Peter Williamson

Peter Williamson (1730-1799) (Indian Peter) is referred to elsewhere as a tavern owner in Parliament House. This interesting and complex character justifies a fuller account for he sheds light on life around the Square and in Scotland at the time of the Painting although he does not feature in the painting himself.

Peter was born in 1730, the son of a crofter in Aberdeenshire. According to his autobiography, at the age of eight he went to live with an aunt in Aberdeen. In 1743 he was enticed aboard a ship, the Planter, in Aberdeen harbour and was taken together with sixty nine boys and girls to America to be sold as slaves – a trade which was apparently well known in Aberdeen at the time and supported by some local business men. The ship in which they sailed was grounded in a storm on a sandbank near the Cape of Delaware. The crew abandoned ship leaving the cargo of children to their fate. When the ship did not sink the crew returned and took the children ashore and from there by sea to Philadelphia where they were sold. Peter was bought for the sum of £16 by a settler named Hugh Wilson, who had himself been brought to America from Scotland in similar circumstances and had become a successful settler.

His master treated Peter kindly even allowing him to get some schooling in the winter months. Peter wrote that ‘happy was my lot in falling into my countryman’s calling; a humane, worthy, honest man. Having no children of his own, and considering my unhappy condition, he took great care of me…’. Peter remained indentured to Wilson until he was seventeen when Wilson died leaving Peter with his best horse and saddle and £120. Peter spent the next seven years working on farms. In 1754 he married his first wife, the daughter of a wealthy planter who gifted him a steading of about 200 acres with house and barn on the Pennsylvanian frontier. On 2 October 1754 when his wife was away visiting friends, his farm was raided by a posse of Indians who tortured Peter, pillaged all that could be removed and burnt down the buildings. Peter was taken prisoner and made to carry goods plundered from his property. The Indians continued to travel around the country, raiding properties and killing the occupants or taking more prisoners. After four months of privation and cruelty at the hands of the Indians Peter managed to make his escape and return to his father-in-law’s house, only to learn that his wife had died two months before.

After a debriefing at the State Assembly, Peter volunteered to join a regiment raised against the Indians and the French. For three years he served with this force, engaging in a number of skirmishes and obtaining the rank of lieutenant. At a battle of Fort Oswego in August 1756 he was taken prisoner by the French and repatriated to Britain with 500 others on a French packet boat La Rénommée, which sailed under a flag of truce. He landed penniless at Plymouth on 5th November 1756, when he was discharged from the army on account of a gunshot wound which he had received to his left hand.

Peter set off north to Aberdeen having only six shillings which took him as far as York. There he managed to get published an account of his adventures in America under the verbose title French and Indian cruelty; exemplified in the life and various vicissitudes of fortune of Peter Williamson(1) from which he made a little money. When he eventually arrived in Aberdeen in June 1758, his misfortunes continued. His book, which described his abduction from Aberdeen, caused great offence. He was arrested and charged by Alexander Cushnie, the procurator fiscal, ‘that by this scurrilous and infamous libel… the corporation of the City of Aberdeen…were highly hurt and prejudged; and therefore the Pursuer ought to be exemplary punished….and that the said pamphlet, and whole copies thereof, ought to be seized and publicly burned’. He was jailed until he signed a recantation of his ‘calumnies’ (2). His books were seized and the offending pages cut out and burned at the market-cross by the common hangman. He was subsequently banished from the county and fined ten shillings.

Peter was justifiably incensed by his treatment in his home town:-(3)

What a deplorable situation this is! I could not help considering myself in a more wretched state, to be reduced to submit to such barbarities in a civilized country and the place of my nativity, than when captive among the savage Indians, who boast not of humanity.

Court case against the Aberdeen Magistrates
eter’s anger against the Aberdeen magistrates continued to rankle with him and with the help of an unnamed legal acquaintance he raised a Process of Oppression and Damages against the magistrates of Aberdeen. The case was heard in Aberdeen on 2 February 1762. Many witnesses gave evidence which corroborated Williamson’s account of the kidnapping of children in and around Aberdeen, for sale in America. The practice had been widespread and well known in the 1740’s and before; it was estimated that 600 of the city’s children had been kidnapped and sold into slavery between 1740 and 1746. Fifteen of the city merchants were identified in the evidence as being involved. The judges found in Williamson’s favour and awarded him £100 damages and legal costs to be paid by the magistrates who were personally liable. Peter had been unable to pay for counsel to present his case and one had been appointed by the court to act for him. Peter was delighted:

It is the peculiar happiness of this land of liberty to be blessed with a Supreme Court wherein justice is dispensed with an equal hand to the poor and to the rich; wherein the cause of the King and the Beggar is weighed in the balance of equity and law, and decided in favour of him whose scale preponderates. Happy is that nation whose Judges are men of integrity, uninfluenced by power, unbias’d by party, and untainted by corruption!’(4)

The magistrates sent a letter to Walter Scott, in his capacity as Principal Clerk of Session, in which they appealed against the verdict but without success. They then considered an appeal to the House of Lords but were persuaded against this by the Earl of Findlater, patron of the city, who pointed out that this would simply ‘promulgate their own disgrace’(5) . He did however help the magistrates by awarding them the proceeds of salvage from shipwrecks in the vicinity of Aberdeen to lighten their expenses. (£100 in those days would be about £60,000 today).

