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William Skirving


c.1745 - 1796

Political reformer. Skirving was born into a farming family at Liberton (Edinburgh). He was educated at Haddington Grammar School and the University of Edinburgh, after which he served as a tutor to the children Sir Alexander Dick of Prestonfield House. He married in 1772 and settled into farming at Strathruddie in Fife. Inspired by the French Revolution, Skirving had developed radical political views. In 1792 his book on farming, The Husbandman's Assistant, was published and he returned to Edinburgh. In the same year, with Thomas Muir (1765-99), he founded the Scottish Association of the Friends of the People that aimed to demand parliamentary reform. A year later the leaders of this organisation were arrested at a meeting in Edinburgh, charged with sedition and tried in front of Lord Braxfield (1722-99). He was sentenced to fourteen years transportation to Australia, where he arrived in 1794, despite a lengthy campaign to prevent the sentence being carried out. Life in New South Wales was not overly harsh for Skirving because he was a political prisoner, and he was able to take up farming. He died in Australia having suffered from dysentery. Skirving is commemorated at the grand obelisk in Old Calton Burial Ground in Edinburgh, known as the Martyrs' Monument, which quotes a line from Skirving's speech to the Court of Judiciary: "I know that what has been done these two days will be re-judged".


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