Siol nan Gaidheal

Thomas Muir
The Dawn of Democracy.

The French Revolution in 1789 proved to be a catalyst that showed up the latent antagonism in the Scottish People. In particular, the poor labouring peoples, many of who were ousted from the land by agricultural improvements, or the weavers who were forced to endure wage cuts with the onset of machinery. For people such as these, the events in France were an inspiration.

Thomas Paine published the first part of his book, The Rights of Man, in 1791 and immediately became a hero. The book sold over a million copies and was even translated into Gaelic.

In 1792 an émigré Scottish shoemaker, named Thomas Hardy, formed the London Corresponding Society, That same year, Societies of Friends of the People sprung up throughout Scotland attracting professional as well as artisan members. Thomas Muir, a barrister, who had become a member of the Honourable Faculty of Advocates in 1787 aged only 22, was the leading light of the Glasgow society. Muir had many contacts in the French revolutionary government and was a great friend of the Girondist leader, La Fayette. It was therefore due to Muir that communications were exchanged with the French that led to their appointing Citoyen Pétry as "agent de la marine et du commerce" in Scotland in October 1792 to report on the conditions there.

As a direct result of his findings, by December, the French Government had decided that France would spare no expense to support a republican insurrection in both Scotland and Ireland and on December 14, a resolution was passed to this effect.

While the French considered what action should be taken, the first General Convention of the Friends of the People was held in Edinburgh. Over 150 delegates representing 80 societies from 35 towns and villages attended. Amongst their aims, they intended to draw up a petition to send to the English government. Two visitors from the United Irishmen were among the delegates - Dr. Drennan and A. Hamilton Rowan. They brought with them an address from their movement which Thomas Muir presented to the Scots:

"We greatly rejoice that the spirit of freedom moves over the face of Scotland - that the light seems to break from the chaos of her internal government and that a country so respectable in her attainments, in science, in arts, and in arms; for men of literary eminence; for the intelligence and morality of her people, now from a conviction of the union between virtue, letters and liberty, and now rises to distinction, not by a calm, contended, secret wish for a reform in parliament, but by openly, actively and urgently willing it, with the unity and energy of an embodied nation!"

Delegates rose from their seats and, holding up their right hands, swore to "live free or die!" The Convention was then adjourned to the following April. Shortly afterwards, Muir was arrested in his Edinburgh house and interrogated. On this occasion he was released but the authorities warned him that they were considering arresting him to face a charge of sedition.

Due to events that were occurring in France, Muir felt it imperative that he returned there. The French royal family had been recaptured and the government had Louis on trial for his life. Muir was against regicide and felt that he must join a group of republicans, including many Americans, who were trying to persuade the National Assembly not to pronounce the death sentence. Muir arrived in Paris the very day Danton cried, amidst frenzied cheers,

"The coalised kings threaten us: we hurl at their feet, as gage of battle, the head of a king".

England, Holland, Spain, Portugal and Austria all joined forces in an attempt to crush the republic and restore the French monarchy. Ironically, the execution of Louis XVI also sealed Muir's fate. The Lord Advocate denounced him saying he had fled to France to escape trial and to hasten on the execution of Louis. A warrant was immediately issued for his arrest on a charge of sedition.

The war against the French turned a lot of the members of the Friends of the People, imbued by a false patriotic pride, to forsake their cause and join the English in their war with France. The English capitalised on this by denouncing the Friends of the people as evil and as the enemy. The Scots, (then as now, amongst the most gullible in Europe in constitutional matters) accepted this, and many arrests and trials for sedition soon followed. These numerous trials took place between January and March 1793, and they were most definitely a deliberate scheme by the authorities to crush the movement by scaring off potential members.

On the 13th of February, Muir wrote to the Friends declaring his wish to return to Scotland:

"Upon the evening of the 8th of this month I have received letters from my father, and my agent Mr. Campbell, informing me that an indictment was served against me in my absence and that the trial was fixed for the 11th inst. The distance and the shortness of time could not permit me to reach Edinburgh that day.

War is declared between England and France and the formalities requisite to be gone through before I could procure my passport would have at least consumed three days. I will return to Scotland without delay.

To shrink from dangers would be unbecoming to my own character and your confidence."

Learning of his impending return, Government agents (forerunners of those which to-day pollute Scotland) began vigorous efforts to amass incriminating evidence against Muir. The Rev. William Dunn of Kirkintilloch was imprisoned for three months purely on suspicion of being politically connected with Muir.

