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Thomas Muir of Huntershill

As plans get under way to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of often overlooked republican and democratic revolutionary Thomas Muir - who some have labeled 'the father of Scottish Democracy,  The Point republishes an updated version of Graeme McIver's look at the incredible life of Thomas Muir of Huntershill.

This is a story that reads like a cross between a political thriller, a courtroom drama and a boys own adventure. Were it to be presented to a group of Hollywood script writers it would likely be rejected as being unbelievable. Yet the incredible tale of this giant of the Scottish reform movement, a revolutionary hero in America, appointed Minister of The Scottish Republic by the French Revolutionary Government, inspirer of Robert Burns, friend of Thomas Paine and the leading figure of the Scottish Political Martyrs is known to fewer than a relative handful of people in his native land.

My name is Thomas Muir as a lawyer I was trained
But you’ve branded me an outlaw, for sedition I’m arraigned
But I never preached sedition in any shape or form
And against the constitution I have never raised a storm
It’s the scoundrels who’ve corrupted it that I want to reform
Remember Thomas Muir of Huntershill

(Words Dick Gaughan)



The turnout for the Scottish Indepedendence Referendum on September 18th 2014 was extremely high by Scottish and UK political standards, and very encouraging. The turnout of 84.6% was the highest in any election or referndum in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage. This compares to the 63.8% who turned out at the 2010 General Election, 50.3% at the 2011 Scottish Elections and just 34.2% at the recent European Elections. However, the referendum aside, public confidence in our political representatives has generally reached a new low as people react with anger and disgust at what they see as a discredited political elite feathering their own nests and covering up the crimes and corruption of the establishment.

Predominantly poor working class areas like Springburn in Glasgow have traditionally had the lowest voter turnout in the UK. Thousands appeared to have have turned their backs on a political process that seems to offer nothing to them and their families. There is, therefore both an irony and an inspiration that just a few miles from Springburn lies the home of a man who sacrificed everything to try and ensure that the ordinary people were entitled to the vote and the chance to play a part in a process that - during his own - lifetime was the sole preserve of the wealthy and powerful. In Bishopbriggs, on the old post road between Glasgow and Edinburgh, lies Huntershill House, the family home of the radical Scottish advocate and reformer Thomas Muir.

Huntershill House

The story of Thomas Muir of Huntershill reads like a cross between a political thriller, a courtroom drama and a boys own adventure. Were it to be presented to a group of Hollywood script writers it would likely be rejected as being unbelievable. Yet the incredible tale of this giant of the Scottish reform movement, a revolutionary hero in America, appointed Minister of The Scottish Republic by the French Revolutionary Government, inspirer of Robert Burns, friend of Thomas Paine and the leading figure of the Scottish Political Martyrs is known to fewer than a relative handful of people in his native land.

I first stumbled across the story of Muir quite by accident. After just missing a bus back to the Borders I found myself with time to kill on Edinburgh’s Waterloo Place. I entered the Old Calton Burial Ground to look around the various tombs, gravestones and monuments. A faded notice on the gates informs visitors that included within the walls of the cemetery opened in 1718 can be found memorials to the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume and the first statue of Abraham Lincoln outside of America commemorating the Scots soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

Yet, it is another monument that dominates the graveyard and stands visible above the famous spires and buildings of Scotland’s capital city. Standing over 100ft tall, the grey-black sandstone obelisk in the centre of the burial ground grabbed my attention. Inscribed on one side was the following;

“I have devoted myself to the cause of The People. It is a good cause - it shall ultimately prevail - it shall finally triumph.

Speech of Thomas Muir in the Court of Judiciary on 30 August 1793.”


The Martyrs Monument - Calton Cemetary, Edinburgh

As a socialist I was immediately intrigued as to who was the author of this inspirational and profound statement. Below Muir’s statement was another;

“I know that what has been done these two days will be Re-Judged.

Speech of William Skirving in the Court of Judiciary on 7 January 1794”

The obelisk, known as the Martyr’s Monument, had another, final inscription.

