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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Skirving, William (?–1796)

by John Earnshaw

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

William Skirving (d.1796), political reformer, was the son of a farmer at Liberton, Edinburgh, Scotland. At first intended for the church, he was educated at the old and famous grammar school at Haddington and at the University of Edinburgh. Later he abandoned his hopes of the ministry and became tutor to the family of Sir Alexander Dick of Prestonfield. Inclined to agriculture he then leased a farm at Damhead in Fife, and soon afterwards in January 1775 married Rachel, daughter of Andrew Abercrombie, merchant of Kirkcaldy. Later he took possession of the farm of Strathruddie in Fife which was the property of his wife and to which he applied himself with great aptitude. In 1792 he moved to Edinburgh where he published the first volume of his The Husbandman's Assistant, and unsuccessfully sought the chair of agriculture at the University of Edinburgh.

Always a man of firm liberal opinion, he was drawn to the more radical groups which, under the influence of the French Revolution, were then strongly advocating constitutional reform, and in December 1792 was appointed secretary to a convention of the Societies of the Friends of the People then being held in Edinburgh. Alarmed at the growing clamour for reform and the republican sentiments expressed by this group, the government took strong repressive action which resulted in the Scottish sedition trials of 1793-94. Undeterred by the sentence of transportation passed on his fellow reformers Thomas Muir and Thomas Fyshe Palmer, Skirving continued his active work for the Friends of the People; for this he was brought to trial on 6-7 January 1794 and was sentenced to transportation for fourteen years. Together with Muir, Fyshe Palmer and Maurice Margarot he sailed for New South Wales in the transport Surprize in May 1794.

During the outward voyage he and Fyshe Palmer were subjected to brutal ill treatment by the master, Captain Campbell, on a trumped-up charge of conspiracy to mutiny, but on their arrival at Sydney in October these charges were dropped, and as a political prisoner he was freed from the usual convict restraint. He was allotted a small house on the eastern bank of the Tank Stream and allowed to purchase a farm of about 100 acres (40 ha) in the present district of Petersham, which he named New Strathruddie after his old home in Scotland. To this farm he applied himself with his usual diligence but, disheartened by unproductive soil and distressed by the separation from his wife and two sons, his health declined. He was removed to his house in the main camp and, although attended daily by Surgeon George Bass of the Reliance, he died on 19 March 1796.

Skirving was a man of high principle and unblemished personal character who sacrificed much for his ideals of political reform, all of which have long since been accomplished. His only epitaph in Australia is a marginal note on the burial entry in St Philip's register, 'a seditionist, but a man of respectable moral conduct', but his name is perpetuated on a monument erected to the Scottish Martyrs on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, in 1844.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 2-3
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 1
  • The Trial of William Skirving (Edinb, 1794)
  • T. F. Palmer, A Narrative of the Sufferings of T.F. Palmer and W. Skirving During a Voyage to New South Wales, 1794, on Board the Surprise Transport (Cambridge, 1797)
  • T. J. Howell (ed), State Trials, 23 (Lond, 1817)
  • H. W. Meikle, Scotland and the French Revolution (Glasgow, 1912)
  • Fife Free Press, 2 Mar 1895
  • manuscript catalogue under Scottish Martyrs (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

John Earnshaw, 'Skirving, William (?–1796)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

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