On the 29th April, whilst voicing their concerns for his safety, the French Government reluctantly issued Muir with his passport. He made his way to Scotland by way of an American ship Hope which took him as far as Belfast. While he waited in Belfast for a ship to Scotland, he was made an honorary member of the United Irishmen. His father urged him not to return but instead to go on to America where his father would supply him with letters of introduction to George Washington. Muir ignored these requests and made his way, via Port Patrick, to Stranraer. An innkeeper recognised him and denounced him to the authorities. George Williamson, Messenger of Arms, was given the warrant to conduct Muir from Stranraer to Edinburgh to face trial on August 30th. Below is the declaration from the dock of Thomas Muir of Huntershill.

"Is the time come" [demanded Muir] "when the mind must be locked up, and fetters imposed on the understanding? Are the people to be precluded from that information and knowledge in which others are so materially concerned?

Oh unhappy country. Miserable people, the remembrance of former liberties will only make you more wretched. Extinguish then, if you can, the light of heaven, and let us grope, and search for consolation, if it can be found under the darkness which will soon cover us.

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 shall 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."

The charges brought against Muir were that he had circulated a newspaper called The Patriot and that, at the General Convention of the Friends of the People, held in Edinburgh from December 11th to 13th 1792, Muir had delivered "An Address from the Society of United Irishmen". Further to this, Muir was charged with circulating and encouraging the study of Tom Paine's Rights of Man.

The trial was presided over by Lord Justice Clerk McQueen (Lord Braxfield) with Lords Henderland, Dunnisinnan, Swinton and Abercromby. Representing the crown was the Lord Advocate - Robert Dundas. Thomas Muir, himself an advocate, defended himself. The jury consisted of fifteen men all of whom were either officers of the Crown, members of the Goldsmiths Hall or Pensioners or Placemen who would be removed should they displease the Crown. Thus the authorities ensured a conviction.

Thomas Muir was, not surprisingly, found guilty and sentenced to fourteen years' transportation. He was held in custody in Edinburgh until a ship became ready.

The following month, September, the Reverend Thomas Fyshe Palmer of Dundee was charged with writing and printing seditious literature. Part of a pamphlet he had written was read to the court during his trial:

"Fellow citizens! The friends of liberty call upon you, by all that is dear and worthy of possessing as men - by your oppression, by the miseries and sorrows of your suffering, brethren, by all that you dread, by the sweet remembrance of your patriotic ancestors, and by all that your prosperity has a right to expect from you - to join us in our exertions for the long preservation of our perishing liberty, and the recovery of our long lost rights."

Thomas Palmer was, predictably, found guilty and sentenced to seven year's deportation.

Both men were put on board the Excise Packet, Royal George, on November 15th and transported to London.

On January 31st, 1794, in an effort to stop the execution of the sentence, the Earl Stanhope moved that the Lords appeal against Muir's sentence by petitions. The Earl of Stair seconded the motion but they saw it defeated by 49 votes to 2. The Earl Stanhope was forced to remark that ". . . if this was the law, he would only observe that Scotland had no more liberty. . . " and on February 10th, the Whig leader Charles James Fox commented: "God help the people who have such judges."

There followed a succession of appeals for clemency on the parts of both men but to no avail. The establishment clearly had achieved its aim - to deprive the people of Scotland of any potential leadership. Then, as now, the Union was a non-negotiable entity unconcerned by the wishes and demands of the Scottish People. All manners of surreptitious means were, and continue to be, employed by the English governors of Scotland in order to oppress those free-thinking Scots who would pursue the path toward liberty in this, the land that witnessed the Dawn of Democracy.

It is somewhat ironic that 200 years ago, the constitutional question in Scotland was quite deliberately entangled in incidents abroad by an English government bent on retaining control. Nowadays, the same imperialist mentality still prevails. The English government will make every effort to denounce Nationalism in any form and will readily associate Scottish Nationalism with that of Germany. The skinhead mentality in Germany bear no resemblance whatsoever to our country - the German people, arguably, have more in common with the English than with the Scots. Nevertheless, the English will continue to corrupt, to distort and to conceal facts in order to retain their iron grip over Scotland. Those people who call themselves Scots, yet take in this British propaganda, are the same gullible, gutless sheep who have allowed our country to remain an English colony for nearly 300 years.

The time is come when they must wake up to the fact that their selfish apathy must go. It is the duty of all Scots to take for themselves the right of freedom. The time in this world for empires is thankfully over. The way of the future is Internationalism and fundamental to that ideology is the right of individual nations to exist in freedom and harmony. Men such as Thomas Muir, etc. foresaw this many years ago. It is a sad reflection on our nation that more did not share their courage and commitment.


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