Featured Article - Muir of Huntershill
Article No. 1
In Peter Mackenzie's 1831 biography of Thomas Muir, the Scottish advocate and
political reformer who was sentenced to 14 years transportation, described him as
“one of the most amiable reformers that ever breathed”. However Muir is barely
remembered in his homeland and virtually unknown elsewhere but his story is an
amazing tale of adventure and adversity set against a backdrop of repression and
Thomas Muir was born in Glasgow in 1765 the only son of strict Presbyterian
parents. The family lived in Glasgow’s High Street where his father, a successful
merchant, also owned a shop. Aged 12 he entered Glasgow University to study
Divinity, however, under the influence of John Millar, Professor of Civil Law and a
committed republican, he decided to study law.
In 1787 Muir was admitted to the faculty of advocates aged only 22. He went on to
practice in Edinburgh where he soon began to make a name for himself. His strict
Presbyterian upbringing instilled a strong sense of moral righteousness in Muir
who saw it as his duty to fight injustice in all its forms. He was even known to have
taken up the cases of many poor clients for no fee. However events in France a
few years later would alter the course of this promising young Advocates life
In France the Revolution that began in 1789 had swept away the old system of
government and the cry of ‘Freedom! Equality! Fraternity!’ was heard across
Europe striking fear into the hearts of governments everywhere. Muir also heard
this cry and found it hard to ignore. It was during this turbulent period in world
history that he became involved in the movement for parliamentary reform in
Democracy as we now know it did not exist in Britain in the 18th century. Only a
privileged minority held the vote and had any say in how the country was
governed. Inspired by events in France, Muir decided that reform was essential
and indeed possible through peaceful means. He helped to set up the Society of
the Friends of the People in Scotland in 1792 and he became one of the key figures
of the reform movement in Scotland. However the authorities, fearful of a
revolution at home, set out to destroy this movement and its leaders.
Muir and his colleagues travelled to many Scottish towns and villages to gain
support for the cause of parliamentary reform. They also helped to set up new
reform societies in some of the places that they visited. His efforts to secure the
common man a say in how his country was governed, however, brought him to the
attention of the ruling elite in Scotland. It was at the first General Convention of
the reform societies of 1792 that Muir read out a controversial address from the
United Irishmen with whom he had been corresponding. The authorities panicked
thinking that revolution was imminent.
Muir was arrested in January 1793 and after being questioned at length he was
released on bail. He travelled to London to receive a meal in his honour and upon
hearing of the imminent execution of the French King he left for France in a
hopeless bid to plead for the King’s life, but he arrived too late. After the
execution Muir decided to stay on in Paris for a time and while there he enjoyed
the company of fellow reformers, radicals, and revolutionaries. A trial date had
been set at Edinburgh and Muir was meant to return, however, war broke out
between Britain and France and he found himself unable to travel. He remained in
Paris for a few months until the French authorities granted him permission to
leave, but during this time he had been declared an outlaw from justice in Scotland.
In August of that year Muir arrived home. As he stepped off of a boat at
Portpatrick he was placed under arrest almost immediately by an official who
recognised him. It is said that his trip home had been a secret and that he had
planned to escape to America after visiting family and friends, but no-one will ever
know for sure. The country braced itself for the first of a series of major sedition
trials designed by the authorities to crush the fledgling reform movement. Muir’s
trial was to be the first and the most explosive.
The trial began on the 30th August 1793 at the High Court of Justiciary in
Edinburgh. The prosecution case against Muir was weak and absurd at points but
the authorities made sure of a positive result by rigging the jury. Although the
odds were stacked against him and the outlook was bleak Muir went on to give an
impassioned and vigorous defence that roused the assembled audience into
energetic applause. Muir won the audience but he could not win the jury.
On the 31st of August Muir was sentenced to 14 years transportation to Australia.
He spent nearly eight months languishing in the tollbooth and the hulks before
finally, early in May of 1794, he and some of his fellow reformers were carried
away on board the convict ship Surprize beginning a dangerous six month voyage
to the far side of the world.
As political prisoners Muir and the other reformers were not subject to many of
the harsher elements of life in the colony and he was able to buy a small farm
where he whiled away the hours, hoping for salvation.
Early in 1796 salvation arrived in the form of the American fur-trading vessel the
Otter out of Boston. He escaped with the help of a spirited young French sailor,
destined for the New World.
Muir caught sight of the West Coast of America for the first time in May 1796 but
after hearing that a British warship was in the area he changed ships hoping to
reach America sooner. Here his luck began to run out, he was taken prisoner by
the Spanish authorities who believed that he was a spy. He was marched across
modern day Mexico and onto Cuba where he languished in captivity for some time
before being informed that he would be sent back to Europe.
After a month long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean fate was to deal Muir another
crushing blow. As the Spanish convoy approached the coast of Spain a British
Navy squadron intercepted them and a fierce battle ensued. Muir was badly
injured, he lost an eye and his face was smashed in the fray. The Spanish ship was
boarded by the British and Muir was close to recapture, however, he was mistaken
for a Spanish sailor and sent to Cadiz to recover where by chance a French
diplomat learned of his fate and arranged for his release from captivity.
Late in 1797 Muir arrived in France where he was feted as a hero. He was awarded
a small pension and became involved in fruitless plans for an invasion of the
Muir finally faded into obscurity as his health failed him and after his propaganda
value had been exhausted. He moved to the small lace-making town of Chantilly,
unable to return home to his native land for fear of execution. Here in January
1799 he died as a result of his old wounds. The Royal Navy had inadvertently
finished off this man of the people.
Today in Edinburgh’s Old Calton burial ground an imposing obelisk stands tall to
the memory of Muir and his four fellow reformers, called the ‘Scottish Martyrs’.
Much like Muir’s story this monument remains largely forgotten by the very
people who now enjoy the right to a say in the government of their country thanks
to the early foot soldiers of democracy such as Thomas Muir of Huntershill.
|Your Scottish Descent brings you articles and information on various
topics of interest related to Scottish history and Scottish genealogy
|Thomas Muir of Huntershill 1765-1799
A profile of the Scottish political martyr Thomas Muir of Huntershill
who was convicted of sedition in 1793 for his part in the movement for
Parliamentary reform in Britain.
|Author: Robert Edwards BA (Hons)
© Robert Edwards 2007-15.
|“Gentlemen, from my infancy to this
moment, I have devoted myself to the cause
of the People. It is a good cause. It shall
ultimately prevail. It shall finally triumph.”
Thomas Muir – High Court of Justiciary at
Edinburgh 31st August 1793.
|Copyright © Your Scottish Descent 2007-15
Unauthorised use or reproduction of copyright material is prohibited.
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|Image copyright © Robert Edwards
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