These manuscripts were the work of John MacKinnon, a Glaswegian weaver who was involved in the 1820 Scottish insurrection and later became a clerk in the Carnbroe ironworks. His correspondence consisted of two different manuscripts. The first is a collection of letters addressed to his son James, recalling his escapades during the 1820 uprising. The second is titled a Political History of Glasgow, which gives a more objective (although it is still interspersed with MacKinnon’s own remarks and commentary) and narrative account of the wider political background of the city.

Letters to James:

The collection also includes an amusing, fascinating and somewhat self-aggrandizing insert of a poem about the life of MacKinnon, written in 1858, presumably by MacKinnon himself.

His letters to James began the subsequent year and covers almost every major event in his life. For the purposes of my research, I focused mainly on his recollection of events in 1820 and his own involvement in the uprising, but began by examining his account of the discontent that arose in Scotland post-1815, starting on page 45 (out of 116 pages in total). After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, unemployment levels soared due to the immense number of ex-soldiers who had previously found employment in the army. This sudden and sharp spike in unemployment was coupled with the passing of the Corn Laws in 1815, which, as MacKinnon explains, “cut off our trade with… a number of the continental nations” since its passing underscored a protectionist focus on British mercantilism rather than foreign grain. Its impact on the manufacturers, combined with the benefits it supplied to the land-owning classes, caused “the people [to petition] for Parliamentary reform in order to remedy the evil” . However, their protests fell on deaf ears. MacKinnon subsequently mentions the passing of another bill, Peel’s Bill, three years after the Corn Laws. Peel’s Bill resumed the conversion of money to the gold standard, reversing the effects of the 1797 Bank Restriction Act which removed the requirement for banks to convert paper money into gold. The bill was met with outrage by radicals, as it favoured the interests of the landed classes, with reception in Scotland being equally negative since “the £1 note ha[d] been the currency in Scotland since 1695 when the Bank of Scotland was established” , implying that the passing of the Bill also symbolised the political hegemony of England over Scotland. By the winter of 1819 therefore, “wages of all kinds fell while… rent remained the same. The people began to think that any change might be for the better… it was this feeling that made many people fall in with the Radicals” .

What MacKinnon openly conveys is the complete disdain for which the authorities, ruling classes and the Tories reserved for the radicals. As far as these groups were concerned, the radicals had no legitimate political claim or motive. Rather, “whenever and wherever they were spoken of by the Tories, they were represented as a clad of men who had no real cause of complaint, were dissatisfied with having to labour for their bread, and who wished to seize upon other people’s property and apply it to their own uses” . This sheer contempt, and the desire to quash all inklings of reformist inclination, is reflected in acts such as those conducted by the Magistrate of Paisley in late 1819, in which he ordered the imprisonment of a band of musicians after they played {something} at a reform meeting. Hatred towards the radical movement was clearly not restricted to the radicals themselves, but any affiliated bodies or individuals.

MacKinnon then recalls his experiences with the 1820 insurrection. He notes that the “famous proclamations” were put up throughout the night of Saturday 1st of April and that “in the morning [of the Sunday] they were read by thousands” . Furthermore, although a selection of citizens had arms readily available, some of which “found their way to the Radicals”, MacKinnon himself had “no arms, nor money to buy them” although he does note that for many, this posed no obstacle, as they opted to simply make their own pikeheads. MacKinnon, alongside his friend James Robb, decides to journey to Paisley on Tuesday 4th of April, a town with a large weaver population that were greatly immersed in the 1820 Radical War. However, their escapades in Paisley were not entirely successful, nor eventful. After meeting with some acquaintances, they hear a “rush of people” towards them and, panicked, MacKinnon accidentally breaks a pane of glass in a window. This deeply concerns him as “he had no money to pay for it” , and becomes increasingly anxious to get home – which they both eventually do. The following days are more lively; although on the previous pages most of MacKinnon’s narrative is occupied by his ventures to Paisley, he does illustrate the extent of the British military presence in Glasgow, citing artillery, local yeomanry, sharpshooters within the city on Monday, with reports on Tuesday that a large body of British troops was to descend imminently onto Glasgow. Page 59 of his account sees MacKinnon obtain pikeheads that were “concealed in [his] shop” for himself, Robb and for another party of about 120 men, who were to join “another body of men on the banks of the Great Canal” , headed by a man named Craig (perhaps John Craig, who in reality was an undercover government agent), and guided by another named Crawfurd. MacKinnon records that concerns were raised within the party as to whether the detention of an absentee who was due to join up with the group was by “accident or design”. If it was by accident, MacKinnon notes, then this would have less serious consequences than if it was by design, as surely “they would be followed by a military force sufficient to overpower them” . A vote is taken as to whether they should proceed as a united group or return to Glasgow disbanded – “by a majority of one [it was decided] that they should return” . Resultantly, “the men then sunk their pikes in the canal till the heads held in the mud… and they returned to their homes” . The final development from the section of the letters that I read sees MacKinnon learning from Robb that on the following morning, “a [military party] accompanied by a civil force… went straight to the banks of the canal, where they drew a number of pikes out of the water” . This invokes suspicion within MacKinnon – he rightfully questions “how could the authorities go straight to the place where the pikes were, if they had not been told?” . He concludes that Crawfurd was the spy, noting that Craig had been apprehended by the police on Sauchiehall Street on trumped-up charges of drunkenness and ‘breaking a street lamp’ (it had actually been broken by another member of the party who had been careless with his pike), but if MacKinnon’s Craig is the same as John Craig, then it is likely that MacKinnon was incorrect.

