2007 - 2021

The Liberty Tree

caltonKenny McAskill reviews The Liberty Tree – The Stirring Story of Thomas Muir And Scotland’s First Fight For Democracy by Murray Armstrong

Word Power Books, £11.99

Old Calton cemetery looms over the old town of Edinburgh. Dominating it is the Political Martyrs’ Monument to Thomas Muir and four fellow Friends of the People Thomas Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald. Neither the cemetery nor the Monument are known to many though the sight is visible to all. The Obelisk is stark and clearly evident from the office of Justice Secretary in St Andrews House. Engraved on it for those who venture in to read are the words “I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause. It shall ultimately prevail. It shall finally triumph”. They were spoken from the dock by Thomas Muir in 1793 when he faced charges of sedition and was sentenced to transportation for 14 years to Botany Bay along with his friends. Though the tale is of all the Friends it is Muir who understandably takes pride of place.

I had heard of him prior to being able to view the monument from my former office. His story has been told before but as with so much of Scotland’s radical tradition it is largely unsung and sadly neglected. There had even once been a Thomas Muir Society for labour lawyers though it appears to have fallen by the wayside. Muir himself was an Advocate, and hence the society, and though the legal profession in Scotland is more noted for its conservatism than its radicalism he bears witness to a seam within it.

The author Murray Armstrong has done a great service in his tale of both the man and the times he lived in. It is a story that deserves to be told and times we need to recall and perhaps even learn from. After all the subtitle to the book is “The stirring story of Thomas Muir and Scotland’s first fight for democracy”. We’ve lived through another battle in recent years and there are more to come.Armstrong is an exiled Scot from Airdrie now based in London. He’s a journalist to trade not an historian. He makes that clear at the outset but has nothing to apologise for in my view. Retiring as associate editor of the Guardian he has used his time well and productively. He has researched extensively both in his native land and elsewhere giving the book content and substance to add to the sketchy outline that many readers may already possess of Muir and those turbulent and revolutionary times. So there’s sufficient gravitas as well as footnotes for those interested in the research methodology and references to justify it as a work of history.

However, what Armstrong brings in abundance is his skills as a journalist which add colour and depth to what might otherwise be a worthy tomb. Many a fine historical work can be rather dry. But, not so this one. He acknowledges and details the aspects that are fictional but they I believe add to not detract from the book. They are within legitimate licence and based on incidents so long past as to be without oral or written record. The authors’ imagination and journalistic licence, therefore, make it a fast-moving and exciting story adding to rather than detracting from the historical facts. And rightly so as the tale of Muir is itself almost a Boys Own adventure and the times were fascinating not simply in Scotland but around the globe as the waves caused by the French revolution lapped ashore.

Armstrong does well to weave the twin stories of Muir and the times through the book. Both are separate but linked and one cannot be told without the other. The man and his story are after all reflective of the times in which he lived. The juxtaposing of the era with the man is done well. Chapters interchange to some extent between the human interest side and the chronological narrative though also mentioning the plight of friends and comrades. As with the mixing of fact and fiction the book benefits from the synergy between Muir and a wider historical record.

The author starts each chapter with a piece of poetry, prose or a snippet from the time which both is a nice touch and sets the tone. Ironically, it reminded me of Thomas Pakenhams book on the 1798 rebellion “The Year of Liberty” which does much the same but from an Irish rather than Scottish context. Ironically, Muir died just as the rebellion was being brutally suppressed but had met with Wolfe Tone and allied himself to the United Irishmen.

It is both a ripping yarn yet also a testimony of the turbulent times. Muir died just 33 years old and in many ways was an accidental hero. He was the fall guy for Establishment repression rather than a revolutionary insurrectionist in his own right. He did though rise to the occasion when persecuted acting with courage and dignity throughout. Though seriously wounded by a Royal Naval shell forcing him to wear a mask for his later few years he neither raised a pike nor waved a cutlass. Instead he used his legal skills and oratory to articulate the cause of reform and liberty and defend himself and others from injustice.

He came from relatively humble origins with the family house at Huntershill in Dunbartonshire and the business in Glasgow’s Merchant City. Born in 1765 by the time he graduated from Glasgow University America had won its Independence and the likes of Tom Paine who he got to know were advancing the cause of reform and liberty. Muir was a man of conviction. Travelling to both revolutionary France as well as Ireland brought him into contact with great names from that time such as Paine and Tone but also, dangerously for him, to the attention of others. He was targeted by the Establishment and pursued with a vengeance by the troika of Henry Dundas the Home Secretary, his nephew Robert Dundas the Lord Advocate and the Lord Justice Clerk Lord Braxfield. Muir who had great faith in justice and law throughout his life was persecuted by a system hell-bent on his destruction and prepared even to judicially create the crime of which he was convicted. That he did not lose faith in either law or justice is testimony to the decency of the man and the uses that the law can allow even to revolutions. As the great South African Judge and anti-apartheid activist Albie Sachs said centuries later “While one should always be sceptical about the laws pretensions, one should never be cynical about the laws possibilities.”

