On a bright summer’s afternoon in 1820, a crowd of 20,000 people gathered on Glasgow Green to watch the execution of a Strathaven weaver, James “Purlie” Wilson.
After taking part in a simple religious service and drinking the customary glass of wine, Wilson, dressed in white, was dragged to the bottom of the scaffold in a black horse-drawn hurdle. He then mounted the scaffold with his captors to hisses and shouts of “Murder!” from the sympathetic crowd. The sixty-year old Radical was to be Hung and Beheaded.
HEAD OF A TRAITOR
On the scaffold a stocking cap was drawn over the weaver’s head, and when he dropped his handkerchief as a signal, Wilson was hung – for some minutes his body “convulsed with agitated jerks” with blood, it is claimed, appearing on the cap about the ears. After a while the masked executioner with one stroke sliced off the old man’s head.
Wilson bloody head was then held up for the masses to view, the executioner proclaiming “This is the head of a traitor!”.
James “Purlie” Wilson was born in Kirkyard Street (now Castle Street), Strathaven, on 3rd September 1760. He was commonly known as “Purlie” as he is said to have been the inventor of the stocking-frame on which the “purl” stitch could be worked.
For many years Wilson was active in the movement for the franchise and political reform, joining the Friends of the People as early as 1792. Wilson was known as a man of “much reading and reflection” and regarded by friends as a sincere and principled Radical.
An accumulation of diverse grievances led to the Strathaven Radicals responding to the April 1st 1820 “Radical Address” proclamation which appeared in towns and villages in central Scotland. This address also appeared in Strathaven and Kilbride and urged the people to take up arms “for the redress of our Common Grievances”.
On Monday the 3rd April many thousands of Scottish working people did strike and at Strathaven the same day an important political meeting at Threestanes led to enthusiastic radicals casting lead into bullets. News reached Strathaven that radical troops were supposedly encamped on the Cathkin Braes and “Purlie” instructed his Irish friend, Mathew Rony, to inform the Glasgow rebels that the Strathaven contingent would be on their way at first light.
Wilson’s house soon became a centre of activity, arms raids were carried out, flints sharpened and pikes made. A delegation was sent to the nearby village of Glassford to raise more men but the Radicals there would not contribute one man to the venture. On the Thursday morning only about 25 Strathaven Radicals mustered for the march to Glasgow. Wilson was clearly disappointed but nevertheless, the small number of spirited rebels assembled outside his house. William Watson took the leading flag which bore the words “Scotland Free or a Desert”.
The little band of insurrectionasts marched out of Strathaven and took the road for Kilbride, Wilson at the rear clutching a rusty old sword. Some miles along the road the radicals met two men who informed them that the fighting was over and that they had not heard of an encampment at Cathkin. Further along the road the Strathaven men learnt that a troop or Yeomary were waiting in the village of Kilbride to ambush them. However, the rebels boldly marched into the village only to find that the Kilbride Yeomary Cavalry had moved on. Attempts were made to recruit some of the Kilbride and Maxwellton weavers but without success.
It was at Kilbride that Wilson became convinced that it was pointless to venture any further and advised his friends to return. The Majority, however, were determined to continue so Wilson handed over his sword making his way to Strathaven.
On reaching the empty Cathkin Braes the Strathaven men were disappointed to find no radical forces there as expected, and later on the somewhat weary rebels quietly dispersed.
James Wilson was arrested at his home and, with about a dozen others, was taken to Hamilton Barracks under escort and interrogated by the sheriff. After some days there, he was taken in irons to Glasgow.
Five months later he was executed, being spared the final barbarity of being quartered, and as a last mean mark of contempt, the weaver’s remains were buried in a pauper’s burying ground in Glasgow’s High Church. However, at midnight, Wilson’s daughter and niece dug up the broken corpse and had it transported back to “Purlie’s” native Strathaven. He was then secretly interred in the parish graveyard, not far from where the Castle Street monument to the weaver presently stands.