The Porteous Affair 1737/38
The affair brought Scots of all political persuasions together under the “Patriot” banner to protest against Whig government abuse and disrespect of Scottish legal and political autonomy.
It began in the spring of 1736 when two habitual burglars were done for breaking and entering and robbing the Collector of Customs building in Kirkcaldy. A crime for which they were sentenced to Hang. While awaiting their execution one of the prisoners aided by the other escaped custody.
The exploits of the condemned men brought support from the public who considered the sentence to be unjust. But authorities ignored their pleas and went ahead with the execution.
The public execution in the Grassmarket was attended by a large crowd who were vocal in their protests and when the deed was done a few of them started to throw stones at the hangman and his helpers. This was not an unusual occurrence and usually passed without further incident. But on the occasion, there was an immediate and brutal response when city guard leader, Captain John Porteous fired into the crowd and ordered his men to do the same. When the shooting stopped there were eight dead and many more seriously wounded.
The public protested vehemently and Porteous was charged with murder, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging in the same Grassmarket where he and his men had committed the atrocities.
The unsavory incident would have been closed had the execution been carried out, but Whig peers petitioned the Queen Regent Caroline to suspend the sentence so that appeals could be gathered and presented to the courts.
She duly consented to their request and ordered the Scottish Lords of Justiciary to suspend the sentence for at least 6 weeks.
Edinburgh citizens, sorely aggrieved that they were being denied justice took matters into their own hands, dragged Porteous from the Tollbooth and hanged him in the Grassmarket.
News of the “riot” reached the Westminster government who immediately ordered General Wade and his English forces to Edinburgh to assist in the “speedy and exemplary punishment’ of the riots “ringleaders and abetters”.
A second large body of English soldiers was moved into Edinburgh castle to patrol the area and conduct “stop and search” patrols and enforce curfews.
The Westminster Whigs also formed the view that the Edinburgh city authorities were at fault. Opinions further strengthened in the weeks that followed when no-one had been brought to account.
General Wade complained that: “the magistrates had conspired to allow the murder of Porteous and aided their escape from justice”.
His unfounded assertions provided the catalyst the Whig government had been waiting for and it speedily introduced a new Scottish act, the “Bill of Pains and Penalties” and used it against Edinburgh, with the charge that the City authorities had “insulted the royal prerogative”.
Edinburgh’s Lord Provost was arrested and many “Royal” privileges were removed adversely affecting traders and the city was placed in purgatory.
Edinburgh citizens were angry at the actions of the government and questioned the legality of the English moves against the city. The question most raised was, “what right had been bestowed on Westminster that gave it the authority to punish Edinburgh for a crime involving Scottish citizens, that had taken place on Scottish soil?
Scottish politicians set their petty partisan quarrels aside and protests were raised at Westminster strongly condemning the Whig government for its, “contradiction to the express Articles of Union”.
But their protests fell upon deaf ears. Edinburgh was made to pay a heavy fine to the exchequer and every church minister in Scotland was forced to read out a proclamation apologizing for the behaviour of Edinburgh citizens.
The Porteous affair was one of many incidents in which the Walpole government protected the military from its excesses, imposed “Martial Law” and committed acts of public violence against the people of Scotland. What was particularly galling was the unequal treatment of Scottish protestors. Rioting in English cities had never been subject to military occupation and martial law.
The Whig victory was pyrrhic since it confirmed what many Scots knew in their hearts that Scotland was not an equal partner in a Union of countries but a colony of England.
The indignities inflicted by Walpole’s Whigs drove many Scots to seek the overturn the British and to invite the return of the Stuart’s to Scotland, but people in the Central belt and lowland parts of the country preferred to remain with the Union hoping for the removal of Walpole’s Whigs and a return to the ideals of the Acts of Union. Wishful thinking indeed!!!