In April 1820, a series of dramatic events exploded around Glasgow, central Scotland and Ayrshire. Demanding political reform and better living and working conditions, 60,000 weavers and other workers went on strike. Revolution was in the air. It was the culmination of several years of unrest, which had seen huge mass meetings in Glasgow and Paisley. In Manchester in 1819, in what became known as the Peterloo Massacre, drunken yeomanry with their sabres drawn rode into a peaceful crowd calling for reform, killing fifteen people and wounding hundreds more.
In 1820 some Scottish radicals marched under a flag emblazoned with the words "Scotland Free or Scotland a Desart". Others armed themselves and set off for the Carron Ironworks, seeking cannons. Intercepted by government soldiers, a bloody skirmish took place at Bonnymuir near Falkirk. Aiming to free radical prisoners, a crowd in Greenock was attacked by the Port Glasgow militia. Among the dead and wounded were a 65-year-old woman and a young boy. In the recriminations that followed, three men were hanged and nineteen were transported to Australia.
"One Week in April: The Scottish Radical Rising of 1820" by Maggie Craig sets the events in Scotland into the wider social and political context of the time. It draws on original documents, contemporary newspapers and eye-witness accounts and the result is a compelling portrait of some of the real people who were caught up in events as they unfolded. The book is divided into three parts. The first looks at the roots of Scottish radicalism; the second at that one fateful week in April; and the third at the aftermath.
Maggie Craig's style is approachable and eminently readable and the result casts a clarifying light on an area of Scottish history that really deserves to be better known that it is. There is a section of black and white illustrations in the centre of the book that show some of the key locations and central characters. Sometimes it's the really small details that are most arresting. There's a portrait of a young woman with a caption that is so strange you at first think it had to come from the script of a Monty Python episode, then realise it was deathly serious for those involved at the time. It reads: "Eliza Fletcher (1770-1858), falsely accused of guillotining chickens in her back garden in Edinburgh so as to be prepared if Britain followed the example of the French Revolution."