Scotland is sometimes characterised as a nation of kings and castles engaged in battles and uprisings, and its history is littered with stories of fights and conflicts for some cause or another. But I'm often wary of relying on kings and queens to paint the picture of Scottish history - do we too often forget to tell the stories of ordinary folk, as well?
Fighting and bloodshed aren't the sole domain of monarchs and military leaders, and Edinburgh itself has seen its fair share of social unrest across the centuries. The locals here could be rebellious when an authority - the city or the government - acted in ways that they felt was unjust or unfair, or to express their fears or concerns about their place in the society of the time.
So here is my handy chronological guide to some of the more notorious riots which took place on Edinburgh's streets...
15 September 1595 - Royal High School Riot
Revolting schoolboys were responsible for an act of resistance in the late sixteenth century which got out of hand and resulted in the death of one of the town's baillies, or civic officers.
Edinburgh's Royal High School is, by some accounts, the 18th-oldest school in the world, with origins dating back over 900 years. In the 1590s it was located at the Blackfriars monastery at the bottom of Blackfriars Wynd in the Old Town (now Blackfriars Street, near where High School Wynd still runs today). A teacher by name of Hercules Rollock had struggled to retain control of the school's boys - many of them sons of high status clan chiefs and political figures of the age - and as a result they had lost a considerable amount of teaching time. When the school decided they would lose part of their autumn holiday to make up for wasted term time, the boys reacted violently.
On arriving to teach on Friday 15 September, the staff of the school found themselves 'barred out' of the premises - a number of schoolboys had barricaded themselves inside and were refusing to allow access to the building. Efforts to negotiate a truce were unsuccessful, and the teachers sent for John MacMorran, one of the baillies responsible for maintaining civil order in the city.
MacMorran was a wealthy businessman who had made a fortune from cattle farming and overseas trading, and had built Riddle's Court on the Lawnmarket, one of the oldest surviving developments in Edinbrgh's Old Town.
The boys who had barricaded themselves in the school took turns shouting threats to MacMorran and the assembled school staff, and one William Sinclair, aged 13, disclosed that he had a pistol and would shoot dead anyone who tried to force entry to the building.
When MacMorran attempted to break down the door, William Sinclair fired from a window on the first floor, striking MacMorran and killing him instantly. Sinclair and seven of his fellow schoolboy rioters were held in the tolbooth prison, until they could plead their case at trial two months later. They were ultimately set free, and William Sinclair himself would later be knighted by James VI...
Today a window alleged to be the one through which MacMorran was shot has been mounted inside the recently renovated Riddle's Court.
23 July 1637 - Jenny Geddes Starts a Civil War
Quite often minor skirmishes could get out of hand and spiral into larger disputes, and that's arguably the case of what happened when one woman stood up in Edinburgh's St Giles' Cathedral in 1637, leading to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (encompassing the first and second English Civil Wars).
King Charles I had had his Scottish coronation at St Giles' Cathedral in 1633, and despite being Scottish by birth and ancestry he would rile the Scots against him by seeking to impose his will on the Church of Scotland.
The Scottish church was a separate institution from the Church of England, and since the Reformation in 1560 had operated on a different basis, notably by excising the bishops and archbishops - the church hierarchy - from its structure. Charles I was a strong adherent to the principle known as the Divine Right of Kings - that is, that as head of the church he was directly appointed (and annointed) by God. However, such a view wasn't compatible with the Scottish church's operations, and Charles's efforts to impose his will on the church would have devastating consequences.
Charles had overseen the creation of the 1637 book of Common Prayer, which he intended to be become the definitive text for church worship in Britain. Like his father's commission of what became known as the King James Bible, Charles's Book of Common Prayer would become a text forever associated with his reign.
When, in July 1637, the minister of St Giles' Cathedral attempted to preach from this new text for the first time, several people in the congregation resented what they saw as an illegitimate intervention in the Church of Scotland's independence, and one woman in particular - named Jenny Geddes - was so angered by what she heard that she is reputed to to have stood and thrown her wooden stool at the minister, shouting, "Daur ye say Mass in my lug?" - dare you say Mass in my ear?
The riot which ensued in the church erupted into the street, and similar uprisings would break out across Scotland as people rejected the intervention of the king's use of his own Common Prayer in their church services. In 1638 the National Covenant was signed at Greyfriars Kirk, in which the people of Scotland asserted their right to retain control of their own church, and manifested in the Bishops' Wars, the first of a series of conflicts which would erupt into outright Civil War across England, culminating with the execution of Charles I in 1649.