Following his arbitrary conviction in 1794 the adventures really began. From Edinburgh he was moved to Newgate goal, London; then transported on to Botany Bay. Escaping he travelled via the South Sea Islands to the west coast of America; and from there to Spain via Mexico and Cuba. His journey ended in France where he died in Chantilly just north of Paris on 26th January 1799. A significant journey itself in the 21st century but a truly incredible one in the late 18th century.

The author paints a sympathetic picture of the man and rightly so as it’s not just his travels that impress but the adventures and engagements along the way. He leaves France just as the Terror begins. He’s in Britain as fear of revolution stalks the establishment and in Ireland as rebellion is brewing. Enduring Dickensian jails he sees the ill-treatment of prisoners to and aborigines in Australia. Badly wounded on a Spanish ship as the old world went to war he’s given citizenship and sanctuary in revolutionary France. The people he meets are recorded as well as the places he visits. Tom Paine and Wolfe Tone join Talleyrand and countless others. The times are chronicled as ordinary people see the chance of a better and fairer land; as the establishment lie and cheat to deny change; as revolutionary backbiting, infiltration by spies and much more strike movements and revolutions in Britain, Ireland and France; and as rebellion is crushed hope extinguished for a while but as history also records not for ever.

So it’s a right good read about a brave man and revolutionary times. The story of the man is worthy of a book itself but it is enhanced by its description of the turbulent times in which he lived. Are there any lessons for us today or about what we’ve just gone through in the referendum? Not really. It was fascinating to read of the planting of Liberty Trees and the fervour throughout the Scotland even in places neither now or then noted as hotbeds of radicalism whether Focahabers or Auchtermuchty. It was also interesting to note that Muir and many others, not initially driven by the cause of independence, saw greater opportunities and less opposition for radical change north of the Border. Plus ca change, plus le meme chose!


Comments (12)

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  1. Ann Rayner says:

    I recommend the great song, ‘Remember Thomas Muir of Huntershill, which I last heard sung by Dick Gaughan in Liverpool, Book looks like a ‘must read’.

    1. Heidstaethefire says:

      Adam Mc Naughtan also does a great vesion

      1. He’s also an expert typist!

  2. Bothy Basher says:

    What a fascinating personal and political life!

    I wonder why he has not been featured in any media outlet, especially TV. Any help on this puzzle?

    Shame on any Scots who influence TV that you have done so little.

  3. Frank M says:

    Thank you Kenny McAskill for this insight and recommendation.
    Isn’t it interesting that the Establishment still behave in the same way. They just have to be more careful these days, but they can still get away with it.
    Anyway, you have my appreciation for an excellent review.

  4. jimnarlene says:

    “the establishment lie and cheat to deny change” as you say at the end, nothing has changed.

  5. Darien says:

    “saw greater opportunities and less opposition for radical change north of the Border.”

    Dead right Kenny. Muir’s message? We need the 30+ SNP MP’s elected to declare independence in May. Two million+ Scots will be behind them. A wee bit courage is a’ it taks.

  6. JimF says:

    The Labour council in Lennoxtown have just demolished the old Coop building, despite it featuring on literature for the new Thomas Muir trail.

  7. There are some lesson Kenny. But more of them later.

    Btw, huge credit is owed to you for the service to your country as Justice Minister with such honour that Muir would have been proud of. Probably the toughest job in the cabinet at the time with changes made within the Police forces of Scotland. You were not given all the credit due by the braying media when tough decisions were rightly called upon. Proud of what you did my greatly talented countryman.

    The real lessons of Muir’s time are there if we look deeply enough. I got Jamie Hepburn MSP to move a motion which the Scottish parliament agreed in principle, to erect a statue to Muir at the entrance of the building. Let’s hope it will be done one day. He was a genius. His story should be televised. It is an epic life of extraordinary events and political tumult. I will put a piece on here (if permitted) which has information about Muir’s trial. It itself is a riveting read. If you grab a copy of The canongate Burns and read the section on Robert Bruce’s Address to his Troops at Bannockburn (Scots Wha Hae) and two poems The Ghost of Bruce, the real political cultural context of the poems and song come alive.

    There was a political propaganda war of intensity during Burns and Muir’s time that fought against democracy. There is still one. democratic roots appeared all over Scotland over a few months. Groups of the Friends of the People appeared in every town and city, just like the eruption of political activity during the Yes campaign. The touchpaper was lit. Please dip into my chapter in The Patriot Bard entitled When the Lights of Liberty Came on ACross Scotland. It covers the friends of the people groups and the growing political awareness in our country of those wanting democratic rights. Then, sadly, later in the book, it covers the crushing of those activists. Dundas and crew are not far removed from the creatures in Westminster just now in my view. They too would crush democratic dissent if they could get away with it. There is a callous dehumanising element at the core of the cold Neo-Liberalism of Cameron and Co that makes it okay for them to indirectly kill people via starvation with only a strand of hope from foodbanks. Some people in SCotland too proud to go to foodbanks will die this winter and that is hunkdory for these calloused dehuman ultra-polite mask-faced powerbrokers in Westminster. The establishment stood on the faces and lived off the fat borne of the work of the peasant labourers in the time of Muir and Burns and didnt blink an eyelid when they keeled over and died of hunger or froze to death. So too, these modern political leaders in Westminster the No Camp so venerated, may feign a fake tear or twa when our countrymen and women and their children go hungry or become ill due to want and hunger, but many of us see through them for what they are as Burns and Thomas Muir did. It was because of people like Burns and Muir that the establishment of the rich in the Feudal Order took total control of the press during their lifetime, to silence them and keep them in their place. radical newspaper editors had their doors kicked in and were jailed. Today, the New feudal Order and their landed banker elites have their boys in Westminster rolling back all the progressive forces they can in their Neo-Con war to brow beat people back into obedience and subservience. These days though, SCotland has some highly principled politicians of considerable skill and intellect and it is with you that OUR hopes lie. I’d like to meet you and shake your hand Kenny for service to Scotland and as one of Scotia’s great sons.

