In the 1790s
Skirving developed radical political views and in the winter
of 1792 became secretary of the recently formed, Scottish Association
of the Friends of the People. Between October and December,
1793 Skirving helped to organize a series of meetings in Edinburgh.
Government spies also attended these meetings and on 2nd December
1793, Skirving, John Gerrald and Maurice Margarot were arrested
at a meeting in Edinburgh.
At his trial
Skirving was accused of being a member of the Friends of the
People, an organisation formed by Charles Grey and a group of
Radical Whigs in London. He was also accused of distributing
political pamphlets written and published by Thomas Fyshe Palmer
and imitating the "proceedings of the French convention"
by calling other members "by the name of citizen".
was also charged with sedition. To help the jury make their
decision, the judge, Lord Braxfield, defined sedition as "violating
the peace and order of society". When the jury announced
that they found Skirving guilty of the charges, Braxfield pronounced
the sentence, "that the said William Skirving, be transported
beyond the seas for the space of fourteen years."
1793, Skirving and three other men arrested in Scotland and
found guilty of writing and publishing pamphlets on parliamentary
reform, Thomas Muir, John Fyshe Palmer and Maurice Margarot,
were placed on prison Hulks on the Thames in preparation for
their journey to Australia.
in the House of Commons immediately began a campaign to save
the men now being described as the Scottish Martyrs. On 24th
February, 1793, Richard Sheridan presented a petition to Parliament
that described the men's treatment as "illegal, unjust,
oppressive and unconstitutional". Charles Fox pointed out
in the debate that followed that Palmer had done "no more
than what had done by William Pitt and the Duke of Richmond"
when they campaigned for parliamentary reform.
to stop the men being transported failed and on 2nd May 1794,
The Surprise left Portsmouth and began its 13,000 mile journey
to Botany Bay. While the ship was at sea, a group of convicts,
including Skirving and Joseph Fyshe Palmer were accused of being
involved in a plot to kill the captain and crew. These charges
were dropped when the men arrived in Australia.
As a political
prisoner Skirving enjoyed more freedom than other convicts and
was allowed to buy a small farm in Sydney. Conditions were very
harsh in Australia and on 10th March Joseph Gerrald died of
tuberculosis. Nine days later, William Skirving, became the
second Scottish Martyr to die when he succumbed to dysentery.
Thomas Hume, the Radical MP organised the building of a 90 feet
high monument in Waterloo Place, Edinburgh. It contained the
following 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." On the other side of the obelisk, based
on the model of Cleopatra's Needle in London, is a quotation
from a speech made by Muir on 30th August, 1793: "I have
devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause
- it shall ultimately prevail - it shall finally triumph."