“To The Memory Of Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald. Erected by the Friends of Parliamentary Reform in England and Scotland, 1844.”

I set out to find out more about the men that had inspired so magnificent a monument that unusually seemed to celebrate a cause of the people rather than a wealthy or powerful individual.

I uncovered a story that moves Muir between disruption and controversy at Glasgow University, a sparkling career in the Faculty of Advocates and courtrooms of Edinburgh, from conventions of the Friends of The People in Scotland to membership of The United Irishmen, prison hulks in the Thames, motions of support for him in the Westminster Parliament, transportation to Australia, rescue, shipwreck, arrival in Cuba, injury, incredible escapes and finally death in revolutionary France.

My article merely scratches the surface of a remarkable time and does not pretend to be anything other than an introduction to one of Scotland’s most remarkable men.



Thomas Muir’s Early Years


Yes, I spoke to Paisley weavers and addressed the city’s youth
For neither age nor class should be a barrier to the truth
M’lord, you may chastise them with your vitriolic tongue
You say that books are dangerous to those I moved among
But the future of our land is with the workers and the young

(Dick Gaughan)

The story of Muir begins on 24th August 1765 when Margaret Muir (nee Smith) gave birth to a son in Glasgow. Thomas’s father James Muir was an orthodox Presbyterian who had achieved success as a hop merchant with premises in the city’s High Street.

An educated man, Muir’s father was credited with writing a pamphlet entitled, “England’s Foreign Trade.” His business acumen meant he was able to move the family from a small flat above the city centre business to a substantial property, built by Glasgow merchant James Martin, called Huntershill House in Bishopbriggs.

Thomas, described in contemporary accounts as, “a pious child of modest, reserved nature’ began his schooling at the age of five when his father employed a private tutor. By the time he was ten he was a student at Glasgow University and initially, with his parent’s encouragement, studied divinity. However, Muir’s life changed irrevocably when he attended the lectures of the Republican Whig Professor of Civil Law, John Miller.

Miller had established a reputation that attracted students from across the world to his classes. A former pupil of Adam Smith and David Hume, he influenced the 17 year old Muir to such an extent that he dropped his aspirations to serve the church and instead embarked upon studies in Law and Government.

Politics in Scotland at the time Muir was attending Miller’s classes was dominated by one man, Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville (1742 – 1811). Nicknamed “Harry the Ninth” and often referred to as the uncrowned King of Scotland, Dundas was a defacto dictator whose contacts in the legal profession and in politics put him in a position of unparalleled power and influence. His half brother Robert was Lord President of the Court of Session and his nephew, (also Robert) was Lord Advocate of Scotland. A Tory MP, Dundas was a favourite of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. He endeared himself to his Tory colleagues by successfully blocking attempts to finally abolish the slave trade whilst serving as Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Henry Dundas

Professor Miller was determined to use his influence help counter Dundas and his Tory placemen and set out to produce a generation of young Whig lawyers who would enter the conservative Faculty of Advocates. Thomas Muir was set to be one of these young lawyers.

Muir became a confident and driven young man and was soon involved in his first battle with the establishment in 1785 when he and ten others were accused of organising a petition in defence of University Professor John Anderson who was in dispute with the Faculty of Glasgow University.

Anderson was another influential and radical lecturer who caused controversy by advocating teaching what he called “anti-toga” classes in which he took the unprecedented decision to allow the ordinary citizens of the city to attend rather than just the elite. Anderson went on to establish the Andersonian Institute (later to become Strathclyde University.)

Muir and the others rallied to the Anderson’s cause after he was suspended following a dispute over the Professor’s claim that University funds were being abused. Disciplinary action was taken against Muir and the others which resulted in their expulsion from the University. This harsh punishment meant that most of his contemporaries never qualified as lawyers. Thanks to his father and a series of influential friends, Muir was able to resume and complete his studies in Edinburgh and in 1787 was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates.

