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Reference group
Scottish martyrs (act. 1792–1798) were the seven victims of the sedition and treason trials held in Scotland between 1793 and 1798. Not all of them were Scottish—Thomas Fyshe Palmer, Maurice Margarot, and Joseph Gerrald were English—nor did they act as a coherent body at any time, but six of the seven were transported to Botany Bay for seven or fourteen years each after being convicted by Scottish courts of seditious activities. The seventh martyr, Robert Watt, was hanged and beheaded for treason in October 1794.

While the martyrs' main connection originated in their treatment by the Scottish courts, this was caused by their common radical political agenda and activity, inspired by the French Revolution. William Skirving, a farmer, helped to form the Society of the Friends of the People in Edinburgh in July 1792 to campaign for parliamentary reform, and he acted as secretary to the wider Scottish movement as it developed by the end of that year. Thomas Muir, an advocate, was a founder member and vice-president of the Glasgow Society, and he also acted as vice-president at the first national convention of the society held in Edinburgh in December 1792. Palmer, a Unitarian minister, appears to have been active in Dundee radical politics from the inception of the Friends of Liberty society there in 1791, and he was delegated to the national convention by the society in Forfar. Margarot, a wine merchant, and Gerrald, a barrister, were members of the radical London Corresponding Society and represented it, together with Charles Sinclair, at the British convention held in Edinburgh in December 1793. George Mealmaker, a weaver, was a founder member of the Dundee Friends of Liberty and was a delegate to the third national convention in November 1793. He knew Skirving, Palmer, and Margarot. Watt, another wine merchant, began his political career on the opposite side, working as a political informer for the Scottish lord advocate, Robert Dundas, from April 1792 until the summer of 1793. However, he admitted in his last confession to having been persuaded to the radical cause by the meetings he had attended as a spy, and he was involved in the clandestine leadership of the radicals remaining in Edinburgh after the dispersal of the British convention.

Muir was the first to raise the ire of the government. He had played a prominent part in the national convention of December 1792, and he had read out to it a controversial printed address from the Society of United Irishmen. He was arrested on 2 January 1793, but released on bail, during which he visited Paris and was trapped in France by the outbreak of war between Britain and France on 1 February. He finally returned, voluntarily, to Scotland on 30 July 1793, when he was immediately arrested and imprisoned. Appearing for trial on 30 August, he refused the defence services of the distinguished advocate Henry Erskine, preferring to defend himself. He was found guilty on 31 August and sentenced to transportation for fourteen years.

Palmer was tried for sedition in Perth on 12 September 1793 for allegedly having written and circulated a radical address to the public. In court Mealmaker admitted that he, not Palmer, was the author of the pamphlet (which in fact Palmer had moderated considerably) and that Palmer had opposed its publication. None the less, and though nothing could be proved beyond Palmer's having ordered the printing of the address, he too was convicted of sedition, and sentenced to seven years' transportation.

Skirving was first arrested in August 1793 for having distributed copies of Mealmaker's pamphlet in Edinburgh, and he was arrested again on 5 December, as the Edinburgh authorities broke up the British convention, and again on 12 December, when he was charged with sedition, along with Margarot, Gerrald, Sinclair, and the printer Alexander Scott. Scott fled, and Sinclair eventually turned king's evidence, but the other three were prosecuted. At his trial on 6 and 7 January, Skirving, like Muir, insisted on conducting his own defence; he, too, was sentenced to transportation for fourteen years. Margarot also defended himself at his trial on 13 January, and was likewise rewarded with fourteen years in Botany Bay. Gerrald, having been released on bail to attend to private matters in London, voluntarily returned for his trial between 3 and 14 March 1794. He spoke in his own defence, but also employed eminent whig counsel; nevertheless he too was transported for fourteen years.

Watt was arrested in May 1794 when an unrelated search of his house in Edinburgh revealed twelve pikes and materials for a handbill intended to persuade soldiers to mutiny. He was supposed to have been behind a radical plot to seize Edinburgh Castle, the post office, and banks, and to incite a more general rebellion and establish a provisional Scottish government, although it is not clear whether this plot actually existed. Most of his fellow accused turned king's evidence. David Downie, who did not, was found guilty but was pardoned; Watt was left to take the full weight of the government's alarm and wrath, and was executed on 15 October 1794.

Finally, Mealmaker, who escaped the consequences of having written the handbill for which Palmer was transported, and who had been arrested in the wake of the discovery of the Pike Plot in May 1794, was eventually arrested in November 1797 for his leading role in the United Scotsmen and other clandestine radical networks that operated after the harsh government repression of 1793–4. He was found guilty of sedition and administering illegal oaths in January 1798, and sentenced to fourteen years' transportation.

Muir, Palmer, Skirving, and Margarot, together with Margarot's wife and Palmer's friend James Ellis, were eventually all taken to Australia on board the same convict ship, the Surprise, which set sail on or about 2 May 1794. The opposition whigs, who had been protesting against the sentences ever since Muir's had been passed, had begun a further protest in both houses of parliament. Government ministers were clearly alarmed by the political temper of the country and, just a fortnight before they began to arrest leading English radicals on charges of treason, orders were given for the convict ship to set sail. Muir and Palmer had already been held on the hulk for several months. On the lengthy voyage, far from supporting each other in their mutual predicament, the radicals fell out, when Palmer and Skirving were accused before the ship's captain of conspiracy to incite a mutiny. Contemporaries tended to accept Palmer's version of events, which blamed Margarot for betrayal and exposing Palmer and Skirving to brutal retribution, but more recently historians have accepted that both men may have been at fault and that it is impossible now to recover an accurate version of these events.

