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The Trial of Captain Porteous

On 14 April 1736, three convicted smugglers, Andrew Wilson, William Hall and George Robertson, were arrested, tried and condemned to death. Hall's sentence was commuted to transportation for life, while Wilson and Robertson awaited their fate. A few days before the execution, George Robertson managed to escape by widening the space between the window bars of his cell and, with the help of sympathetic supporters, eventually made his way to the Dutch Republic.

The remaining convict, Andrew Wilson, was taken to be publicly hanged in the Grassmarket, Edinburgh, on 14 April 1736. His body was cut down against the wishes of the mob, and the ensuing riot was such that the hangman had to be placed in protective custody. As the situation worsened, for fear of an attempt to rescue the victims, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh instructed Captain Porteous to call out the entire guard and to furnish them with powder and shot.

After the execution, the mob became violent and began to stone the City Guard. Accounts of events are confused, but what is certain is that Porteous instructed his men to fire above the heads of the crowd, but in so doing, they wounded people in the windows of the high tenement buildings opposite. The crowd became increasingly violent and, as panic set in, Captain Porteous ordered the guard to shoot into the mob, which led to the deaths of six people in all.

Porteous was arrested the same afternoon and charged with murder. He was tried at the High Court of Justiciary on 5 July 1736, where a majority of witnesses testified that Porteous had personally fired into the crowd on 14 April, although sixteen others said they had not seen him do so. Feelings were running high in Edinburgh and the jury unanimously found Porteous guilty of murder. He was sentenced to death, the execution was set to take place in the Grassmarket on 8 September 1736. Porteous was imprisoned in the Tolbooth prison, near St Giles church. You can read the details of the trial below:

pdfChronology931.11 KB
pdfInformation for his Majesty's advocate3.64 MB
pdfInformation for Captain Porteous3.47 MB
pdfAssize450.38 KB
pdfEvidence for the prosecution4.56 MB
pdfEvidence for the defence (6 pages!)2.28 MB
pdfVerdict and sentence499 KB
pdfThe respite 489.54 KB-

The events in Scotland alarmed the government in London, and Sir Robert Walpole attempted to influence events by asking his representative in Edinburgh to become involved. But he had miscalculated, underestimating the depth of feeling in Scotland. A formal appeal was petitioned and the execution was deferred. However, public resentment at a possible reprieve was such that a plot to murder Captain Porteous was hatched, and when the authorities heard of this, it was decided to increase the guard at the Tolbooth prison. However, on the evening before this was due to happen, a large crowd of over four thousand gathered at Portsburgh, west of the city.

Making their way across the Grassmarket to the Cowgate and up the High Street, the mob converged on the Tolbooth, where they were eventually able to overpower the guards. Porteous was dragged from his cell and up the Lawnmarket towards the West Bow and the Grassmarket, where he was lynched from a dyer's pole, using a rope taken from a local draper's shop. After a short while, he was dragged down and stripped of his nightgown and shirt, which was then wrapped around his head before he was hauled up again. However, the mob had not tied his hands and, as he struggled free, they broke his arm and shoulder, while another attempted to set light to his naked foot. He was taken down a further time and cruelly beaten before being hung up again. He died a short while later, just before midnight on 7 September 1736. This is a good example of what can go wrong when politicians try interfering in the judicial process!

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