Muir quickly gained a reputation as a formidable advocate and raised eyebrows by offering his services gratis for those unable to afford the exorbitant fees charged by other lawyers. His status was further enhanced when he successfully represented the congregation the Church of Scotland in the Parish of Cadder against the rich local landowners and coal barons who were attempting to influence the selection of a new minister.

It was events in France however that were determine Muir’s fate.

The French Revolution and Scottish Friends of the People


Muir and other Whigs had been involved in advocating Burgh and Parliamentary reform. At the time, only a literal handful of wealthy landowners were entitled to vote in Parliamentary elections. Their cause was boosted by events in France in 1789 when the French people rose up against the monarchy and established a Republic based on the principles of “liberte, egalite and fraternite.”

The ideas of the revolution spread quickly in Edinburgh and beyond throughout 1789 and led to an explosion in newspapers, magazines, periodicals, debating clubs and societies discussing the great issues thrown up by the earth shattering events across the Channel.

To Dundas and others in the political establishment however, the French revolution represented a threat to their carefully constructed system of patronage and privilege and were determined to suppress any movement sympathetic to the French revolutionary cause.

Even within the Whig establishment, differences began to emerge between younger radicals such as Muir and more conservative aristocratic elements worried that the “sans culottes” of Britain might rise up and threaten their position in society.

When Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman, author and political theorist wrote his famous “Reflections on the French Revolution”, a document written in response caused panic in the British establishment. “The Rights of Man”, written by Thomas Paine, an Englishman who had fought on the side of American revolutionaries, was immediately banned for being seditious. In it Paine stated:

“The fact, therefore, must be that the individuals, themselves, each, in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.”

Attempts by the government to suppress its distribution proved futile and thousands of copies were read across the country by a population clamouring for change and new ideas.

From 1789 onwards, Corresponding societies were established in most of the major cities in Britain. In 1792 in Scotland it was agreed to merge most of these disparate groups into one Scottish formation to be named The Friends of the People. Thomas Muir, along with a farmer from Fife called William Skirving were fundamental to the process of establishing the Friends of the People and the organisation was formed in Edinburgh in July 1792.

The summer of 1792 saw the Government in permanent fear of revolution and popular uprisings. The month prior to the establishment of the Friends of the People had seen the date of the Kings birthday celebrated by an Edinburgh mob which for 3 days rioted and burnt effigies of Dundas and his nephew. Soldiers were heard to cry “Damn the King” and revolutionary slogans were daubed on the walls of the capital.

For the first time a fresh voice was clamouring to be heard in Scottish society. The new and burgeoning class of workers and artisans was no longer satisfied with sympathetic aristocrats with a conscience campaigning for reforms on their behalf. They would no longer be ignored.

Government agents and spies were everywhere and one reported;

“All the lower ranks, particularly the operative manufacturers with a considerable number of their employers, are poisoned with an enthusiastic rage for ideal liberty that will not be crushed by coercive measures.”

It was against this background that in December 1792 the Friends of the People gathered for their first convention in Edinburgh. From across Scotland, 160 delegates (some of them government spies) from 35 corresponding or debating societies met to discuss their cause. Lawyers, doctors, generals (including the MP for Inverness) and soldiers mixed with artisans and weavers. The nobility was represented by Lord Daer.

Muir, who had brought himself to the establishment’s attention once again by representing one of the King’s birthday rioters, had arranged with the other leaders for the convention to swear the French tennis court oath to “live free or die!” This act alone would be enough to draw unwanted attention from the paranoid government.

Yet Muir would have realised that the convention represented a broad constituency of views and opinions rather than a pure and revolutionary sect. Whilst the workers and artisans clamoured for change, the nobility and generals urged caution and restraint. In a delightfully contradictory move, the convention agreed on the one hand that the franchise should be extended to all males over the age of 21 whilst on the other agreeing to assist civil powers in any suppression of riots! (Those of us who have been involved in broad campaigns will no doubt have come across similar paradoxes!)

