Although there were bursts of reformist action in early 19th century Scotland prior to the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, such as the Glasgow weavers’ strike of 1812, Radical activity was largely muted from the beginning of the 19th century and only resumed after 1815. In 1816-1817 there were two distinctive reform movements in Scotland. The first was “a widespread series of public meetings where resolutions in favour of a radical reform of the house of commons were passed and petitions drawn up for submission to the Prince Regent”. The second was “a secret conspiracy centred on Glasgow which aimed at change effected by physical force” .

In July 1815 Major John Cartwright, the English political reformer, visited Scotland. He travelled the country for thirteen weeks “encouraging people to sign petitions for a radical reform of the commons”. His tour was seemingly successful, with “at least six hundred of his forms of petition… [being] returned to him”. Although his influence waned once he returned to England, October 1816 saw “the first number of meetings in Scotland to press for radical reform”. The most prominent of such meetings was held at Thrusgrove, an estate in north Glasgow, in which the attendees decided that “the oppressive weight of the enormous burdens that have been entailed upon the country by a vile and corrupt faction” could only be remedied by petitioning for radical reform.

However, the peaceful campaigning that both Cartwright and groups such as those found in Thrushgrove advocated and implemented was ultimately unsuccessful. Although in late 1816 Cartwright submitted some petitions he had acquired from his time in Scotland to both Viscount Sidmouth (the Home Secretary) and the Treasury “it was apparent… that members [of Parliament] were little inclined to pay attention to a movement that had no support from the landed interest or from the corporate bodies” . Minsters then became convinced that an escalation of Parliamentary powers to either “pass new laws or suspend existing ones” was necessary, since they believed that some reformist groups held different and more violent objectives than the ones expressed at Thrushgrove. Their fears were seemingly confirmed when, after a supposed attack on the Prince Regent’s coach in February 1817, reports were issued to the Commons which stated attempts had been made “to induce the working classes to [conduct]…. A total overthrow of all existing establishments and in a division of the landed and extinction of the funded property of the country” . Furthermore, “it was believed that a system of secret associations had been extended from England into Glasgow and some other populous towns of Scotland… whose object was the overthrow by force of the existing form of government” . In response, minsters suspended Habeus Corpus until July 1817 and passed the Seditious Meetings Act which was “designed to ensure that all reform clubs and societies would be utterly suppressed” .

Throughout these developments from the last few months of 1816 to the new year of 1817, Alexander Richmond was employed by Kirkman Finlay to provide him with information regarding Radical activity. He made contact with a variety of reformist groups, ranging from peaceful protest associations borne out of Cartwright’s presence in Scotland to movements who desired the total overthrow of the political establishment. By the middle of January 1817, George Biggar replaced Richmond as the spy within the reformist ranks and reported back to Finlay that “a system of private organization cemented by oaths has actually been formed and a delegation is to be sent by the Central Committee to Lancashire” , confirming both the existence of secret Radical societies and their correspondence with their counterparts in England. Finlay then told Viscount Sidmouth of Biggar’s findings and these, combined with the worry that a potential rapid improvement in trade could induce violent Radical organisations to strike earlier than planned since “reformers knew that they received much of their support from those in economic distress and that support for political reform might evaporate if economic conditions improved” , provoked Sidmouth to order the arrests of the leading reformers in Scotland. By the 27th of February “twenty-six people were in custody” .

Once the Radicals had been detained, the onus fell on the government to firstly verify the incriminating information that had been provided by Richmond and Biggar in order to prosecute and imprison the Radicals, and secondly convince the public that their actions were justified so as to not appear to be limiting the freedoms of the people without necessity. The first prisoner to admit involvement with a secret organisation was a spirit dealer named William Simpson, who said that approximately seven weeks previously a weaver named McDowall Peat “called on him and explained that he planned to form an association to compel parliament to grant the petitions for reform” . Simpson then endeavored “to form an association for the purpose of obtaining annual Parliaments and the elective franchise at the age of twenty-one for all the people of Great Britain and Ireland” . He furthermore affirmed that Peat instructed him to “do that by force if necessary” and also admitted “that there had been plans to raise funds to send delegates to Carlisle” . From Simpson’s testimony and other statements given by detained Radicals, the authorities were able to gain an awareness regarding the formation of both a select committee and a secret committee in early February 1817. The former’s role was to “alter the words of the oaths, the signs and the secret grip or handshake” and the latter’s business involved relaying information to the general committee as well as selecting and sending delegates to Radical groups outside of Glasgow (including reformers in England) .

The next task facing the government was to persuade the public that their actions were justified . The lord advocate arranged for John Campbell, one of the leaders of the Radicals within Glasgow, to make a full public confession confirming everything that had been said by other arrested reformists, in exchange for a promise of protection. However, when Campbell was called to give evidence to the court, “he was asked if he had received any reward, or promise of a reward for coming forward to give his evidence, he said [he had]” . His answer “completely confounded the Crown lawyers… the lord advocate’s fine speech was thrown away” . Although Campbell “asserted that he had been promised a place in the excise” in exchange for his testimony, “it is more likely that Campbell was very cleverly sabotaging the crown's case” . If his statement that he had been promised a reward was true, “his evidence was inadmissible and doubts were cast on the methods employed by the crown to prepare a case” . If it was not true, Campbell would be guilty of perjury and, consequently, nothing else he might say could be accepted . Although the Crown had called other witnesses, they were largely relying on Campbell’s confession – as a result, “a verdict of not proven was returned” and the prisoners were released. Amusingly, one prisoner reportedly refused to leave until it was explained to him why he had been arrested in the first place, and was eventually forced out of the cell by soldiers with bayonets . The lord advocate’s failure had the unfortunate result of seemingly affirming the public suspicion that the government, through the use of spies, had been fabricating plots themselves, something that MacKenzie accused Richmond of doing. It was felt in Scotland that the methods employed by the authorities “must carry alarm home to every independent mind” . This concern that personal freedom was being endangered was consequently bolstered in 1817 and 1818 as numerous petitions were presented to Parliament by those who felt they had been unjustly imprisoned on counts of conspiracy that they believed had in fact been conjured up by the government .