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?


See also: Review of Murray Armstrong’s The Liberty Tree and Making Sense of the 1820 Uprising

Comments (7)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Yes, it is a great story. He was another Scot who was written out of the history most of us learned about in school or university. Through the tireless efforts of people like the Watsons, in all parts of Scotland, aspects of our history are now getting wider coverage. and more people in Scotland are aware of narratives other than the British Nationalist one.

    At Nunhead Cemetery in the London Borough of Southwark there is an obelisk memorialising the Scottish Martyrs. On entering the main gate, turn right and it is a short way down the path. (The cemetery is no longer in use for burials).

  2. George Young says:

    John Nicolson when MP for East Dunbarton on hearing the ED council were selling Muirs home proposed it be a place of historical interest and visitor centre.The council sold it for a pittance to become a care home. Four years later it’s a building site.
    Please contact him for the full story.

    1. Wul says:

      Aye. They also demolished Tom Johnston House, named after another great, local son. The building, built at great public expense from the best materials, was around 30 years old. Now an empty gap site, ideal for social housing but destined to be an un-needed supermarket.

      They hen sold the sandstone school house, where Tom Johnstone was educated, for luxury flats. This, after telling the local community, who wanted to buy the building for social housing, that it could not possibly be converted into dwellings. Sold on the cheap, but the exact price, of course, remains “commercially sensitive”. Even though the building was created from public subscription by locals and ostensibly sold off on their behalf.

  3. Vincent McCabe says:

    Congratulations to all concerned from Dublin. Irish Republicanism stemming from the United Irishmen had great respect for Thomas Muir and his egalitarian principles of democratic representation. Having worked with Jimmy in theatre in Dublin I became acquainted with the heroic and unjust tribulations of the great Thomas Muir. Jimmy introduced me to his father John and I saw the love and dedication of the Movement that John led to restore the esteem owed to Thomas Muir. Having visited Huntershill and experienced the cultural trail organised by Jimmy I can truly attest to the profound impact Thomas Muir has left on anyone who takes the time to examine the democratic spirit which was central to his life’s mission. Bravo Thomas Muir – your day of recognition has come.


    While I am glad that this has finally, belatedly, happened I am shocked that people in Scotland are still in this day and age being ‘targeted by the political and legal establishment’. The current example that immediately comes to mind is the victimisation of Craig Murray and Mark Hirst by the political and legal establishments. I am truly dismayed to see such corruption at the top in Scotland.

  5. Anna says:

    Thomas Muir is the most famous person to come out of Bishopbriggs and yet his family house at Huntershill has been left to go to rack and ruin. It brings shame on the place but the Council (Conservative / Liberal Democrat) appear unable or unwilling to act to preserve it.
    George Young is correct about John Nicholson’s proposal for restoration when he was MP for East Dunbartonshire and he even had in mind a company who’d done similar work in London, if I’m remembering correctly.
    What about a compulsory purchase order before it has to be demolished as beyond saving? Is that possible?

  6. Adam Young says:

    Miscarriage of Justice: Been wrongfully convicted?

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