Muir however represented the more radical wing of the movement. He was convinced not just of the need for parliamentary reform but also in the cause of Scottish independence from England. He drew further attention to himself by reading to the convention an address of support from The United Irishmen with who he had been in regular correspondence. (He had also circulated copies of the address to delegates prior to the meeting.) He was vigorously opposed in presenting this address by Unionists within the gathering including the influential Lord Daer and Col. William Dalrymple. Muir insisted however and added;

“We do not, we cannot, consider ourselves as mowed and melted down into another country. Have we not distinct Courts, Judges, Juries, Laws, etc.?”

It was for this act, as much as anything else that the establishment singled out Muir as the major threat and became determined to put an end to the political career of the young lawyer. The Lord Advocate Robert Dundas swore in relation to Thomas Muir that he would, “lay by the heels on a charge of High Treason.”

Thus, on January 2nd 1793 Muir found himself under arrest on the extremely serious charge of sedition. Brought in front of a sheriff and interrogated at length, Muir refused to answer any questions. It came as a surprise, (especially to him) that he found himself free on bail until his trial date in April and he wasted no time in building support for his cause. He travelled to London to meet members of the English reform societies and found them to be in a state of panic over the French Governments decision to execute their King. Muir knew that the delicate coalition he and others had built up advocating reform could be torn asunder by the act of regicide. He felt that sympathetic influential men would abandon the cause if the execution took place and so Muir decided to travel to Paris and plead restraint to the French Government. Fate would have it otherwise however as he did not arrive in the French capital until the eve of Louis XVI date with the guillotine and was to late to have an effect. He was however feted by influential members of the Revolutionary Government, met Thomas Paine and the Scottish Doctor William Maxwell, future friend of the poet Robert Burns. The monarchies of Europe were now determined to militarily defeat the French and feelings back home in Scotland became more polarised as war loomed. Knowing full well that Muir was on the continent, Lord Advocate Robert Dundas announced that Muir’s trial would be brought forward from April to February 11th.

When Muir was informed he immediately despatched notice that he would return as soon as passport difficulties would allow. (Due to the problems of the state of war that existed between Britain and France.) The legal establishment ignored his appeals on February 25th, Robert McQueen, Lord Braxfield declared Muir a fugitive from justice. Muir ignored appeals from friends and family to stay in France and announced his intention to return and defend himself against the charges. In his absence, the Faculty of Advocates, led by the arch Tory Henry Erskine took the disgraceful opportunity to expel Muir.

It was June before Muir was able to find a ship, (an American vessel named “The Hope of Boston”) that would take him to Belfast. In a move that sealed his fate further he travelled south to Dublin where he met with and was sworn in as an honorary member of The United Irishmen. He left Belfast on his 28th birthday to make the short crossing to his native land and was arrested almost immediately upon his arrival when a customs officer in Portpatrick recognised him. He was taken in chains to Edinburgh and it is said that as the coach passed through Gatehouse on Fleet the spectacle was witnessed by fellow radical Robert Burns who set to work composing “Scot’s Wae Hae” repeating the tennis court oath of “let us do or dee.” Although the poem is ostensibly about William Wallace, Burns is paying tribute to Muir and his final draft was finished on the day Muir’s trial began.

The Trial of Thomas Muir



M’lord, you found me guilty before the trial began
Remember ...Thomas Muir
And the jury that you’ve picked are Tory placemen to a man
Remember ...Thomas Muir
Yet here I stand for judgement unafraid what may befall
Though your spies were in my parish Kirk and in my father’s hall
Not one of them can testify I ever broke a law
Remember ...Thomas Muir
(Dick Gaughan)

The trial took place before the notorious Robert McQueen, Lord Braxfield (1722 – 1799). Born in Lanark, Braxfield quickly gained a reputation as a fearsome judge. Braxfield provided the model for Lord Weir in Robert Louis Stevenson’s unfinished novel “Weir of Hermiston.”

He is said to have commented to one defendant;

“Ye’re a vera clever chiel, man, but ye wad be nane the waur o' a hanging.