  8. Ralph Jessop says:

    First discovered Muir and his fellow ‘Scottish Martyrs’ 26 years ago. Think that the charge against Muir that resulted in him being transported to Australia was that he was in possession of a copy of Paine’s Rights of Man. To be sure these were very tense times, given the Terror following the French Revolution, but from what I read all those years ago, the treatment of Muir & the others was completely disproportionate. Almost certainly this was the beginning of a period of great repression.

  9. Patrick Hogg, Biographer of Robert Burns says:

    Some good points Ralph. The charge against Muir was sedition and engaging in seditious behaviour by possessing Paine’s book and for being an agitator for democratic reform. Imagine the possession of a book being a crime? Was reading a crime too? Thinking? Indeed, as Muir said in his trial, the ALPHABET should be up on a charge of sedition if words themselves can be seditious!

    Rbt Dundas declared in early Dec 1792 that he wanted to hang Muir by the heels on a charge of High Treason but was unable to do so and the great principled lawyer and QC was charged with sedition. He was seen as a ringleader, The old familiar terminology as we all know too well in Scottish establishment control freakery.As an Advocate Muir, in the eyes of the Dundas crew, should have known better than associate with lowly radicals who were more and more being stained with the blood of the guillotine and associated with the extreme actions of the French. All deliberate fearmongering by the fearful elites who thought the Feudal order was going to be destroyed. Muir was declared a fugitive because he was due to stand trial for sedition and could not make it to the court in time for his trial – the date was changed when he was away to France on a visit to try and stop the Revolutionaries from executing the King, which he judged as far too extreme an act. Calling for reform was fighting talk in those times. Calling for democracy to work for the best of the people in Scotland nowadays also seems to be fighting talk. One would think that democracy in Scotland would allow our politicians to work for the national interests of all the Scottish people as opposed to the approach of the Westminster elites who work for their paymasters only, the corporations and elite bankers. From my understanind of Muir and his bright eagled eyed legal principles he would have called for another Referendum in SCotland after 18th Sept because the power of the elites in London employed bullying scaremongering tactics to petrify the elderly and many others and acted in a way that Muir was have considered the behaviour of thugs and criminals, rather than people of balanced fair Reason and Justice where all electors were free to weigh up the evidence for themselves and make their own judgements. Sadly, the arrogant mindset of Empire brained Feudalists who think themselves BORN TO RULE over us is a powerful pervasive force within modern British politics as it was back in the time of our exemplary principled radical leader Thomas Muir, QC. The Faculty of Advocates stripped him of his title QC for being a fugitive and being found guilty of sedition. Every thinking person who believed in fairness and reform in those days was guilty of sedition as we all are now. Muir’s story must be taught in our schools. His speech from the dock should be part of Scottish literature and history. Btw, Burns’s Song Is There for Honest Poverty, is a visualised wished-for destruction of the entire Feudal Order, that is, a REPUBLICAN song. Yet knights, nobles, lords and Sirs still abound in this so-called democracy. Titled pomp and equality are ENEMIES. For equality to exist in our modern SCotland ALL titled crap must end. One day the unicorn will escape its captor.

  10. lavinia moore says:

    I stumbled across Thomas Muir quite by accident while searching out family history. I had never heard of him.
    Now I wonder why on earth not?
    I struggled for a while trying to find out more about him, and coming up with some gems, and some dead ends. I now have Armstrong’s book, purchased from an Edinburgh bookshop, and have decided that I do not need to write one about Thomas myself.
    But if there are any Scottish film makers/scriptwriters, this is a story that ought to be told.
    I live in South Australia which your readers may not know is the only state in this remote part of the world that banned the use of the colony for convicts dumping. The principles on which the state was founded are largely consistent with Thomas’ principles.
    Given that East coast Australians’ love stories about the early settlement, including tales of convicts, that no-one seems to have even mentioned Thomas. Shame on them!
    It would make a great film for two reasons. One is that it is an amazing and tragic story. When I started telling people about it, I think they could not quite believe it was real. Secondly, in this era of collapsing empires, and revival of independence movements versus dictatorships, Thomas’ story has something important to tell us.
    Murray, do you write scripts?
    This is a tale begging to be heard, loud and clear.

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