The Strathaven Weaver

James “Purlie” Wilson, the Strathaven Weaver, was a local leader of the Radical Movement seeking social reform in early 19th century Scotland. He was tried on trumped-up charges of treason and executed on Glasgow Green on 30 August, 1820. His ghost returns 40 years later to confront a doctor with his own demons.

The watercolour above is of the Boo-backit Brig, which features in The Strathaven Weaver. The watercolour was painted in the 1960s by local teacher and artist, Stewart Frame.




Niel Gow, portrait National Galleries of Scotland.

Lament For The Death Of His Second Wife,
composed by Niel Gow in the 18th Century was played by renowned Scottish fiddle player, Paul Anderson using the composer’s own violin; possibly the very one in this portrait.
My thanks to Paul for his permission to use his performance.

This unattributed and undated portrait of Niel Gow is in storage at The National Galleries of Scotland.


I spent my first 17 years in Strathaven. Much to my shame, I only discovered the full story of James Purlie Wilson recently. I ‘d heard local men with the name”Wilson” being called Purlie, but I didn’t think to ask why.


Click a link to read about the background research for the topic.


James "Purlie" Wilson, The Strathaven  Weaver.

The Radical Weaver from Strathaven, was born on 03 Sep 1760 and lived in Kirk Street and then in Castle Street in the town.  He had been a game dealer and dog handler.  He was a tinsmith and repaired clocks and guns. 
James got his nickname because he invented a weaving frame that used purl stitch to give stockings, essential menswear of the day, more stretch.

James was not a religious man. He was a freethinker and enjoyed anti-government and anti-religious rhetoric.  He was well respected in Strathaven and, around 1792, became a local leader of the Radical Movement seeking to reform parliament, secure universal suffrage, secret ballots, and to improve workers’ rights.  Some of his ambitions were eventually realised in the Reform Act of 1832.

On 04 April, a date which seems to have been coordinated by government agents to coincide with others marching from Glasgow to Falkirk (see Baird and Hardie below), James and 20 companions set out from Strathaven to meet a fictitious army of 50,000 French soldiers at Cathkin Braes.  Their plan, incited by the spies, was to seize power and demand reform of the government.
Following a trial using the English system of law, James was found guilty only on one charge out of four, that of carrying arms against the government. He was executed for High Treason at three in the afternoon on 30 August, 1820 at Glasgow Green.
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In 1820 Thomas Young was a 20 year old medical student.  There is no evidence of what happened to him after the events of August in Glasgow and September in Stirling, or even if he did actually qualify as a doctor.  The drama opens imagining the moment of his death after a 40 year career as a physician.
It had been so long since an execution in Scotland for High Treason the authorities had been unable to find a suitably experienced executioner.  It is true that Young was paid £40 to eviscerate and decapitate James’s body at his execution. He also officiated a week later at the execution of Baird and Hardie in Stirling, where contemporary press reports had him drunk.
In the months following the executions Young wrote several reminders asking for his fee before, eventually, the authorities saw fit to pay.
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Perhaps due to respect for her age Mrs Hunter’s first name is not reported.  She was a friend of James’s and said that he had made many pairs of stockings and drawers for her husband and had eaten with them on a large number of occasions. 
Mrs Hunter lived in a house at Kilbride, on the direct road from Strathaven to Glasgow.  She gave shelter to James and a companion called Macintyre on a foul morning when they abandoned their journey to Cathkin Braes.  Macintyre was jailed for 12 months for his part in the rising. 
Mrs Hunter was interviewed at the age of 96 when she lived in Busby with her daughter.  Her account of the day James Wilson visited was reported in The Glasgow Weekly Mail.  James’s sword lay on her hearth in Kilbride for several years until it was purloined by people from Hamilton.
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Richmond had been a weaver and took a lot of money to become a spy and work against his former comrades.  He infiltrated Radical groups to report their activities to the authorities, and to spread dissent. He published spurious incriminating pamphlets, and supplied arms to entrap the Radicals who used them.
Richmond was so infamous in Glasgow that graffiti appeared warning people to, “Beware Richmond the spy”.
Along with others as an agent provocateur he persuaded James and his companions to rebel with arms, thus orchestrating events to bring about charges amounting to High Treason.
The false pamphlet described in the drama was distributed and pasted-up across Glasgow on the morning of Sunday, 02 April 1820.
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The Boo-backit Brig, Strathaven painted in the 1960s

The Boo-backit Brig, the hump-back bridge, which crosses the Powmillon Burn near the centre of Strathaven features in the drama.