McQueen was a friend of Robert and Henry Dundas who passionately believed that only those who owned property were entitled to vote in an election. He said;

“A government in every country should be just like a corporation, and in this country it is made up of the landed interest, which alone has the right to be represented. As for the rabble, who have nothing but personal property, what hold has the nation on them? What security for payment of their taxes? They may pack up all the property on their backs and leave the country in the twinkling on an eye. But landed property cannot be removed.”

A new charge was brought into being to charge Muir, that of “Unconscious sedition!”

The trial was to be the first of a series of high profile “show” trials with Muir as the number one target. The jury was rigged with Tory placemen and even Lord Cockburn commented Muir’s trial was “one of the cases the memory whereof never perisheth, history cannot let its injustice alone.”

One of the placemen on the jury, Captain John Inglis of Auchedinny, suffered an attack of conscience and asked to be removed saying;

“Being in his Majesty’s service he did not wish to be on the jury as he thought it unfair in a case of this nature to try Muir by servants of the crown.”

McQueen intervened and insisted Inglis serve.

Muir stated;

“Shall these men be my jurymen who have not merely accused me but likewise judged and condemned me without knowing me in my vindication?”

Muir defended himself brilliantly and eloquently. His final speech to the jury on August 30th 1793 was for a number of years taught to schoolchildren in America as a classic speech in defence of freedom. In it he said;

“Gentlemen of the jury, this is perhaps the last time I shall address my country. I have explored the tenor of my past life. Nothing shall tear me from the record of my former days.

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.

Gentlemen, the time will come when men must stand or fall by their actions – when all human pageantry shall cease – when the hearts of all will be laid open….

I am careless and indifferent to my fate. I can look danger and I can look death in the face, for I am shielded by the consciousness of my own rectitude. I may be condemned to languish in the recess of a dungeon – I may be doomed to ascend the scaffold. Nothing can deprive me of the past – nothing can destroy my inward peace of mind, arising from the remembrance of having discharged my duty.”

Despite his eloquence Muir knew that he was doomed. At one stage in the trial Muir argued that he was advocating the teachings of Christ. Braxfield leaned to the rigged jury and is reputed to have said;

“muckle guid it did him, he was hingit tae!”

Lord Braxfield

Shamefully but predictably Muir was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years transportation to the penal colony at Botany Bay in Australia. For many of the poor souls who received this fate transportation was equivalent to the death sentence as months at sea, exposed to sickness and disease meant that large numbers of convicts never lived to see their new surroundings in Van Diemen’s Land.

Muir was joined on a prison ship at Leith by fellow reformer Thomas Fyshe Palmer (1747 – 1802). Palmer was a Unitarian minister who had faced trial in Perth for the printing and distribution of Address to the People concerning parliamentary reform, written by George Mealmaker

If it had been the government’s intention to smash the reform movement in Scotland immediately then they were mistaken as Muir’s trial and his superb performance had led to opposition to the government stiffening. The Government decided that Muir should be moved from Scotland to avoid becoming a rallying point for dissent and was sent to a prison hulk at Woolwich on the Thames. Forced to work on a chain gang by day, Muir deportation was delayed when the ship hired to transport him was found to be rotten. As he waited, he was joined by fellow radicals William Skirving and Maurice Margarot who had also been victims of the show trials in Scotland.

In May 1794, aboard the ship “Surprise” and despite the intervention of amongst others the playwright and MP Richard Sheridan who moved a parliamentary motion to show leniency, the Scottish radicals set sail for Botany Bay.

Robert Burns, forced to publish his radical poetry under aliases wrote in the poem “To Messers Muir, Palmer, Skirving and Margarot”;

Friends of the Slighted people – ye whose wrongs
From wounded FREEDOM many a tear shall draw
As once she mourn’d when mocked by venal tounges
Her SYDNEY fell beneath the form of law

Even on board Surprise Muir could not escape those who wished to discredit him more and he was accussed of helping to organise a mutiny on board. The attempt at framing Muir was so bungled however that he was able to successfully defend himself at a subsequent trial when he arrived at Port Jackson.

