Lessons for today can be learned from reformer Muir's trial, says Dean

26 Aug

Important lessons for today can be learned from the notorious 18th century trial of Thomas Muir of Huntershill, the Dean of the Faculty, James Wolffe, QC, has suggested.

Mr Wolffe said the trial of Muir could serve as a reminder of the right of everyone to a fair trial, whatever the crime alleged and whatever may be the temper of the times.

The 250th anniversary of Muir's birth was marked by the Faculty with an event at which the acclaimed historian, Professor Sir Tom Devine, gave a scene-setting lecture, and modern day lawyers took on the roles of their forebears in dramatic reconstructions of parts of the trial.

Muir was convicted of sedition at the High Court in Edinburgh in 1793 and sentenced to 14 years' transportation.

In introductory remarks to an audience, which included the Lord Justice-Clerk, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament and the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, in the First Division courtroom of Parliament House, Mr Wolffe said Muir had been a practising advocate who, in an age of revolution, promoted democratic ideas which were seen as subversive.

"In 1793 he was indicted in the High Court of Justiciary on the serious charge of sedition. While he was facing trial, and was a fugitive from justice, the Faculty expelled him from membership. He was brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to transportation," said Mr Wolffe.

"Soon after that trial, concerns were being expressed that the political climate of the times had resulted in an unacceptable erosion of civil liberties and in the 1840s, a monument was erected in Calton Cemetery in memory of Muir and the other political martyrs of the time. In a litigation about the erection of the monument, one of the judges, Lord Fullerton, pointed out that 'the convicted traitors of one age become the martyred patriots of another.'

"And in 1853, the great Scottish advocate and judge, Lord Cockburn, wrote of Muir's trial: 'This is one of the cases the memory whereof never perisheth. History cannot let its injustice alone.'

"Like Cockburn, we, today, acknowledge the injustice of Muir's trial, and constitutional democrats of all political parties and none honour Muir's commitment to political liberties which, today, all of us take for granted.

"In his address to the jury which convicted him, Muir said this: 'When our ashes shall be scattered by the winds of heaven, the impartial voice of future times will rejudge your verdict.'

"Shortly, we will have the opportunity to do just that. You will see a dramatic re-presentation of Muir's trial. This has been adapted by Ross Macfarlane, Advocate, from the printed transcript of the trial, which we have in the Advocates Library. It is not a costume drama but a re-telling of the trial using the actual words of those involved. And the trial will be re-presented not by actors, but by lawyers, who themselves spend their days prosecuting, pursuing or defending in our courts, securing the fair trial to which every accused person is entitled.

"As you rejudge the trial of Thomas Muir, I invite you to reflect on the lessons which the trial holds for our own times. I invite you to reflect on the importance of maintaining our commitment to the right of every accused person to a fair trial, whatever may be the nature of the crime alleged, and whatever may be the temper of the times."

Professor Sir Tom Devine explained the Scottish political structure of the late 18th century, when less than one per cent of the population had the vote, and the emergence of the reform movement and the fear instilled in the establishment.

He commented: "I have never taken part in such a unique event and want to congratulate the Faculty for the truly inspiring decision to look again at one of the most famous, some would say infamous, trials in Scottish history."

Ross Macfarlane, who has professional experience as a writer and director, narrated the reconstructions of Muir's trial, which also featured Donald Findlay, QC, Gordon Jackson, QC, Neil Murray, QC, Anna Poole, QC, Alex Prentice, QC, Paul Brown, Frank Burr, Brian Crook, David Nicolson, Iain McSporran and Iain Smith.

The performance put across a serious message about deficiencies in the trial but in a hugely entertaining way, and drew deep and sustained applause from an enthusiastic audience.

Tricia Marwick, MSP, Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, said: "It was a privilege to attend this unique event. A scene-setting lecture from Professor Tom Devine followed by the words of the trial performed by (mainly) members of the Faculty did much to bring to life the injustice suffered by Thomas Muir. Thomas Muir has long been a hero of mine and this event has raised the profile of this champion of democracy and reform in the 250th anniversary year of his birth."