The Porteous Riots
In 1736 the union of England and Scotland was not yet 30 years old. In April of that year a series of events began that for a time seemed to have the potential to threaten that union, and escalated until a hated symbol of government authority was brutally and publically murdered in Edinburgh.
The spark for the so-called Porteous riots was the public execution of a smuggler in the Grassmarket on April 14 1736. Smugglers in Scotland as in England were often regarded as friends of the down-trodden, the goods they brought in affordable for the masses when taxed items could be beyond them. Sympathy for the smuggler, Andrew Wilson, was doubtless increased as the two men convicted with him had avoided the noose – one transported for life, the other escaping from prison and making for safety abroad.
When the crowd gathered to witness the hanging turned nasty the Lord Provost ordered the City Guard out en masse. When the soldiers had stones thrown at them their Captain, John Porteous, ordered shots to be fired above the heads of the mob. He had not taken into account the high tenement buildings behind them, with the result that people looking out of their windows were injured. Further incensed the mob grew more threatening and Porteous gave the order to fire into it. Six were killed.
Porteous was subsequently arrested, tried for murder, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Official intervention allowed him leave to appeal, and the execution was deferred. But on September 7 a huge demonstration was organised against Porteous, several thousand citizens converging on the Tolbooth where he was held. The guards were overcome, Porteous was taken from his cell, and manhandled to the Grassmarket where he was lynched – stripped naked, beaten horrifically including having his arm and shoulder broken and a foot burned, and finally hanged.
Walpole in distant London had tried to intervene on Porteous’s behalf, and his government feared losing control in Scotland, and indeed lost some support from Scottish MPs. An enquiry the following year led to severe penalties against Edinburgh, but those who had carried out the lynching were never identified in spite of a large reward being offered.
As a post-script: Walter Scott ’s 1818 novel The Heart of Midlothian contains descriptions of these events woven into its early chapters.
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