeking the legitimate rights of our ill used and down trodden beloved countrymen.” At that, the furious Sheriff stepped forward and ordered him to stop, “…such violent and improper language”. Hardie’s last words in riposte were, “What we said to our countrymen, we intended to say no matter whether you granted us liberty or not. So we are now both done.” Hardie and Baird then embraced each other at the last, before a callous murder in the name of justice took place.
Peter Mackenzie, a Glasgow journalist, campaigned to have the weavers pardoned and eventually, in August 1835, an absolute pardon was granted. Today, you can find a monument to John Baird and Andrew Hardie in Sighthill cemetery, in Glasgow’s Springburn district.