Thomas Muir of Huntershill

Thomas Muir with horse, date unknown
Thomas Muir

marble bust with bandage over left eye

Thomas Muir (bust by Alexander Stoddart)
Born (1765-08-24)24 August 1765
Died 26 January 1799(1799-01-26) (aged 33)
Nationality Scottish
Occupation Lawyer
Known for Friends of the People; Scottish political Martyrs
Thomas Muir of Hunters Hill by David Martin, 1790, chalk drawing from life, National Portrait Gallery of Scotland

Thomas Muir (24 August 1765[1] – 26 January 1799), often known as Thomas Muir the Younger of Huntershill, was a Scottish political reformer.

Early years

Thomas Muir was born above his father's grocers shop on the High Street of Glasgow. His father, James Muir, was the son of the 'bonnet laird' of Birdston in Milton of Campsie, he married Margaret Smith and they had two children Thomas and Janet. As a younger son James Muir had little prospect of inheriting his father's property. His family, however, had in Maidstone, Kent, relations who were prosperous hop-growers and it was towards this branch of trade that young James was persuaded to direct his energies. In this business venture he achieved considerable success and by the time of his marriage in 1764 he was firmly established as a hop-merchant in the High Street of Glasgow. Here, in the heart of the town's ancient University quarter, he settled with his wife, living in a little flat above his shop.

By all accounts Muir senior was a man of some education, whose interest in commerce extended far beyond that of his fellow businessmen, for he has been credited with the authorship of a pamphlet on ‘England's Foreign Trade’. By the 1780s he reached the summit of his social aspirations when he purchased the property of Huntershill House, together with adjoining lands. Of Muir's mother, Margaret Smith, nothing of a biographical nature has been recorded. However, we do know that both Muir's parents were orthodox Presbyterians, consequently young Thomas's early upbringing was very much within the confines of the rigid moral and social ethic of ‘Auld LichtCalvinism. Thus, early accounts describe him, not unnaturally, as ‘a pious child of modest, reserved nature’.


Thomas Muir circa 1793

Muir's education began at the age of five when his father acquired the services of William Barclay, a local schoolmaster, as a private tutor. A conscientious, rather than a brilliant pupil, Muir made steady progress and in 1775 at the early age of 10 was admitted to the 'gowned classes' of Glasgow University.

After attending classes regularly for 5 sessions he matriculated (1777) and at the desire of his parents embarked upon a study of Divinity. His religious convictions, both at this time and throughout the remainder of his life, were sincere and uncompromising. Like his parents he was a zealous supporter of the ideals of the 'Auld Licht' or popular party, in Kirk politics. As the only son of increasingly wealthy parents he wanted for nothing. He had discovered a natural flair for foreign languages, and in furtherance of this interest he was soon the owner of a 'valuable and extensive library'.


In 1782 at the age of 17 Muir graduated M.A. He was now influenced by the teachings of John Millar of Millheugh, Professor of Civil Law, and abandoned his studies for the Church. At the beginning of the 1783-4 term he was accepted as a student in Millar's classes on Law and Government, lectures known internationally. In politics Millar was a Republican Whig and a critic of the so-called 'benevolent despotism' of Henry Dundas. His target was Scottish political conservatism, in the form of the Faculty of Advocates, and he brought on young Whig advocates imbued with a due reverence for the law. Muir joined students’ clubs and societies in which the major topics of the day (American Independence, Patronage, and Burgh Reform) were debated.

Expelled from university

In May 1784 a dispute occurred between Professor John Anderson and other members of the Faculty, including Principal William Leechman and Professors Richardson and Taylor; it turned on the refusal of a majority of the Faculty to minute complaints of the Professor regarding the alleged abuse of college funds, etc. Anderson's comments upon being informed that his complaints were being omitted from the record as 'extraneous and indecent', were uncomplimentary enough to provoke the Faculty into voting his suspension from the privileges of the Senate. Seeing that redress and reform were unobtainable at the hands of the Faculty, Anderson petitioned the Chancellor, the Marquess of Graham, and Henry Dundas, the Lord Advocate, for assistance in procuring a Royal Commission of Enquiry into the University's affairs. Both, however, refused to interfere in the dispute. When Anderson returned from the summer vacation of 1784, he announced his intention of submitting similar petitions to the Secretary of State in London.

