The Liberty Tree: The stirring story of Thomas Muir and Scotland’s first fight for democracy
Murray Armstrong, Word Power Books (www.word-power.co.uk), 2014, £11.99
Reviewed by Stewart Maclennan
2015 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Muir of Huntershill, a truly iconic figure of Scottish radicalism. A leader of the Friends of the People, Muir was an early victim of the ferocious and venal despotism of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and his Home Secretary and Scottish ‘branch office manager’, Henry Dundas.
Muir’s advocacy of democracy and his identification with the causes of the French Revolution and Irish nationalism brought down upon him in 1793 the draconian punishment of transportation to the penal colony of Botany Bay for fourteen years. The same fate swiftly befell his fellow Scottish radicals, Rev. Thomas Fysshe Palmer and William Skirving, together with the fraternal delegates of
the London Corresponding Society to the Friends’ Scottish Convention, Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot. Later would follow the United Scotsmen organiser, George Mealmaker.
The mastery exercised by Dundas over power in Scotland was affected through two essential controls. The first was a franchise so restrictive as to scarcely merit the name, held by a fraction of a percent of male property owners. This created a complaisant bloc of government supporters among Scottish MPs, the beneficiaries in turn of a self-promoting network of oligarchies in the burgh corporations.
The second was a judiciary serviced by a coterie of similarly disposed sheriffs, over whom Dundas sensibly installed as Lord Advocate his nephew, Robert Dundas. The latter would become the prosecutor – and persecutor – of Muir, manipulated at all stages by his uncle. Surmounting the majesty of law in Scotland was the Lord Justice Clerk, the grotesque and capricious Robert MacQueen, Lord Braxfield, described by his adversary Henry Cockburn as ‘coarse and illiterate’, and by Robert Dundas himself as ‘violent and intemperate’.
The purpose of the exile of Muir and his comrades is comparable to that attributed to Mussolini in jailing the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci: ‘We must stop this brain functioning for twenty years’. Indeed, this and other shattering blows to the democratic spirit engendered by the American and French Revolutions would prove to have short-term effect. But the example of the Scottish Martyrs was held close by the nascent Scottish working class, and became a banner flourished in both the insurrectionary movements of 1820 and the mass reform and Chartist agitations of subsequent decades.
Muir himself was indomitable: defying the legality of his sentence from the outset, he escaped from his Australian prison to make landing on the west coast of America, seeking sanctuary with the Spanish rulers of what is now California. En route to Spain, Muir found his ship under attack by the British: facing re-capture he took arms on the Spanish side and survived, though suffering a hideous facial injury which cost him his left eye. Received with honour in the France he had last seen in the year of his trial, he immediately immersed himself in Scots and Irish exile politics, only to die suddenly in 1799 aged only 33.
Such a life might seem to render fictional portrayal redundant, but Murray Armstrong has devised in The Liberty Tree ‘a historical novel with scholarly apparatus attached’ in the words of Scottish Marxist historian, Neil Davidson. This innovative approach enables the construction of an integrated narrative of the life, times, movements and ideas of Thomas Muir, drawn from meticulous international research.
The circumstances of Muir’s short but turbulent career necessitate Armstrong’s use of ‘… a little imagination to drive the narrative along …’. The author’s hope that the historical record is not thus injured is vindicated. The occasional instance of stilted dialogue and discordant idiom should not detract from Armstrong’s achievement in producing what is arguably the most substantial and comprehensive record of the life of Muir now available.
Christina Bewley’s Muir of Huntershill (1981), provided Muir’s biography while diminishing the historical significance of the man and the movements he represented. Hector MacMillan’s Handful of Rogues: Thomas Muir’s Enemies of the People (2005) sought to reinstate and amplify both. The Liberty Tree drives home MacMillan’s riposte, and gives us not only the man, but also the cause memorialised in the Edinburgh artist, John Kay’s, portrait of Thomas Muir: ‘Illustrious Martyr in the glorious cause of truth, of freedom and of equal laws’.
Word Power Books (an enterprise of Edinburgh’s radical bookshop) is to be commended, too, for making available this notable presentation of a key episode in Scotland’s radical history in a sound, attractive format at a reasonable price – an example to be followed by other publishers in the field of popular history.
Stewart Maclennan is Chair of the Scottish Labour History Society