One of Edinburgh's most infamous series of events culminated on 7 September, 1736. In April of that year, a convicted smuggler had been executed for the crime of avoiding paying tax to the British government, an event which in turn led to a series of brutal repercussions which became known as the Porteous Riots.
The new taxes had been brought into effect following Scotland's union with England nearly 30 years previously, in 1707. The increased taxes brought an increase in tax evasion, and the hanging of Andrew Wilson was the climax of something of a show trial, intended to make an example of him and his fellow smugglers, and to act as a disincentive to others who may be inclined to similarly seek to deprive the government of their tax income.
At the execution, in Edinburgh's Grassmarket, unrest had broken out in the crowd, leading to the instruction from John Porteous, captain of the City Guard, for his men to fire their muskets to break up the dissenting mob. The riot which broke out left six people dead, and Porteous was arrested and put on trial for their murders.
At his trial in July 1736, Porteous was found guilty of all the charges, and sentenced to be executed. Shortly before his sentence was to be carried out, a stay of execution came from London, who considered that Porteous had only been doing his job in upholding the government position.
The people of Edinburgh rose up against Porteous and his favourable relationship with the British government, and the night before his anticipated release a mob stormed the Tolbooth prison on the Royal Mile and dragged Porteous from his cell to face a summary execution in the Grassmarket.
With none of the apparatus for the execution in place - no gallows, noose or ladders - the mob broke a window of a shop on the West Bow, took a length of rope and left a coin in payment for it, and dragged Porteous down the alley which today is Hunter's Close. It was down that alley the Porteous met his death, his naked, badly beaten body found the next morning, twirling at the end of a rope strung from a dyer's pole.
Porteous was buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard with a headstone simply bearing the letter P, and the date, 1736. The current gravestone was erected in his memory in 1973.
The Porteous Riots, as they became known, led to a series of punitive measures imposed on Edinburgh by the British government as retribution for the society taking a matter of law into its own hands, and a description of the events can be read in Walter Scott's classic novel, The Heart of Midlothian. Today the alley at Hunter's Close has a plaque commemorating Porteous, and elsewhere in the Grassmarket you can find a lane with the name Porteous Pend.
Learn more about Porteous, and others who went to their deaths in the Grassmarket, on my private city walking tours!
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