Findmypast's Partnership & Outreach Manager, Myko Clelland (@DapperHistorian) explains why every record counts

For those who know me, my family is for the most part unremarkable. In their own remarkable way, they are unremarkable. They lived, they loved, they fought and they died. To me they are a passion, but to history they often left no mark aside from the experiences they had, the lessons they passed to their children and the records they touched that I so eagerly collect.

When I got a chance to explore Findmypast's criminal records I couldn't resist typing my family names into the search box, with a natural curiosity, though I had little expectation of success.

And that's when it happened. A name appeared. I eagerly clicked through and studied the details. The sentence and crime hit like a hammer. I've seen other people have their “wow moment" but this was the first time I felt my own. The crime? High treason. The sentence? Death. The little information I had about this person being born, serving in the military and then seemingly disappearing was all I could contribute. This couldn't be right could it?

Could this be my elusive ancestor?

The sheer depth and breadth of records in this collection is astounding, with just a name and an age it's very hard to be certain you have the right person, but I could use this new information to find other records that confirmed this man served in the same unit as my ancestor (the 7th Dragoons) and was from the same place, disappearing at the same time that would line up perfectly with the records giving an explanation. So…what happened?

Britain after the Napoleonic wars was a restless place. The ideas of the French and American revolutions had filtered across the ocean and small groups of radicals were beginning to ask if there wasn't more to life than the long hours, poor conditions and no representation that their uncaring government offered them. The economy was in recession and a lot of men returned from the continent wondering what they had fought for. The Cato Street Conspiracy and Peterloo Massacre of 1819 were symptoms of this restless agitation.

Liberty or Death

A small group of men from the west of Scotland decided that they could make a difference, that enough was enough and if they needed to fight or even die for the establishment of a new and better country so be it. They declared “Liberty or death is our motto, we have sworn to return home in triumph or return no more". After organised strikes of 60,000 workers, the ringleaders were encouraged that now was the time for revolution and made their move.

On April 4th 1820 60 men left Glasgow with the aim of meeting another group of supporters and seizing an ironworks to obtain weapons for their armed struggle. Nobody came, more than half of the men went home, but the most determined continued on. Later on the road they were met by 32 government soldiers and after a small skirmish our brave men were apprehended, sent to Stirling castle to await trial.

The "Martyr's Monument" in Glasgow - with my named relation James Clelland at the base.

At this trial they were sentenced to death by hanging and then beheading, a brutal punishment even by that period! A note in my record hinted at a happier ending though for my relation. Three days before execution his sentence was commuted along with his comrades to life transportation to Australia (two had already been killed, he was the third on the list).

A Better Life

As a blacksmith by trade when he arrived he found work quickly and was held in quite high regard by other convicts for his part in such a historic event, details of his transportation gave yet more information about his physical appearance and even more interestingly I found that in the same collection is a letter signed by the tradesmen of Edinburgh begging for mercy on behalf of these idealistic rebels. In 1835 a royal pardon was issued to all surviving radicals. My relation was now not only vindicated but free to live out the rest of his days in a much more comfortable lifestyle than he would have ever had in Glasgow.

A petition for mercy on behalf of my ancestor and his comrades.

Although these men may have been forgotten by many, the cause that they fought and in some cases died for lived on. In 1832 the Scottish Reform Act was passed and that was the start of a slow but steady march to equal rights for all that continues even to this day.

Never in my life could I have known I'd find my own rebel in the family, perhaps it explains a lot – but it's only with these brand new records was this discovery possible. If you are reading this, do as I did, enter all of the names you know and with so much contained within you have a very real chance of opening a whole new chapter in family history!

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