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On the Trail of Thomas Muir

This years annual Thomas Muir lecture will be given by Tommy Sheppard. Tommy Sheppard is the MP for Edinburgh East and is on the the National Council of the Scottish Independence Convention and the board of Common Weal. He was Assistant General Secretary of the Labour Party under John Smith and founder of the hugely successful Stand Comedy Club.

The evening will include a book signing by Murray Armstrong, author of The Liberty Tree: The Stirring Story of Thomas Muir and Scotland’s First Fight for Democracy and wine reception following the lecture.

The Thomas Muir Memorial Lecture will take place on Thursday 24 August 2017 (7pm for 7.30pm) at St Mary’s Cathedral, Palmerston Place.

Tickets are available from Evenbrite here for only £5.00.

On the Trail of Thomas Muir

The existence of Thomas Muir and the radical movement which swept Scotland in the summer of 1792 is gradually becoming better known and accepted as part of our collective story. That’s largely thanks to the unceasing work of the Friends of Thomas Muir, who are organising the seventh annual festival in Bishopbriggs, as well as other national and local events. It is also thanks to Word Power Books, sadly no more in existence, who had the courage to publish my contribution to the restoration of Muir’s reputation in 2014, The Liberty Tree , and which led subsequently to the committee which organises annual lectures in commemoration of Muir, now sponsored by Bella Caledonia.

In that summer of 1792, Scotland experienced an astonishing burst of political activity with the call for a vote for every man in the country, and election of members of parliament every year. It was a popular response to the corruption, nepotism, favouritism and elitism of landowning nobles who controlled the nation’s parliamentary representation at Westminster.

An organisation called Friends of the People, led by Thomas Muir, a lawyer from Glasgow, and William Skirving, a farmer from Fife, grew from a meeting in an Edinburgh tavern to a nationally linked movement that touched most Scottish towns and villages in the space of a few months. Separate but similar societies were formed in England and Ireland around the same time.

Referring to those years, the labour historian EP Thompson wrote, “It was an English agitation of impressive dimensions, for an English democracy,” and added, “It was, of course, in an even more intense form an agitation for Irish independence and for Scottish democracy.”

The enthusiasm of the movements was met with tremendous and determined government opposition in London, Edinburgh and Dublin, and the radical but self-consciously legal and loyal campaigns for parliamentary reform were mercilessly killed off within four years.

In Scotland, three national conventions and a fourth British convention were held in Edinburgh and the leadership was brought to trial, convicted and sentenced to transportation – first Muir and Thomas Fyshe Palmer, a Unitarian minister in Dundee, then Skirving and the London wine merchant, Maurice Margarot, and finally Joseph Gerrald, a lawyer from the West Indies. The transcripts of their court proceedings sold in many editions and in many thousands. Their enforced voyage to Australia was recorded in letters and in a pamphlet written by Palmer and published in Cambridge in 1798.

The story of the men and the movement was told in contemporary newspaper reports and pamphlets, along with reports of the government’s response of increasing repression and restriction of political and individual liberties. But it was 1831 before the first biography of Muir was written by the Glasgow journalist Peter Mackenzie . It was essentially a polemical work, part of the campaign for the Reform Bill which was passed into law the following year. He said little about Muir’s time in either France or Ireland, and his version gave rise to the myth about Muir being rescued from Sydney Cove by a United States ship expressly sent there by sympathetic Americans and with the blessing of George Washington. He also wrote, incorrectly, that Muir was shipwrecked off the coast of Vancouver Island and lived with Native Americans there before walking the length of America’s west coast, about 4,000 miles, to Panama City, before being sent by ship to Spain.

Little more was written about the radical movement in Scotland until early in the twentieth century. Muir and his associates slipped from being significant historical figures to mere footnotes. Henry Meikle filled out more of the story in his masterful Scotland and the French Revolution published in 1912 but had little to say about Muir’s transportation and escape and only five pages on his final days in France. In 1920, Tom Johnston wrote a sympathetic account of the radical movement amounting to twenty pages in his A History of the Working Classes in Scotland , but repeated the errors of Mackenzie in Muir’s story.

After that, new information came largely from abroad. In the early 1920s, Marjorie Masson at the University of Victoria in Melbourne and JF Jameson in Washington were collaborating on details of Muir’s journey from Sydney Cove to Cadiz . Masson was searching the Australian archives while Jameson was combing American and Spanish sources in Washington, Mexico, and Seville.

They ruled out an intentional involvement in Muir’s escape by President George Washington, or by groups of friendly supporters with the means to equip a ship for the purpose. There was not a scrap of evidence to support Mackenzie’s fanciful rescue claims, and they gave us much new detail about a merchant ship, the Otter, and its captain Ebenezer Dorr, his negotiations with Muir about the rescue, and the subsequent voyages of Muir from Nootka Sound at Vancouver Island to Monterey, San Blas and on to Mexico City, Vera Cruz, Havana and Cadiz. The Odyssey of Thomas Muir was published in the American Historical Review in October 1923.

