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  • Tom Reid

The Pathhead Smuggler and the Porteous Riots

On January 9th 1736 Andrew Wilson, a baker, from Pathhead, and incorrigible smuggler, tried to rob John Stark, the collector of excise in Kirkcaldy, of a large consignment of illicit brandy which had been seized from him the night before. The brandy had been run ashore at the foot of ‘Wullie Gray's Dyke,' between Cellardyke and Caiplie, and transported to Bailie Andrew Waddell's store, a few hundred yards away in Cellardyke. From there it was later moved, again under cover of darkness, to James Wilson's tavern in the High Street in Anstruther, known locally as the 'Smuggler's Howff, where Stark and his Custom's officers were waiting.

On several previous occasions Stark had seized smuggled goods from Wilson, and was watching him closely. So much so that this time Wilson decided to try to 'get even.' He went to Edinburgh and met up with George Robertson, a younger man who kept an inn at Bristo Port, and another Edinburgh man, William Hall, and together they all came back to Fife where Wilson hired two horses at Kinghorn, and took with him Patrick Galloway, a son or servant of the horse-hirer, while Robertson and Hall, with two other hired horses, met up with them at Anstruther on their crack-brained expedition. After drinking freely in East Anstruther they went on foot to Pittenweem, where Stark, his clerk, and the Cupar supervisor of excise, had by now sold the brandy and before returning to Kirkcaldy with the money were all staying in different rooms at Widow Fowler's lodging house in the Marygate in Pittenweem - almost all the inns and taverns in Anstruther were kept by smugglers while Mrs Fowler was the widow of an Exciseman.

They had retired to their beds at around ten o'clock, and about an hour and a half later they were awoken by a furious knocking on the collector's door. This was by Wilson, a heavy, powerful man, and clearly drunk since he woke the whole neighbourhood. Stark promptly jumped out of his first-floor window in his night-shirt, carrying a bag of money, but leaving behind a purse containing fifty-two guineas, and six or seven pounds of silver, as well as a pocket-book containing £41 in banknotes. While Wilson was collecting this Robertson was standing at the door with a drawn cutlass in his hand, and there was a great deal of cursing and swearing from the robbers, and weeping and wailing from the landlady and servants.

Stark meanwhile had hidden himself in a haystack, and when things died down went off to Anstruther where he collected a sergeant and a few privates. Within a short time the master criminals, who had also returned to Anstruther, were caught and all the stolen money recovered.

They were taken to Edinburgh and tried before the Lord Advocate, Duncan Forbes of Culloden, at the High Court of Justiciaries, where all were found guilty, and sentenced to be executed in the Grassmarket on 14 April.

The Inn no longer exists but a memorial tablet was erected in the vicinity saying that 'Near this spot stood the Inn where the Tax-gatherer was robbed by smugglers giving rise to the Porteous Riots, 1736. Sir Walter Scott has immortalised the event in 'The Heart of Midlothian.’'

In the novel, which first appeared in 1818, he wrote:-

“Contraband trade, though it strikes at the root of legitimate government, by encroaching on its revenues, - though it injures the fair trader, and debauches the minds of those engaged in it. - is not usually looked upon. either by the vulgar or by their betters, in a very heinous point of view. On the contrary, in those counties where it prevails, the cleverest, boldest, and most intelligent of the peasantry, are uniformly engaged in illicit transactions, and very often with the sanction of the farmers and inferior gentry. Smuggling was almost universal in Scotland in the reigns of George I and George II; for the people, unaccustomed to imposts, and regarding them as an unjust aggression upon their ancient liberties, made no scruple to elude them whenever it was possible to do so. The county of Fife, bounded by two friths on the south and north and by the sea on the east, and having a number of small seaports, was long famed for maintaining successfully a contraband trade, and, as there were many seafaring men residing there, who had been pirates and buccaneers in their youth, there were not wanting a sufficient number of daring men to carry it on. Among these, a fellow, called Andrew Wilson”

Although Wilson was a notorious and inveterate smuggler and had been caught red-handed, his sentence was generally considered to be harsh. In view of the widespread public sympathy for them, there were fears that a rescue attempt might be made. They were imprisoned in a room in the Tolbooth above a pair of horse-stealers from Arbroath named Ratcliff and Stewart who were also under sentence of death as horse-stealing was also a capital offence.

