Edinburgh has over the centuries seen many a grim affair darken it’s famous old streets and had reason to be thankful for the forces of Law and Order being on hand to protect the innocent, and to punish the guilty. Just occasionally however the roles were reversed and it was the defenders of the innocent who were the guilty. One such man who earned the abiding hatred of Edinburgh was Captain John Porteous. When his crimes against the people of the city went unpunished, it was the people who delivered justice. The story begins on a dark night, not in Edinburgh, but on the other side of the Firth of Forth in the county of Fife…
THE ORIGINAL CRIME
On the night of 9th January, 1736, Collector of Excise James Stark rested in to the Pittenweem Inn, Fife but no sooner had he settled down for the night than when he was wakened by loud banging on his room door. The noise was caused by a smuggler, Andrew Wilson, and two compatriots attempting to break down his room door, intent on robbing him. Wilson’s other partner in crime, fellow smuggler George Robertson was downstairs on lookout.
Realising what was happening, Stark managed to grab one bag of excise money before he jumped from the window and hid in a nearby stable where he spent the cold winter night buried under a heap of straw.
Wilson and his fellow thieves, having broken the door down, made off with £200 Stark had left behind, as well as his bible, penknife and even the silver buckles from his shoes. Wilson, Roberston and another man, Hall, then made their way east but were quickly apprehended at Anstruther in Fife, where Stark’s £200 and other belongings were recovered. The three men were taken to Edinburgh, where they were thrown into the city’s notorious Tolbooth Prison to await trial. The Tolbooth Prison stood on the High Street section of the Royal Mile, in front of St Giles Kirk. Accursed by the inhabitants of the city, it was well known for its terrible conditions and cruelty.
When the trial came, the men claimed that the robbery had been a spur-of-the-moment affair. The magistrates were not fooled and Wilson, Robertson and Hall were handed down sentences of death by hanging. Hall later had his sentence revoked in return for turning King’s Evidence against Wilson and Robertson. Sentence was set for Wednesday, 14th April 1736.
On Friday, 9th April 1736, Wilson and Robertson attempted to escape the Tolbooth in a way which must have been carefully planned. In the cell one flight above theirs, two horse thieves had been clasped in irons, suspended from an iron bar from the ceiling. They managed to break free of their irons, then made a hole in the floor and hauled Wilson and Robertson into their cell. The two smugglers had been provided with saws by visiting friends, which they used to cut through the window bars. Friends of Wilson and Robertson also dressed up as women and sang psalms loudly in the Royal Mile to cover the noise of the thieves egress. One of the horse thieves managed to get through the narrow window and climbed down a rope to freedom. Wilson insisted on going next but got stuck in the window and was still lodged firmly halfway in, halfway out when the guards arrived.
EVENTS PRECEEDING THE EXECUTION
On the Monday, 12th April, Wilson and Robertson were taken to the Tolbooth Kirk for the customary sermon for the condemned. Two guards sat either side of them on one pew with two more guards behind. Robertson suddenly sprang up, broke free of the guards and made for the door. Others in the kirk moved out of his way and he quickly escaped. Wilson tried to follow but was quickly brought down by the guards. Some citizens believed Wilson did this purposely to allow Robertson the chance to escape and he was admired for his actions. The City Guard, already despised and known as the ‘Toun Rats’ under the command of the hated Captain John Porteous, was called out to put down any disturbances to the execution, provided with a special order of powder and shot ordered by the Lord Provost. A party of 150 soldiers of the Welsh Fusiliers were also ordered into the city to provide extra security if needed, a move which angered Porteous who saw it as an insult to him and his men.