A second collaboration, or at a least helpful exchange of letters, between historians George Insh in Scotland and John Earnshaw in Australia in the late 1940s, led to a deeper understanding of the Pacific journey. Both had rediscovered the abridged diaries and memoirs of the Otter’s first mate, Pierre Francois Péron, who became a close friend to Muir. The two volumes had been published in 1824 in Paris, which is where Insh found his copies, while Earnshaw discovered another in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. They independently translated Mémoires du Capitaine Péron sur ses Voyages . Earnshaw published a small volume, Thomas Muir, Scottish Martyr , in 1959, which added some detail of life in Sydney Cove as well as providing a colourful description of the Pacific voyage to add to the work of Masson and Jameson. He translated Muir’s letters from Monterey and shared them with Insh.

Insh went further and by 1952 had prepared a biography, Thomas Muir of Huntershill , which unfortunately was never published and remains a typed manuscript in the rare books section of the National Library of Scotland. Insh had requested all of the material on Muir from the archives in Paris, Seville, and Mexico, the ageing photographs and photocopies of which are stored with his manuscript. In 1969 another Australian, Frank Clune, pulled much of this together in The Scottish Martyrs , and added biographies of Skirving, Palmer, Margarot and Gerrald. Then in 1990, another Australian, Jonathan Wantrup, gave us an invaluable, privately published manuscript entitled Transportation Exile and Escape of Thomas Muir , which included the first English translation of a very rare French pamphlet, Account of the Sufferings of Thomas Muir, Scottish Martyr, at the Hands of the Tyrannical English Government, based on interviews with Muir when he was in Bordeaux on his way to Paris in 1798.

In 1981 the first complete biography, Muir of Huntershill by Christina Bewley , was published. She, though, found it “difficult to assess Muir’s importance, if any, as a political reformer. The reform agitation of the 1790s was premature, supported only by a minute section of the population, submerged by the French wars. Muir is at most a minor historical figure…”

Hector MacMillan set out to dispute that view in Handful of Rogues , published in 2005, emphasising the unprecedented growth of the movement at a time of social and cultural regeneration in Scotland. “It was a vigorous movement,” he argued, “rooted in democratic principle, greatly influenced by the recent revolution in France and driven on by many of the best minds of the day.” MacMillan reset the compass and, re-examining much of the evidence from government informers, showed how determined the authorities were to use any means possible to resist the perceived threat to their great privileges.

By the time The Liberty Tree was published in 2014, I had had the benefit of all of these sources as well as a rich seam of recent academic interest in eighteenth century radicalism, both in Scotland and in England. The book was followed by a major essay, Thomas Muir and the Radical Movement of the 1790s , written to commemorate the the 250th anniversary of Muir’s birth and published in the 2015 edition of Scottish Labour History.

I was in a quandary about how to write the book from the beginning. Muir deserved a proper, new biography but the dearth of personal papers and documents made this difficult. However, there was a mountain of circumstantial documentation which, layer by layer, could provide rich context and lots of room in which to tell the story, not of Muir, but of the radical movement of which he was a leading figure, and from the points of view of the participants. So I ended with a journalistic rendering of the story with some necessary re-imagining in places. I was quite clear about the method in my introduction to the book and some reviewers appreciated the problem. One reviewer, though, ended with this request: “Please can someone now write a scholarly biography of Muir for the twenty-first century, but not driven by it. ”

That was from the pen of Professor Gerard Carruthers, who is also co-editor of new, valuable book of essays on Muir, and who repeats this plea in his chapter on Muir in Memory, Culture and Literature. “Its [The Liberty Tree’s] principal value, perhaps, is in highlighting the urgent need in the early twenty-first century for an academic biography of Muir.” I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment (if not with the opening clause).

Thomas Muir of Huntershill. Essays for the Twenty First Century, edited by Prof Carruthers and local historian Don Martin, adds to that sum of knowledge that a young historian or biographer will have to build on. It contains essays by Carruthers, Martin, Satinder Kaur, and Ronnie Young with new or collated perspectives on the early life of Muir, his attachment to the Popular Party in the kirk, his opposition to patronage in all its forms, secular or ecclesiastical, his involvement in student politics and the influence of contemporary thinkers, in particular John Millar, professor of civil law at Glasgow and a protégé of Adam Smith’s. Gordon Pentland provides a discussion of Muir’s view of the constitution of the time, and Tom Devine describes the historical context of Muir’s trial. There are contributions from Australia and France and, as Carruthers says in his introduction, the book is intended to “provide some suggestions for the direction of studies of this kind.”

