Thomas Muir, the Scottish Republican and Revolutionary, was born in Glasgow, 24th August, 1765, the son of “bonnet laird”, James Muir. His father was a second son, with no chance of inheriting the property of Birdston and Hayston farms near Kirkintilloch. His family had relations in Kent who were prosperous hop growers James successfully directed his energies and became firmly established as a hop merchant in the High Street of Glasgow in a flat above his shop. He was credited with writing a pamphlet on “England’s Foreign Trade” and reached his social summit by the 1780’s he purchased the property of Huntershill house and the adjoining lands.
His house still stands in Bishopbriggs and there is a centre to him there and a Thomas Muir cafe with a plaque. Bishopbriggs library has a selection of books on him. George Pratt Insh, Liberal historian, wrote a good book and pamphlet on him. Lib Dem MP, McLellan wrote a play on Muir, which played down his republican and revolutionary side and concentrated on his radical reforms, as did Dumbarton Council on his centenary in 1979. Adam McNaughton, of Adam’s Books, folk singer and writer was commissioned to write the official pamphlet for the Council and wrote a song to him. Michael Donnelly produced an excellent pamphlet in 1975, as a forerunner to his biography on Muir, which he is still researching. He also produced some excellent magazines under the title, “United Scotsmen”. He and his partner, Elspeth King were cleared from the People’s Palace in a coup by Pat Lally, to be replaced by a tame Labour poodle historian, who complained that the museums in his native Ireland were full of reminders of defeats. Elspeth and Michael’s former radical exhibitions at the People’s Palace have long been sanitised, erasing our folk memories and radical past. Both are now running the excellent museum in Stirling.
Muir’s middle class background did not stop him sacrificing himself when he could have had a comfortable lifestyle. He had a private tutor at the age of five and at ten entered the Gowned Classes of Glasgow University, still in the High Street and graduated after five sessions. He then studied divinity for a while being of the a‘Auld licht’ of popular party in Scotland. In 1782 he graduated at the age of 17 as an MA, with a flair for languages. He was greatly influenced by John Millar of Millheugh, Professor of Civil Law and abandoned religious studies. He was accepted to Millar’s classes in 1783-4. Millar was a pioneer of sociology and a figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. Millar was a former pupil of the Scottish Enlightenment figures; Smith, Hume and Lord Kames, raising his Chair to international status attracting students from Russia, America, etc. Millar was Republican and critical of Henry Dundas, England’s man in Scotland. He inspired Muir, who joined student Clubs and societies supporting American Independence and Burgh reform.
In May 1784 a violent dispute between Professor John Anderson and the faculty and Principal resulted in Anderson’s suspension. Anderson received widespread support from the Citizens of Glasgow to open his doors to artisans and Glasgow Trades. The students supported him. He was denied legal representation and Muir and others accepted “voluntary” self expulsion. Anderson is credited with founding technical colleges and what is now Strathclyde University. He even invented a gun for Napoleon. Muir completed his study at Edinburgh under Millar, passed his Bar exams and was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates at the age of 22.
Muir lived in a revolutionary and oppressed climate in support of the French Revolution. Gaelic, kilts, tartan, pipes and the clarsach were still proscribed from 1746 till 1791. The majority of the population lived North of the Highland line before 1750, not counting Gaelic speaking Galloway and South Ayrshire. The Clearances, were described by Marx as worse than clearing whole villages in Ireland and compared cleared tracts of the Highlands with areas the size of German Principalities. Many Highlanders were flocking to the Lowlands at the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution to the coal and Iron fields and growing factories. Historians pretend to be puzzled by the speedy transformation of many Jacobites to Jacobins. It was no mystery. The Jacobites opposed the Parliamentary, if not the Regal, Union. King James had to read a proclamation dissolving the 1707 “Union” upon landing at Peterhead in 1714, and Charles Edward at Glenfinnan and Edinburgh in 1745, Copies are in the ‘Caledonian Mercury’ and other papers of the time. Just as the Irish Royal family was usurped it was easier to become an Irish Republican than support a foreign occupying Monarch and Scotland was very much an occupied country. Highland regiments mutinied and refused to fight in France and full scale riots were a regular occurrence in Scotland.
