1736 - Porteous Riots in Edinburgh

The Porteous Mob

On 14 April 1736, the Scottish poet Allan Ramsay got more than he bargained for when he attended an Edinburgh execution. Hangings in those times were as much a spectator pastime as today's football match, and a large, somewhat sympathetic crowd had turned out to watch the event. The condemned man, Edinburgh merchant Andrew Wilson, had robbed the customhouse of Pittenweem. This, plus his gallant efforts to help a friend escape, made him something of a local hero. In the wake of the Union, excise duties and taxes in Scotland had increased vastly, and sometimes actually in contradiction to the terms of the Union treaty. Smugglers and enemies of the excisemen were regarded as patriots. The captain of the Edinburgh Town Guard, John Porteous, fired into the hostile crowd at the execution and left several people dead. Ramsay had a lucky escape. This is only the first part of the story. Porteous was afterward tried for his actions, condemned, pardoned and then lynched by the Edinburgh mob - resulting in a huge fine on the city.

A true and faithfull account of the Hobleshaw [riot] that happened in Edinburgh, Wednesday, the 14th of Aprile 1736 at the hanging of Wilson, housebreaker.

On the Sunday preceeding viz the 11th, the two condemn'd criminalls Wilson and Robertson were taken as usual by four sogers [soldiers] out of prison to hear their last sermon and were but a few minutes in their station in the Kirk when Wilson who was a very strong fellow took Robertson by the head band of his breeks and threw him out of the seat, held a soger fast in each hand and one of them with his teeth, while Robertson got over and throw the pews, push'd o'er the elder and plate at the door, made his escape throw the Parliament Close down the back staire, got out of the Poteraw [Potterrow] Port before it was shut, the mob making way and assisting him, got friends, money and a swift horse and fairly got off nae mair to be heard of or seen. This made them take a closer care of Wilson who had the best character of them all (til his foly made him seek reprisals at his own hand), which had gaind him so much pity as to raise a report that a great mob would rise on his execution day to relieve him, which noise put our Magistrates on their guard and maybe made some of them unco flayd [unusually afraid] as was evidenced by their inviting in 150 of the Regement that lys [lies] in Cannongate, who were all drawn up in the Lawn Market, while the criminal was conducted to the tree by Captain Porteous and a strong party of the City Guard. All was hush, Psalms sung, prayers put up for a long hour and upwards and the man hang'd with all decency & quietnes. After he was cut down and the guard drawing up to go off, some unlucky boys threw a stone or two at the hangman, which is very common, on which the brutal Porteous (who it seems had ordered his party to load their guns with ball) let drive first himself amongst the inocent mob and commanded his men to folow his example which quickly cleansed the street but left three men, a boy and a woman dead upon the spot, besides several others wounded, some of whom are dead since. After this first fire he took it in his head when half up the Bow to order annother voly & kill'd a taylor in a window three storys high, a young gentleman & a son of Mr Matheson the minister's and several more were dangerously wounded and all this from no more provocation than what I told you before, the throwing of a stone or two that hurt no body. Believe this to be true, for I was ane eye witness and within a yard or two of being shot as I sat with some gentlemen in a stabler's window oposite to the Galows. After this the crazy brute march'd with his ragamuffins to the Guard, as if he had done nothing worth noticing but was not long there till the hue and cry rose from them that had lost friends & servants, demanding justice. He was taken before the Councill, where there were aboundance of witnesses to fix the guilt upon him. The uproar of a mob encreased with the loudest din that ever was heard and would have torn him, Council and Guard all in pices [pieces], if the Magistrates had not sent him to the Tolbooth by a strong party and told them he should be tried for his life, which gave them some sattisfaction and sent them quietly home. I could have acted more discreetly had I been in Porteous's place.

More Culloden Papers, ed. D. Warrand, Inverness, 1927.

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