Not much has changed with the bridge in this scene since James knew it in the 19th century. His house was in Castle Street, which can be seen on the left in front of the grassy bank. Houses that stood here have been demolished and we can now see the Mill, which was built in 1650. The castle is on the far right of the painting, and other houses that stood on the right have also been demolished. The watercolour was painted in the 1960s by local artist Stewart Frame. It’s unlikely James would have seen the telegraph pole or TV aerials.
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Mentioned as the author of the letter read by Richmond, James Mitchell was Master of Police (Chief Constable) in Glasgow from 1805 until 1821.  Mitchell wrote the letter to Lord Sidmouth, the British Home Secretary, after 28 Radicals had been betrayed by a spy called John King and arrested at a meeting in The Gallowgate. The Sidmouth Letter is often cited as proof that the rising was indeed engineered by the authorities as an excuse for brutal reprisals
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Former soldiers returning home after the Napoleonic Wars found themselves without work. The Radical movement began in and around Glasgow as workers formed societies, not unlike trade unions, and started to campaign for improved working conditions and political reform including universal suffrage and secret ballots.
Similar societies had formed in England and the government began to crack down on their activities. On 16 August 1819 a huge crowd gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester. When they refused to leave the local magistrates read the Riot Act and sent mounted soldiers to disperse the crowd. 18 people were killed and anything up to 700 were wounded. This became known as the Peterloo Massacre.
After the Peterloo Massacre the Radical Movement gathered huge support in Glasgow. There had already been skirmishes between Radicals and the special Yeomanry set up by the Bailies of Glasgow to control the situation.
The Government in London passed laws prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people. The Glaswegians responded by holding their meetings in secret. Government spies, like Sandy RIchmond and John King, infiltrated the groups and became agents provocateurs encouraging greater dissent and the use of arms. The Movement announced itself as the provisional government of Scotland with the declared aim of ending the union with England.
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Memorial of the Greenock Massacre in

The Greenock Massacre actually took place on Saturday, 08 April 1820; four days after James’s abortive walk to Cathkin and the Battle of Bonnyrigg.  It appears first in the script for dramatic effect.  A crowd of local people succeeded in releasing five weavers who were being taken to prison in Greenock. 

The escort of Port Glasgow Militia fired indiscriminately into the crowd and eight people were killed including James Macgilp, aged eight, and John Macwhinnie aged 65.  More were wounded. The memorial is in Bank Street, Greenock.
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James Turner was a landowner sympathetic to the Radical Movement.  He provided a field at Thrushgrove near what is now the Glasgow area of Springburn for the purpose of a mass meeting.  40,000 people attended on a bitterly cold day and listened attentively to many speeches about the aims of the Radical Movement.
Other large meetings were being held in the months before April 1820. The potential for a riot or outright rebellion was so great the government passed laws to prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people.
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Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh

