Thomas Muir


Portrait of Thomas Muir

Thomas Muir was born in Huntershill in the north of Glasgow in 1765. He was the son of a hop merchant and studied at the local grammar school before attending Glasgow University to study divinity. He wasn't suited to his studies and soon switched to law, studying under John Millar who was a staunch advocate of parliamentary reform. In 1783 Muir was expelled after organising a petition to demand his suspended professor, John Anderson, be re-instated.

With the help of Millar he was able to get a place at Edinburgh University and upon finishing his studies he entered the Faculty of Advocates. He became an idealistic and radical lawyer, championing the poor and often representing them for free while criticising the legal system which was grossly biased in favour of the wealthy.

The French revolution of 1789 had a profound effect on many Scots and inspired supporters of parliamentary reform across the country. In 1792 Muir helped found the Scottish wing of The Society of the Friends of the People. He was determined that political reform was necessary and he supported the cause of the United Irishmen so it should come as no surprise that the British government got very concerned about him and decided he might be a spy.

In 1793 in an atmosphere of growing paranoia they arrested Muir for sedition and questioned him but he was later released on bail. Muir travelled to London and then to France with Tom Paine to try and persuade the revolutionary leaders there not to execute the French king Louis XVI. Needless to say this expedition was unsuccessful and when Muir returned he was arrested and imprisoned in Edinburgh. He was tried for sedition by a hand-picked jury of Tories and sentenced to 14 years transportation. His speech at this trial was considered so good that it was published and was for a time used in English exams in American schools. His ship set sail for Botany Bay in the summer of 1794 despite petitions to the parliament to try and stop his sentence from being carried out.

Muir spent 2 years in New South Wales but then managed to escape aboard an American ship. He reached Vancouver Island but was arrested by the Spanish and on his voyage back to Europe the Spanish ship was attacked by a British warship and Muir was hit in the face with a cannonball, an injury which left him near death and took one of his eyes. The French heard what had happened and persuaded the Spanish to release Muir to them. Surprisingly they agreed and he arrived in Bordeaux to a hero's welcome in 1797.

He joined up with Tom Paine in Paris and the two continued to fight for parliamentary reform in Britain. Unfortunately Muir was still suffering the effects of his terrible wound and he died in Chantilly in 1799. He was a courageous man who led a fascinating life and a statue was erected in his honour in Edinburgh. There was also a school named after him in Bishopbriggs.

His trial speech is truly fantastic and inspiring, you can read the full text here - Thomas Muir´s Trial Speech