Ward's Book of Days.

Pages of interesting anniversaries.

What happened on this day in history.

APRIL 14th 

On this day in history in 1736, took place the Porteous Riot.

The Porteous Riot was a minor disturbance in Edinburgh, which caused major unrest in the government.  

On 14th April 1736, in Edinburgh, a convicted smuggler, Andrew Wilson, was due to be hanged. The procedure for an execution at that time was for the convict to be paraded around the city, in a cart, wearing his grave clothes, and taken to be hanged in public, in the Grassmarket, a public square in the city centre. Hangings were a major public entertainment and large crowds gathered to watch executions. On this occasion, all went according to plan, until the hangman cut down the body before the crowd had finished viewing the spectacle of the corpse on the scaffold, and a riot ensued.  

The Lord Provost of the city called out the City Guard, the city’s own private militia. The Guard were a long established organisation, under the control of the Lord Provost. They wore a distinctive uniform, like the regular army, only blue instead of red, and were particularly adept at putting down riots. The mob pebbled the city guard with stones and many of the guard fired back in retaliation, and shot and killed not only several rioters but onlookers from the overlooking tenement buildings. The crowd were dispersed but the Lord Provost, angry at so many deaths, ordered the arrest of the Captain of the Guard, John Porteous, for firing on the crowd without reading The Riot Act.

Porteous was tried at the High Court of Justiciary on 5th July 1736. The accounts given by witnesses were confusing in the extreme. Some said that Porteous had personally fired into the crowd. Others testified that he had not. Some said that he had ordered his men to fire on those seen to throw stones. Others maintained that he had given no orders at all. Eventually Porteous was convicted and sentenced to be hanged. He was imprisoned in the Tolbooth, a notorious jail, known locally as ‘the ‘Heart of Midlothian’ in Edinburgh city centre.  

The Prime Minister, Walpole, attempted to intervene. He ordered a stay of execution pending a retrial. There was widespread public resentment in Edinburgh. On 7th September 1736, a crowd of about 4,000 gathered at Portsburgh, west of the city. The demo proceeded to the city centre, where the protestors attacked the Tolbooth, overpowered the guards and carried Porteous, in his nightshirt, to the Grassmarket. Here they attempted to hang him on a street sign, but his hands had not been tied and he struggled free. As he fell to the ground, he was kicked and beaten by the mob and died just before midnight.    

A Bill was proposed in Parliament to abolish the Charter of Edinburgh, thereby reducing the city to a mere burgh, and disbanding the Guard, putting local security in the hands of the army. The Bill was strongly opposed by Walpole on constitutional grounds, as the Act of Union of 1707 had guaranteed the rights and privileges of all Scottish cities and burghs. Walpole finally had the Bill thrown out but introduced a minor measure, which fined the city £2,000, which was presented to Porteous’ widow. 

These events were described in detail by Sir Walter Scott in Heart of Midlothian. Porteous’ grave in Greyfriars kirkyard was marked with a small stone, inscribed P 1736. In 1973, the stone was replaced by a tombstone bearing the inscription John Porteous, a captain of the City Guard of Edinburgh, murdered September 7, 1736. All Passion Spent. [1 Greyfriars Place, Edinburgh EH1 2QQ]. The site of the Tolbooth is marked by paving stones in the shape of a heart, representing the Heart of Midlothian.

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