Anderson received widespread support from the town and students. On 24 February 1785 the Glasgow Trades, by a large majority, voted in support of Anderson's cause; but a few days later, after an appeal from Leechman, this vote was reversed. Senior students, particularly the M.A.'s, responded by issuing an aggressive pamphlet entitled A Statement of Fact against Leechman and the Faculty. After Anderson had departed for London, disciplinary proceedings were launched. An ultimatum was posted in all college lecture rooms naming Muir, McIndoe, Humphries and ten others as ringleaders; a ban was enforced on their attendance at lectures awaiting the result of hearings. Muir and his fellow students requested legal representation, but this request was rejected. Muir gave notice of his voluntary self-expulsion from the University. His fellow students, who decided to make a fight of it, were not so lucky. McIndoe was expelled along with one William Clydesdale, while Alexander Humphries, co-author of the offending pamphlet, was not only expelled, but also deprived of his degree.

At the beginning of the new academic year, Muir with the assistance of Millar obtained a place at Edinburgh University under the Whig Professor of Law, John Wylde. Here he completed his studies and having passed his Bar examinations was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1787 at the age of 22.

Patronage: The Landlords v. The People

Those that may have thought that after the notoriety of his abrupt departure from Glasgow University, Muir would choose a life of quiet respectability, were soon to have their illusions shattered. As an Elder of the Church of Scotland for his home parish of Cadder, he became embroiled at the beginning of 1790 in bitter dispute with the local landlords led by James Dunlop of Garnkirk, a rich coal owner. Muir acting on behalf of the elders challenged the attempt of the landlords or heritors to pack the selection committee for a new minister with 'Parchment Barons'. Upon the case being referred to the Synod at Glasgow, Muir was appointed as Counsel for the congregation and fought a bitter and protracted case on their behalf all the way to the General Assembly. In the event the case of the landlords was thrown out and Muir and his party emerged victorious.

In legal circles and beyond, Muir quickly acquired a reputation as a man of principle, prepared to take on the most unrewarding and difficult cases and even occasionally foregoing a fee when petitioned by a destitute client. His outspoken conviction that many existing laws were criminally biased against the poor, won him the respect of the younger advocates who nicknamed him 'the Chancellor'. His views on law reform were however anathema to some members of the High Court, Lord Braxfield and Lord Advocate, Robert Dundas.

Revolution in France

The French Revolution of 1789 revived the hopes of all members of the Whig party in Scotland and England, in their campaign for burgh and county reform. However, as the Revolution progressed and England witnessed the emergence of popular reform societies advocating Parliamentary reform, the aristocratic section of the Whigs began to fear the spread of revolutionary ideology on to home territory. It was in an attempt to forestall such a development that the younger generation of Foxite Whigs in Parliament and the Lords inaugurated in April 1792 the London Association of the Friends of the People. Led by the Scots Lords, Lauderdale and Buchan, this society enjoyed widespread initial support from leading Whigs throughout Britain.

Since 1789, many clubs and societies had sprung up in the principal towns and villages of Scotland in support of the Revolution and its principles. In June 1792, the members of these societies and, in particular, those at Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Perth, began a regular correspondence with the object of forming a Scottish counterpart to the London Association. By the end of June 1792, a plan of organisation, principally drawn up by Muir and William Skirving, a Fife farmer, was set in motion. In distinct contrast to the London Association, which was deliberately exclusive, Muir and his associates, taking into consideration the vital educational differential between the working people of Scotland and England, opted for a nationwide association of reform clubs unlimited to any social class. After some initial difficulties due to the entrenched opposition of Henry Erskine, the Dean of the Faculty and leading Scottish Whig, the Scottish Association of the Friends of the People was duly formed at Edinburgh on 26 July 1792. Supported by two new publications, the Edinburgh Gazeteer and the Caledonian Chronicle, plus James Tytler's Historical Register, the new movement rapidly expanded.

