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Thomas Muir, Esq., Younger of Huntershill


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. MUIR.

"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.

"Thomas Muir."

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."

Muir was not disappointed in the sincerity of the French Directory, at whose request he was delivered up by the Spanish authorities. On entering France he was warmly hailed by the people; and in Paris he received every mark of respect from the government. He did not, however, live long to enjoy the liberty which it had cost him such peril to obtain. The seeds of a decline had been sown in his constitution before his departure from Scotland; and the many fatigues which he had subsequently undergone, together with the wounds he had received in the action, proved too complicated and powerful to be resisted. He died at Chantilly, near Paris, on the 27th September, 1798, where ho was interred, with every mark of respect, by the public authorities.


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