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The Porteous Riots

The affair of Porteous is so admirably well described in ‘The Heart of Midlothian,’ and recent research has thrown so little light on the mystery, if mystery there were, that a brief summary of the tale may suffice.

In the spring of 1736 two noted smugglers, Wilson and Robertson, were condemned to death. They had, while in prison, managed to widen the space between the window-bars of their cell, and would have escaped; but Wilson, a very stoutly built man, went first and stuck in the aperture, so that Robertson had no chance. The pair determined to attack their guards in church, where, as usual, they were to be paraded and preached at on the Sunday preceding their execution. Robertson leaped up and fled, with the full sympathy of a large and interested congregation, while Wilson grasped a guard with each hand and a third with his teeth. Thus Robertson got clean away, to Holland, it was said, while Wilson was to be hanged on April 14. The acting lieutenant of the Town Guard, an unpopular body, mainly Highlanders, was John Porteous, famous as a golfer, but, by the account of his enemies, notorious as a brutal and callous ruffian. The crowd in the Grassmarket was great, but there was no attempt at a rescue. The mob, however, threw large stones at the Guard, who fired, killing or wounding, as usual, harmless spectators. The case for Porteous, as reported in ‘The State Trials,’ was that the attack was dangerous; that the plan was to cut down and resuscitate Wilson; that Porteous did not order, but tried to prevent, the firing; and that neither at first nor in a later skirmish at the West Bow did he fire himself. There was much “cross swearing” at the trial of Porteous (July 20); the jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to be hanged on September 8. A petition from him to Queen Caroline (George II. was abroad) drew attention to palpable discrepancies in the hostile evidence. Both parties in Parliament backed his application, and on August 28 a delay of justice for six weeks was granted.

Indignation was intense. An intended attack on the Tolbooth, where Porteous lay, had been matter of rumour three days earlier: the prisoner should have been placed in the Castle. At 10 P.M. on the night of September 7 the magistrates heard that boys were beating a drum, and ordered the Town Guard under arms; but the mob, who had already secured the town’s gates, disarmed the veterans. Mr Lindsay, lately Provost, escaped by the Potter Row gate, near the old fatal Kirk-o’-Field, and warned General Moyle in the Castle. But Moyle could not introduce soldiers without a warrant. Before a warrant could arrive the mob had burned down the door of the Tolbooth, captured Porteous, who was hiding up the chimney, carried him to the Grassmarket, and hanged him to a dyer’s pole. The only apparent sign that persons of rank above that of the mob were concerned, was the leaving of a guinea in a shop whence they took the necessary rope. The magistrates had been guilty of gross negligence. The mob was merely a resolute mob; but Islay, in London, suspected that the political foes of the Government were engaged, or that the Cameronians, who had been renewing the Covenants, were concerned.

Islay hurried to Edinburgh, where no evidence could be extracted. “The High Flyers of our Scottish Church,” he wrote, “have made this infamous murder a point of conscience. . . . All the lower rank of the people who have distinguished themselves by the pretensions of superior sanctity speak of this murder as the hand of God doing justice.” They went by the precedent of the murder of Archbishop Sharp, it appears. In the Lords (February 1737) a Bill was passed for disabling the Provost, one Wilson, for public employment, destroying the Town Charter, abolishing the Town Guard, and throwing down the gate of the Nether Bow. Argyll opposed the Bill; in the Commons all Scottish members were against it; Walpole gave way. Wilson was dismissed, and a fine of £2000 was levied and presented to the widow of Porteous. An Act commanding preachers to read monthly for a year, in church, a proclamation bidding their hearers aid the cause of justice against the murderers, was an insult to the Kirk, from an Assembly containing bishops. It is said that at least half of the ministers disobeyed with impunity. It was impossible, of course, to evict half of the preachers in the country.

Argyll now went into opposition against Walpole, and, at least, listened to Keith, later the great Field-Marshal of Frederick the Great, and brother of the exiled Earl Marischal.

In 1737 the Jacobites began to stir again: a committee of five Chiefs and Lords was formed to manage their affairs. John Murray of Broughton went to Rome, and lost his heart to Prince Charles, now a tall handsome lad of seventeen, with large brown eyes, and, when he pleased, a very attractive manner. To Murray, more than to any other man, was due the Rising of 1745.

Meanwhile, in secular affairs, Scotland showed nothing more remarkable than the increasing dislike, strengthened by Argyll, of Walpole’s Government.

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