9 December 1688 - Holyrood Riot and the Glorious Revolution
From seemingly innocuous moments can great historical events happen.
James VII of Scotland - the brother of Charles II - was a tolerated king rather than a beloved one. As a Catholic, he was regarded with caution by protestants in Scotland, who acknowledged his religion without fully accepting it for the population as a whole.
As he entered his fifties without any surviving legitimate male heirs, there was a sense across Scotland that should he die his throne would be taken by his daughter from his first marriage, Mary. She was not only a protestant, she was married to Prince William of Orange, ruler of European lands that are today in the Netherlands. Mary's ascension to the throne would return to the monarchy to a protestant line.
Except in June 1688 James VII's second wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son, an heir who would supersede the king's daughter from his first marriage - and suddenly the prospect of the British monarchy remaining Catholic was too much of a risk for many in protestant Scotland to tolerate.
Although James VII hastily went into exile in France when opposition to his Catholic heir started to become apparent, mobs were still gathering across Scotland to make known their displeasure, and in the evening of 9 December one such mob swept through Edinburgh, making their way along Cowgate to the Grassmarket, up West Bow and onto the Royal Mile, before heading back down through Canongate to Holyrood.
The abbey at Holyrood had only recently been renovated and repaired, but the mob broke into the building and damaged the structure, desecrating some of the royal tombs which housed the remains of monarchs from the past, and stealing the precious metals of the cross and other fixtures in the church which could be melted down and sold. Many of the books within the church were burned, and the records which had been kept by the abbey since its origins in 1128 were destroyed. The church at Canongate was established to replace the abbey, which was allowed to fall into ruin.
This uprising across Scotland became known as the Glorious Revolution, although it ultimately only led to more upheaval and fighting in the eighteenth century - the Jacobite conflicts would be a later effort to restore Scotland's monarchy to the line of the Jamesian (in Latin: Jacobite) monarchs.
23 October 1706 - Opposition to the Union
The Act of Union which brought Scotland and England's governments together to create the United Kingdom in 1707 was heavily opposed by many at the time, when the common man feared the union would simply result in decentralised power which would leave Scotland unfairly marginalised.
Distrust for the English had been a common feeling among Scots in the years preceding the Union, and when the Scottish Parliament sought to ratify the terms of the proposed deal - and when it became apparent that higher taxes would be imposed on the Scots - riots broke out across Scotland.
In Edinburgh mobs focused much of their fury at the home of Sir Patrick Johnson, a former lord provost (mayor) of the city who had emerged as a key supporter of the Act of Union and who would (it was noted) profit handsomely from the arrangements being drawn up. Windows at his house were broken, and in response the government passed a proclamation in December 1706 banning unauthorised gatherings in the city - an effort to quell public opposition to the political process.
Scotland and England were formally united on 1 May 1707.
14 April 1736 - Porteous Riots
Probably the most famous example of Edinburgh's riots, and another one stemming from local opposition to the British government. The execution of a smuggler in the Grassmarket in April 1736 led to unrest among many of the population of the city who felt hanging was too severe a sentence for the offence, and in the ensuing drama the captain of Edinburgh's city guard, named John Porteous, was arrested for ordering his men to fire into the crowd of protesters.
Six people had been killed, leading to Porteous's conviction for murder - and when he was rumoured to be avoiding the gallows because of the intervention of powerful figures in London who considered him to only have been carrying out his orders on behalf of the government, a mob dragged him from the prison to face a particularly brutal death in a lane off the Grassmarket.
The Porteous Riots marked a sea-change in the capital's relationship with the British government, and left their mark on the city. As a result of the riots, Edinburgh was ordered to demolish its defensive gates, to avoid any possible chance that the city could fortify itself against English rule.
4-6 June 1792 - King's Birthday riots
For a long time it was traditional to mark the monarch's birthday with public proclamations in Edinburgh - but in 1792, when George III was the monarch, few people in the city felt positively disposed towards their king. Food shortages had caused considerable problems, especially with rising prices and restrictions placed on the trading of basic commodities in the Corn Laws, resulting in an upswing of public disapproval towards the authorities who governed them.
When soldiers celebrated the king's birthday with a toast and the firing of pistols on 4 June 1792, local people responded by gathering at the Parliament Hall to pelt the soldiers with stones.