Meanwhile back home in Scotland the governments attempts to smash the reformers was beginning to succeed. Most of the leaders of the Friends of the People were now in jail or awaiting transportation. The war with France has led to an increase in crackdowns on any individual or group expressing revolutionary sympathies.

In an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia that followed, Burns wrote;

The shrinking Bard adown an alley sculks
And dreads a meeting worse then Woolwich hulks
Tho’ there his heresies in Church and State
Might well award him Muir and Palmer fate…

Despite establishment claims that Britain has a democratic tradition stretching back centuries, the years following the trials of what were now being referred to as “The Scottish Martyrs” led to an unprecedented increase in repression of reformers and crackdowns on freedom of speech. The ongoing war against the French led to the government introducing conscription to the army which met with popular opposition. In Tranent in East Lothian in 1797, the army crushed a protest organised by miners and their families against conscription by indiscriminately killing 11 men and wounding 12 others. The dragoons, by now described as “hysterical” went on to rape and pillage their way through the collier’s homes. A generation passed without a public meeting being held anywhere in Scotland as Dundas tightened his grip. It wasn’t until the working class rebellions of 1819 – 20 that organised radicalism raised its head again.

Muir in Australia and a Boys Own Adventure

With quiet words and dignity Muir led his own defence
He appeared completely blameless to those with common sense
When he had finished speaking the courtroom rang with cheers
Lord Braxfield said, “This outburst just confirms our greatest fears”
And he sentenced Thomas Muir to be transported 14 years
(Dick Gaughan)

For a less remarkable man the story might have ended with Muir serving his time in Botany Bay. Certainly his first months in the colony passed uneventfully and he was spared the worst excesses of life in Australia following fundraising from supportive Whigs that allowed him to purchase a small farm and live mainly unmolested by prison authorities.

However, it is at this point that Muir’s story becomes less of a story about politics and reform and more a barely believable swashbuckling tale of adventure.

In the seventh year of his presidency and under pressure from Scots Americans, George Washington ordered that the USS Otter be sent to rescue Muir and invite him back to practise law at the American bar.

On February 5th 1795 the Otter arrived at Port Jackson and Muir was located and set sail for freedom and a new life in America. Fate however, not for the first time, would intervene again in Muir’s life. After 4 months at sea the Otter struck rocks in Nootka Sound and only Muir and two others miraculously survived.

Muir went on to have more barely explicable adventures included being captured by natives, incarceration in Mexico, being shipped to Havana, spending three months in a dungeon for trying to flee Cuba and eventually arranging transport on a ship to Spain.

As his ship, the Ninfa approached the entrance to Cadiz harbour it came under attack by a British Man O War HMS Invincible. In the exchange of fire that followed a brief chase, the Ninfa was severely damaged. Muir was struck by a piece of shrapnel that smashed into his face removing one eye and seriously damaging the other. As the British boarded the ship yet another incredible twist in the story of Thomas Muir occurred.

Following interrogation of the crew, the British captain found out about Muir’s presence on board. He instructed a search amongst the dead and injured and it was reported that the body of the Scot’s radical had been found.

In his report to the admiralty on April 28th 1796 the captain wrote;

“Among the sufferers on the Spanish side is Mr Thomas Muir who made so wonderful an escape from Botany Bay to Havana. He was one of five killed on board the Nymph by the last shot fired by us. The officer at whose side he fell is at my hand and says he behaved with courage to the last.”

Yet, that was not the case. By incredible coincidence, the surgeon serving on board HMS Invincible had attended school with Muir. He found his childhood friend badly injured but removed his identity papers and placed him with the Spanish injured sent to Cadiz. It was the first and last time a servant of the British Crown behaved in a dignified manner towards Thomas Muir.

