It’s poignant as the eight names displayed contain those of three teenagers and an eight-year-old. They’d been part of a crowd seeking to free prisoners who’d been captured in Paisley and were being taken by militia to the jail nearby. The prisoners all escaped but some of those who freed them paid with their lives.
Yet not just in Greenock but across Scotland, it’s a part of our history that’s little known. Shamefully I confess it was the first time I’d been to the memorial, but others have thankfully kept the memory alive. It’s surprising in some ways but not in others as we’ve a tendency – brought about by having British-focused history programmes on television – to learn about past through a London lens.
That’s why most will have heard of the Peterloo Massacre but not of Greenock and only a few more of 1820. Yet Peterloo, which occurred the year before, was the precursor for it. When the innocent protesters in Manchester were slain by the Yeomanry, radicals across Britain and Ireland vowed not to be so supine or accept their fate with equanimity.
Huge demonstrations took place across Scotland and particularly outside Paisley, where crowds flocked from Ayrshire, Renfrewshire and Glasgow. September 1819 saw crowds fight with police and military, and Paisley under curfew for almost a week.
In December 1819, plans were made for a pan-UK rising in April 1820. The Cato Street conspiracy in February 1820 saw English radicals set up by government agents and detained in huge numbers.
The rising due to start in England, and to be notified to Scotland by the mail coach’s non-arrival, never took place, though disturbances did break out in parts of northern England.
In Scotland, it proceeded anyway, as Tom Johnston described it, a strike from which it was hoped a revolution might spring. It didn’t but the memory deserves to be kept alive.
The leading radicals, Baird, Hardie and Wilson, were the last prisoners to be hung then beheaded.
Kenny MacAskill is the Alba Party MP for East Lothian