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Old and New Edinburgh Vol. I


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 seventy 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 tb 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, anti 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 I? level their pieces and be d-d !? 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 up now, 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.? GeorgeII. 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 reprieve 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 te 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 bamczded. 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, IITry 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 tu 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. He was dragged down, and though
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The TolbOoth.1 PORTEOUS EXECUTED. 131 some proposed to slay hini on the spot, was told by others to prepare for that death .elsewhere which justice had awarded him ; but amid all their fury, the rioters conducted themselves generally with grim and mature deliberation. Porteous was allowed to entrust his money and papers with a person who was in prison for debt, and one of the rioters kindly and humanely offered him the last consolation religion can afford. The dreadful procession, seen by thousands of eyes fiom the crowded windows, was then begun, and amid the gleam of links and ;torches, that tipped with fire the blades of hundreds of weapons, the crowd poured down the West Bow to the Grassmarket. So coolly and deliberately did they proceed, that when one 01 Porteous? slippers dropped from his foot, as he was borne sobbing and praying along, they halted, and replaced it In the Bow the shop of a dealer in cordage (over whose door there hung a grotesque figure, still preserved) was broken open, a rope taken therefrom, and a guinea left in its stead. On reaching the place of execution, still marked byan arrangement of the stones, they were at a loss for a gibbet, till they discovered a dyer?s pole in it: immediate vicinity. They tied tbe rope round the neck of their victim, and slinging it over the cross beam, swung him up, and speedily put an end tc his sufferings and his life ; then the roar of voicez that swept over the vast place and re-echoed up the Castle rocks, announced that all was over ! BUI ere this was achieved Porteous had been twice le1 down and strung up again, while many struck him with their Lochaber axes, and tried to cut off hi: ears. Among those who witnessed this scene, and nevei forgot it, was the learned Lord Monboddo, who had that morning come for the first time to Edinburgh. When about retiring to rest (according to ? Kafi Portraits ?) his curiosity was excited by the noise and tumult in the streets, and in place of going to bed: he slipped to the door, half-dressed, with a nightcap on his head. He speedily got entangled in the crowd of passers-by, and was hurried along with them to the Grassmarket, where he became an involuntary witness of the last act of the tragedy. This scene made so deep an impression on his lordship, that it not only deprived him of sleep foi the remainder of the night, but induced him to think of leaving the city altogether, as a place unfit for a civilised being to live in. His lordship frequently related fhis incident in after life, and on these occasions described with much force the effect it had upon him.? Lord Monboddo died in 1799. As soon as the rioters had satiated their venzeance, they tossed away their weapons, and quietly dispersed; and when the morning of the 8th September stole in nothing remained of the event but the fire-blackened cinders of the Tolbooth door, the muskets and Lochaber axes scattered in the streets, and the dead body of Porteous swinging in the breeze from the dyer?s pole. According to the Caledonian Mercury of 9th September, 1736, the body of Porteous was interred on the second day in the Greyfriars. The Government was exasperated, and resolved to inflict summary vengeance on the city. Alexander Wilson, the Lord Provost, was arrested, but admitted to bail after three weeks? incarceration. A Bill was introduced into Parliament materially affecting the city, but the clauses for the further imprisonment of the innocent Provost, abolishing the City Guard, and dismantling the gates, were left out when amended by the Commons, and in place of these a small fine of Az,ooo in favour of Captain Porteous? widow was imposed upon Edinburgh. Thus terminated this extraordinary conspiracy, which to this day remains a mystery. Large rewards were offered in vain for the ringleaders, many of whom had been disguised as females. One of them is said to have been the Earl of Haddington, clad in his cook-maid?s dress. The Act of Parliament enjoined the proclamation for the discovery of the rioters should be read from the parish pulpits on Sunday, but many clergymen refused to do so, and there was no power to compel them ; and the people remembered with much bitterness that a certain Captain Lind, of the Town Guard, who had given evidence in Edinburgh tending to incriminate the magistrates, was rewarded by a commission in Lord Tyrawley?s South British Fusiliers, now 7th Foot. The next prisoner in the Tolbooth who created an intensity of interest in the minds of contemporaries was Katharine Nairn, the young and beautiful daughter of Sir Robert Nairn, Bart, a lady allied by blood and marriage to many families of the best position. Her crime was a double one-that of poisoning her husband, Ogilvie of Eastmilne, and of having an intrigue with his youngest brother Patrick, a lieutenant of the Old Gordon Highlanders, disbanded, as we elsewhere stated, in 1765. The victim, to whom she had been mamed in her nineteenth year, was a man of property, but far advanced in life, and her marriage appears to have been one of those unequal matches by which the happiness of a girl is sacnficed to worldly policy. On her arrival at? Leith in an open boat in 1766, her whole bearing betrayed so much levity, and was so different from what was expected by a somewhat pitying crowd, that a
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