Muir and the United Irishmen

As early as September 1792, acting upon his own initiative, Muir began a correspondence with Archibauld Hamilton Rowan, Secretary of the United Irishmen. In this correspondence Muir detailed the aims and objectives of the association and suggested a closer unity of action between the two movements. Other activities during this period included the formation of the Glasgow society (3 October) and a propaganda tour of Stirlingshire, Dunbartonshire, and Renfrewshire. As a result of this tour new societies were formed at Kirkintilloch, Birdston, Lennoxtown, Campsie and Paisley. On 21 November, Muir, having been elected Vice-President of the movement at the Edinburgh monthly meeting, called for a General Convention of the societies to be held there in December. On 8 December, as the first of the delegates were arriving in the capital, an Address of Fraternity from the United Irishmen arrived at Muir's lodgings in Carrubers Close. Drawn up by Dr Drennan of Belfast, its nationalistic sentiments and appeal to the independent spirit of the Scottish people were entirely to Muir's satisfaction. However, he appears to have unwisely circulated a copy of it among the delegates prior to the first sitting of the Convention. Consequently, when during the first session Muir rose to present the Address he was vigorously opposed by a powerful unionist section among the delegates led by Col. William Dalrymple, Lord Daer and Richard Fowler. Their ground of protest was to the effect that the Address contained 'Treason or Misprison of Treason against the Union with England'. Lord Daer in particular was against the document either being accepted or even read to the Convention. This attempt to silence Muir was, however, overwhelmingly opposed and although the Address 'in its original form' was ultimately rejected, Muir obtained permission to read it over and ended by declaring to the Convention, ‘We do not, we cannot, consider ourselves as mowed and melted down into another country. Have we not distinct Courts, Judges, Juries, Laws, etc.?’. To this Richard Fowler protested 'that Scotland and England were but one people'. Some four weeks later Lord Daer, in correspondence with Charles Grey of the London Friends of the People, candidly admitted that ‘the Friends of Liberty in Scotland have almost unanimously been enemies to the Union with England. Such is the fact, whether the reason be good or bad.’

Public Enemy No. 1

With the ending of the Convention Muir became a marked man; a government spy had successfully penetrated their security and had turned in a full account of their proceedings with particular emphasis on the controversial Irish Address. Muir, apparently unaware of the net that was closing around him, busied himself in the days following the Convention with preparing his brief as defence counsel for James Tytler who had been arrested on a charge of sedition the previous month. Meanwhile, Lord Advocate Robert Dundas initiated an intensive investigation of Muir's movements during the previous three months, and was soon boasting to his uncle, Home Secretary Henry Dundas, that he would ‘lay him by the heels on a charge of High Treason’. Thus it was that Muir while on his way to Edinburgh on the morning of 2 January 1793 to attend Tytler's trial, was himself arrested on a charge of sedition and brought under guard to Edinburgh. After an intensive interrogation before the Sheriff during which he refused to answer any questions, Muir was released upon bail. Realising that he and Tytler were to be but the first in a series of selective prosecutions against the Association's members, Muir decided to put his time at liberty to good use. On 8 January he set out for a brief visit to London with the intention of informing the Reformers there of the plight of the Scottish Association. It was during this visit that Muir discovered to his great dismay, the state of panic prevailing among the English Whigs over the proceedings of the trial of the French King. Far from promising aid and comfort to their Scottish allies, both Charles Gray and Lord Lauderdale were now openly considering the abandonment of the campaign for Parliamentary reform. It was against such a background of despondency that Muir, in a desperate attempt to prevent an irreversible set-back to the reform movement, left London for France in an eleventh hour bid to persuade the French leaders to spare the life of the King. His mission was doomed from the outset, for in spite of his utmost efforts he reached Paris only on the eve of the execution, by which time all hope of intervention was out of the question. As a missionary from the Whigs and the Scottish Movement, he was treated with great courtesy by the revolutionary administration. He was interviewed and feted by many of the outstanding personalities of the Convention including among others Condorcet, Brissot, Mirabeau and Madame Roland. While in Paris he also met Thomas Paine and Dr William Maxwell of Kirkconnel, the future doctor and associate of Robert Burns.

