The History of Leith

August 10, 2012

Riot at Edinburgh University

The year 1680 saw the students of the (Edinburgh) university
engaged in a serious riot, which created a profound
sensation at the time.
“After the Restoration, the students,” says ‘
Arnot, ” appear to have been pretty much tainted
with the fanatic principles of the Covenanters,”
and they resolved, while the Duke of Albany and
York was at Holyrood, to manifest their zeal by a
solemn procession and burning of the pope in effigy
on Christmas Day, and to that end posted up the
following :—
” THESE are to give notice to all Noblemen, Gentlemen,
Citizens, and others, that We, the Students of the Royal College
of Edinburgh (to show our detestation and abhorrence of
the Romish religion, and our zeal and fervency for the Protestant),
do resolve to burn the effigies of Anti-christ, the
Pope of Koine at the Mercat Cross of Edinburgh, the 25th of
December instant, at Twelve in the forenoon (being the
festival of Our Saviour’s nativity). And as we hate tumults
as we do superstition, we do hereby (under pain of death) discharge
all robbers, thieves, and bawds to come within 40
paces of our company, and such as shall be found disobedient
to these our commands, Sibi Caveant.
“By our Special command, ROBERT” BROWN, Secretary
to all our Theatricals and Extra Literal Divertisements.”
This announcement filled the magistrates with
alarm, as such an exhibition was seriously calculated
to affront the duke and duchess, and, moreover,
to excite a dangerous sedition. According to a
history of this affair, published for Richard Janeway,
in Queen’s Head Alley, Paternoster Row, 1681,
the students bound themselves by a solemn oath
to support each other, under penalty of a fine, and
they employed a carver, ” who erected then a
wooden Holiness, with clothes, triple crown, keys,
and other necessary habiliments,” and by Christmas
Eve all was in readiness for the display, to prevent
which the Lord Provost used every means
at his command.
He sent for Andrew Cant, the principal, and
the regents, whom he enjoined to deter the
students ” with menaces that if they would not, he
would make it a bloody Christmas to them.” He
then went to Holyrood, and had an interview with
the duke and the Lord Chancellor, who threatened
to march the Scottish troops into the town. Meanwhile,
the principal strove to exact oaths and
promises from the stndents that they would relinquish their
intention, and a few who were
English were seized in their beds, and carried by
the guard to the Tolbooth.
All the forces in Leith and the neighbourhood
were marched into the Canongate, where they remained
all night under arms ; and in the morning
the Provost allowed the privileges of a fortified
city to be violated, it was alleged, by permitting
the Foot Guards and Mars Fusiliers (latterly
2ist Foot) to enter the gates, seize advantageous
posts, and make’ the Grassmarket their headquarters.
The City Militia held the High Street,
a guard was placed on the college, and the guards
at the palace were doubled.
Undismayed by all this, the students mustered
in the Old High School Yard, with their effigy in
pontifical robes, and proceeded without opposition
down the High School Wynd, and up Blackfriars
Wynd to the lower end of High Street, where,
finding there was no time to lose, though unopposed
by the militia, they set fire to the figure
amid shouts of ” Pereat Papa ! ” but had instantly
to fly. Arnot says the burning took place in the
Blackfriars Wynd.
Grim old Dalyell of Binns came galloping
through the Netherbow Port at the head of his
grey Dragoons; then came the Fusiliers, under the
Earl of Mar; and Lord Linlithgow, with one
battalion of the Scots Foot Guards, in such haste
that he fell off his horse. The troops were ordered
to extinguish the flames and rescue the image.
” This, however, understanding the combustible
state of its interior, they were in no haste to do;
keeping at a cautious distance, they merely belaboured
his Holiness with the butt end of their
musquets, which the students allege was a mode
of treatment not much more respectful than their
own. In the course of this operation the head
fell off,” and was borne in triumph up the Castle
Hill by a number of boys. But this trumpery
affair did not end here.
Seven students were apprehended, and examined
before the Privy Council by Sir George
Mackenzie of Rosehaugh, the King’s Advocate,
and after being a few days in custody, were liberated.
So little were they gratified by this leniency
that many street scuffles took place between them
and the troops, whom they alleged to be the aggressors.
Violent denunciations of revenge against the
magistrates were uttered in the streets ; and upon
the nth of January, 1681, the house of Priestfield
—the seat of Sir James Dick, Lord Provost, the
family being in town—was deliberately set in flames
:y fire-balls, and burned to the ground, with all
its furniture.
A barrel ha.f full of combustible materials, and
bearing, it was said, the Castle mark, was found in
the adjacent park, and several people deposed
that on the night of the conflagration they saw
many young men going towards the house of
Priestfield with unlighted links in their hands, and
one with a dark lantern ; but notwithstanding that
a pardon and 200 merks (about ^no sterling)
were offered by the Privy Council to any who
would discover the perpetrators of this outrage,
they were never detected.
The gates of the college were ordered to be shut,
and the students to retire at least fifteen miles
distant from the city ; but in ten days they were
permitted to return, upon their friends becoming
caution for their peaceable behaviour, and the
gates were again thrown open; but all students
” above the Semi-class ” were ordered by the Privy
Council to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy,
and go regularly to the parish churches;
but, says Fountainhall, ” there were few or none
who gave thir conditions.”

source-Old and New Edinburgh

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