Mr. Thomas Muir, whose father was a wealthy merchant
in Glasgow, and proprietor of the small estate of Huntershill, in the
parish of Calder, was born in 1705. He studied at the University of his
native city, where, it is said, he was distinguished not less for talent
than gentleness of disposition. He chose the law as a profession; and
was admitted to the bar, where he practised, with every appearance of
ultimate success, for a few years, till the well known events in France
gave anew impulse to the democratic spirit of this, as well as of almost
every other country in Europe. Muir, whose principles had always been of
a liberal cast, now stepped publicly forward; and, ranging himself among
"The Friends of the People," at once embarked in the cause with all the
characteristic zeal of youth.
The conduct of Muir having rendered him obnoxious to
the existing authorities, was apprehended in the beginning of January,
1793, while on his way to Edinburgh, to be present at the trial of Mr.
James Tytler. On alighting from the coach at Holytoun, he was taken
prisoner by Mr. Williamson, king's messenger, in whose custody he
finished the remainder of the journey. About an hour after his arrival
in Edinburgh, he was brought before Mr. Sheriff Pringle and Mr. Honyman
(afterwards Lord Armadale), Sheriff of Lanarkshire. These gentlemen were
proceeding to interrogate him in the usual manner, but Muir declared
that in that place be would not answer any question whatever. "He
considered such examinations as utterly inconsistent with the rights of
British subjects—instruments of oppression, and pregnant with mischief."
Mr. Muir was liberated on finding bail to appear in February following.
Immediately after this occurrence be proceeded to
London; and from thence to Paris, commissioned, as reported at the time,
to intercede in behalf of the French king. Be that as it may, be was
detained in France beyond the possibility of returning in time to stand
his trial, and was in consequence outlawed on the 25th February. The
enemies of Muir represented his absence as an intentional flight from
justice, arising from consciousness of guilt; but be accounted for the
circumstance by the menacing attitude then assumed by the two countries,
and the consequent difficulty of obtaining a conveyance home. He at last
found a passage in a vessel cleared out for America, but which in
reality was bound for Ireland. After a short detention in Dublin, where
lie became a member of the "Society of United Irishmen," and was warmly
received by tbe Reformers of that city, be sailed for Scotland in the
mouth of July, professedly with the intention of standing trial. In this
intention, however, he was anticipated ; for, on his arrival in
Stranraer, he was recognised by an under officer of the customs, upon
whose information he was arrested, and had all his papers taken from
him. From the prison of Stranraer be was once more conducted to
Edinburgh, under the charge of Williamson, where he was brought to trial
on the 30th August.
The Court was opened by tbe Lord Justice-Clerk (M'Queen
of Braxfield) and four Lords Commissioners of Justiciary—Lord Henderland,
Lord Swinton, Lord Dunsinnan, and Lord Abercromby.
Tbe gentlemen of the jury were—Sir James Foulis of
Collington, Bart.; Captain John Inglis of Aucbindinny; John Wauchop of
Edmonstone; John Balfour, younger, of Pilrig; Andrew Wauchop of Niddry,
Marischal; John Trotter of Mortonhall; Gilbert limes of Stow; James
Rocheid of Inverleith; John Alves of Dalkeith; William Dalrymple,
merchant, Edinburgh; James Dickson, bookseller, Edinburgh; George
Kinnear, banker, Edinburgh; Andrew Forbes, merchant, Edinburgh; John
Horner, merchant, Edinburgh; Donald Smith, banker, Edinburgh.
