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Happy 250th Birthday Thomas Muir

August 25, 2013

obelisk

As we all know, Thomas Muir of Huntershill was born today in 1765.

Muir was one of the most impressive democrats of his age, and one of the greatest Scots of any age.  He stood in the dock in front of the infamous Judge Braxfield and defended  the rights of people to be governed by their own representatives in an age of Pittite repression that had declared it treasonable to suggest that the unreformed British constitution was, in some Panglossian sense, the best of all possible past, present or future worlds.

Indeed, the collision of Muir and Braxfield offers the spectacle of the very best and the very worst Scotland has to offer.  Braxfield invented a crime called “unconscious sedition” which seems to have confirmed  him in the persuasion that he had the power to hang anybody who looked at him in a funny way.  He believed that only landed interests (in Scotland, in England or anywhere else) had the right to call themselves human and anyone who said different should be strung up – or at least transported to a distant hemisphere – as a warning to others.

Muir meanwhile was both a patriot and an internationalist.  For sure, he was a Scottish nationalist who wanted to do away with the 1707 Act of Union.  But this nationalism was rooted in a belief that all peoples in all nations everywhere had the right to determine there own destiny.

As such, Robert Burns (another internationalist-nationalist) made it clear in a letter that while ostensibly celebrating William Wallace in song, he had Muir very much in mind…

I shewed the air to Urbani, who was highly please with it, & begged me to make soft verses for it; but I had no idea of giving myself any trouble on the subject, till the accidental recollection of that same struggle for Freedom, associated with the glowing idea’s of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient*, roused my rhyming Mania. –Clarke’s set of the tune, with his bass, you will find in the Museum; though I am afraid that the air is not what will entitle it to a place in your elegant selection. – However, I am so pleased with my verses, or more properly, the subject of my verses, that although Johnson has already given the tune a place, yet it shall appear again, set to this song, in his next & last Volume.

His life was one long peregrination and this proud Scot became an even prouder citizen of the world.  If you look up his life story, you’ll see that he got to see rather more of the world than most people in the 1790s.  He did not “pay with his life” for his commitment to democracy, but his life was one long payment for the cause of representation.  British (yes and Scottish) history remains enthralled to the tedium of dynastic sequencing, unfortunately, and Thomas Muir of Huntershill is someone who far too many people have to look up.

He does at least have an obelisk in Edinburgh, or a share in an obelisk devoted to a number of political martyrs.  And an obelisk is something.  Provided it doesn’t lose its point.

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    It’s that time of year again. Happy Birthday Thomas Muir.

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