With the outbreak of war with France the anti-reform party in Scotland became increasingly militant, and Dundas sensing that the time was ripe, advanced the date of Muir's trial from April to 11 February. On being informed by letter of this manoeuvre, Muir, realising the impossibility of returning to Edinburgh in time, drafted a letter to the press stating his intention to return as soon as passport difficulties would admit. Dundas, of course, was not interested in any declarations of intent and immediately set in motion the legal steps required to ensure Muir's outlawry for non-appearance. This was done on 25 February 1793 when Lord Braxfield pronounced him a fugitive from justice.


Henry Erskine, who had not forgiven Muir for his attempts to undermine his authority with the burgh reformers, was now presented with the perfect opportunity for revenge. On 6 March he convened a meeting of the Faculty of Advocates at which Muir, with no one to speak in his defence, was unanimously expelled and his name struck from the register.

It was not until the end of June that Muir finally obtained a passage from Havre de Grace in an American ship, The Hope of Boston. Disembarking at Belfast where the ship had docked to pick up cargo, Muir made his way south to Dublin, whereupon consulting the United Irishmen at their Taylors Hall headquarters, he was sworn in as a fully fledged member of the Society. After spending a week at the home of Archibauld Hamilton Rowan at Rathcoffey, Muir decided to return to Scotland via Belfast and Donaghadee. On 24 August 1793 (his 28th birthday) Muir landed at Portpatrick and was almost immediately recognised by one Cunningham, a Customs Officer, and placed under arrest. Brought under heavy guard to Edinburgh and incarcerated in the notorious Tolbooth prison Muir now became the chief victim in a series of 'Show' trials aimed at smashing and demoralising the Scottish movement. The circumstances of this trial on 30th and 31 August before Braxfield, the Jeffries of Scotland, and a hand-picked jury of militant anti-reformers, has passed into legal history as a classic example of the political abuse of the judicial process. The attitudes of the landed classes were expressed by Braxfield as "A Government in every country should be just like a Corporation, and in this country, it is made up of landed interests which alone has a right to be represented." Yet, in spite of Braxfield's vindictive ferocity and the unprecedented sentence of 14 years transportation, Muir's manly conduct and fiery oratory were so impressive that the entire effect of the trial misfired.

The movement had found in Muir their first martyr, and instead of disintegrating, actually stiffened their resistance to Government coercion. Against such a background, Muir's continued presence in Edinburgh was regarded as a serious threat to public order, and he was removed to an armed cutter, the Royal George, at Leith Roads. There he was soon joined by the Rev. Thomas Fyshe Palmer, who had received a sentence of 7 years transportation in similar circumstances at Perth. Skirving, now fighting a dour battle to keep the movement in fighting trim, resolved to present the Government with a united front in the form of a new Convention, better organised and more representative than its predecessors. Dundas reacted to this new challenge by ordering the immediate removal of Muir and Palmer to the Hulks at Woolwich prior to their departure for Botany Bay.

The third Convention

The third Convention of the Friends of the People and its successor the 'British Convention' were however, like their predecessors, largely dominated by the delegates of the Edinburgh Societies. Moreover, by means of arrests and desertions, the Scottish movement had been deprived of most of its articulate leadership. Into this vacuum stepped three English delegates, Maurice Margarot, a merchant with a university education, Joseph Gerrald, friend and correspondent of William Godwin and an orator of flawless eloquence, and Matthew Campbell Browne, an actor turned reformer. After the early departure of Lord Daer, who was already suffering from the tuberculosis which was to lead to his premature death the following year, these three talented yet wholly injudicious men came to dominate the Convention and its proceedings.

Only they and Muir realised the true nature of the extra ordinary organisational differences existing between the reform movements in England and Scotland. Where the English societies remained psychologically and geographically divided, the Scots had an unprecedented degree of national unity backed by the general sympathy of the common people. Finding themselves almost by accident at the head of such an organisation, they threw all discretion to the winds. Urged on by Campbell Browne's wild histrionics, the movement's covert aims now became an open secret. Aping the Convention at Paris, the terms Citizen President, Secretary General, etc. were now introduced into its published reports, while the Convention was rechristened the 'British Convention'.

What Muir thought of this reckless exposure to destruction of the organisation which he and William Skirving had so carefully nurtured is revealed by his description of it in 1797 as 'a miserable plaything of the English Government'. Ultimately it was a motion of Charles Sinclair, delegate from the Society for Constitutional Information (London), which gave Dundas his much sought-for excuse to disperse the Convention.

