New light shed on life of Scots radical Thomas Muir

Prof Gerard Carruthers, of Glasgow University, Thomas Muir expert
Prof Gerard Carruthers, of Glasgow University, Thomas Muir expert
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In the modern era he has been hailed as the father of Scottish democracy – yet he was once considered a dangerous ­radical whose ideas must be suppressed.

Now new light has been shed on the life of Thomas Muir, the Glasgow-born political radical who was convicted of ­sedition in 1793 and transported to Australia.

A trove of documents relating to Muir’s legal exploits, previously thought lost, have been uncovered in the Advocates Library in Edinburgh.

They were unearthed by Professor Gerry Carruthers, of the University of Glasgow, editor of a new collection of essays on Muir, with the help of two library members.

The papers relate to Muir’s time representing his local church in Cadder from 1790-92 over the right to appoint ministers, a burning political issue in late 18th century Scotland.

The papers show the minutiae of Muir’s opposition to James Dunlop of Garnkirk, a landowner. Although the preferred candidate of the Cadder congregation eventually secured the appointment, the papers reveal Muir lost the case, contradicting the usual biographical account.

“The real significance of these papers is they prove Muir was already a well-kent face in legal circles,” said Prof Carruthers.

“The same people who sit in judgment of him in 1793 in Edinburgh had a few years earlier known him making trouble as a representative for his local kirk.

“I think the reason these papers were overlooked was they didn’t deal with the trial when Muir is sentenced to 14 years in Botany Bay.

“I think to some extent what you see in the papers is Muir’s body of enemies growing – what you also see is some ­notable people in the legal ­profession and elsewhere wanting to protect him.

“Muir may well be the secular apostle of modern democracy, and there is good reason to say that, but he was part of the Calvinist popular party who were at war with moderates over what they saw as the soul of Scotland.”

Born in 1765, Muir dropped out of his divinity studies at the University of Glasgow at the age of 17 and began studying law.

Following the outbreak of the French Revolution, he associated himself with the radical wing of the Whig party and began openly calling for political reform.

He was charged with sedition and stood trial in 1793 for “exciting a spirit of disloyalty and disaffection”.

He escaped in 1796 but died in France three years later, having been seriously injured on his return to Europe.