Thomas Muir — Martyr for the People’s Cause
In his regular feature on radical song Bill Scott looks at Dick Gaughan’s tribute to the great Scottish radical and democrat Thomas Muir.
Thomas Muir of Huntershill
By Dick Gaughan
My name is Thomas Muir as a lawyer I was trained
Remember Thomas Muir of Huntershill
But you’ve branded me an outlaw, for sedition I’m arraigned
Remember Thomas Muir of Huntershill
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
M’lord, you found me guilty before the trial began
And the jury that you’ve picked are Tory placemen to a man
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
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
Members of the jury, it’s not me who’s being tried
200 years in future they will mind what you decide
You may send me to Van Dieman’s Land or clap me in the jail
Grant me death or grant me liberty my spirit will not fail
For my cause it is a just one and my cause it will prevail
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
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
Thomas Muir was born in Glasgow in 1765. He studied at Glasgow University and began attending the classes of John Millar, a republican supporter of parliamentary reform. Millar had a lasting influence on Muir’s political beliefs.
In 1783 Muir was expelled after organising a petition against the suspension of a Professor. He was forced to finish his studies at Edinburgh University and became an advocate in 1787. Thereafter he often appeared on behalf of poor clients who could not afford to pay a fee.
The French Revolution of 1789 inspired supporters of parliamentary reform in Britain. Whig lords and MPs formed the Society of the Friends of the People in London in 1792. The common people of Scotland demonstrated their sympathies by planting Liberty Trees at market crosses.
In June 1792 thousands protested across Scotland in what became known as the King’s Birthday Riots. In Edinburgh the mob took to the streets for three days burning effigies of the Home Secretary Robert Dundas – widely seen as a tyrant due to his suppression of ancient liberties such as Habeas Corpus – and attempting to burn down the Lord Advocate’s house. Only the army’s threat to fire on the crowd finally dispersed them and the Government began to worry that riot might soon turn to revolution.
Muir and William Skirving, established the Scottish Association of the Friends of the People a month later. The Scottish Association had lower subscription rates than the English, attracting a much wider membership. Its rank and file were “shopkeepers and artisans”, and included many weavers as well as tailors, cobblers, brewers, bakers, butchers and hairdressers.
By November there were eighty-seven branches throughout Britain. Burns’ scholar Patrick Scott Hogg convincingly argues that Robert Burns, then an excise-man and thus banned from radical political activity, was secretly a member of the Dumfries branch of the Friends which sent a delegate to the first Friends’ Convention in December 1792.
The Convention demanded moderate democratic reform – to bring the middle classes into the governance of the country and to have more regular elections. But some who attended, like the more radical and working class United Irishmen and United Scotsmen, demanded universal male suffrage and a more equal sharing of society’s wealth. So radical were their addresses to the Convention that they were suppressed by the more moderate majority.
Burns’ was at that time living in Dumfries and cultural and political links between the North of Ireland (there were many Protestants such as Wolfe Tone in the United Irishmen’s leadership) and South West Scotland were historic and frequent. It is known that at least two Irish radicals visited Burns during 1793/4. Burns’ poetry and sympathies were already well known so it’s difficult to believe that radicals travelling through Dumfriesshire would not have sought him out (though Patrick Scott Hogg has received threats from loyalist Burnsians for saying so). In his poem the “Tree of Liberty” Burns indicates that at the very least his beliefs were in close harmony with theirs –
We labour soon, we labour late,
To feed the titled knave, man,
And a’ the comfort we’re to get,
Is that ayont the grave, man.
The government frightened by the growing popular support for radical reform began to restrict freedom of speech. It now became a crime to distribute the radical Tom Paine’s “The Rights of Man”. The Government also spied on leading radicals like Muir leading to his arrest on 2nd January, 1793.
After being interrogated and charged with sedition he was released on bail. Muir then travelled to London where he had talks with the English leadership. They were concerned that the planned execution of the French royal family would lead to reaction in Britain. Muir agreed to go to France to try and persuade the revolutionaries to spare the king. Muir was unsuccessful and he sailed back to Scotland via Ireland.
Whilst in Ireland Muir met with the United Irishmen. He arrived in Stranraer on 23rd August. The following day he was arrested, put in chains, thrown into the back of a cart and taken back to Edinburgh under military escort. En route the convoy passed through Gatehouse-of-Fleet where Burns was staying with friends. Foreseeing the likely outcome if he paid open tribute to Muir, Burns went to his lodgings and began composing a poem, “about another man (Wallace) who paid dearly for standing up to tyranny”. That poem was “Scots Wha Hae” and Burns finished its final draft on the day Muir’s trial began.
Scots Wha Hae
Read in this light the lines of the poem take on new significance – “Now’s the Day and now’s the hour” - means that the time to resist state repression is not in some mythical past but now, today. Burns is calling for all free men to take up arms in defence of liberty. What is at stake is not only their freedom but that of their children so Burns rallies them to the only cause worth dying for – ‘By our sons in servile chains, We shall drain our dearest veins but they shall be free … Tyrants fall in every foe! Liberty’s in every blow! - Let us do or dee!’.
Burns did not dare to have the poem openly attributed to himself and published it anonymously. His fear of persecution was more than justified. In 1819 sixteen thousand people protested against the Peterloo massacre in Paisley. A band played “Scots Wha Hae” to the crowd. Afterwards the entire band was charged with sedition.
Muir was tried before the hanging judge, Lord Braxfield and a hand-picked jury of Tory yeomen. Braxfield had to invent the crime of unintentional sedition in order to convict Muir. From the outset Braxfield made his views plain - “A government …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”. When Muir eloquently defended himself by claiming he had only argued for that which was in line with Christ’s teachings, Braxfield leaned over to the jury and said, “Much guid did it dae him. He was hingit tae”.
Muir was found guilty and sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation – akin to an extended death sentence as there was no contact with loved ones and little hope of surviving and returning home. Soon afterwards Muir was joined by the other leaders of the movement, Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving and Maurice Margarot who were also sentenced to transportation.
A campaign was begun to save the “Scottish Martyrs”. The playwright and radical politician Richard Sheridan presented a petition to Parliament describing their treatment as “illegal, unjust, oppressive and unconstitutional”. But these efforts failed and on 2nd May 1794 the Martyrs were sent on their 13,000 mile journey to the penal colony of Botany Bay.
Muir was given more freedom than most convicts and was allowed to buy a small farm near Sidney Cove. After two years, he escaped and reached Vancouver Island before being arrested by the captain of a Spanish ship the Ninfa (Spain then being members of an anti-French coalition). While on their way to Cadiz Spain negotiated peace with France and the Ninfa was attacked by a British warship. During the battle Muir received a blow from a cannonball which smashed his cheekbone and seriously injured his eyes.
The French government hearing of Muir’s transportation, escape and near fatal injuries negotiated successfully with the Spanish authorities to release him and Muir arrived in Bordeaux in November 1797. He joined up with Tom Paine in Paris where they continued the fight for British parliamentary reform. However Muir never fully recovered from his wounds. His health began to deteriorate and he died on 26th January, 1799.
Dick Gaughan’s song commemorates a sadly forgotten Scottish hero whose struggle for democracy should be taught in our schools. You can hear the song on Dick’s CDs “Redwood Cathedral” and “Gaughan Live at the Trades Club”.
In 1845 a 90 feet high monument to the Scottish Martyrs was erected in Waterloo Place, Edinburgh. The obelisk which still dominates the Edinburgh skyline contains the following 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.” On the other side is a quotation 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.”