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Auld Reekie Riots: The Story of Captain Porteous

Written by Amy Hendrie. Captain John Porteous represented to Edinburgh's underclasses a distinct inequality of treatment by the ruling elite. But how did the public reaction align with the crime?, And why were his actions so controversial?

Down in the Grassmarket, if you peek just inside Hunter’s Close, you will spot a plaque which reads, ‘At this place on the night of September 7th 1736 Cpt. Jack Porteous of the Edinburgh City Guard was brutally lynched from a dyer’s pole by an Edinburgh mob’.  

Narrated most famously by Sir Walter Scott in The Heart of Midlothian, the story of Captain Porteous and Edinburgh’s mob is a fascinating glimpse into the past attitudes and values of Edinburgh’s citizens. It is a story which reckons with how authority was enforced and how justice was delivered in our city. It is a story worth knowing.  

John Porteous was the Captain of the Edinburgh City Guard from 1726 to 1736. Made captain for his military skill, Porteous was notorious in Edinburgh for his arrogance and brutality. Scott describes him as particularly ‘formidable to rioters’, and Porteous was determined in his mission to put to justice all disturbers of public peace. He would receive, and abuse, the opportunity on the 14 April 1736. On this fateful day, Andrew Wilson was hanged for the crimes of smuggling as well as attempting to rob a tax collector for the English after being held and allegedly tortured in Edinburgh’s frightful Tollbooth prison. In response to this injustice, the rageful Edinburgh underclass formed a mob and pelted Wilson’s executioner with rocks, shouting of torture and unfairness. Porteous, spotting a chance to punish Edinburgh’s lower classes, ordered his City Guard to open fire on the crowd to quell the disturbance. Porteous’ order, his ‘fatal fire’, resulted in the deaths of nine citizens, a few of which had only been looking out of their bedroom windows towards the tumult. Twenty more were injured.  

After the fact, Porteous’ order was not accepted by Edinburgh’s officials. He had murdered Edinburgh’s citizens, many of whom were innocents, and this could not be excused. Porteous was prosecuted and sentenced to hang on the 7 September 1736, awaiting his end in the Tollbooth prison. A man of power and status being brought to justice was a rare victory, however, it was short-lived. Sir Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, heard the news in London and was shocked at how Edinburgh had treated Porteous. To Sir Walpole, Porteous’ actions were perfectly justified – the victims had deserved their fates. Accordingly, Sir Walpole issued a royal pardon for Porteous.  

But for the underclass of Edinburgh, enough was enough. To the rioters, Wilson’s actions had been patriotic, and heroic. The 1707 Acts of Union – which taxed Scotland equally to England – spurred a slew of citizens to turn to smuggling and tax evasion, responding to this ‘unjust aggression upon their ancient liberties’. Scots of lower classes appeared to resent English intervention in their rights and finances and sought ways to rebel. To rob the English was to serve the Scottish.  

That Wilson, acting for the benefit of his country, had been executed when a murderer and traitor such as Porteous was allowed to walk free struck a nerve for Edinburgh’s underclass. It stoked a fire which had long been burning and fuelled an explosion. Porteous had abused his position, had murdered innocents, and escaped persecution. He was fundamentally unfit for his station as a protector of Edinburgh’s interests, in the eyes of the underclass.  

Thus, they decided to take justice into their own hands. A mob, four thousand people strong, gathered at the Tollbooth prison on the date formerly destined to be that of Porteous’ execution. The mob set the prison alight and captured the Captain of the City Guard, dragging him forcefully down West Bow towards the Grassmarket, all the while shouting, ‘to the gallows with the murderer – to the Grassmarket with him!’ In the spot upon which Wilson had been hanged, Porteous was brutally lynched upon a dyer’s pole until he ceased to move. The mob, having delivered their justice, dispersed. The government would afterwards offer a reward of £200 (£34,000 today) to anyone who came forward with information about what happened that night. Not a single person did.  

Captain Porteous’ death serves as a symbol of popular resentment towards those abusing their power. Scotland’s union with England hurt the lower-class citizens of Edinburgh, and they made no secret of showing their displeasure towards the powerful English. The captain himself had immense power over Edinburgh’s citizens with a force of 120 soldiers at his disposal. He was famously volatile, angry, arrogant, and vengeful, and yet remained in power over those he resented because of his ‘military skill’. This should not have been the case. This story reflects themes found throughout history, of injustice, of power, and of popular protest and violence, themes which shaped Edinburgh’s past in a vital way.  

Written by Amy Hendrie 

Bibliography  

Legislation.gov.uk, ‘Union with England Act 1707’ Accessed 4th October 2021  https://www.legislation.gov.uk/aosp/1707/7/section/XVIII

McLean, David ‘Lost Edinburgh: The Porteous Riots’ The Scotsman, 25th September 2014  https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/lost-edinburgh-porteous-riots-1525339

Scott, Sir Walter ‘The Heart of Midlothian’, OUP Oxford, 2008 

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