The horse-thieves had managed to get saws, etc. smuggled in to them, and had cut through the bars of their window, and then made a hole in the floor and pulled down Wilson and Robertson. The first prisoner got out through the window, down a rope, and escaped. Wilson was next, but being a 'round squat man,' he got jammed in the window and was discovered and so the rest were caught and made more secure. Two days later, on Sunday the 11th, they were taken to St Giles Church, next to the Tollbooth, for the customary 'condemned sermon,' guarded by four soldiers from the City Guard. Once in the church Wilson, possibly feeling guilty about jamming the window and preventing the escape of his companions, suddenly shouted 'Run, Geordie, do for your life!' and grabbed three of the soldiers, one with each hand, and the third with his teeth, while Geordie jumped out of his seat, knocked down the other soldier, and raced over the tops of the pews, with the congregation obligingly opening a way for him, and taking up the chant of 'Run, Geordie, run!' as he sped off and away.

Wilson was immediately bundled back into the Tolbooth, denied the benefit of hearing the rest of sermon, and put under close confinement, while the Edinburgh magistrates took every precaution to avoid any possible rescue attempt, since by now Wilson had gained even more public sympathy. This may not have been entirely merited however, because, as one eye-witness, Dr. Carlyle of Inveresk, who was then a youth of fourteen, wrote in his Autobiography:-

'The criminals were brought in by the door next the Tolbooth and placed in a long pew not far from the pulpit. Four soldiers came in with them and placed Robertson at the head of the pew and Wilson below him, two of themselves sitting below Wilson and two in a pew behind him. The bells were ringing and the doors were open, while the people were coming into the church. Robertson watched his opportunity, and, suddenly springing up, got over the pew into the passage that led into the door in the Parliament Close, and no person offering to lay hands on him, made his escape in a moment - so much the more easily, perhaps, as everybody's attention was drawn to Wilson, who was a stronger man, and who, attempting to follow Robertson, was seized by the soldiers and struggled so long with them that the two who at last followed Robertson were too late. It was reported that he had maintained his struggle that he might let his companion have time. That might be his second thought, but his first certainly was to escape himself, for I saw him set his foot on the seat to leap over, when the soldiers pulled him back. Wilson was immediately carried out to the Tolbooth, and Robertson, going uninterrupted through the Parliament Square, down the back stairs, into the Cowgate, was heard of no more till he arrived in Holland.'

However, it was a quarter of a century later before Carlyle’s Autobiography was published while another, and much more immediate version of the events was given by Allan Ramsay, the wig-maker, bookseller etc, etc, and father of Allan Ramsay the portrait painter:-

'on the Sunday preceeding the two condemn'd criminalls Wilson & Robertson were taken as usual by four sogers out of prison to hear their Last Sermon and wer but a few minutes in their Station in the Kirk when Wilson who was a very strong fellow took Robertson by the headbands of his Breeks and threw him out of his seat [and] held a soger fast in each hand and one of them with his Teeth while Robertson got over and throw the pews, pushed over the Elder & Plate at the door and made his escape throw the Parlt Clos doun the Back Stairs got out of the Poteraw port before it was shut the mob making way & assisting him, got friends money and a swift Horse and fairly got off nae mair to be heard or seen - this made them take a closser care of Wilson who had the best character of them all (till his foly made him seek reprisals at his own hand) which had gained 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 Magestrates on their Guard and maybe made some of them unco fleyed as was evidenced by their inviting in 150 of the Regement that Lys in the Cannongate who were all drawn in the Lawn Market while the criminal was conducted to the Tree by Capt Portous and a strong party of the City Guard; all was hush Psalms, prayers put up, for a long hour upwards and the man hang'd with all decency & quietnes; after he was cut doun and the guards drawing up to go off some unlucky Boys threw a stone or two at the Hangman, which is very common on which the brutal Portuos (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 & killd a Taylor in a window three storeys high, a young gentlewoman, & a son of Mr Mathison the Minister's and several more were dangerously wounded and all this from no more provocation than what I told before, the throwing of a Stone or two that hurt no body - believe this to be true for I as ane Eye witness and within a yard or two of being shot as I sat with some Gentlemen in a Stablers window opposite the Galows - after this the Crazy Brute marchd with his ragamuffins to the Guard as if had done nothing worth noticing but was not long there till the Hue & Cry rose from them that had lost friends & servants demanding Justice he was taken before the Councill where there aboundance of witnesses to fix the guilt upon him the uproar of the Mob encreased with the loudest din that ever was heard and would have torn him, council, & guard all in pieces if the Majestrates had not sent him to the Tolbooth by a strong party and told them he should be tryd for his Life which gave them some satisfaction and sent them quietly home - I could have acted more discretly had I been in Portous's place. . .'

