Modern historians, looking back at the Edinburgh of the eighteenth century, chiefly characterise the Scottish capital as a place of enlightenment thinkers – the city of genius. This is, of course, perfectly correct, for the discoveries and new ways of thinking of men such as Adam Smith, James Hutton, David Hume and Robert Adam were building the foundations of our modern way of life.
However, there was another side to the city, an aspect made up of the 95% of men – and virtually 100% of women – who were disenfranchised from learning, decision making and politics. Individually, they were unimportant, their names mostly unheeded at the time and certainly lost to us now. But, on those rare occasions when the faceless and the powerless came together in some common cause, they became the living nightmare of the ruling elites, who then had a single name for all of them. The Mob.
The Scots law that was enforced by Lords, Magistrates and Bailies was harsh. Hundreds of offences carried the death penalty; many more could result in transportation to the colonies and a life of slavery. An individual had to very brave, or very foolish, to raise either hand or voice against their rulers. In such an atmosphere, grievances, real or imagined, would fester below the surface, the subject of grumbled conversations in the markets and angry talk in the taverns. Then, some incident would occur that would set this smouldering resentment ablaze and the Mob would emerge from the closes and wynds of the Old Town to make its feelings known, and take matters into its own hands. One such incident occurred in September, 1736. It became known as the Porteous Riot.
The roots of the Porteous Riot go back a further six months to 14th April, 1736 when a convicted smuggler named Andrew Wilson was publicly hanged in the Grassmarket. At the time, smuggling was defined as not only the importation of goods without paying the appropriate duty but also the production of spirits within Scotland without paying tax.
This locally produced spirit was known as Peatreek, equivalent to the Irish Potcheen, or American Moonshine. Although Wilson had been convicted of burglary, he was also involved in the Peatreek trade and the natural sympathy of the crowd was with him and against the excise men. He had also helped his co-accused, one George Robertson, escape from the courtroom and had then grappled with the law officers. In doing so, he sacrificed himself in order that his friend might get away, and many of the crowd thought of this act as noble and heroic.
At the hanging, this partisan feeling manifested itself as some in the crowd started throwing stones at the hangman and officials. John Porteous, Captain of the City Guard on this day, responded by ordering his men to open fire directly into the crowd. Some witnesses said that he himself had fired his pistol at point blank range, though he denied this. Several people were killed, some accounts say nine, and many more wounded. There was no evidence that any of the casualties had been involved in the stone throwing.
Why John Porteous took this apparently reckless action is uncertain. Some say he lost control and panicked, others stated that he was drunk on duty. Whatever the reason, he was swiftly arrested and put on trial. His defence was that the magistrates had ordered him to be there, with armed men and had thus implicitly sanctioned his opening fire on the crowd should the need arise. An early example of, “I was only following orders.” Unsurprisingly, the magistrates did not agree and he was found guilty of the crimes of murder and mayhem. There could be only one sentence; he would go to the gallows. The date set for his execution was 8th September, 1736.
However, it’s an almost universal truth that those in authority dislike it when those involved in law enforcement fall foul of those same laws and while Porteous was being held in the Tollbooth prison near St Giles Cathedral, powerful friends were busy. A petition appealing for clemency was sent to King George II in London. George was on his summer holiday when it arrived – he’d gone back to Hanover – and the matter was dealt with by Queen Charlotte. She granted a stay of execution for six weeks, presumably so that the king could deal with it properly when he returned from his German provinces.
When news of this arrangement reached Edinburgh there was widespread discontent. The populace suspected that there was some double-dealing going on. It was thought that the temporary stay of execution would be made permanent or even that Porteous would be pardoned.
On the evening of September 7th, a crowd gathered at the West Port gate into the city. From there, they marched up to the High Street, secured the Netherbow Port, to prevent troops billeted in Canongate from entering the city, and proceeded to the Tollbooth. Now, some 4,000 strong, they set fire to the doors, stormed in and pulled John Porteus from his cell.
He was dragged down West Bow to the scene of his crime in the Grassmarket, outside the location of the present day Last Drop pub. There was no scaffold in place, (it was assembled for each hanging and then taken away afterwards) so a dyer’s pole was pressed into service. There was also no rope, so one had to be obtained from a local shop. Legend has it that they broke in and took the rope but left a guinea on the counter to pay for it. If true, this shows a fine delineation between what the mob considered was acceptable lawbreaking (lynching) and that which was unacceptable (theft).
John Porteous swung just after midnight, on the ‘due date’, September 8th. The Mob had once again demonstrated its power, and with the deed done, it melted away.
The government in Westminster was outraged. Threats were made against the Edinburgh magistrates (who were suspected of having turned a blind eye), the city in general (removal of city status) and of a whole host of other humiliations. It was even muttered that the incident was the start of another Jacobite rebellion and the army should be deployed. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and most of the intended sanctions abandoned. The uneasy status quo was restored.
No person was ever convicted of taking part in the Porteous riot.
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