Even Wattie Scott was part of Dundas’s spy system and paid informers up until the 1820 Rising, some of whom fought in 1797. Scott not only spied on Burns, but also researched the records after the Republican and Jacobite poet Burns’s death to prove he sent canons to the French Revolution from his excise seizure of a ship in Galloway. Scott also, wrongly, is accused of inventing the proscribed tartans in his revival pageant for George IV in 1822, complaining that many of the original dyes and setts were lost during the 45 years Proscription Acts. How can you invent something that was proscribed 76 years earlier which “did not exist”? England, remaining geographically and psychologically divided. The Scots having a degree of National Unity backed by the general sympathy of the common people sat uneasy on this new “British Convention”, which Muir described as a “miserable plaything of the English Government”. The English leaders were also sentenced to 14 years transportation.
Eventually Muir Skirving and Palmer were transported on the “Surprise” to Botany Bay, after Labouring in a Portsmouth chain gang. The three who were charged with mutiny led by the first mate against the captain’s brutality had little difference in winning their case upon arrival at Port Jackson. Due to their education and status they were afforded better freedom of movement than ordinary convicts. Each had with them a considerable sum of money raised by the wealthy London Whigs before their departure. By December they had spent most of their cash purchasing plots of land, out of sight of the Governor on the opposite side of the bay. Palmer settled into farming. Muir plotted escape.
Early in February, 17, 1796 he succeeded in arranging his escape on the American ship, sent by Washington, the “Otter”. Skirving was too weak with yellow fever, Gerrald was dying of TB and Rev Palmer, refused to leave his side nursing him till his death. Margarot had been sent to Coventry for his part in the mutiny allegations. So Muir left with two convict servants exhausted and wet to be hauled aboard from their small boat.
After many adventures across the uncharted Pacific to Vancouver Island, the ‘Otter’ dropped anchor in Nookta Sound on June 22, 1796. Because of the presence of a British man of war, the “Providence” he persuaded a Captain Tovar to break his regulations and admit foreigners to Spanish territory. He changed vessels down the coast at Monterrey, California and was introduced to the Governor, Don Diego Boricia and accommodate with his family in the Presidio. The Viceroy of Mexico wasn’t pleased with Muir’s Washington connection and ordered him to be taken across land to Mexico in a gruelling and dangerous trek across the mountains. He was held in detention on October 12 to be shipped to Spain on suspicion of being a spy for the Revolution. He was shipped from Vera Cruz to Havana to await a convoy to Spain. He attempted to escape and was imprisoned for three months in the dungeons of La Principia Fortress. French and American agents informed the French Directorate.
On April, 26,1797, Muir’s ship the “Ninfa”, was confronted by several British men of war at the entrance to Cadiz Harbour who had been blockading the port for several weeks. The Ninfa and the Santa Elena was pursued by the British for three hours. The Elena, carrying bullion was scuttled. Muir’s cheekbone was smashed and his eyes seriously injured by shrapnel. One of the crew told the Brits that Muir was on board, but the captain insisted that he was dead. He was so badly disfigured that he was not recognised and put ashore with the wounded.
His painful recovery saw a bitter battle between the French and Spanish for Thomas Muir’s release. The Spanish finally released him on September 1797, declaring him banished from Spanish territory. He arrived in Bordeaux, from Madrid and San Sebastian in November accompanied by a French Consulate officer and was hailed publicly as a hero of the French Republic and martyr of Liberty. His last portrait shows him with a large patch over his left eye and the loss of his cheekbone, drooping his face in grimace. He was heralded in the Capital. David, the French artist and official propagandist, was appointed to welcome him, in a front page eulogy in the Government journal, “Le Moniteur”.
From the outset he insisted that it was his suffering countrymen that was primary concern. He associated with James Napper Tandy, though he did not get on well with Wolfe Tone, where he learned of the Scottish Insurrection of 1797-8 and resistance to the Militia Act and urged intervention on behalf of the Scottish people for Scottish Republic. His chief condfidante was Dr Robert Watson of Elgin, tutor to Napoleon, and a prominent Scottish Republican, later murdered in London. He learned of the arrival of James Kennedy of Paisley and Angus Cameron of Blair Atholl as delegates to the new Movement. He died in the village of Chantilly on January 26 1799 and it took an American Ambassador in the early 20th century to bring his grave to the notice of Scotland.
“We have achieved a great duty in these critical times. After the destruction of so many years, we have been the first to revive the spirit of our country and give it a National Existence”.
Links to other sites of interest on Thomas Muir
Dick Gaughan Songs
Thomas Muir of Huntershill Gallery
Thomas Muir Of Huntershill Homepage
Chronology of Scottish Politics
The Glasgow Story