The History of Leith

December 1, 2011

The Porteous Riots-Part 2

The magistrates fled for shelter to a house in the Grassmarket, and the mob carried all before it. Captain Porteous, the commander of the Guard, was an active officer, who had seen some service
with the Scots Brigade in Holland; but he was a harsh, proud man, of profligate character, who, it has been alleged, rendered himself odious to the people by the severity with which he punished the
excesses of the poor, compared with his leniency to the wealthy. His fierce pride was roused to boiling heat. He had resented the escape of Robertson as an imputation upon the City Guard; and also
resented, as an insult, the presence of the Welsh Fusiliers in the city, where no drums were permitted to be beaten save his own and those of the 25th or Edinburgh Regiment, and he was therefore well inclined to vent his wrath on Wilson, as the cause of all these affronts. It would seem that on the morning of the execution, he appeared, by those who saw him, to be possessed by an evil spirit. It is alleged that he treated Wilson with brutal severity before leaving the prison ; and when the riot began, after the execution, and the City Guard was slowly returning up the steep West Bow, and facing about from time to time under showers of missiles, which broke some bones and dashed the drums to pieces, it is said that he not only ordered his soldiers to ” level their pieces and be (damned?) but snatched a musket from one and shot a ringleader dead (Charles Husband, the man who cut down Wilson) ; then a ragged volley followed, and. six or seven more fell killed or wounded. An Edinburgh crowd never has been easily intimidated; the blood of the people was fairly upnow, and they closed in upon the soldiers with louder imprecations and heavier volleys of stones. A second time the Guard faced about and fired, filling the steep narrow street with smoke, and producing the most fatal results; and as all who were killed or wounded belonged to the better class of citizens—some of whom were viewing the tumult from their own windows—public indignation became irrepressible. Captain John Porteous was therefore brought to trial for murder, and sentenced to die in the usual manner on the 8th of September, 1736. His defence was that his men fired without orders; that his own fusil when shown to the magistrates was clean; and that the fact of their issuing ball ammunition amounted ” to no less than an order to fire when it became necessary.” George II. was then on the Continent, and Queen Caroline, who acted as regent of a country of which
she knew not even the language, took a more favourable view of the affair of Porteous than the Edinburgh mob had done, and from the Home Office a six weeks’ reprieve, preparatory to granting a full pardon, was sent down. ” The tidings that a re-prieve had been obtained by Porteous created great indignation among the citizens of the capital they regarded the royal intervention in his behalf
as a proof that the unjust English Government were disposed to treat the slaughter of Scotsmen by a military officer as a very venial offence, and a resolution was formed that Porteous should not escape the punishment which his crime deserved.”
On the night of the 7th September, according to a carefully-arranged plan, a small party of citizens, apparently of the lower class, preceded by a drum, appeared in the suburb called Portsburgh. At the sound of the drum the fast-swelling mob assembled from all quarters ; the West Port was seized, nailed, and barricaded. Marching rapidly along the Cowgate, with numbers increasing at every step, and all more or less well-armed, they poured into the High Street, and seized the Nether Bow Port, to cut off all communication with the Welsh Fusiliers, then quartered in the Canongate. While a strong band held this important post, the City Guardsmen were seized and disarmed in detail; their armoury was captured, and all their muskets, bayonets, halberts, and Lochaber axes, distributed to the crowd, which with cheers of triumph now assailed the Tolbooth, while strong bands held the street to the eastward and westward, to frighten all who might come either from the Castle or Canongate. Thus no one would dare convey a written order to the officers commanding in these quarters from the magistrates, and Colonel Moyle, of the 23rd, very properly declined to move upon the verbal message of Mr. Lindsay, M.P. for the city.
Meanwhile the din of sledge-hammers, bars, and axes, resounded on the ponderous outer gate of the Tolbooth. Its vast strength defied al! efforts, till a voice cried, “Try it with fire !” Tar-barrels and other combustibles were brought; the red flames shot upward, and the gate was gradually reduced to cinders, and through these and smoke the mob rushed in with shouts of triumph. The keys of the cells were torn from the trembling warder. The apartment in which Porteous was confined was searched in vain, as it seemed at first, till the unhappy creature was found to have crept up the” chimney. This he had done at the risk of suffocation, but his upward progress was stopped by an iron grating, which is often placed across the vents of such edifices for the sake of security, and to this he clung by his fingers, with a tenacity bordering on despair, and the fear of a dreadful death—a death in what form and at whose hands he knew not.

Source-Old and New Edinburgh

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