The practice of kidnapping for the slave trade seems to have been widespread in Scotland. In the last chapter of Heart of Midlothian, Scott writes of the villain Donacha Dhu as a

man to whom no act of mischief was unknown, was occasionally an agent in a horrible trade then carried on betwixt Scotland and America, for supplying the plantations with servants, by means of kidnapping, as it was termed, both men and women, but especially children under age.

He goes on to describe Donacha’s purchase of Effie Dean’s illegitimate son, the Whistler, who after various misadventures, which include the unwitting killing of his own father, is eventually sold as a slave to a Virginia planter. He in turn is killed by Whistler who then flees to join a tribe of wild Indians with whom ‘he lived and died after the manner of that savage people’. Perhaps Scott got some of his ideas from reading Williamson’s account of his adventures?

Vintner, Publisher and Bookseller

Peter settled in Edinburgh and from the proceeds of his book, which became widely read and popular, plus the £100 award from the Aberdeen magistrates, he managed to become a tavern owner, first in Parliament House and later at the west entrance to Parliament Square. His popularity and notoriety were enhanced by his adopting the garb of an Indian and performing war dances while uttering wild war-whoops – hence his nickname. He had a carved wooden image of himself dressed in Indian gear as his shop sign.

Unsatisfied by his life as a vintner, Peter began to establish himself as an entrepreneur with a wide range of interests starting with a bookselling business in his tiny tavern as the following advertisement details:

Peter Williamson, author of a book entitled, ‘French and Indian Cruelty, exemplified in the Life and various vicissitudes of Fortune of the said Peter Williamson, who was carried off from Aberdeen in his infancy, and sold as a Slave in Pennsylvania. Containing the History of the Author’s Adventures in North America; his Captivity among the Indians, etc. To which is added an Account of the Proceedings of the Magistrates of Aberdeen against him, on his return to Scotland: a Brief History of the Process against them before the Court of Session, and a short Dissertation on Kidnapping. Sold by the Author, at his shop in the Parliament House,…Price 1s.6d sewed, and 2s bound. This book is …adorned with a fine copperplate frontispiece, representing the Author in the habit of a Delaware Indian.

Peter Williamson dressed in his Indian garb

In 1762 he advertised a new type of scythe, in the Edinburgh Evening Courant, as being able to ‘in the hands of a single man, do more execution in a field of oats in one day, and to better purpose, than it is the power of six shearers to do….I propose, for a moderate premium to instruct any …servant on a farm, how to handle the machine, so that he may with his own hands cut down several acres of corn in a day.’ In 1772 Peter offered his tavern for lease so that he could expand his publishing and printing businesses which he conducted in a number of premises within the vicinity of Parliament Square. In addition to publishing his own books, he published some works by others including the poems of Sir David Lindsay. He sold gaming cards, his ‘new invented portable printing-press’ and marking ink ‘which stands washing, boiling, and bleaching’.

In 1773 he set up the two enterprises which were to establish his fortune – the first penny-post in Edinburgh and the first directory of Edinburgh which he produced in annual editions entitled Directory for the City of Edinburgh, Canongate, Leith, and Suburbs which were sold at his General Penny-Post Office in the Luckenbooths.

The first Directory listed people according to occupation. Peter claimed to have visited almost every house in Edinburgh to obtain the names of the occupants but in many instances house holders doubted his motives and refused to cooperate and he acknowledges many deficiencies. In subsequent issues the individual’s names are listed alphabetically and people appeared more willing to have their names included. In the Old Town houses were not numbered and the addresses were given in rather vague descriptive terms such as ‘at the Cross’, ‘opposite the water house in Castle Hill’, or ‘in Parliament Close’. Hugh Paton, who published Kay’s Portraits gave his address as ‘Head of Horse Wynd, west corner of the College’. When he moved to the New Town on the proceeds of the book sale, his address became the more succinct 10 Princes Street. The buildings of the New Town were given orderly numbering in contrast to haphazard identification in the Old Town.

In 1776 Williamson began publishing a weekly periodical entitled The Scots Spy, or Critical Observer, which must have failed after a short run, although he revived it again the following year. In 1777 he married his second wife, Jean Wilson the daughter of a bookseller John Wilson, by whom he had nine children, of whom four survived – three sons and a daughter. Jean and the daughter, who can have been no older than ten at the time, were contributing to the family fortune. An advertisement in the 1788 Directory stated :-

MRS WILLIAMSON AND DAUGHTER, at their House, first fore stair above the head of Byrnes’s Close, Luckenbooths, Engraft Silk, Cotton, Thread, and Worsted Stockings, make Silk Gloves, and every article in the engrafting branch, in the neatest manner, and on the most reasonable terms; likewise Silk Stockings washed in the most approved stile; also Grave Cloaths made on the shortest notice.
N.B. Mantua-Making carried on in all its branches as formerly. Orders given in at P. Williamson’s General Penny-Post Office, Luckenbooths, will be punctually attended to.

