1961: Marie Fikacková, Beast of Sušice 1905: Chief Zacharias Kukuri

1736: Andrew Wilson, in the Heart of Midlothian

April 14th, 2012 Headsman

“The mob of Edinburgh, when thoroughly excited, had been at all times one of the fiercest which could be found in Europe.”

-Walter Scott, Heart of Midlothian

Cycles of violence often climax in executions. On this date in 1736, the execution of Andrew Wilson instead initiated the cycle … which culminated in one of the most notorious riots in Scottish history.

Worthy fodder indeed for Scott’s pen.

That January, Wilson, George Robertson, and William Hall had robbed an excise tax collector of £200, earning all three of them a death sentence. Hall drew a commutation, and Robertson spectacularly escaped from the condemned men’s sermon when he bolted for the door while Wilson obstructed the guards. (All the civilians present stood aside for the fleeing man, who successfully reached Holland and safety.)

Public sympathy for the self-sacrificing Wilson — whose victim was collecting a much-resented levy for the much-resented new British Union — had become acute by April 14th, when Wilson was to be publicly executed in the Grassmarket.

A great, and tense, crowd turned out for the occasion. The poet Allan Ramsay was present among them.

[The escape of Robertson] made them take a closer care of Wilson who had the best character of them all (til his foly made him seek reprisals at his own hand), which had gaind him so much pity as to raise a report that a great mob would rise on his execution day to relieve him, which noise put our Magistrates on their guard and maybe made some of them unco flayd [unusually afraid] as was evidenced by their inviting in 150 of the Regement that lys [lies] in Cannongate, who were all drawn up in the Lawn Market, while the criminal was conducted to the tree by Captain Porteous and a strong party of the City Guard.

This Captain John Porteous of the also-resented Edinburgh City Guard was not a well-calculated selection to calm everyone’s nerves.

He’d hooked up the lucrative officers’ appointment courtesy of political pull, then proceeded to become a violent, overbearing ass and “procured him the universal hatred of the people in that city.”

Wilson was executed, as Ramsay says, “with all decency & quietnes,” but when the body was being removed the irritable crowd favored its obnoxious guards with a few missiles. Porteous, who obviously wasn’t the turn-the-other-cheek type, destructively escalated the confrontation.

After he was cut down and the guard drawing up to go off, some unlucky boys threw a stone or two at the hangman, which is very common, on which the brutal Porteous (who it seems had ordered his party to load their guns with ball) let drive first himself amongst the inocent mob and commanded his men to folow his example which quickly cleansed the street but left three men, a boy and a woman dead upon the spot, besides several others wounded, some of whom are dead since. After this first fire he took it in his head when half up the Bow to order annother voly & kill’d a taylor in a window three storys high, a young gentleman & a son of Mr Matheson the minister’s and several more were dangerously wounded and all this from no more provocation than what I told you before, the throwing of a stone or two that hurt no body. Believe this to be true, for I was ane eye witness and within a yard or two of being shot as I sat with some gentlemen in a stabler’s window oposite to the Galows. After this the crazy brute march’d with his ragamuffins to the Guard, as if he had done nothing worth noticing but was not long there till the hue and cry rose from them that had lost friends & servants, demanding justice. … I could have acted more discreetly had I been in Porteous’s place.

There were up to 30 casualties, and the temper of that fierce Edinburgh mob went from bad to worse over the ensuing months.

Authorities were obliged by public outrage to arrest Porteous for murder, and in an electric trial with a good deal of witness testimony scrambled by the post-hanging chaos, Porteous himself was condemned to hang.

We might, however, suppose with Scott that “if Captain Porteous’s violence was not altogether regarded as good service, it might certainly be thought, that to visit it with a capital punishment would render it both delicate and dangerous for future officers” — to say nothing of the “natural feeling, on the part of all members of Government, for the general maintenance of authority.” It’s not as if there are a lot of cops charged with capital crimes today for even the most egregious homicides.

Intervention to block the hanging came straight from London at the instigation of first Prime Minister Robert Walpole, whose intervention was also not liable to tame any passions. Instead …

In the ensuing riot, an Edinburgh lynch mob overpowered Captain Porteous’s guards at the Tolbooth and hauled the scoundrel out to the Grassmarket where he was beaten and hanged on a dyer’s pole.

Despite a £200 reward for the authors of Porteous’s death, and a passing Parliamentary threat to revoke the city’s charter altogether, no Edinburgher ever talked, and no person was ever prosecuted for the Porteous riots.


It was not until 1973, with “all passion spent”, that this memorial stone was erected for John Porteous in Greyfriars Kirkyard. (cc) image from Kio Stark.

The Heart of Midlothian, Scott’s novel that features these infamous riots, was also the nickname for the the Old Tolbooth, the Edinburgh gaol where both Wilson and Porteous were housed before their respective unfortunate demises. Today, the Heart only remains as a literal heart-shaped mosaic in the city’s paving-stones marking the building’s former location.

Generations of passersby have paused to hawk a loogie on this design as a gesture of the citizenry’s lasting contempt for the long-demolished prison.


The present-day “Heart of Midlothian” in Edinburgh’s paving-stones. (cc) image from Lee Carson.

Much less hostile is the reception given Walter Scott’s oeuvre.

The names of the novelist’s books and their characters were often repurposed by Scots to name nigh anything … stuff like, a Heart of Midlothian Dancing Club in Edinburgh, from which in turn emerged a cadre of sportive youth who formed the still-extant Heart of Midlothian Football Club.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scandal,Scotland,Theft

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