There are still many untouched primary sources to be uncovered both here and in France and Australia. But for a successful biography to be begun, funding is essential. I’m not sure if Christina Bewley received financial help in writing her biography of Muir, she certainly doesn’t acknowledge any in her pages. I’m pretty sure that the others who have dug in the dusty records have, like me, had to rely on their own resources. So could Scotland’s grant giving bodies give this project life? Can the great universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, both of them alma maters of Muir, step up? Or can Strathclyde, whose origins as the Andersonian college lie in the very dispute between Professor John Anderson and Glasgow university that led to Muir leaving for Edinburgh or face expulsion, find a benefactor for what Prof Carruthers calls an “urgent need”?

Murray Armstrong, The Liberty Tree (Word Power 2014).

[1] EP Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963, this edition Penguin 1991), p111 & 111n.

[1] Peter Mackenzie, The Life of Thomas Muir, Esq, Advocate (Glasgow 1831).

[1] HW Meikle, Scotland and the French Revolution (Glasgow 1912), pp135, 172-7 for Muir’s escape from New South Wales and in France.

[1] Thomas Johnston, The History of the Working Classes in Scotland (Glasgow 1920), pp217-37.

[1] Marjorie Masson and JF Jameson, The Odyssey of Thomas Muir (The American Historical Review, vol 29, no 1, October 1923), pp49-72.

[1] Pierre Francois Péron, Mémoirs du Capitaine Péron sur se Voyages (Paris 1824).

[1] John Earnshaw, Thomas Muir, Scottish Martyr (Studies in Australian and Pacific History 1, Cremone, NSW, 1959).

[1] George Pratt Insh, Thomas Muir of Huntershill (unpublished mss, 1952, in GP Insh papers, National Library of Scotland, Dep 344. box 1).

[1] Frank Clune, The Scottish Martyrs, Their Trials and Transportation to Botany Bay (Sydney 1969).

[1] Jonathan Wantrup (translated and with an introduction and notes), The Transportation Exile and Escape of Thomas Muir. A Scottish Radical’s Account of Governor Hunter’s New South Wales published at Paris in 1798 (Melbourne 1990).

[1] Christina Bewley, Muir of Huntershill, A Scottish Patriot’s Adventures Around the World (OUP 1981).

[1] Hector MacMillan, Handful of Rogues, Thomas Muir’s Enemies of the People (Argyll 2005).

[1] Murray Armstrong, Thomas Muir and the Radical Movement of the 1790s (Scottish Labour History, vol 50, 2015), pp49-71.

[1] Gerard Carruthers, Book Reviews (Scottish Local History, issue 91, spring-summer 2015), p50.

[1] Gerard Carruthers and Don Martin (eds), Thomas Muir of Huntershill. Essays for the Twenty First Century (Friends of Thomas Muir/Humming Earth, 2016), p17.

[1] Ibid, xxiv.



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Comments (5)

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  1. Neil says:

    A correction:

    “Word Power Books, sadly no more in existence”

    Word Power Books still exists as a publisher.

    The building that used to house Word Power Books *the bookshop* on West Nicholson Street in Edinburgh is now under new management with a new name (The Lighthouse) but with a very similar ethos. I was in there last night, and apart from the new faces and a rearrange on the shelves it would be hard to tell the difference. Old favourites like the Book Fringe and the Radical Book Fair continue, although the latter will be smaller and in a different venue this year.

    Free plug: they deserve it. Support your independent radical bookshop.

  2. Neil says:

    A quick correction:

    “Word Power Books, sadly no more in existence”

    Word Power Books still exists as a publisher.

    The building that used to house Word Power Books *the bookshop* on West Nicholson Street in Edinburgh is now under new management with a new name (The Lighthouse) but with a very similar ethos. I was in there last night, and apart from the new faces and a rearrange on the shelves it would be hard to tell the difference. Old favourites like the Book Fringe and the Radical Book Fair continue, although the latter will be smaller and in a different venue this year.

    Free plug: they deserve it. Support your independent radical bookshop.

    (Webmaster: there seems to be a problem with the comment posting protocol. You might want to look in to it.)

    1. Thanks Neil – the Lighthouse looks lovely.

      Yes, we’re looking into the comments thing which seems to be annoyingly intermittent

  3. Bob says:

    With the great Prof Carruthers nestling in the Glasgow Uni coup, as dominant cockerel, there is no chance of a radical reappraisal of Thomas Muir by any academic as he will trample all over any new radical biography of Muir, whom he has described as a mad man in his last years. When egos blind the odd academic, real facts and archival research don’t matter an iota. It’s current orthodoxy and stamping one’s authority that rules the day with some prejudice driven academics who have made a career on suppressing radicalism in Scottish history. Murray’s book is the best there is and it was insulted by the mighty Carruthers. I can’t wait to see the new major edition of Burns which Carruthers has been working on for decades now and consuming millions of taxpayers money waiting his final word on burying Burns’ radicalism once and for all. Great minds ofnthe oast need great minds like Murray to write their biography, not petty minds hell bent in career and job title. How ironic……

  4. Thomas says:

    Great post! Have nice day ! 🙂 jntsk

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