Robert Stewart, known as Viscount Castlereagh was Anglo-Irish, a former British Foreign Secretary, and Leader of the House of Commons.  Although 2nd Marquess of Londonderry, “Viscount” was a courtesy title derived from his political position.  Earlier in his career he was involved in negotiating the coalition that defeated Napoleon, and in putting down the Irish Rebellion of 1798.  While he achieved exceptional international influence, he was denounced and vilified in Ireland as a traitor.  Castlereagh committed suicide in a fit of depression on 12 August 1822.
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On 20 July 1820 James Wilson was tried on four indictments.  Uniquely and controversially, the trial was conducted by English lawyers using an English system of law known as “oyer and terminer”; to hear and determine.  Its use made it easier to try accused for treason and was intended to circumvent potential sympathies of a Scottish jury. 
James was found not guilty on three of the charges to do with distributing leaflets and speaking about the Radical Movement in public.  He was found guilty on the most serious indictment, which concluded, “compassing to levy war against the King in order to compel him to change his measures.”  High treason. 
Seven of those accused with James were found not guilty and an eighth was discharged.  The Jury Chancellor, a merchant called James Ewing, recommended clemency, but there was only going to be one sentence.  
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The commonly understood penalty for High Treason in England was to be Hanged, Drawn and Quartered.  There was a kind of ritual humiliation beforehand as the condemned was pulled through the crowd on a hurdle, a cart without wheels.  They were then lifted by the neck and strangled until nearly dead; once taken down they were eviscerated while still being aware of the process, and were finally decapitated and dismembered. 
Press reports tell that all three condemned men were hanged by being dropped, which done correctly, would result in sudden death from a broken neck.  Nonetheless, their bodies were left suspended for 15 to 30 minutes.
Prosecutions in Scotland for lesser crimes tended to be under Common Law rather than Statute.  Even minor criminals in England were much more likely to be executed under their, “Bloody Code”.  There was also a system of Petition in Scotland.  Lawyers would argue and agree the case ahead of time, later presenting their conclusions in Court for ratification.  In this way the Scots could rely on less final punishments such as banishment and transportation.  It must, in part, have contributed to the dearth of executioners in Scotland and Thomas Young’s employment.
Baird, Hardie and Wilson were tried under English Law, which made the outcome and capital punishment inevitable.
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Sheriff Aiton was chief of the 28 witnesses brought against James at his trial. Some Radical groups may already have been practicing with homemade and purloined weapons. Aiton had previously confessed to bribing men to make weapons with the intention of later charging them with treason.  State entrapment?
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The two men were found guilty on a charge amounting to High Treason in what many at the time believed was a show trial.  Both were weavers.
On 04 April, 1820, the same day as James left Strathaven, Hardie had marched from home in Glasgow with around 70 companions and met Baird with others at his home in Condorrat, near the modern town of Cumbernauld.  
It was said they intended to steal cannon from the Carron Iron Works near Falkirk.  Government soldiers seemed to know exactly where they could be found yet only around 40 were arrested after a short but intense skirmish, which became known as the Battle of Bonnyrigg.
The press report of Hardie and Baird’s execution is particularly harrowing.  Thomas Young was reported as being drunk.  The report claims he made a poor job of the decapitations, seriously mutilating and disfiguring the bodies to the extent that the families had difficulty identifying them.
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While reporting and commenting on distinctly Scottish topics, even in those days, the press was predominantly pro-government.  However; the papers were widely read partly because of the Scots’ preference for locally published papers and possibly because of a relatively high rate of literacy.
The voice of The Press carries narrative in the drama.  There is a mixture of actual quotations and imagined reporting.
The Black Dwarf was a satirical pamphlet supporting the Radical Movement. It was commonly read aloud at local meetings of Radical sympathisers.
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The press of the day reported that three Kirk Ministers read from Psalm 30 among others during prayers and a service that lasted for an hour. It’s part of Psalm 30 we hear in the drama. If not an atheist, James did not hold strong religious beliefs and probably didn’t much appreciate the effort.
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Purlie Wilson's memorial

The drama closes with Thomas Young quoting the words, “a patriotic Scotsman who … enunciated the principles of progress and reform…”, which are carved on a memorial obelisk the people of Strathaven paid to have erected in 1846.  The obelisk stands on the former site of James’s house in Castle Street.
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While the chronology of events has been adapted for dramatic effect this is a true story.


Click here for a list of useful definitions for Scots words used in the drama.

5 Replies to “The Strathaven Weaver”

  1. Fantastic piece of work. It really encapsulates the events of the time, and puts the struggles of the characters into real perspective.

    I’m just sorry that I wasn’t able to attend the recording, but it sounds like everyone managed very well.

  2. What captivates me about this story – which I knew nothing about – is the way its author has set the personal story of Purlie Wilson against the social upheavals of his time. It isn’t an easy matter to condense a historic event into a piece of sound drama, but John Boyd has done it; he has brought the real people into sharp perspective and made us aware of what they had to sacrifice in order to bring about reform.

  3. There’s been a fair bit of change in the painting since Purlie Wilsons time if I remember right there was a couple of craw stepped buildings that run along bridge street and the Powmillon burn they were knocked down in the early 20th century, they probably would have obscured the mill from that advantage point.
    There is a picture of them in a book that was published some years ago that showed old pictures of straven.

    1. I don’t expect Purlie Wilson would have seen the TV aerials or the telegraph pole either. Likely he’d grouse, but he’d still know where he was. There were indeed buildings at the foot of Castle Street, which did obscure the mill. There were others in front of the white building across the brig, on the hill leading to Kirk Street. The viewpoint for the painting is from where the Powmillon turns as it leaves Allison Green to flow under the Boo-Backit Brig. The modern bridge, which is now part of Bridge Street from the foot of Waterside Street to The Common Green, was not built until 1860.

  4. This is utterly brilliant!
    What a story and just so well done, fascinating and I love all the extra info you give, it must have taken you a great deal of time on research, superb, the best yet I think, although Gunner Graham is another favourite.
    ‘By The Way’ is really a super concept and is so professional, that alone makes me smile!

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