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The Jacobite Rebellions (1689-1746)

The following is from The Jacobite Rebellions (1689-1746) by J. Pringle Thomson, M.A.:

The Porteous Riots (1736)

Source--Autobiography of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Carlyle, Minister of Inveresk, 1722-1770, p. 33. (Edinburgh and London: 1860)

I was witness to a very extraordinary scene that happened in the month of February or March 1736, which was the escape of Robertson, a condemned criminal, from the Tolbooth Church in Edinburgh. In these days it was usual to bring the criminals who were condemned to death into that church, to attend public worship every Sunday after their condemnation, when the clergyman made some part of his discourse and prayers to suit their situation; which, among other circumstances of solemnity which then attended the state of condemned criminals, had no small effect on the public mind. Robertson and Wilson were smugglers, and had been condemned for robbing a custom-house, where some of their goods had been deposited; a crime what at that time did not seem, in the opinion of the common people, to deserve so severe a punishment. I was carried by an acquaintance to church to see the prisoners on the Sunday before the day of execution. We went early into the church on purpose to see them come in, and were seated in a pew before the gallery in front of the pulpit. Soon after we went into the church by the door from the Parliament Close, the criminals were brought in by the door next the Tolbooth, and placed in a long pew, not far from the pulpit. Four soldiers came in with them, and placed Robertson at the head of the pew, and Wilson below him, two of themselves sitting below Wilson, and two in a pew behind him.

The bells were ringing and the doors were open, while the people were coming into the church. Robertson watched his opportunity, and, suddenly springing up, got over the pew into the passage that led in to the door in the Parliament Close, and, no person offering to lay hands on him, made his escape in a moment--so much the more easily, perhaps, as everybody's attention was drawn to Wilson, who was a stronger man, and who, attempting to follow Robertson, was seized by the soldiers, and struggled so long with them that the two who at last followed Robertson were too late. It was reported that he had maintained his struggle that he might let his companion have time. That might be his second thought, but his first certainly was to escape himself, for I saw him set his foot on the seat to leap over, when the soldiers pulled him back. Wilson was immediately carried out to the Tolbooth, and Robertson, getting uninterrupted through the Parliament Square, down the back stairs, into the Cowgate, was heard of no more till he arrived in Holland. This was an interesting scene, and by filling the public mind with compassion for the unhappy person who did not escape, and who was the better character of the two, had probably some influence in producing what followed; for when the sentence against Wilson came to be executed a few weeks thereafter, a very strong opinion prevailed that there was a plot to force the Town Guard, whose duty it is to attend executions under the order of a civil magistrate.

There was a Captain Porteous, who by his good behaviour in the army had obtained a subaltern's commission, and had afterwards, when on half-pay, been preferred to the command of the City Guard. This man, by his skill in manly exercises, particularly the golf, and by gentlemanly behaviour, was admitted into the company of his superiors, which elated his mind, and added insolence to his native roughness, so that he was much feared and hated by the mob of Edinburgh. When the day of execution came, the rumour of a deforcement at the gallows prevailed strongly; and the Provost and Magistrates (not in their own minds very strong) thought it a good measure to apply for three or four companies of a marching regiment that lay in the Canongate, to be drawn up in the Lawnmarket, a street leading from the Tolbooth to the Grassmarket, the place of execution, in order to overawe the mob by their being at hand. Porteous, who it is said, had his natural courage increased to rage by any suspicion that he and his Guard could not execute the law, and being heated likewise with wine--for he had dined, as the custom then was, between one and two--became perfectly furious when he passed by the three companies drawn up in the street as he marched along with his prisoner.

... The street is long and wide, and there was a very great crowd assembled. The execution went on with the usual forms, and Wilson behaved in a manner very becoming his situation. There was not the least appearance of an attempt to rescue; but soon after the executioner had done his duty, there was an attack made upon him, as usual on such occasions, by the boys and blackguards throwing stones and dirt in testimony of their abhorrence of the hangman. But there was no attempt to break through the guard and cut down the prisoner. It was generally said that there was very little, if any, more violence than had usually happened on such occasions. Porteous, however, inflamed with wine and jealousy, thought proper to order his Guard to fire, their muskets being loaded with slugs; and when the soldiers showed reluctance, I saw him turn to them with threatening gesture and an inflamed countenance. They obeyed, and fired; but wishing to do as little harm as possible, many of them elevated their pieces, the effect of which was that some people were wounded in the windows; and one unfortunate lad, whom we had displaced, was killed in the stair window by a slug entering his head. His name was Henry Black, a journey man tailor, whose bride was the daughter of the house we were in. She fainted away when he was brought into the house speechless, where he only lived till nine or ten o'clock. We had seen many people, women and men, fall in the street, and at first thought it was only through fear, and by their crowding on one another to escape. But when the crowd dispersed, we saw them lying dead or wounded, and had no longer any doubt of what had happened. The numbers were said to be eight or nine killed, and double the number wounded; but this was never exactly known.

This unprovoked slaughter irritated the common people to the last; and the state of grief and rage into which their minds were thrown, was visible in the high commotion that appeared in the multitude.... The sequel of this affair was, that Porteous was tried and condemned to be hanged; but by the intercession of some of the Judges themselves, who thought his case hard, he was reprieved by the Queen-Regent. The Magistrates, who on this occasion, as on the former, acted weakly, designed to have him removed to the Castle for greater security. But a plot was laid and conducted by some persons unknown with the greatest secrecy, policy, and vigour, to prevent that design, by forcing the prison the night before, and executing the sentence upon him themselves, which to effectuate cost them from eight at night till two in the morning; and yet this plot was managed so dexterously that they met with no interruption, though there were five companies of a marching regiment lying in the Canongate.

This happened on the 7th of September, 1736; and so prepossessed were the minds of every person that something extraordinary would take place that day, that I, at Prestonpans, nine miles from Edinburgh, dreamt that I saw Captain Porteous hanged in the Grassmarket. I got up betwixt six and seven, and went to my father's servant, who was thrashing in the barn which lay on the roadside leading to Aberlady and North Berwick, who said that several men on horseback had passed about five in the morning, whom having asked for news, they replied there was none, but that Captain Porteous had been dragged out of prison, and hanged on a dyer's tree at two o'clock that morning.

This bold and lawless deed not only provoked the Queen, who was Regent at the time, but gave some uneasiness to Government. It was represented as a dangerous plot, and was ignorantly connected with a great meeting of zealous Covenanters, of whom many still remained in Galloway and the west, which had been held in summer, in Pentland Hills, to renew the Covenant. But this was a mistake; for the murder of Porteous had been planned and executed by a few of the relations or friends of those whom he had slain; who, being of a rank superior to mere mob, had carried on their design with so much secrecy, ability, and steadiness as made it be ascribed to a still higher order, who were political enemies to Government.

The "Cambuslang Wark" (1742)


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