Porteous was renowned for his arrogance and hated for his cruel treatment of prisoners. He was also a drunkard and the execution of Wilson only went ahead once he had eaten his midday meal and was half drunk on wine. The execution took place on the appointed day, Wednesday, 14th April 1736, in the Grassmarket. Wilson’s execution went without incident. Afterwards however, there were rumours among the crowd that Porteous had been cruel to Wilson before the execution. These rumours spread and the mob soon became angry. Missiles started to be thrown at those officiating over the execution and the hangman was first to be hit as he was cutting down Wilson’s body. Porteous had the Town Guard surround the scaffold and they and he soon also came under a hail of missiles. The Town Guard retaliated by opening fire into the crowd. Porteous himself, it was claimed shot the first victim himself and was heard making angry threats to members of the Town Guard who refused to fire into the crowd. Some decided to fire above the crowds heads. Unfortunately, one of their bullets hit a young man watching from a tenement window, killing him instantly. Four more in the crowd were killed, making six deaths in all.
If the crowd were already angry, they were now ugly and outraged. Captain Porteous took the wise decision to withdraw his men and march them back to their quarters in the High Street. As they marched up the West Bow, the mob followed, still throwing missiles. Soldiers at the rear turned and fired again, wounding more of the crowd.
The people of the city demanded justice for the outrageous behaviour of the Town Guard. Porteous was arrested and brought before the magistrates, who had no choice but to commit him to the Tolbooth Prison, to await trial. He was brought to trial on 5th July 1736 and charged with Murder and Maiming. Captain Porteous claimed in his defence that he had only threatened the crowd in case they had attempted to seize Wilson’s body and revive him.
Captain John Porteous was nonetheless found guilty and sentenced to hang. Several of his friends petitioned Queen Catherine, in the absence of her husband, King George II, for a pardon. She granted a Porteous a six week reprieve and it was believed a full pardon would soon follow.
THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN PORTEOUS
As the rumour spread through the town that Porteous was going to go unpunished the Edinburgh Mob began to gather and demand justice. Their ranks quickly swelled into the thousands and on the night of the 7th of September 1736 they attacked the town Guardhouse where they seized muskets and Lochaber axes. The men of the Town Guard fled to the safety of Edinburgh Castle leaving Porteous alone in his cell in the Tolbooth, listening to the mob in the street outside baying for his blood.
With no’one to stop them the Mob assaulted the stout door to the Tolbooth but it withstood their best efforts until someone laid a fire against it and finally it gave way. The Mob surged into the grim prison and snatched the shrieking Captain Porteous from his cell and dragged him over the cobbles of the Royal Mile back to the scene of his massacre. All the while he was beaten, kicked and pelted with filth as his cries for mercy went unheeded.
As the Mob pulled him down the steep slope of the West Bow they broke into a draper’s shop for a length of rope, leaving a guinea to pay for it as they left. The vast crowd secured the rope from a dyer’s pole close by the shadows of the gallows where he had ordered his men to open fire on the people. Those people now took the vengeance on the unlucky policeman as he was lynched. Even as he struggled for life he was beaten and battered before the crowd dropped him to the ground before pulling his still living body aloft again. This was done three times before death finally claimed Porteous and his awful suffering finally ceased under the blows of a Lochaber axe. His corpse was left to dangle for the amusement of the masses who as quickly as they had formed now split asunder to return to their normal tasks as though they had never been part of the lynching.
Government attempts to find the ringleaders of the riots were in vain, despite a reward of £200 being offered – a fortune in those days. None would talk and the few men arrested were soon acquitted due to lack of evidence. No’one had seen anything out of the ordinary that evening in early September!
Captain John Porteous was buried in Greyfriar’s Churchyard, near the Grassmarket and the scene of his cruel death. For many years his grave was only marked by a simple post marked ‘P 1736’ until Edinburgh Corporation placed a small inscribed memorial on his grave.
The hated Tolbooth Prison is long gone but just beside St Giles Kirk there are a set of cobblestones laid out in the shape of a heart – the ‘Heart of Midlothian’ – at the site of where the prison door once stood. It is today a tradition for the citizens of Edinburgh to spit on the heart as they go by for good luck and as a continuing act of contempt for that reviled institution.