27 March 2011

The remarkable trial of Joseph Russel...

I've lately been conducting a little research for one of my side projects, touching on the infamous 1793 Scottish sedition trial of the Scottish Reformer, Thomas Muir. Extensive contemporary accounts of Muir's proceedings in the High Court of Justicary before the jury and Lord Justice Clerk Braxfield are available. I've been reading, in the pithy titling of the time, Robertson's Edition: an account of the trial of Thomas Muir, Esq. younger, of Huntershill, before the High Court of Justiciary, at Edinburgh. On the 30th and 31st days of August, 1793, for sedition. 

In his recent speech to the SNP pre-election conference, Alex Salmond rounded off his peroration with a reference to Muir's final address to the Edinburgh jury who convicted him. This is by far the best-known section of Muir's long petition. The most famous quotation from this passage is etched onto the Martyrs' Moment, which stands in Edinburgh's Calton Hill. Anyone who has stood and been blusteringly dishevelled on the North Bridge will know this monument, at least by sight, if not by significance. The huge obelisk spears up towards the sky and includes the inscription:

"To The Memory Of Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald. Erected by the Friends of Parliamentary Reform in England and Scotland, 1844."

Muir's forensic harangue concluded:

"This is now perhaps the last time that I shall address my country. I have explored the tenor of my past life. Nothing shall rear from me the record of my departed days. The enemies of reform have scrutinised, in a manner hitherto unexampled in Scotland, every action I may have performed, every word I may have uttered. Of crimes, most foul and horrible, have I been accused: of attempting to rear the standard of civil war; to plunge this land in blood, and cover it with desolation. At every step, as the evidence of the crown advanced, my innocency has brightened. So far from inflaming the minds of men to sedition and outrage, all the witnesses have concurred, that my only anxiety was to impress upon the necessity of peace, of good order, and of good morals.

What then has been my crime? Not the lending to a relation a copy of Mr Paine’s works; not the giving away to another a few numbers of an innocent and constitutional publication; but for having dared to be, according to the measure of my feeble abilities, a strenuous and active advocate for an equal representation of the people in the House of the people; for having dared to attempt to accomplish a measure by legal means, which was to diminish the weight of their taxes, and put an end to the profusion of their blood.

From my infancy to this moment, I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause. It will ultimately prevail. It will finally triumph. Say then openly, in your verdict, if you do not condemn me, which I presume you will not, that it is for my attachment to this cause alone, and not for those vain and wretched pretexts stated in the indictment, intended only to colour and disguise the real motives of my accusation.

The time will come, when men must stand or fall by their actions; when all human pageantry shall cease; when the hearts of all shall be laid open to view.

If you regard your most important interests; if you wish your consciences should whisper to you words of consolation, rather than speak to you in the terrible language of remorse, weigh well the verdict you are to pronounced.

As for me, I am careless and indifferent to my fate. I can look danger, and I can look death in the face, for I am shielded by the consciousness of my own rectitude. I may be condemned to languish in the recess of a dungeon. I may be doomed to ascend the scaffold. Nothing can deprive me of the recollection of the past; nothing can destroy my inward peace of mind, arising from the remembrance of having discharged my duty."

While the injustice experienced by Muir and his companies is commemorated - and in some measure, atoned for - with the Martyrs' monument, spare a thought for the unfortunate Joseph Russel, who was due to give evidence in Muir's trial. His experience before the unremitting, grim Lords Commissioner of Justiciary is almost unwittingly comic. How he must have lamented his loose way of talking, little expecting that the pernickety jurisprudes of Edinburgh would prove so unyieldingly exacting. The Robertson's Edition relates what happens thus...

"John Russell, merchant, Glasgow, sworn, and the usual question being put, "If any person had instructed him what to say?" He answered, none; except to tell the truth. Being asked by the Court who instructed him so, he replied he could point out no person in particular, but that it was the general advice of all to whom he spoke. He was required to produce his summons as a witness, from which it appeared that he had only received it four days before the trial, and he was told by the Court that any person who spoke to him must have done so in the interval'of these four days. And, therefore, that it was impossible he could forget all their names. The witness replied, that the general instruction to speak the truth was so common, that he could not remember at present any particular person who had given it.

The Lord Advocate moved that the witness should be committed to prison for " prevarication on oath!"

Mr. Muir rose and attempted to speak in behalf of the witness, but he was interrupted by the Court, who commanded him to sit down, as he had no right to interfere in the business.

Lord Henderland gave his opinion. Every appearance, said his Lordship, was against the witness, who wished to conceal the truth. He merited punishment, and should be committed to prison. The rest of the Judges concurred with Lord Henderland; and Mr. Russel was committed to prison for three weeks as guilty of concealing the truth on oath!"

When injustices come, they come not single spies, but in battalions...


  1. Not directly to do with the trial of either Muir or Russell, but one to add to your store of Lord Braxfield anecdotes, I recently came across this quote in Morton and Malloch’s Law and Laughter (published 1913) -

    ......on one occasion a juror was late in arriving at court, to be greeted by His Lordship saying, “Come awa, Maister Horner, come awa and help us to hang ane o’ they damned scoondrels“

  2. A highly characteristic anecdote, Almax! Though I must say, rather macabre for it to be recorded in "Law and Laughter", since the rope McQueen took his unsentimental, grotesque humour in was often far from figurative.

  3. Are the modern practitioners any different, or merely more adept in the practice of political correctness?

  4. Who ever suggested to that odd little fellow Miliminor that Sunday's London march would be a beezer opportunity to lend us the benefit of his oratory tout was sadly mistaken. The character, content and execution were of toe-curling recoil. For the life of me I cannot imagine what would be a lasting memorial of his puny attempt at statesmanship - a Trafalgar pigeon would suffice?
    I mention this only in the light of and comparison with the orators of old - whatever side of the bench. Where are the orators now?

  5. Crinkly,

    In fairness, I've only known one Lord Commissioner of Justiciary personally, and while a droll customer, I can't imagine him taking a Braxfield glee in banging up some friendless miscreant (nor longing for the lapsed noose of history).

  6. Clarinda,

    I saw yon footage via the equally unimpressed Alex Massie. In the interests of disclosure, I'm no "monkfish" Miliband fan. I've long had my suspicions that telly recording can rob even likely, sparkling speeches of their in-the-room vivacity and prowess, for some reason. In fairness, I doubt Miliband's charm and gravity were robbed by the lens...

  7. I'm a keen follower of your blog and twitter feed, and see that you frequently refer to Lord Braxfield. I have been thinking for some time about writing some fictional account of Braxfield and the Thomas Muir trial. Not, I would stress, any sort of strictly factual story: much more an exploration of different themes such as the Scots language; the growth of the notion of "rights"; how property is the basis of law and order; how the French Revolution changed the world; the effect of the Jacobite rebellion on 18th century Scotland.
    What do you think? I would welcome any thoughts. I am billwhiteford60@gmail.com