Commenting upon the Convention Bill recently passed in Ireland as a means of suppressing public assemblies, Sinclair moved that a secret committee of four, together with the Secretary, be invested with the power to fix the meeting of a Convention of Emergency. This Convention would if necessary declare itself permanent and resist attempts to disperse it. When the diligent spy, ‘J.B.’, duly delivered his report of this discussion the authorities moved swiftly. Early on the morning of 5 December arrest warrants were issued and served by armed bailiffs upon Skirving, Margarot, Gerrald, Sinclair and Matthew Campbell Browne. In the trials which followed Skirving, Margarot and Gerrald were each respectively given sentences of 14 years transportation. While these and other disasters were befalling the Scottish Movement, Muir and Palmer were languishing in the prison hulks by night and being forced to labour in a chain gang on the banks of the Thames by day. An attempt to ship them out to Botany Bay in the convict transport Ye Canada had failed, when in true ‘coffin-ship’ tradition, her timbers were found to be rotten. After spending some time in Newgate Jail where they were joined by the newly convicted associates, Palmer, Skirving and Margarot, they were removed by coach to Portsmouth and placed aboard a new transport Surprize.[2] In spite of belated and somewhat reluctant attempts on behalf of the Whigs in Parliament and the Lords to obtain a pardon for the radicals, they were abruptly shipped out for Botany Bay on the morning of 24 May.

Journey and arrival in Australia

On the first of May 1794, the Surprise, convict transport, sailed from Spithead (St. Helen's) for Sydney with Muir, Palmer, Skirving, and Margarot on board. The French Admiralty, by order of the Comite du Salut Public, sent out frigates to attempt their rescue; but the Surprise sailed with a strong convoy of East Indiamen and some of His Majesty's ships, and it does not appear that they ever sighted the French frigates. The Surprise reached Sydney on 25 October 1794.[3][4]

During the long voyage out to Australia an attempt was made (with or without official connivance) to discredit Muir, Skirving and Palmer by implicating them in an alleged mutiny led by the first mate. This affair, however, was so badly bungled that, in spite of having to endure much harsh and brutal treatment at the hands of the captain, the reformers had little difficulty in refuting the evidence against them upon arrival at Port Jackson.

Confinement at Sydney Cove

Muir's term of confinement at the penal colony appears to have been fairly uneventful. As political prisoners, and men of talent and education, he and his associates were accorded far greater freedom of movement than ordinary convicts. Prior to their departure from Portsmouth each had received a considerable sum of money raised as a subscription on their behalf among the wealthy London Whigs. By this means they were able to sustain themselves without recourse to the official colonial stores, and thereby keep free of the compulsory manual labour normally demanded from all dependents.

In November, Judge Advocate Collins records that:

The Lieutenant-Governor having set apart for each of the gentlemen who came out from Scotland in the Surprise a brick hut, in a row on the east side of the cove, they took possession of their new habitations, and soon declared that they found sufficient reason for thinking "the bleak and desolate shores of New Holland " not quite so terrible as in England they had been led to expect.[3]

By December all four had spent the bulk of their remaining cash in purchasing plots of land. Skirving and Muir both seem to have acquired the services of some time-served convicts as servants. Palmer purchased 100 acres (40 hectares) of land for £84, and was soon waxing eloquent about his new occupation as a farmer. Unlike his companions, or indeed his father, Muir had little or no taste for farming and with an eye to ultimate escape from the settlement, he purchased a small hut and several acres of land on the opposite side of the bay. Muir's farm was located in the area that is now Jeffrey Street in Kirribilli.

By this means he was able to remove himself from the direct observation of the Governor and his soldiers and at the same time was provided with a legitimate excuse for keeping a small boat.

Early in 1796 with the assistance of Pierre François Péron, a French sailor, he succeeded in arranging his escape from the settlement on board the American ship the Otter of Boston.

