Captain John Porteous lived from 1695 to 7 September 1736. Porteous was Captain of the Edinburgh City Guard, and is is remembered primarily for mishandling a riot in a way that led to a number of deaths, including his own at the hands of a mob. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
John Porteous was a native of Traquair, in the Scottish Borders, though his father, Stephen Porteous, went on to establish a business as a tailor on Edinburgh's Canongate. After military service on the continent John Porteous returned to Edinburgh in 1716 to become drill master to the City Guard, newly expanded following the 1715 Jacobite Uprising. Two years later he was promoted to Ensign, and by 1726 he was Captain of the City Guard. He seems to have been a man with a highly-developed sense of his own importance, officious in his approach to his duties, and widely disliked across the city and by the members of the City Guard. As a small footnote in history, he was also a keen golfer who played in the first golf match ever to be reported in a newspaper when, in 1724, he lost to Alexander Elphinstone in front of a large crowd.
In early 1736 the trial took place in Edinburgh of Andrew Wilson, George Robertson and William Hall. They were charged with smuggling and with attempting to rob an exciseman of the money he had collected. William Hall was sentenced to transportation to the colonies for life, but Andrew Wilson and George Robertson were sentenced to hang, and imprisoned in Edinburgh's Tolbooth pending the sentence being carried out. The Tolbooth was a five storey stone edifice that stood in the High Street near St Giles Cathedral. Immortalised since Sir Walter Scott's day as the "Heart of Midlothian", its location is now marked by a heart shaped pattern in the paving.
Robertson escaped to Holland after friends had bent the bars outside the window of his cell, but on 14 April 1736 Andrew Wilson was hanged in Edinburgh's Grassmarket. Public feeling was running high as many in Edinburgh sympathised with smuggling and hated excisemen. When Wilson's body was cut down a riot ensued, and the Lord Provost of Edinburgh instructed Captain Porteous to call out the entire City Guard. When they arrived in the Grassmarket, the Guard were stoned by the mob. Porteous ordered the mob to disperse, and when ignored, gave the order to his men to fire over the heads of the crowd. This only inflamed the situation further when it became clear that a number of people living in the tall tenements surrounding the Grassmarket had been wounded by the Guard. Porteous then gave the order to fire into the crowd. Six people were killed and as many as 20 wounded.
Porteous was charged with murder that same afternoon. At his trial, on 5 July 1736, many witnesses reported seeing Porteous firing his pistol into the crowd: while many more reported him not drawing his own weapon at all. The jury unanimously found him guilty, possibly influenced by the mob gathered outside the courtroom. He was sentenced to hang on 8 September 1736. In London there was considerable disquiet at what was seen as a miscarriage of justice, likely to add further to public opposition to the collection of excise duties. The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole therefore arranged for a Royal Pardon for Porteous.
News of this caused public outrage in Edinburghm and on 7 September 1736 a mob of around 4,000 people armed with weapons taken from the City Guard, broke into the Tolbooth where Porteous was being held prisoner, dragged him to the Grassmarket, and lynched him. He was buried in Greyfriars kirkyard, the following day with a small headstone simply inscribed "P. 1736".
The authorities in London were alarmed that this might be the first step in a wider popular revolt in Scotland and offered the very considerable reward of £200 for information about the ringleaders of the mob. Despite this, no one was ever brought to justice for the murder of Porteous, though the City of Edinburgh was fined £2,000 over the incident.
The events surrounding Porteous's death form the background to Sir Walter Scott's 1818 novel, Heart of Mid-Lothian. And more recently, Porteous's headstone has been replaced by one inscribed: "John Porteous, a captain of the City Guard of Edinburgh, murdered 7 September 1736. All Passion Spent, 1973."