Silicon Glen, Scotland > Scottish FAQ > Scottish History
View the Silicon Glen Blog. Contact Us about advertising rates.

Thomas Muir

Want to move jobs?. New free social marketing tool for job seekers
Sign up now at

An article on the Scottish Political Reformist Thomas Muir. He was transported to Australia for 14 years for attempting to change the political system in Britain, and was involved in political reform in the US, France and Ireland. Thomas Muir is the subject of a song by Adam McNaughton, sung often by Dick Gaughan.

Article sent by Charles McGregor
Source: Steel's "Scotland's Story". A very good, if succinct history of Scotland and which featured as a TV series about 10 years ago.

The first Convention of the Scottish Friends of the People opened in Edinburgh on 11 December 1792. Over 150 delegates representing 150 societies from 35 towns and villages attended. Their aim was to draw up a petition to send to the British Parliament in support of electoral reform. Thomas Muir, a Glasgow barrister with a reputation as a man of principle, had helped organise many of the societies. He had also, before the Convention, been in contact with the United Irishmen movement, a group of professional men in Dublin also bent on political reform. Against the advice of his colleagues, Muir read an address the United Irishmen had sent which urged the Edinburgh Convention to 'openly, actively and urgently' will Parliamentary reform.

On the last day of the Convention, a Petition to Parliament was read and approved; but it was suggested that the Convention arm itself so as to be able to help magistrates put down riots that might occur in support of reform. An emotional evening session ended with delegates swearing the French oath, 'To live free or die'. The government at Westminster misread the situation. The Home Office files bulged with reports from spies. As informers were paid piece-rate many had put down gossip as fact, and rumour spread that the delegates were preparing themselves for insurrection. The government panicked and on 2 January 1793 arrested Muir. His trial opened in Edinburgh on 30 August 1793. He was accused of making seditious speeches, of circulating Paine's Rights of Man and of defending as well as reading the Address from the United Irishmen. Muir turned down an offer made by Henry Erskine, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, to defend him and conducted his own defence:

"I am accused of sedition and yet can prove by thousands of witnesses that I warned the people of that crime, exhorted them to adopt none but measures which were constitutional, and entreated them to connect liberty with knowledge and both with morality."

The trial lasted sixteen hours, the evidence heard by five judges and a jury. But the proceedings were dominated bv Lord Braxfield, of whom Lord Cockburn wrote:

"Strong built and dark, with rough eyebrows, powerful eyes, threatening lips, and a low growling voice, he was like a formidable blacksmith. His accent and his dialect were exaggerated Scotch; his language, like his thoughts, short, strong, and conclusive. He was the Jeffreys of Scotland. 'Let them bring me prisoners, and I'll find them law', used to be openly stated as his suggestion, when an intended political prosecution was marred by anticipated difficulties."

Muir's flowery address to the jury lasted three hours but fell upon deaf ears.

"I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause, it shall ultimately prevail, it shall ultimately triumph."

Braxfield, who had arrogantly dismissed the evidence of Muir's twenty one witnesses, summed up:

"Government in this country is made up of the landed interest, which alone has a right to be represented; as for the rabble, who have nothing but personal property, what hold has the nation of them? what security for the payment of their taxes? They may pack up all their property on their backs, and leave the country in the twinkling of an eye."

The jury found Muir guilty, and Braxfield sentenced him to fourteen years transportation to Botany Bay, a novel sentence then tantamount to the death penalty. After 1783 Britain had looked to Australia as a substitute for the American colonies to take the overflow from Britain's prisons. The first fleet of eleven vessels had carried nearly 800 convicts, and had arrived at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. Many subsequent ships sank before reaching Australia; many convicts died of dysentery or typhoid en route, and by the time of Muir's sentence horror stories about Britain's embryo prison colony abounded. Scots were shocked by the sentence. Robert Burns was moved to write, 'Scots Wha Hae' in protest, a song which was immediately banned as seditious. 'The newspapers gave Muir's trial enormous coverage and three editions of the court's proceedings were published, two of them in America. After sentence, Muir was taken to the Tolbooth and on 14 November put on board the Royal George bound for London. His mother and father presented him with a pocket Bible with the inscription, 'To Thomas Muir from his Afflicted Parents'.