Some accounts state that Muir's rescue or flight was not the first of such escapes may be judged from a remark of William Robert Broughton, Royal Navy, who sailed from Port Jackson in HMS Providence, 13 Oct 1795, "We abstained from following the example of other ships that have touched at this colony, by not taking away any of the convicts, a practice very general in merchant ships".[3]

The captain of the Otter, Ebenezer Dorr, had, however, made it a precondition of his part in the escape plan that Muir and any who chose to go with him should effect their own escape from the harbour at Port Jackson, as this was carefully guarded by a blockading frigate. Muir swiftly contacted his fellow prisoners. However, in the event, none but himself was able to go. Skirving who had suffered from a recent bout of yellow fever was too weak, and would shortly be dead. Gerrald who had recently arrived in the settlement was in the final stages of acute tuberculosis and the Revd Palmer, who was nursing him, refused to leave his charge. Only Margarot might have availed himself of Muir's plan; however he was absent at a farm deep in the hills at Parramatta, and in any case he had been sent to Coventry by his former colleagues because of his part in supporting the mutiny allegations.

Escape to America

Thomas Muir

On the evening of 17 February 1796, Muir together with two convict servants, loaded up his small boat with one day's provisions and stealthily rowed their way out of harbour. Hugging close to the shore they successfully eluded detection by the watch on the frigate and navigated their way towards their prearranged point of rendezvous. About 12 am. on the following day, wet and exhausted, they were hauled aboard the Otter. Muir, who had been unable to bring with him any of his personal property, left behind a note giving his books and papers to Palmer, with whom he also left a letter for the Governor thanking him for his tolerance and stating his intention of practising law at the American Bar. After a highly adventurous voyage across the as yet largely uncharted Pacific Ocean to Vancouver Island, the Otter finally dropped anchor in Nootka Sound on 22 June 1796.

The chronicles of Pierre François Péron describe Muir's escape and the voyage across the Pacific and as far as Monterrey, California.[5]

In conversation with Jose Tovar, the piloto (master) of the Sutil, a Spanish vessel at anchor in the bay, Muir learned to his dismay of the presence in neighbouring waters of the HMS Providence, a British sloop-of-war under William Robert Broughton. This vessel had visited Port Jackson shortly before Muir's escape and, since he had almost certainly become acquainted with the captain or members of the crew, his life was now in real danger. To be captured while under sentence of transportation meant immediate execution. Once again Muir's extraordinary luck held out. While a student at Glasgow, he had acquired a fluent command of Spanish and he was now able to persuade Tovar to break his regulations regarding the admission of foreigners into Spanish territory. Changing vessels he sailed with Tovar down the coast of California to the port of Monterrey, California. On arrival at this important Spanish outpost, Muir was introduced to the Governor, Don Diego Borica, who was favourably impressed by his character and intelligence, and allocated him accommodation along with his own family in the Presidio.

However, when Borica in due course submitted a report on Muir to his superior, the Viceroy at Mexico City, matters took a turn for the worse. Ignoring Muir's request to pass through Spanish territory to the United States, the Viceroy, instead, ordered the severe disciplining of Tovar for violating his orders. Muir's use of Washington's name and his claims of friendship with many of the leading personalities of the French Revolution, had rendered him highly suspicious to the Spanish authorities. Accordingly, Borica was directed to have Muir conducted with all haste to the capital 'without open sign of his being under arrest'. Accompanied by two officers detached from the Governor's staff, Muir, after a gruelling and often dangerous trek across the mountains, reached Mexico City on 12 October. For some days he was held in detention and closely questioned as to his purpose in entering California. It is evident, however, that his explanations were disbelieved by the sceptical Viceroy, who resolved to ship him out to Spain as a suspected spy. Under heavy guard, Muir was now despatched on the road for the port of Vera Cruz where he arrived on 22 October. In spite of his demands to be put on board an American ship, he was now shipped out to Havana, Cuba to await the departure of a convoy for Spain.

Return to Europe

For some time, Muir appears to have regained his liberty in Havana, for he spoke to several American merchants explaining his plight. He also appears to have attempted an escape, only to be recaptured and imprisoned for three months in the dungeons of the La Principia Fortress. However Muir was nothing if not resourceful and it was while he was in La Principia that he succeeded by some means in contacting Victor Hughes, the French Agent for the Windward Islands. On learning of Muir's situation Hughes wrote to the Directory in France, thus providing them with the first concrete news of Muir's escape and survival. He also wrote an indignant letter to the Governor of Cuba protesting bitterly at Muir's harsh treatment and demanding his release. However, by the time this letter arrived in Havana, Muir had already sailed for Spain.