In the indictment Muir was charged with creating
disaffection by means of seditious speeches and harangues—of exhorting
persons to purchase seditious publications—and, more particularly, of
having been the principal means of convening a meeting of Reformers at
Kirkintulloch on the 3rd November, 1792; also, of convening another
meeting during the same month at Milltoun, parish of Campsie: and,
farther, the said Thomas Muir did, in the course of the months of
September, October, or November aforesaid, distribute, circulate, or
cause to be distributed and circulated, in the town of Glasgow,
Kirkintulloch, Milltoun aforesaid, and at Lennoxtoun, in the said parish
of Campsie, and county of Stirling, or elsewhere, a number of seditious
and inflammatory writings or pamphlets, particularly a book or pamphlet
entitled 'The Works of Thomas Paine, Esq.,' &c." He was likewise charged
with having been present at a meeting of the "Convention of Delegates of
the Associated Friends of the People," held in Lawrie's Room, in James's
Court, Edinburgh, at which he read " An Address from the Society of
United Irishmen in Dublin to the Delegates for Promoting a Reform in
Parliament," and proposed that the same should lie on the table, or a
vote of thanks, or some acknowledgment be made to those from whom the
address had been transmitted.
The witnesses brought forward established the various
charges against the prisoner, but they almost unanimously bore testimony
to the constitutional mode by which he recommended the people to proceed
in their demands for a redress of grievances. Indeed, at this distance
of time, and considered apart from that dread of everything approaching,
even in name, to a Republic, which the horrors of the French Revolution
had inspired, it is not easy to discover, from the evidence, the precise
degree of guilt which could possibly be attached to the prisoner.
Muir had no counsel. He conducted the defence
himself. His appearance at the bar has been variously represented. By
those of opposite politics (and there are several gentlemen yet alive
who witnessed his trial) he has been described as "a most silly
creature, and a pitiful speaker." The records of the proceedings by no
means support this assertion. "Without deigning to descend to mere legal
quibbling, his conduct of the case does not seem to have been deficient
in tact, nor his appeals to the Bench and to the jury devoid of
eloquence or power. "This is no time for compromise," said Muir, in his
concluding address to the jury. "Why did the Lord Advocate not at once
allow that I stand at this bar because I have been the strenuous
supporter of Parliamentary reform? Had this been done, and this alone
been laid to my charge, I should at once have pleaded guilty—there would
have been no occasion for a trial; ahd their lordships and you would
have been spared the lassitude of so long an attendance. But what sort
of guilt would it have been? I have been doing that which has been clone
by the first characters in the nation. I appeal to the venerable name of
Locke, and of the great oracle of the English law, Judge Blackstone. But
why need I refer to writers who are now no more? The Prime Minister of
the country, Mr. Pitt himself—the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, the
Duke of Richmond—have once been the strenuous advocates of reform; and
yet they have been admitted into the King's counsel. Are they then
criminal as I am? But it is needless, gentlemen, to carry you beyond the
walls of this house. The Lord Advocate (Robert Dundas, Esq.) himself has
been a Reformer, and sat as a delegate from one of the counties for the
purpose of extending the elective franchise." The concluding words of
Muir were—"I may be confined within the walls of a prison—I may even
have to mount the scaffold—but never can I be deprived or be ashamed of
the records of my past life."
A verdict of guilty was returned by the jury, and
sentence followed, transporting the prisoner beyond seas for the period
of fourteen years.
Mr. Muir was detained in prison till the 15th of
October, when he was conveyed on board the Royal George excise
yacht, Capt. Ogilvie, lying in Leith Roads, for London. In the same
vessel were sent the following convicts:—John Grant, convicted of
forgery at Inverness; John Stirling, concerned in robbing Nellfield
House; ------Bauchope, for stealing watches; and James Mackay, who had
been condemned to death for street robbery. The feeling of degradation
which Muir must have experienced in being thus classed with thieves and
robbers was in some degree alleviated by the presence of the Bev. Thomas
Fyshe Palmer, who had been tried on the 12th September previous, for
publishing a political address written by George Mealmaker.
Immediately on the arrival of the prisoners in the
Thames, they were put on board the hulks, where they were detained so
long that Skirving and Margarot were in time to be shipped in the same
transport for New South Wales.
The following lines, written by the author on board
the transport that was about to carry him into exile, independent of
their poetical merit, are rendered interesting from the circumstances
under which they were penned:—
"Surprise Transport, Portsmouth,
"March 12, 1794.