The question of his sentence was raised five times in Parliament; but on 13 February, Muir, together with Skirving, Gerrald and Margarot, set sail for Botany Bay. The filthy, stinking, mutinous voyage took nearly six months. Because they were political prisoners Muir and the Edinburgh Martyrs were not obliged to work like the other convicts. Thomas Muir purchased a small farm near Sydney Cove and called it Huntershill, after his father's Scottish home.

On 24 January 1796, the Otter, an American ship from Boston, visited the colony and the night before she set sail Thomas Muir managed to board her. His escape, after just sixteen months in the colony, proved a timely one. Within a month of Muir's bid for freedom, Gerrald died at the age of thirty-six and Skining succumbed to dysentery. After many adventures Muir eventually reached France, where he was given a hero's welcome at Bordeaux, and thence conveyed to Paris where the Revolutionary government held a banquet in his honour. But his last years were marked by sad decline, both physical and intellectual. Although he had not seen Britain's shores for four years, he set himself up as an expert on his country's affairs. Talleyrand, the French Foreign Secretary, allowed him a small pension; but once the French had exhausted Muir's propaganda value he became an irrelevance. He died at Chantilly outside Paris in 1798, more extreme in his views and more full of his own importance than ever.

I heard one anecdote from Muir's trial recently. Some woolly minded liberal member of the Scottish establishment pleaded with Braxfield: "But rememberber, my Lord, Jesus Christ was a reformer too." "Muckle he made o' that. He was hanget," was Braxfield's retort.

In Edinburgh Library there are many accounts of Scotland's links with Australia. Not all the Scots who found themselves on the other side of the world went as prisoners. The second governor of New South Wales, John Hunter, responsible for consolidating the colony, was a Leith man. There is a memorial to him by the Leith dock gates, near the Malmaison Hotel.

The 5th governor of New South Wales and Australia's greatest Governor Major-General was also Scottish: Major-General Lachlan Macquarie. Macquarie was a Scottish soldier and Governor of the colony of New South Wales from 1810-1821, whose term of office was noted for humanitarian treatment of ex-convicts, encouragement of public works programmes, inland exploration and the creation of new towns. Lachlan Macquarie was born on the tiny island of Ulva, in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland and grew up on the nearby larger island of Mull.

As with other other expatriate communities, these links are much better remembered in Australia than they are in Scotland. The excellent Mitchell Library in New South Wales, for example, has a fine collection of material about Muir.

Later on in the same book...

1820 is the year of the so-called Scottish Insurrection. The events, which were to culminate in the execution of three weavers for high treason, were, however, in large part the expression of the resentment many in Scotland felt for having fought for Britain against Napoleon only to return home and find themselves treated as seditious rabble and industrial scrap.

Attempts had been made by the authorities, after the Napoleonic War, to relieve the hardship caused by unemployment. The Town Council of Glasgow, for instance, employed 324 workless to restyle Glasgow Green. Relief centres were also opened up in the town; but charity did little to ameliorate what was seen as the root of the problem. If the disaffected, as the government called them, were to continue to be intransigent, there was but one solution, namely to create a head-on collision that would put the radical movement in its place.

In 1820, government spies once again were ordered to infiltrate the radical ranks. They encouraged the radicals to form a Committee of Organisation for Forming a Provisional Government, and on 1 April placards appeared on the streets of Glasgow, calling for an immediate national strike and a rising on 5 April:

"To show the world that we are not that lawless, sanguinary' rabble which our oppressors would persuade the higher circles we are but a brave and generous people determined to be free."