Whatever misgivings or fears Muir may have had for his safety at the hands of his Spanish jailers, there was one danger which had not occurred to him – that of confrontation with a British fleet. On the morning of 26 April 1797 as Muir's ship, the Ninfa, approached the entrance to Cadiz Harbour, he was confronted by several Royal Navy Men o’ War who for some weeks had been blockading the port. Seeing at once that a conflict was inevitable, Muir approached the captain and asked to be put ashore as he was unwilling to bear arms against a ship which almost certainly contained some of his fellow countrymen. The captain, however, faced with the likely destruction of his vessel, had no time to consider the feelings of a prisoner. Turning about, the Ninfa and her sister ship the Santa Elena headed up the coast, hotly pursued by the British ships. After a chase of some three hours duration, the Ninfa and the Santa Elena were engaged in battle opposite Conil de la Frontera. In the action which followed, the Ninfa was seriously damaged, while the Santa Elena, reputedly a rich bullion ship, was deliberately scuttled by her captain. During the last few moments of the engagement, Muir received a glancing blow to the face from a piece of shrapnel which smashed his left cheek bone and seriously injured both his eyes. One of the crew under interrogation appears to have revealed the fact of Muir's presence on board, and a careful search was made for his body. However, the Spanish captain insisted that Muir was among the dead and in the event he was so badly disfigured that his would-be captors failed to identify him, and he was sent ashore with the wounded. Now began a long and painful recovery, while the French and Spanish authorities, from Consular to Ambassadorial and ultimately at Ministerial level, indulged in a bitter diplomatic wrangle over Muir's release.

The last days in France

Finally on 16 September 1797, the Spanish Government relented and decreed Muir's release and perpetual banishment from Spanish territories. Still weak and emaciated from his sufferings, Muir made his way to France by way of Madrid and San Sebastian, aided and assisted by a young officer from the French Consulate at Cadiz. In early November 1797, he arrived exhausted at Bordeaux, where he was hailed publicly as a 'Hero of the French Republic' and a 'Martyr of Liberty'. Feted by the civic authorities and literary societies, his last portrait, commissioned for display in public buildings, shows him with a large black patch over his left eye. The loss of his left cheekbone had caused that side of his face to droop, revealing the teeth in a perpetual grimace. Muir, weak and half blind, slowly made his way north to Paris where he arrived on 4 February 1798.

Muir's arrival in the capital was heralded by a great outburst of popular adulation. David, the great French artist and propagandist was officially appointed to welcome him to the city, in a front page eulogy in the Government journal Le Moniteur. From the very outset, however, Muir made it abundantly clear to his benefactors that, flattered though he was by their attentions towards him, it was their intentions on behalf of his suffering countrymen which were now to be his chief concern. He associated with Thomas Paine and James Napper Tandy of the United Irishmen, from whom he learned the exciting news of the near-insurrection in Scotland over the Militia Act. During 1798 he submitted many letters and memoranda to the Directory urging them to intervene militarily on behalf of the people and thus aid them in establishing a Scottish Republic.

Muir's chief confidant and informant during 1798 was Dr Robert Watson of Elgin, emissary to France on behalf of the United Englishmen. From him he learned for the first time details of the strength and extent of the United Scotsmen, the new revolutionary association which had replaced the Friends of the People. From Watson he also learned of the impending arrival in Paris of James Kennedy of Paisley and Angus Cameron of Blair Atholl as delegates of the new movement. Since Muir was by this time the principal intermediary between the Directory and the various republican refugees in Paris he was aware that his movements were under scrutiny by Pitt's agents. Accordingly, in his last known communication with the Directory in October 1798, he requested permission to leave Paris for somewhere less conspicuous, where his crucial negotiations with the Scots emissaries could be conducted in safety.

Thus it was that sometime in the middle of November 1798, Muir moved incognito to the little Île-de-France village of Chantilly to await the arrival of his Scots compatriots. There on 26 January 1799 he died, suddenly and alone, with only a small child for company. So close had his efforts for security been that not even the local official knew of his presence or identity. No identifying documents or papers were found on his person and his name was discovered only when the postman remembered delivering newspapers to him addressed to 'Citoyen Thomas Muir'. When several days later the news of Muir's passing finally reached Paris, a brief obituary notice was inserted in Le Moniteur to the effect that he had died from a recurrence of his old wounds. Shortly before his death, he said:

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.