Alas this happy domestic arrangement was not to last. In 1789 Williamson caught his wife in flagrante with a lodger and instituted a divorce case. Jean left the family home for a new dwelling provided by her father, taking with her most of the furniture and the three children who were still at home. (The fourth, the oldest boy, was boarding at Heriot’s Hospital). Williamson published an account of the messy affair(6) . A series of servants gave evidence that Jean had had many male visitors both in the family home, when Peter was absent, and elsewhere at other times. The ‘goats’ as Peter called them, ‘brought her to ruin by intoxicating her with liquor to obtain their wicked purposes’. During the hearing a doctor described her venereal disease and its treatment with mercury. Jean retaliated by claiming that Peter ‘gave himself up to tippling and intoxication with mean and low people…till two or three in the morning and profit arising from his occupation was habitually spent and dissipated’. The divorce was granted but Jean and her father, John Wilson, tried to get their comeback by setting up a rival penny post.

The Penny Post
At the divorce hearing it was disclosed that the Penny-Post, which Peter had begun in 1773 (7),had developed into a lucrative business, employing four ‘postmen’ for a weekly wage of four shilling and sixpence. An advertisement in the Street Directory of the City of Edinburgh read;

N.B. the public may depend that Letters, etc., will be regularly sent by the Penny Post, to Leith or any place within an English mile of the cross of Edinburgh every hour thro’ the day …the different offices for taking Williamson’s Penny Post letters are all inserted in the Directory.

Letters deposited at a number of shops around the city were collected by his postmen, who were identified with caps bearing the letters PP. The business prospered providing Williamson with a profit of £50 a year. In 1793 the Postmaster General of Great Britain took the operation over and gave Peter a pension of £25 a year for life.

Kay’s portrait of James Bruce and Peter Williamson

Kay’s portrait of Peter Williamson, engraved in 1791, shows him engaged in a confrontation with James Bruce, the explorer who had travelled widely in Africa and had written an account of his travels including his discovery of the source of the Blue Nile(8).

In the legend to the illustration Bruce is saying to Williamson.

How dare you approach me with your travels. There is not a single word of them true.’ Williamson replies ‘There you may be right, and altho I never dined upon the Lion or eat half a Cow and turned the rest to grass, yet my works have been of more use to mankind than yours and there is more truth in one page of my Edinburgh directory than in all your five Volumes. So when you talk to me don’t imagine yourself at the source of the Nile.

There is no evidence that the two men ever met but the illustration reveals the suspicion prevailing at the time that both men had embellished the accounts of their adventures. Bruce reacted to the accusation; ‘The world is strangely mistaken in my character, by supposing that I would condescend to write a romance for its amusement. I shall not live to witness it; but you probably will see the truth of all I have written completely and decisively confirmed.’ His prediction was fulfilled and the accuracy of his writing was subsequently accepted.

A recent article entitled Peter Williamson; faker(9) casts much doubt on the reliability of Williamson’s account of his American experiences. While it can be established that he lived in Pennsylvania before 1755 and was a regular soldier in Shirley’s regiment, serving in Pennsylvania and Oswego in 1756 and was captured and returned to Britain in 1757, ‘his Indian captivity and his military achievements are a hoax and he was such a reckless liar that his anecdotes hardly can be accepted as credible evidence’. The author justifies this opinion by giving several examples of Williamson’s plagiarism of other contemporary texts – notably in Gentleman’s Magazine and Universal Magazine. Despite this evidence (or rather lack of evidence) relating to his American experiences, there is no doubt about Williamson’s life after his return to Britain. His legal contretemps with Aberdeen magistrates, his tavern ownership and his great contributions – the establishment of the Penny-post and Edinburgh Street Directory are all well documented. He undoubtedly deserves recognition as one of the most remarkable characters of Parliament Square.

In his last years Peter resumed the life of a vinter in a tavern at the bottom of Gavinlock’s Land in the Lawnmarket where he died in 1798. Archibald Constable who knew him at this period described him as being remarkably stout and athletic and said that ‘He was a great wag, of very jocular manners, and was accustomed to say droll and amusing things to those persons with whom he was in habits of intercourse’(10).

1.Williamson, P. (1757) French and Indian cruelty; exemplified in the life and various vicissitudes of fortune of Peter Williamson. Numerous subsequent editions were published in London (1759), Edinburgh (1766 and 1792), Dublin (1766) and Aberdeen (1826).
2.Quoted in Skelton p185
3.Life and Curious Adventures (1826 ed) p137
4.French and Indian Cruelty 5th ed (1762) p146
5.Life and Curious Adventures (1826 ed) p 7
6.The trial of divorce at the instance of Peter Williamson…against Jean Wilson Edinburgh, 1789.
7.Williamson’s penny post anticipated, by 77 years, Rowland Hill’s introduction of the national penny post in 1840.
8.Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the years 1768-73. By James Bruce of Kinnaird Esq., F.R.S.
9.Peter Williamson; faker by Bruce-Briggs, B. (2004). Northern Scotland 24, p45-52
10.Constable, T (1873) Archibald Constable and his Literary Correspondents vol I Appendix p540