The Proclamation, making reference, as it did, to the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights, was probably written by a government spy. Throughout Scotland some 60,000 stopped work on 1 April. Yet unknown to the rank and file of the radical movement, twenty-eight members of the so-called provisional government were in Glasgow jail and had been since 21 March when they had been quietly arrested. On April Fool's Day 1820, the streets of Glasgow were lined with troops. The government had called out the Rifle Brigade and the 83rd Regiment of Foot, together with the 7th and 10th Hussars, under the command of Sir Richard Hussey Vivian, the government's leading expert in cavalry tactics and expressly sent north by the Duke of York in case of disturbances. Samuel Hunter's Glasgow Sharpshooters were also on hand, under his personal command. There was a brief encounter in the evening when three hundred radicals skirmished with a party 'of cavalry', but no one came to harm that day. At Fir Park, now Glasgow's Necropolis, seventy radicals had been directed by government agents to go to Falkirk, where English sympathisers, it was said, would join up with them and help take the Carron Iron Works. When the small band got there, they found nobody and half of them dispersed. Thirty radicals were resting at Bonnymuir, near Castlecary, when a troop of the 7th Hussars advanced towards them. Andrew Hardie, one of the radicals, recalled the scene:

"Some of our men were wounded in a most shocking manner, and it is truly unbecoming the character of a soldier to wound, or try and kill any man whom he has it in his power to take prisoner, and when we had no arms to make any defence."

Forty-seven radicals were ultimately rounded up and taken to the military prison at Stirling Castle. Twenty-four were tried and sentenced to death. One of the three hanged was a sixty-year-old weaver, James Wilson. A special English Court of Oyer and Terminer, a royal commission court with power to hear and determine criminal causes, was set up in Glasgow. Wilson made an impassioned speech to the court:

"You may condemn me to immolation on the scaffold, but you cannot degrade me. If I have appeared as a pioneer in the van of freedom's battles - if I have attempted to free my country from political degradation - my conscience tells me that I have only done my duty. Your brief authority will soon cease, but the vindictive proceedings this day shall be recorded in history".

Sentence was passed by Lord President Hope. Wilson was to be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution, hanged, then his head severed from his body and his corpse quartered. Twenty thousand people witnessed James Wilson's execution on Glasgow Green. His remains were spared quartering and were ultimately allowed to rest in Strathaven, the village of his birth, where in his younger days, it is said, he had invented the purl stitch.

Two other radicals, John Baird a thirty-two-year-old weaver from Condorrat, and Andrew Hardie, a weaver from Glasgow aged twenty-eight were executed in Stirling, watched by a crowd of 2000. The night before Hardie wrote to his girlfriend:

"I shall die firm to the cause in which I embarked, and although we were outwitted and betrayed, yet I protest, as a dying man, it was done with good intention on my part... No person could have induced me to take up arms to rob or plunder; no, my dear Margaret, I took them for the restoration of those rights for which our forefathers bled, and which we have allowed shamefully to be wrested from us."

(I find these words especially moving....chic)

The authorities had trouble in finding someone who would chop off the heads of the two radicals at Stirling. Nine days before the ex-ecution two town clerks were sent to 'engage an executioner'. One went to Glasgow, where he witnessed James Wilson's execution and noticed he was first hanged by an executioner and then had his head severed by another masked man 'in a long robe'. Glasgow's hangman demanded ten guineas per victim and, grudgingly, the Stirling Town Clerk agreed to pay it. The decapitator was found in Edinburgh. He demanded twenty guineas per victim for what was regarded as a more dangerous job as the crowd would almost certainly react to his gory task. The sentences of nineteen other radicals captured after Bonnymuir were commuted to transportation to New South Wales, seven for life and twelve for fourteen years. Peter Mackenzie, a Glasgow journalist, campaigned to have them pardoned. He published a small book en-titled, "The Spy System, including the exploits of Mr Alex. Richmond, the notorious Government Spy of Sidmouth and Castlereagh........"

Scottish FAQ > FAQ Contents > Scottish History > Thomas Muir > Top

Q-HTML V3.4 by Craig Cockburn created this page on 19-Jun-2012 at 08:06:28