In Port Jackson the convicts were treated relatively well, as political prisoners rather than common criminals, and each was given a house and garden neighbouring the others. Skirving tried to return to agricultural pursuits, Palmer pursued commercial opportunities enthusiastically, and, after his arrival in November 1800, Mealmaker worked as a weaving manager. Only two of the six transported Scottish martyrs managed to return to Europe, however, with the others succumbing to ill health. Skirving and Gerrald (who had been detained in London for a further year before sailing on 2 May 1795 and arriving on 5 November) both died at the same time (Gerrald of tuberculosis on 16 March 1796 and Skirving of dysentery either on that day or more probably on 19 March). Palmer completed his seven-year sentence and purchased a ship on which to sail home with Ellis. They set sail in early 1801 and sailed to New Zealand, Fiji, and Macau, but they were forced then to put in at Guguan, one of the Ladrone Islands, east of the Philippines, ruled by Spain. There Palmer and Ellis were treated as prisoners of war, and Palmer died of dysentery on 2 June 1802. Mealmaker died in Parramatta, New South Wales, on 30 March 1808.

Muir escaped from Botany Bay less than two years after his arrival, in February 1796, on an American trading vessel, the Otter. He crossed the Pacific, travelled on a Spanish ship from Nootka Sound to California, crossed Mexico, and sailed on further Spanish ships to Havana and then Cadiz, where he was wounded in action against Royal Navy warships in March 1797. He was detained in Cadiz as a British prisoner of war, but rescued by the French in September 1797, reaching Paris in December. He died in Chantilly on 26 January 1799. Margarot was the only martyr to return to Britain. He spent a considerable amount of his time in Port Jackson campaigning against the administration of the colony, notably the profiteering of military officers and privileged gentlemen, including Palmer. He was transferred to Norfolk Island in 1805, after his possible involvement in the convict rebellion in 1804; he was moved again soon afterwards to Van Diemen's Land, and to Newcastle in 1806. He and his wife returned to England in 1810 where, courageously, he continued to argue for political reform. He died in London on 11 November 1815.

The enduring commitment to radical politics of most of the martyrs is striking. That several of them refused the services of professional counsel at their trials demonstrated that they wanted to make political statements to the world, unfettered by the constraints of a merely legal process. This was not simply vainglory, though one or two, such as Muir and Margarot, might have been accused of this; they genuinely believed that they had a duty to use whatever platforms they were given to expose the corruption of the political establishment and persuade onlookers of the case for reform. Gerrald, by far the most gifted of the set, did insist on employing whig defence counsel, although by the time of his trial they were reluctant to offer their services for fear of supporting any impression that the trials were being conducted in a fair and proper manner. Nevertheless, he gave a brilliant speech in his own defence, encouraged by a letter from William Godwin, advising him to recognize that his trial ‘may be such a day as England, and I believe the world, never saw. It may be the means of converting thousands, and, progressively, millions, to the cause of reason and public notice’ (Trial of Gerrald, 115). Both Muir and he could have escaped their trials in Edinburgh, but chose to return for them. Gerrald wore the open collar and unpowdered hair of a sympathizer with the French revolutionaries, and Margarot set out on the opening day of his trial with a crowd of supporters, some carrying a 20 foot tree of liberty in the shape of a letter M.

The recollection of these bold men and their harsh fates, not surprisingly, was cherished by Scottish radicals in the nineteenth century. Their cases were appealed to by activists in the ‘radical war’, a working-class uprising in the west of Scotland in 1820, and commemoration of their story became possible with the increasing acceptability of reformism in the 1830s. During the celebrations of the 1832 Reform Act, a banner bearing their names was carried in a procession in Edinburgh. The records of their trials were republished from 1831; and, in 1844–5 and 1851 respectively, monuments were erected on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, and in Nunhead, London. In 1837 the radical Tait's Edinburgh Magazine dubbed Robert McQueen, Lord Braxfield (who, as lord justice clerk, had presided over many of the sedition trials), ‘the Jeffries of the Scottish political trials’ (‘Memoirs and Trials’, 4). By 1853 the whig judge Henry Cockburn, who had been a young boy growing up in Edinburgh legal circles at the time of the trials, was able to write of ‘that nearly unanimous verdict of condemnation which posterity has passed upon the manner in which these trials were conducted, and the sentences with which they were closed’. Referring to the trial of Thomas Muir in particular, he stated, ‘This is one of the cases, the memory whereof never perisheth. History cannot let its injustice alone’ (Cockburn, 1.75, 144). More recently, while not defending the political nature of the authorities' case against the defendants, historians have accepted a more rounded view of Braxfield, and even Cockburn acknowledged that Muir and the others played into the government's hands by insisting on defending themselves politically and by accepting the parts of political martyrs offered to them. Both Muir and his jury were surprised by the severity of his sentence; but all of the defendants who followed him must have known what to expect.

Emma Vincent Macleod


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