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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Muir, Thomas (1765-98)

The son of a flourishing Glasgow tradesman, James Muir, who published a pamphlet on England's foreign trade in 1765. Thomas Muir graduated M.A. at Glasgow University in 1782. He intended to enter the church but decided to read law instead. On account of his share in writing a lampoon on his professors, however, he was expelled from Glasgow and moved to Edinburgh, where he completed his legal studies in 1787, being admitted to the Faculty of Advocates. A church elder at Cadder, Lanarkshire, he occasionally pleaded without fee for those he considered oppressed.

The formation in London of the Society of the Friends of the People in due course led to a meeting in Glasgow on 16th October 1792 to found a similar body, dedicated to securing parliamentary reform. Muir spoke at this meeting, and at subsequent local meetings, as well as at a convention of delegates held in Edinburgh. On 2nd July 1793, Muir was arrested on a charge of sedition, but freed on bail. He thereupon set out for Paris — passing through London, where he was entertained by the London Society of the Friends of the People — to remonstrate against the proposed execution of Louis XVI, but only reached Paris the day before the event. During his absence, he was struck off the roll of the Faculty of Advocates, and on his return to Scotland on 30th August, arrested at Portpatrick and tried before the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh on charges of exciting a spirit of disloyalty and disaffection, of recommending Paine's The Rights of Man and of reading aloud seditious writing. He defended himself, but was convicted and sentenced by Lord Braxfield — described by Lord Cockburn as 'the Jeffreys of Scotland' — to fourteen years transportation, much to the consternation of the jury.

Muir bought a farm at Hunter's Hill, now a suburb of Sydney, Australia. Eventually he was rescued by a party despatched from New York, where his case had excited much sympathy/ His subsequent adventures included shipwreck at Nootka Sound, captivity in the hands of the American Indians and imprisonment at Havana. While on a Spanish frigate off Cadiz that was being attacked by two English ships, Muir had an eye and part of his cheek shot away. Although he was released by the Spanish and given a public reception by the French Directory at Bordeaux, subsequently being welcomed back to Paris, he died of his wounds at Chantilly on 27th September 1798. A monument to him was erected on Edinburgh's Calton Hill in 1844.

While it is now clear that the Government, whoe authority in Scotland was represented by Hendry Dundas, overreacted — although the threat of at least some disturbance to national security was not without foundation — Muir's trial was patently unfair and his sentence viciously harsh. It was these events of 1793 that so strongly stimulated Burns's sympathies and played no small part in the emotional pressures leading to the writing of 'Scots Wha Hae' (See 'Scots Wha Hae')

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Complete Burns Songs

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