It wasn't until the following evening, 5 June, that the riot turned violent. Crowds surged to George Square, which was the home of Robert Dundas, the Lord Advocate. They broke the windows of his house, and when the army arrived from the barracks at Edinburgh Castle an hour later the mob was read the Riot Act - a formal declaration of intent to forcibly disperse the crowd if they didn't disperse peaceably - before fighting broke out. Several bodies were recovered from the nearby Meadows the following morning.
By the evening of 6 June, public displeasure had moved into the New Town, to St Andrew Square and the home of the Lord Provost. This time, troops of marines were summoned from the Port of Leith who broke up the mob and restored order in the city.
31 December 1811 - Tron Hogmanay Riot
New year in Scotland, despite being the larger public celebration than Christmas for many years, wasn't always a time of goodwill to all men and peace on Earth.
Traditionally crowds had gathered at the Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile to celebrate Hogmanay and to see in the new year, but in 1811 the tensions between the wealthy New Town citizens and the poorer Old Town residents were at their height. Gangs had taken control of the Old Town, resulting in the city guard (a rough police force) being given increased powers to arrest and punish gang members - and one of these gangs of young men, known as the Keellie gang, sought to use the new celebrations of 1811 to vent their frustrations on the wealthy residents of Edinburgh, and rise up against police authority.
Shortly before midnight, when the crowds of high status figures from the New Town were starting to assemble near the Tron, the Keellie gang made their move. They began attacking those they perceived as rich and high status, and to vent their anger on the police who tried to intervene in the attacks.
One policeman, Dugald Campbell, was dragged by members of the Keellie gang down Stamp Office Close, where he was beaten and left to die. He had been specifically targeted by the gang, and would die of his wounds in the city's infirmary on 3 January.
By the end of January, 68 young men and boys had been arrested and charged, none of them believed to be older than 20 years old. Four would be charged with organising the riot, robbery, and one - Hugh McIntosh, aged 16 - was also found guilty of the murder of Dugald Campbell. All of them would be sentenced to death, although one would have his sentence commuted to transportation for life on account of his previous good character.
McIntosh and two fellow gang members were hanged in Stamp Office Close on 22 April 1812, an act of public discipline urged by the authorities to make an example of the young men and to show how antisocial behaviour would be strenuously punished. Other members of the gang received harsh sentences for their relatively minor involvement in the riot.
Later in 1812 the Edinburgh Police Act formalised the presence of the police force in the city, increasing both the numbers of officers, and the powers they had to maintain public order.
18 November 1870 - Surgeons' Hall Riot
When Sophia Jex-Blake applied to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 she may have been surprised by the outrage that many people in the city felt at the notion of women becoming doctors.
Jex-Blake was one of the original Edinburgh Seven, women who joined the medical school and became some of the first women to train as medics in the UK. However, when they arrived at Surgeons' Hall to sit their exams at the end of their first year of study, they were met by an assembled crowd of members of the public, fellow students, and some faculty staff, who pelted the class - not just the women - with mud and with rocks.
Such was the outrage that the university withdrew the women's offers to continue their studies, and Jex-Blake and her compatriots had to finish their medical training elsewhere. It would be another twenty years before the University of Edinburgh allowed women to join (and complete) their medical school.
10 June 1940 - Anti-Italian riots
In 1940, Mussolini betrayed the neutrality he had shown towards both Britain and Germany during the Second World War and formally declared that Italy was now at war with France and the UK. His troops would enter France a week or so later, but by then the effect of anti-Italian sentiment was already being felt here in Scotland, where many Italians had made their home since the late nineteenth century.
The Prime Minister at the time, Winston Churchill, launched an attack on migrant communities and ordered the rounding up of men and boys from Italian families across the UK. Edinburgh had around 400 of the estimated 20,000 Italians living in Britain at that time, and around half of them were arrested and put into internment camps, making them prisoners of war in the country they called home. (Many, including the father and grandfather of artist Eduardo Paolozzi, would later be among the 805 men who perished on the Arandora Star as they were being shipped to internment camps in Canada, after the ship was torpedoed by German submarines off the coast of Ireland.)
On the night of 10 June 1940, mobs waged their own war on the Italian community in Edinburgh, many of whom had businesses around Leith Walk and the east of the city. One of those businesses, established in 1934, was Valvona and Crolla, an Italian delicatessen which was ransacked by the mobs that night - witnesses described how the supplies of red wine ran "like blood" through the broken glass of the shop's window and door.
Despite this, many in the community remained supportive of their Italian neighbours, and Valvona and Crolla had its front window repaired by a local carpenter - the board which was placed over the broken window remains at the front of the shop over eighty years later, now considered a historical reminder of that time.
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