The History of Leith

November 29, 2011

The Porteous Riots-Part 1

The seaport towns with which the coast of Fife is so thickly studded were at this time much infested by Scottish bands of daring smugglers, many of whom had been buccaneers in the Antilles and Gulf of Florida, and thus were constantly at war with the revenue officials. One of these contrabandistas, named Wilson, in revenge for various seizures and fines, determined to rob the collector of Customs at Pittenweem, and in this, with the aid of a lad named Robertson and two others, he fully succeeded- They were all apprehended, and tried;

Wilson and Robertson were sentenced to death, without the slightest hope of a pardon. While the criminals were lying in the Tolbooth of Edinburgh, by the aid of two horse-stealers, who were confined
in a cell immediately above them, they succeeded in cutting the iron stanchels of a window, singing psalrns the while to drown all sound. One of the horse-stealers succeeded in getting through the aperture, and the other might have escaped in the same way but for the obstinacy of Wilson, who insisted on making the next attempt.
Being a bulky man he stuck fast between the bars, the gudeman of the Tolbooth was speedily made aware of the attempt, and took sure means to preclude a repetition of it. The character of Wilson the
smuggler was not without some noble qualities, and he felt poignant regret for the selfish obstinacy by which he had prevented the escape of young Robertson; thus he formed the secret resolution of saving his comrade’s life, at any risk of his own. On the Sunday before the execution, according to the custom of the period, the criminals were taken to that part of St. Giles’s named the Tolbooth kirk, to hear the sermon preached for their especial benefit, but under custody of four soldiers of the City Guard, armed with their bayonets. On the dismissal of the congregation, Wilson, who was an active and powerful man, suddenly seized two of the soldiers, one with each hand, a third with his teeth, and calling to Robertson, “Run, Geordie, run!” saw, with satisfaction, the latter
knock the fourth soldier down, and achieve an escape, which no one for a moment thought of marring.

The success of this daring achievement, though it doubly sealed his own fate, removed a load of remorse from the mind of Wilson, and excited so much sympathy in his behalf, that it was currently
rumoured an attempt would be made to rescue him at the place of execution.

When the day came the I4th April, 1736—it was found that the magistrates had taken ample precautions to enforce the law. Around the scaffold was a strong body of the City Guard, while a detachment of the Welsh Fusiliers— which young Elliot of Stobs, the future Lord Heathfield, had just joined as a volunteer—was under arms in the principal street. Vast multitudes had assembled, but their behaviour was subdued and orderly until the terrible sentence had been executed, and the body of Wilson swung from the lofty gibbet in the Grassmarket. Then a yell of rage and execration burst from the people, who broke through all restraint, and assailed the City Guard with every missile they could find.
The body of Andrew Wilson was cut down, and an attempt made to carry it off. It was interred at Pathhead, the burial register of which records that ” The corpse of Andrew Wilson, baker, son to Andrew Wilson, baker and inn-dweller in Dunnikier (Qui mortuit Gallifocio Edinburga-ni), was interred on the i5th April, 1736.” An old denizen of Pathhead declared that he saw Wilson’s grave
opened, and could not but remark upon the size and texture of his bones.

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