He was not expected to survive, but miraculously, survive he did! Following a diplomatic wrangle the Spanish Government eventually agreed his transfer to France and in early November, whilst wracked with pain and exhaustion, he arrived to a hero’s welcome in Bordeaux. He was proclaimed a “Martyr of Liberty” and a “Hero of the French Republic”. The great and the good flocked to see the famous Scotsman who had suffered so much in the name of liberty. A final portrait shows him with a patch covering his horrific injury from the sea battle off of Cadiz.

Muir’s Final Days

Muir travelled through France and on the 4th February 1798 he arrived in the French capital where he was proclaimed Minister of The Scottish Republic by the French Revolutionary Government and was lauded by an admiring public. He immediately set to work establishing links with exiled Scots radicals and republicans and struck up a friendship with Thomas Paine. He was aware that agents of the Pitt government were monitoring his every move and meeting and requested to be sent outside of Paris where he could be sure of less intrusion. He was offered quarters in Chantilly in November 1798 and it was here, he met with his radical friends.

On the 26th January 1799, Thomas Muir died from his wounds and related conditions. An obituary appeared in the government newspaper Le Moniteur.

Although its highest profile champion was gone, the campaign for parliamentary reform did not die with him. In 1832, when the Reform Act extending the franchise was voted through at Westminster, Muir’s portrait was publically illuminated in Glasgow whilst the Edinburgh Trades Council draped an empty chair with black in memory of the Scots lawyer who took on the establishment.

The monument in the Old Calton Burial ground was unveiled by reformist politicians in 1844 and was dedicated to Muir and his fellow Scottish Martyrs, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald.

Gradually over the years however, Muir has faded from public consciousness. A coffee shop and a display in the Library in Bishopbriggs join a local High School and the neglected obelisk in Edinburgh as the only overt reminders of the great man. Establishment historians keen to point out Britain’s democratic credentials and its “great” parliamentary traditions tend not to highlight Muir or his cause. It has been left to modern day radicals, socialists and republicans to keep Muir’s memory alive. Finally, that looks set to change this year, the 250th anniversary of Muir's birth, with the creation of a National Committee to organise celebrations of Muir's contribution as 'the father of Scottish democracy'



In a final twist to the story of Muir, his great nemesis Henry Dundas became the last British politician to be impeached in 1806 when he was accused of financial irregularities whilst serving as First Lord of the Admiralty. Although cleared of the charges, (he had friends in high places remember) his political career never recovered although the Dundas family continued to exert influence over Scottish political life for years to come.

Lord Braxfield continued to send shivers down the spine of those unfortunate enough to find themselves face to face with him in the dock until his death in 1799. (The same year as Muir.) In the Scotland on Sunday newspaper on 1st January 2006 he was included in a list of “Scotland’s all time Baddies – Scotland Depraved!”

Were he alive today, Thomas Muir would no doubt be approving of the fact that everybody over the age of 16 got the chance to cast a vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum. He would be excited by the verve, energy and enthusiasm that developed across his native land in the course of the campaign, He would surely be dismayed however to learn that a small, self serving political elite in Westminster continues to enrich itself whilst the majority of ordinary people look on with loathing and distrust over 200 years since he gave his life for the cause of the people.

It is a good cause - it shall ultimately prevail - it shall finally triumph.

Gerrard, Palmer, Skirving, Thomas Muir and Margarot
These are names that every Scottish man and woman ought to know
When you’re called for jury service, when your name is drawn by lot
When you vote in an election when you freely voice your thought
Don’t take these things for granted, for dearly were they bought

words by Dick Gaughan



A version of this article first appeared in the Democratic Green Socialist online magazine in August 2009.


Other articles by Graeme McIver in The Point can be found here



The Canongate Burns Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg Canongate
Dictionary of Scottish History Ian Donnachie and George Hewitt Collins
The Lion in the North John Prebble BCA London
The Scottish Insurrection of 1820 P.B Ellis and S Mac A Ghobhainn Gollancz
Thomas Muir of Huntershill Michael Donnelly Donnelly


External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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