"TO MR. MOFFAT, WITH A GOLD WATCH AND CHAIN FROM MR.
"This gift, this little gift, with heart sincere,
An exile, wafted from his native land,
To friendship tried, bequeaths with many a tear,
Whilst the dire hark still lingers on the strand.
"These sorrows stream from no ignoble cause;
I weep not o'er my own peculiar wrong,—
Say, when approving conscience yields applause,
Should private sorrow claim the votive song?
"But, ah! I mark the rolling cloud from far,
Collect the dark'ning horrors of the storm;
And, lo! I see the frantic fiend of war,
With civil blood, the civil field deform.
"Roll on, ye years of grief, your fated course!
Roll on, ye years of agony and blood!
But, ah! of civil rage, when dried the source,
From partial evil spring up general good.
"Alas! my Moffat, from the dismal shore
Of cheerless exile, when I slow return,
What solemn ruins must I then deplore?
What awful desolation shall I mourn ?
"Paternal mansion ! mouldering in decay,
Thy close-barred gate may give no welcome kind;
Another lord, as lingering in delay,
May harshly cry—another mansion find.
"And, oh! my Moffat! whither shall I roam?
Flow, flow, ye tears ! perhaps the funeral bier;
No—nourish Hope—from thee I ask a home,—
Thy gentle hand shall wipe an exile's tear.
"Yes. we shall weep o'er each lamented grave
Of those who join'd us in stern Freedom's cause;
And, as the moisten'd turf our tears shall lave,
These tears shall Freedom honour with applause.
"I soon shall join the dim serial band,—
This stream of life has little time to flow.
Oh! if my dying eyes thy soothing hand
Should close—enough—'tis all I ask below.
"This little relic, Moffat, I bequeath
While life remains, of friendship, just and pure,—
This little pledge of love, surviving death,
Friendship immortal, and re-union sure.
Mr. William Moffat, to whom this flattering mark of
esteem is addressed, still lives in Edinburgh. He was admitted a
solicitor in 1791, and was the legal agent of Mr. Muir. His son, Mr.
Thomas Muir Moffat, is named after the Reformer.
At Sydney they were treated by Governor Hunter (a
Scotsman) with all the humanity in his power. Here Muir purchased a
piece of land, and busied himself in its improvement; while in the
society of his exiled companions, he enjoyed as much happiness as the
peculiarity of his situation would permit. After remaining in the
"distant land of exile" nearly two years, he found means to escape in an
American vessel (the Otter), which had been fitted out at New
York by some individuals for the purpose of aiding him in his escape,
and which had anchored at Sydney for the ostensible purpose of taking in
wood and water. With the Otter he sailed for the United States;
but, unfortunately, having occasion to touch at Nootka Sound, he found
that a British sloop of war had unexpectedly arrived a short time before
; and as this vessel had only left Sydney a day or two previous to the
Otter, Muir deemed it prudent to go on shore—preferring to travel
over the whole American continent to the risk of detection.
After many hardships, he at length found a passage on
board a Spanish frigate bound for Cadiz ; but Spain being then leagued
with the Republic of France, on arriving off the port of Cadiz, the
frigate was attacked by a British man-of-war. A desperate engagement
ensued, in which Muir is said to have fought with great bravery, and was
severely wounded. On the surrender of the frigate, he was concealed on
board for six days, and then sent on shore with the other wounded
prisoners. In a letter from Cadiz, dated 14th August, 1797, he thus
describes his situation:—"Contrary to my expectation, I am at last
nearly cured of my numerous wounds. The Directory have shown me great
kindness. Their solicitude for an unfortunate being, who has been so
cruelly oppressed, is a balm of consolation which revives my drooping
spirits. The Spaniards detain me as a prisoner, because I am a Scotsman;
but I have no doubt that the intervention of the Directory of the great
Republic will obtain my liberty. Remember me most affectionately to all
my friends, who are the friends of liberty and of mankind."