This was the more generally accepted version of the events in the church and Sir Walter Scott was certainly in absolutely no doubt that Wilson had sacrificed himself to save his companion. The crime of smuggling was considered very minor at the time; no blood had been shed at the robbery; all the money and effects had been recovered; and it was well known that Wilson had previously suffered severely by the seizure of ‘his’ goods on many occasions by the Revenue officers, and so, however foolishly, he felt justified in trying to get some back.

The executioner had been locked up in the Tolbooth overnight in case he should be kidnapped, the number of sentries was doubled. Officers of trained bands were ordered to attend the execution as were the City Constables armed with long batons. The city guard had ammunition distributed, and were marched to the Grassmarket with bayonets fixed, and in addition to that a battalion of the Welsh Fusiliers were drawn up on each side of the Lawnmarket, while another detachment stood guarding the Canongate.

Shortly before two in the afternoon the prisoner was collected from the Tolbooth by Captain John Porteous, a thoroughly nasty individual, who was already furious at the way his men had been shown up in the church, and resented the presence of the Welsh Fusiliers as a slur on his ability to keep order. He also aroused the crowd's anger by snatching the manacles from the hangman and forcing them viciously onto the podgy wrists of Wilson.

The execution, in the Grassmarket at the foot of the West Bow, where the gallows stood on a block of sandstone, was perfectly quiet and orderly with Wilson seemingly penitent, and the vast crowd unusually quiet and sombre. After life was extinct the magistrates, ministers and constables retired to a tavern for a meal, and half-an-hour later waved a white rod from the window as a signal for the body to be cut down. A number of boys then threw some garbage at the executioner, a common practice at the time. Captain Porteous, who may well have been drunk, lost his head completely and ordered his men to open fire, and in doing so one musket ball actually narrowly missed the magistrates. Porteous had no authority from them for this, and had not read the riot act or proclamation according to law, and had even seized the musket of one man who was reluctant. Four people were killed and eleven wounded, nine of them so seriously that they died by the time Porteous came to trial.

The Edinburgh magistrates ordered the dead to be buried and the wounded looked after at their expense, and Wilson's body was taken back to be buried in the Pathhead Feuars' Graveyard in Kirkcaldy (between the Path Tavern and Braehead House -

and not to be confused with the small Nether Street burial ground beside Ravenscraig Castle).

The bland inscription over his grave reads:-














Robertson eventually turned up at the Scottish Kirk at Campvere in 1738 seeking to have a child of his baptised. He was refused on the grounds that he was a criminal on the run from justice:-

'But that the child be not deprived of the privilege of Baptism for the Father's crimes, do allow Helen Purvess lawful wife to said George Robertson and Mother of the Child to present the same to Baptism, and to take on the vows, they knowing nothing against her character and conduct.’

Porteous was a thug and a bully; the son of a tailor in the Canongate. His father was a good but weak man, while his mother was excessively indulgent to the boy who initially trained as a tailor, but proved so intractable that he was eventually packed off by his father to the army. There he served in Holland with the Scots Dutch Brigade, and on his return to Edinburgh as a smart brave soldier around 1715 he was appointed by the Lord Provost to be drill-master of the Town Guard. In this post he carried out his duties remarkably well at first and as a result of his frequent reporting to the Provost he came to know a gentlewoman who looked after the Provost's house. He courted, and then married her, and as a kind of wedding present to the couple Porteous was made an Ensign with the Guard which was made up generally of ex-servicemen and known as the 'Black Banditti’. At that time it consisted of 100 men in three companies. In 1726 he was promoted to Captain with 30 men under his command, but his behaviour worsened as noted by the Rev. Carlyle:- “This man, by his skill in manly exercises, particularly the golf, and by gentlemanly behaviour, was admitted into the company of his superiors, which elated his mind, and added insolence to his native roughness, so that he was hated and feared by the mob in Edinburgh.” His wife was eventually forced to leave him.