The Scottish Martyrs

Thomas Muir was the most important of the group of five Scottish political Martyrs (Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald). In 1793 they were sentenced to transportation to Australia for sedition and writing and publishing pamphlets on parliamentary reform.

William Muir

William Muir the Campsie Poet was a relative of Thomas Muir's.


Two large obelisks were funded by public subscription raised by the radical MP Joseph Hume. One of these is in Nunhead Cemetery in South East London, while the other in the Old Calton Cemetery dominates the Edinburgh sky-line.

The obelisk in the Old Calton Cemetery in Edinburgh was designed in 1844 by architect Thomas Hamilton (1784–1858) and stands 90 feet (27 m) high.

Scottish Political Martyrs Monument, Old Calton Hill, Edinburgh

The monument speaks for itself:

To The Memory Of Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald. Erected by the Friends of Parliamentary Reform in England and Scotland, 1844.

It includes the following two quotations, the first by Muir, and the second by Skirving:

I have devoted myself to the cause of The People. It is a good cause – it shall ultimately prevail – it shall finally triumph.


I know that what has been done these two days will be Re-Judged.

The Nunhead obelisk was erected in 1837 and stands 40 feet (12 m) high.

A Cairn and Martyrs Gate were erected at Huntershill Village by John SL Watson of Huntershill and partly funded by the East Dunbartonshire Council.

John Watson and Thomas Muir Coffee Shop commissioned Bishopbriggs local artist John Spinelli to paint a series of watercolours, depicting Thomas Muir's dramatic escape from Botany Bay and his adventures that led him to France. They're displayed throughout the coffee shop.

There is a permanent exhibition to Thomas Muir at Bishopbriggs library, which includes a specially commissioned bust of Thomas Muir by celebrated Scottish artist Alexander Stoddart. Thomas Muir Street in Greenock is named after him. A school in Bishopbriggs, the Thomas Muir High School which opened in 1981, was named after him. It was merged with another school in 2003 to form Bishopbriggs Academy.

Robert Burns wrote Scots Wha Hae on the day Muir's trial started. The letter he wrote to George Hamilton (about 30 August 1793) with the first draft made it clear who he had in mind; Wallace was an allegory for the real hero*...

So may God defend the cause of TRUTH and LIBERTY, as he did that day! – Amen!
P.S. I shewed the air to Urbani, who was highly please with it, & begged me to make soft verses for it; but I had no idea of giving myself any trouble on the subject, till the accidental recollection of that same struggle for Freedom, associated with the glowing idea's of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient*, roused my rhyming Mania. –Clarke's set of the tune, with his bass, you will find in the Museum; though I am afraid that the air is not what will entitle it to a place in your elegant selection. – However, I am so pleased with my verses, or more properly, the subject of my verses, that although Johnson has already given the tune a place, yet it shall appear again, set to this song, in his next & last Volume.-


See also

The Democrat (2012) by Olly Wyatt, a historical adventure novel about Thomas Muir.

Jeffrey Street or Jeffreys Street, Kirribilli


  1. "Biography - Thomas Muir". Retrieved 23 August 2015.
  2. John Earnshaw, 'Muir, Thomas (1765–1799)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 2, MUP, 1967, pp 266–267. Retrieved 2009-10-20
  3. 1 2 3 Masson, Marjorie (1923). The Odyssey of Thomas Muir (PDF). Vol. 29, No. 1 (Oct., 1923). American Historical Association. pp. 49–72.
  4. Thomas Muir (political reformer)
  5. Pierre François PÉRON (1824). Mémoires du Capitaine Péron, sur ses Voyages aux Côtes d’Afrique, en Arabie, a l’Île d’Amsterdam, aux Îles d’Anjouan et de Mayotte, aux Côtes Nord-Oeust de l’Amérique, aux Îles Sandwich, a la Chine, etc. Libraire, Bossange Frères. Brissot-Thivars, Paris. Retrieved 31 July 2010.


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