Thomas Muir of Huntershill, advocate and political activist, was arrested for sedition on the 2nd of January, 1793.
According to Don Martin of the ‘Friends of Thomas Muir’ in East Dunbartonshire, “If William Wallace and Robert the Bruce were champions of freedom; Thomas Muir was the champion of democracy”. Thomas Muir of Huntershill was also a ‘Friend’. He was the founder of the Scottish branch of the radical political activist group ‘Friends of the People’. The ‘people’ didn’t include the judge, Lord Braxfield, Robert McQueen, otherwise known as the ‘hanging judge’ and Muir’s ‘unfriend’. In the early 1790s, the purpose of the ‘Friends of the People’ was to promote the new democratic and republican ideas of the likes of Thomas Paine, who famously wrote ‘Rights of Man’ and ‘The Age of Reason’. It was also heavily influenced by the emergent revolution in France and resultant Irish republican ideals. For his involvement in being too much of a ‘Friend’ to the ‘wrong’ kind of people, puir Thomas Muir was arrested for sedition, tried, sentenced and transported to Australia.
Muir’s life story would make a terrific movie, but it would have to be a three-hour epic or maybe even a three-part, blockbusting adventure. Thomas Muir became a revolutionary hero in America, was cheekily appointed ‘Minister of the Scottish Republic’ by the French Revolutionary Government and was the most important of the five Scottish Political Martyrs; the others being Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald. In 1793, Muir and two others were sentenced to transportation to Australia for ‘sedition’. They are commemorated by the obelisk in the Old Calton Cemetery, in Edinburgh, incorporating a quote from Muir; “I have devoted myself to the cause of The People. It is a good cause – it shall ultimately prevail – it shall finally triumph.” For such words, Muir was an inspiration to Robert Burns, who apparently wrote ‘Scots Wha Hae’ with Wallace as an allegorical substitute for Muir. However, it’s only in the last verse that anything of the sort is remotely obvious from Burns’ paraphrasing of the French ‘tennis court oath’ in “Let us do, or die!”
Thomas Muir was born in Huntershill House, in Bishopbriggs, on the 24th of August, 1765. From the age of five, Thomas was taught by a private tutor until, at the age of ten, he became a divinity student at Glasgow University. However, Muir’s plans were altered irrevocably under the influence of the Professor of Civil Law, John Miller. Forsaking the Kirk, Muir embarked upon studies in Law and Government, but was expelled in 1785 for organising a petition in defence of Professor John Anderson (of ‘Andersonian Institute’ fame). He was able to resume his studies in Edinburgh and in 1787, Muir was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates. He was an early exponent of ‘legal aid’ as he offered his services gratis to those too poor to afford the exorbitant going rate. He also caused a stir by representing the Parish of Cadder in a notable case against local gentry demanding to ‘choose’ the Kirk Minister.
As a Whig, Muir became an advocate of Parliamentary reform, arguing against only wealthy landowners being entitled to vote in elections. That upset ‘Harry the Ninth’, a.k.a. Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, often referred to as ‘the uncrowned King of Scotland’. The reformists cause was boosted by the events of 1789 in France and empathetic ideas quickly spread in Edinburgh. Such a movement was an anathema to Dundas and his ilk as it represented a threat to their system of patronage and privilege. The publication of Thomas Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’ led to frenzied attempts by the Government to suppress its distribution. Those proved futile and thousands of copies were read, including by Thomas Muir, who, along with William Skirving, a farmer from Fife, formed the ‘Friends of the People’ in July, 1792.
That same year, Muir agreed to defend James Tytler on charges of sedition, after a three-day riot in Edinburgh, which was partly inspired by Tytler’s propaganda. Later, in December, 1792, the ‘Friends of the People’ gathered in Edinburgh for the first time. Muir was a radical, convinced of the need for parliamentary reform, but more than that, he was also an advocate for the cause of Scottish independence. Muir read an address of support for the ‘United Irishmen’ and it was primarily for that act as much as anything else that he was singled out as a major threat. On the 2nd of January, 1793, Muir was arrested on charges of sedition, but strangely enough, he was allowed bail. He went to France, but the authorities craftily brought forward his trial and, when he failed to appear, declared him a fugitive from justice. And whilst travelling back to Scotland via Dublin, he was sworn in as an honorary ‘United Irishmen’, which further damaged his cause.
Muir was arrested immediately upon his arrival in Scotland and charged with several offences, which included having ‘exhorted three (!) people to buy and read Paine’s book’. Muir defended himself brilliantly and eloquently, but the paranoid, Tory-centric jury was rigged. Muir was found guilty and his sentence was transportation to ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ for fourteen years. In his final speech on the 30th of August, 1793, which was once taught to schoolchildren in America, Muir said, “What has been my crime? Not the lending to a relation of mine a copy of Mr Paine’s work; not the giving away a few copies of an innocent and constitutional publication; but for having dared to be a strenuous and active advocate for an equal representation of the people, in the House of the people.”
In May 1794, after being imprisoned in a rotting hulk at Woolwich and forced to work on a chain gang, Muir and his fellow ‘Scottish Martyrs’ were sent to Botany Bay. Significantly, because of Muir’s international impact, George Washington sent the ‘Otter’ to rescue Muir. In February, 1795, Muir set sail from Port Jackson, but he never got to meet Washington as his ship was wrecked. Muir and two others survived, only to be captured by natives, incarcerated in Mexico, shipped to Cuba, and imprisoned in a dungeon before finally managing to board the ‘Ninfa’ bound for Spain. However, the ‘Adventures of Thomas Muir’ didn’t stop there as the ship was attacked outside Cadiz harbour and Muir seriously wounded. Those pictures of Muir with a cloth draped over his left eye are because shrapnel smashed into his face, removing one eye and damaging the other. Muir was saved by an incredible coincidence as the British surgeon on board H.M.S. ‘Invincible’ recognised him from schooldays and made sure he was sent to Cadiz rather than recaptured. Miraculously, Muir survived and was eventually transferred to France, where he received a hero’s welcome. Muir arrived in Paris on the 4th of February, 1798, where he was proclaimed ‘Minister of The Scottish Republic’. He died from his wounds and ‘complications’ on the 26th of January, 1799. Thomas Muir never produced a written manifesto; his fame as the ‘Champion of Democracy’ stems from his oratory and his courage.