Justice for Thomas Muir of Huntershill
Explanations of change are fascinating. Democratic hero Thomas Muir of Huntershill was restored to the roll of the Faculty of Advocates last week 227 years after his removal. Here’s my story of why it happened.
On Sunday 5 July 2020 The Scotland on Sunday had the exclusive: ‘Father of Scottish democracy restored to faculty 227 years on’. The previous week, on his final day as Dean of the Faculty, Gordon Jackson QC readmitted Muir. Ross Macfarlane QC, an advocate depute, had been on a personal crusade to undo the injustice done to Muir’s name. Muir, targeted by the political and legal establishment for advocating constitutional reform, was imprisoned and sentenced to 14 years transportation in a grave miscarriage of justice. Deep in archives, Macfarlane found an old court order to overturn the grounds on which Muir was originally expelled. The Dean returned Muir’s name to its rightful place. But what launched Macfarlane’s crusade?
In 2015 he was asked to contribute to the Thomas Muir 250 celebrations, a series of events marking Muir’s birth. Afterwards he was “haunted” by the Muir injustice and set out to change the record. But why was the Faculty involved in this grand celebration at all? In his own time Muir was cast out of his university, his profession, and his nation.
Thomas Muir 250 was the culmination of years of work by a man called Jimmy Watson and the ‘Friends of Thomas Muir’ society. A small group of volunteers in East Dunbartonshire ran a yearly festival to share Muir’s story. 2015 was special. Nineteen events took place, including events by the University of Glasgow, the Scottish Parliament, and the Faculty of Advocates. In a dramatic display a pipe band led marchers through Edinburgh from the Martyrs’ Monument to Holyrood. Hundreds packed St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh as the outgoing First Minister gave the inaugural Thomas Muir memorial lecture.
Jimmy Watson worked tirelessly to ensure Muir celebrations on a scale Scotland had never seen before. Without Jimmy Watson there would have been no Thomas Muir 250, possibly no invitation to Ross Macfarlane, and so no crusade for justice.
But the story didn’t start with Jimmy. Why did he dedicate himself to restoring Muir’s name as a great figure of Scottish political history? It came from his father John Watson. John read about Muir when he was young, and started efforts to spearhead a local Muir revival from the 1970s. For decades he ploughed on promoting Muir’s legacy at local gatherings. After hearing his father present to the 1820 Society, Jimmy picked up the mantle. He also credits many who came before him as inspirations. A community, against the odds, kept Muir’s memory alive.
There is beautiful serendipity at play. Under a month ago the legacy of Henry Dundas, a villain of the Thomas Muir story, was subject to wide public condemnation. Twelve thousand, prompted by his legacy of blocking slavery abolition, called for his statute to be removed from St Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh. The demands prompted the Council to fast-track a new plaque, including that he “curbed democratic dissent in Scotland” as Home Secretary – a call that also happens to stem from Thomas Muir 250.
This may seem insignificant to some – debates over old history – but to me it’s a morality play for our time. The story of Thomas Muir and Henry Dundas wouldn’t have changed without the Watsons or Ross Macfarlane. But I doubt it would have been possible if Scotland hadn’t also been changing. Why have so many rallied to vindicate Muir and damn his accuser in 2020? Is it because we are now closer than ever to the country our first movement for democracy fought for?