A Political History of Glasgow:

The second facet of the MacKinnon Correspondence that was pertinent to my research interests was the narrative account authored by MacKinnon regarding Glasgow’s Political History. Much of his account is complementary to the letters he wrote to James (or vice-versa). For instance, he begins by discussing the fluctuating levels of employment experienced by the Glasgow weavers throughout the Napoleonic Wars, caused by the disruption and re-establishment of global trade routes, which were themselves contingent on military developments. MacKinnon subsequently maps the push for reform prior to 1815, which was spearheaded by the Glasgow weavers’ ultimately unsuccessful drive for “fixing a minimum wage of muslin weaving” . Two committees, one of manufacturers and of weavers, “were chosen to debate the question of wages before the Justices” , the delegates of which were named Kirman Finlay and Alexander Richmond. The weavers ultimately covenanted to strike, although there was no violent disturbance, and “everything was peaceable and quiet” – although, after the strike, “a number of the Tory manufactur[ers]… hinted to the government that there was a great number of weavers in the militia regiments, and that they might combine” to threaten the stability of the government . This in turn prompted the arrival of a “large military force” in Glasgow, as well as the removal of every Scottish militia regiment in England and Wales. Finlay and Richmond’s influence was more keenly felt after Napoleon’s defeat, as Finlay employed Richmond as a spy to “communicate any information as to any plots that might be forming against the government” . Richmond’s involvement in the exposure and trial of a dissenting committee is discussed in a separate article. MacKinnon also underscores the anger directed at what he labels the “mischievous” Corn Laws, stating that “the wages of cotton operatives during the [the winter of 1815] feel about 30 per cent” . Combined with poor harvests and a stark increase in the cost of living, MacKinnon remarks “is it any wonder that the people became discontented?” .

The Scottish working-classes fared better in 1817 and 1818. Work “become more plentiful” and the harvest had evened out after deficiencies in 1815 and 1816. However, come 1819 “another dark cloud [arose] over Glasgow” with the introduction of Peel’s Bill, also referred to in MacKinnon’s letters to James. But “in order to reduce the number of notes in circulation, [Peel] refused to discount a great number of bills for merchants” . Consequently, “the merchants failed in scores”, which had knock-on effects for the manufacturers and in turn, the workers in the manufacturers’ employment . Therefore, shortly “thousands of unemployed workmen thronged the streets of Glasgow” , with no hope of relief supplied by a chance of an occupation in the army as there had been previously. Moreover, “the scarcity of money caused goods to fall in value” , causing financial ruin for the merchants and manufacturers. This turmoil was blamed on the government, and the “demagogues and the unemployed… petitioned for Parliamentary reform and extension of the suffrage, so [that they] might get better men to represent them and who would sympathise with them in their distress” . MacKinnon, rather poetically, illustrates the re-establishment of secret societies, observing that “drowning men will clutch at straws” . With the remark that the principles and objectives of these reformists, now called ‘Radicals’, “spread far and near” , MacKinnon’s account arrives at the eve of the 1st of April 1820 which saw the physical plastering of these Radical ends “in the towns and villages for twenty miles around” .