David Downie and the Pike Plot

David Downie, another notable goldsmith of Parliament Square, is remembered not so much for his skill as for his revolutionary behaviour. During the time of the French Revolution, political division between the Whigs and Tories reached a peak of intensity in which inevitably all sections of society including the Goldsmiths were drawn.  Peter Mathie, the Deacon of the Goldsmiths at that time, was a Tory strongly opposed to reform and Catholic emancipation.  David Downie, who rented his shop in the Goldsmith’s Hall, was a Whig and one of the few Catholic members of the Incorporation, of which he had at one time been treasurer. He had joined the Society of the Friends of the People, a group established in 1792 with the objectives of ending the war with France and obtaining parliamentary reform. Downie tried without success to get the Incorporation to support his cause.  The dispute became rancorous and was much reported in the press. William Auld, one of Downie’s supporters, had his name erased from the register of goldsmiths for this reason.    Frustrated at the failure of his efforts to raise a peaceful protest, Downie together with Robert Watt, a wine merchant, planned to arouse a revolt against authority in Edinburgh.  

Their hare-brained plan was to try to gather a body of likeminded dissidents and arm them with pikes and spears. They would then set fire to buildings in the city and attack the soldiers from the Castle as they emerged to deal with the fires. Having occupied the Castle they would then overcome the City authorities and persuade the King to carry out Parliamentary reform.  Remarkably they were in contact with a group in London, the British Convention, with similar ambitions.  They progressed to the extent of distributing seditious leaflets and ordering 4000 pikes and spears from two local blacksmiths, some of which were delivered to Watt’s home.  When 47 of these were discovered, Watt and Downie were arrested and brought to trial for High Treason.  

The trials in September 1794 attracted much attention. The charges against the men were “organizing a plot for a general rising in Edinburgh, to seize the Castle, the Bank, the persons of the Judges and proclaim a Provisional Republican Government…[1] Watt was tried first. His defending counsel, Robert Hamilton, drew attention to the absurdity of the charge:[2]

Could seven persons use 47 pikes? Could 47 pikes take the Castle, massacre the soldiers, seize the Judges and overcome the government?….if the cup of this man’s iniquity is full, the dregs are bitter, yet he must drink them; but if otherwise, and he shall yet meet with a deliverance, then it falls to you Gentlemen of the Jury, to dash the cup from his trembling lip, that he may not taste the bitter drops.

Watt was found guilty, the jury taking only minutes to come to their verdict. 

Downie was next tried.  The same evidence was heard.  In his defence his counsel, Robert Cullen, said that the plan ‘was one of the wildest phrenzies (sic) that ever entered into the head of man’ and maintained that the real leader was Watt – Downie was only interested in reform.  The Jury found Downie guilty but took some time to come to their verdict and made a recommendation for mercy 

High Treason was the most serious offence demanding the most serious penalty, yet even so the sentence seems remarkable in its brutality: –

You, and each of you, … to be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution there to be hanged by the neck, but not till you are dead; for you are then to be taken down, your heart to be cut out, and your bowels burned before your face, your head and  limbs severed from your bodies and held up to the public view, and your bodies shall remain at the disposal of His Majesty; and may the Lord have mercy on your souls.[3]

Watt’s execution took place on 15 October 1794 at the Old Tolbooth to which he was conveyed from the Castle on a black-painted hurdle drawn by a white horse, amid a procession of the magistracy, with a strong military guard.  He exhibited a picture of the most abject dejection.[4] The more ghoulish parts of his sentence were remitted and he was simply hanged and beheaded.  Downie was granted a reprieve; his sentence being reduced to a year’s imprisonment and thereafter banishment for life.  At the completion of his jail sentence he was transported to America where he settled in Augusta, Georgia.  There he resumed his occupation as a goldsmith and died aged eighty, a respected citizen.[5]

Sir Walter Scott who had attended the trials wrote to his aunt Miss Christian Rutherford that he had ‘Sat in court for Watt’s Trial from 7 in the morning to till two the next morning, but as I had provided myself with some cold meat and Bottle of Wine I continued to support fatigue pretty well’.[6]

He approved of Watt’s verdict but in a later letter he wrote; ‘It is a matter of general regret that his associate Downie should have received a reprieve…’[7] Curiously one of Downie’s descendants was the American President, Ronald Reagan[8].

[1] Letters of Sir Walter Scott vol 1 p24 fn

[2] Anon Trials of Robert Watt and David Downie  p50-1

[3] Ibid p83

[4] Kay’s Portraits vol 1 p354 fn

[5] Fortesque,W I (2012) Edinburgh Goldsmiths and Radical Politics, 1793-94. The Case of David Downie BOEC NS 9 p33-57.  Fortesque gives a full account of  the Downie affair from which much of this section has been obtained.

[6] Letters vol I p34 letter to Miss C Rutherford 5 September 1794

[7] Ibid p37 (Letter undated ? October /November 1794)

[8] Scotsman 7 July 2004:  President Regan  visited Castleland Church in Paisley during his trip to the UK in 1991 in order to see the place where his forebear’s daughter, Peggy Downie, had  married Claud Wilson in 1807.