Porteous was unanimously found guilty at his trial on 20th of July and sentenced to be ‘hanged on a gibbet at the common place of execution, on Wednesday, 8th of September, 1736, and all his moveable property to be forfeited to the kings use, according to the Scottish law in cases of wilful murder.’ However, “Having been a golfing companion of President Forbes, Lord Drummore, and other persons of rank and consequence, application was made for a respite to Queen Caroline.”

The government in London also felt that there were some 'extenuating circumstances' and in late August a letter came from Caroline, acting as Queen Regent while George II was in Hanover, saying that ‘the sentence of death against John Porteous, late Captain-Lieutenant of the City-Guard of Edinburgh, present prisoner in the Tolbooth of that city, be respited for six weeks from the time appointed for his execution.’

The people of Edinburgh suspected that this was merely the prelude to the granting of a free pardon, and took matters into their own hands.And it was not just the ordinary ’common people’ as it was widely believed that the coolly determined vigilante mob included landed gentlemen from Fife, Stirling, Perth, and even Dumfries. They entered the town by the West Port between nine and ten in the evening of the 7th of September and closed all the city gates, thus excluding the five companies of a marching regiment quartered in the Canongate. They then collected a mob by the beating of the town drum, which they had seized, and went to the guard-house in the High Street where they disarmed the sentries and collected all the arms held there.

Then they proceeded to the Tolbooth and collected Porteous, after burning down the door to his cell, and marched him to the Grassmarket where they hanged him from a dyer's pole which stood on the south side of the street, exactly opposite to the gallows stone, and thus as close as they could get to the actual scene of his crime.

It was around a quarter to twelve when they put the rope around his neck and hauled him up. Then seeing that his hands were loose they let him down and tightened his bonds, but he got a hand free once again. Finally, after a long time, when they were satisfied he was dead, they nailed the rope to the pole and dispersed in as orderly a fashion as ever, leaving his bruised and battered body to hang until five o'clock in the morning. They also left behind all the arms which had been taken from the guard-house, They had broken into a small shop at No 69 West Bow in order to obtain the necessary rope, and Sandy Bruce, the barber of Anstruther, and a councillor of the burgh, was said to have left a guinea on the counter as payment for the coil of rope.

The authorities in London were furious and offered a reward of £200 to anyone identifying the ringleaders. Despite this massive reward, no reliable information was ever forthcoming. The authorities in Edinburgh were met with a wall of silence and the authorities in London were not amused. A number of people were examined, and one was tried, but it all came to nothing. The Lord Provost was sacked and disqualified from holding public office, and the Scots judges were summoned south. The magistrates and judges of Edinburgh were fined £2,000 the following year, and all the ministers of the Established Church of Scotland were compelled to read out a condemnatory proclamation - on the first Sunday of every month for a year.

Mrs Porteous did receive a measure of compensation (for her loss?) in that the £2000 fine was awarded to his widow.Porteous was buried in Greyfriars churchyard beneath a small square stone marked simply with the letter ‘P’ and the date 1736. This was replaced in 1973 with a larger stone from Craigleith quarry inscribed “John Porteous, a captain of the City Guard of Edinburgh, murdered September 7, 1736. All passion spent.’

Meanwhile, the 'pernicious and distractive trade of smuggling' carried on merrily in the East Neuk and elsewhere.

General Anstruther of Airdrie, who represented the East of Fife burghs at the time, and had gained unpopularity by voting with the British Government against the City of Edinburgh, had occasion to cross the Forth, and considered it prudent to avoid the usual ferries. So he got a couple of fishermen to take him from Earlsferry over to North Berwick. During the passage he tried making conversation with the men; "Well, I suppose you fellows are all great smugglers?" "O, ay," came the reply, "but I dinna think we ever smuggled a General before!"

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