Tag Archives: Scottish History

For the Joy of Reading: Thomas Muir of Huntershill

Thomas Muir is not as well-known as he should be.   He is one of the great heroes in the struggle for one person one vote in the British isles, and his example has inspired a lot of people to take up the cudgels on the side of democratic rights.  This however is not a biography.   It is a collection of essays about the various aspects of Muir’s life.

It is probably wise at this stage to give a brief resume of Thomas Muir’s short but eventful career.   Muir came from one of the minor Scottish gentry families that had benefited from the Act of Union, and the subsequent defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.   By the end of the eighteenth century, Presbyterian families such as the Muirs were firmly in charge of their local areas, and dominated Scottish affairs.   The question was what form of government was to be followed in the Church of Scotland and, specifically, whether the Minister to a parish was to be appointed by the rich as patrons, or elected by all the male members of the congregation.

The Muirs were supporters of the Popular Party, who believed that the minister should be appointed through election and not by patronage.   Popular Party is a misnomer and probably a mistranslation from the Latin “Populares”.   It may be that they had the support of the majority in the men in the Church of Scotland, but I do not know of any evidence to prove this.   Those who believed in appointment by patronage were called the “Moderate” Party, which was merely an attempt to paint their opponents as extremists.   Their belief was simple; that wealth should give them privileges in the running of the Church, basically to ensure that the Church would be subservient to the established order.   The Popular Party were harking back to the days when Presbyterianism was illegal in Scotland and the ministers to the Conventicles, the illegal gatherings, were chosen by those who attended them.   The Moderate Party was more inclined to be tolerant of Catholics and Episcopalians [Anglicans] provided they did not make a public nuisance of themselves by worshipping openly, but were opposed to the democratisation of the Church.   The Popular Party took the opposite view.   It is important to be aware of this because it was the background to the issues that brought Muir to public attention in Scotland at the end of the eighteenth century.

Thomas Muir was born in 1766.   His father, James Muir, was a merchant who sold hops to the brewers of Glasgow and who lived above his shop near St. Mungo’s Cathedral.   Muir became a student at the University of Glasgow, which was then located near the Cathedral.   He was going to study theology but he fell under the spell of John Millar, one of the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment, and decided to study law.   It was at University that Muir first became involved in radical politics, challenging the appointment of a Rector by the University authorities rather than the appointment being made through election by the students.   The University authorities were, of course, members of the Moderate Party, and so it was natural for someone from a Popular Party family to challenge their authority in this way.   It was also at Glasgow that Muir met Irish Presbyterian students, some of whom in due course were to become involved with the United Irishmen.

Muir refused to apologise to the University about his opposition to the appointment of Edmund Burke, the Tory MP and philosopher, to the post of Rector, and transferred his studies to the University of Edinburgh.   It was at Edinburgh that he passed his law degree and he returned to the Glasgow area to practice as a lawyer, offering his services free of charge to those who were too poor to pay.

He also became embroiled in the appointment of a new minister at Cadder, where the Moderate Party wished to impose a minister without consulting the congregation.    By now, Muir had moved to Hunters Hill and was an elder of Cadder Kirk.

Then on 18th July 1789, the Bastille was stormed and France was engulfed in revolution.   This was the defining moment of Muir’s life.    Radical politics in Scotland was very sympathetic to the French Revolution.   People began to ask that the vote should be extended from the some 3,000 men who had the vote to the whole adult male population.

Thomas Muir found himself at the forefront of these demands.   He joined an organisation called “The Friends of the People” and began organising for a National Convention to petition Parliament for the extension of the vote.   He also acquired a copy of Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man”, read it and then loaned it to members of his family for them to read.   Thomas Paine had supported the American Revolution, following the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and was definitely viewed by the British Government as a traitor.   So when Muir received a letter from the United Irishmen and read it aloud to “The Friends of the People”, he incurred the wrath of the Government and was accused of sedition.

Muir, at this time, was heading to France to plead for the life of Louis XVI, arriving in paris a day too late to prevent the execution.   Muir then returned to Scotland to face trial.   The presiding judge, Lord Braxfield, was to become notorious because of his conduct of the trial and became the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Weir of Hermiston”.   Braxfield became infamous for replying to a comment in the trial that Jesus Christ was a reformer “an muckle guid it did him, he was hangit” [and much good it did him, he was hanged].   The trial was a travesty and Muir and his co-accused were sentenced to transportation for 14 years.   Muir, in his speech from the dock, said: “I have devoted myself to the cause of The People.   It is a good cause – it shall ultimately prevail – it shall finally triumph”.

Muir was then sent to the Woolwich hulks to await transportation to Botany Bay.   This was unprecedented.   Members of the gentry were simply not imprisoned on the hulks.   All you have to do is think if Magwitch in “Great Expectations” to realise the kinds of criminal that were sent to the hulks.   And the authorities thought that they had heard the last of Muir when he was shipped off to Australia, where he was imprisoned somewhere along the shores of Sydney Harbour, where there is a place called Huntershill to this day.

But that was not the end of the story.   He escaped.   He made his way across the harbour in a small boat to an American ship, The Otter, and sailed for the Pacific Coast of America.   He travelled across land through California and Mexico (then Spanish colonies) and eventually found himself in Havana where he was imprisoned by the Spanish Governor.   Then the French interceded for him and secured his passage on a ship to Cadiz.   Just off Cadiz the ship was intercepted by the British Navy and there was a sea battle in which Muir was badly injured, losing his left eye and part of his face.   The ship however made it to Cadiz where Muir was treated for his injuries.   The French then interceded again, securing his passage to Bordeaux, where he was given a hero’s welcome and sent on his way to Paris.

In Paris, Muir began to plan for a revolution in Scotland supported by a French invasion.  The French, however, preferred to support similar plans being made for an uprising in Ireland by Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, which ended disastrously.   There is no evidence that Muir would have fared any better in Scotland.

In January 1799, Muir left paris for Chantilly to meet with representatives of the United Scotsman.   But he had never recovered from the wounds received at Cadiz in the naval battle.   He died in Chantilly at the age of 33.

Muir’s life was dramatic.   He suffered for the cause of democracy, and he died from the wounds that he received in battle.   He was an orator of some power, and of course he was right.   There is now universal suffrage in the UK, because of Muir and men and women like him.   This collection of essays will guide you through the various aspects of Muir’s life and his beliefs.   It does not have the drama of a biography, but it is interesting to get the views of the various and different authors about the contribution made by Thomas Muir.   All of them agree that he was a hero.   He deserves to be better known.