Notes on Thomas Muir

(The following is the substance of a post to the newsgroup uk.music.folk in Feb 1999 by Jack Campin and is reproduced here with his permission and assistance.)

by Jack Campin

Thomas Muir was a Scottish advocate who joined with a number of other radicals (mostly elite intellectuals, but a fair number of artisans too) in the Scottish branch of an organization called the Friends of the People. This was one of several overlapping British groups in the early 1790s that worked for the new democratic and republican ideas of Thomas Paine and the French Revolution.

The movement had a huge initial boost in Scotland in a riot of 1792 directed at the de facto dictator of Scotland, Henry Dundas. Much of the propaganda leading to this riot was written by James Tytler, a polymath who had been the first man in Britain to fly in a balloon, had written most of an edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and had contributed songs to Burns and Johnson's Scots Musical Museum. His polemics of 1792 were pretty darn fierce even by present-day standards; not only did he advocate abolishing the aristocracy and refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of Parliament, his faction also supported the nascent Irish resistance movement, the United Irishmen, that was working towards the insurrection of 1798. He was charged with sedition. Sensibly, he fled the country, but meanwhile Muir agreed to defend him, and was charged with sedition himself in 1793.

Muir visited France to argue against the excution of Louis XVI while this charge was pending and, on his way back via Dublin, joined the United Irishmen himself. He was arrested on his arrival at Stranraer, and carried to Edinburgh in irons. Burns was at Gatehouse-of-Fleet as the convoy went past and wrote Scots Wha Hae on the day Muir's trial started. The letter he wrote with the first draft makes it clear who he had in mind; Wallace was an allegory for the real hero.

Muir's trial was conducted by an outrageously harsh judge, Robert McQueen, Lord Braxfield. He and two confederates were convicted and sentenced to transportation to Australia for 14 years. Muir managed to escape, but was badly wounded in a sea-battle on his way back to Europe and never recovered, dying in exile in France.

This was the start of a grim period of repression. By early 1796 it was just about impossible to express any opinion dissenting with the war, King George, or Henry Dundas, or even protest against starvation as food shortages mounted towards near-famine. The militarization of Scotland met with opposition in anti-conscription protests, crushed by an indiscriminate massacre at Tranent in 1797. There were no public meetings held anywhere in Scotland for the next generation; the war kept dissent suppressed until the violent working-class revolts of 1819-20.

So Muir was one of the last articulate voices to speak out before the clampdown became total. But it was already so far in progress that he never managed any sort of manifesto. There are the beginnings of that in the 1792 writings of the Friends of the People, but none of them had enough time to create much more than the occasional pamphlet. Hence we can't go beyond these celebrations in song of Muir as a martyr, and look for his own words so as to treat him as a thinker. He didn't get the chance to be one.


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