The Tolbooths, Guard House and Weigh House

OBSTRUCTIONS IN THE HIGH STREET

You have seen the famous street of Lisle, la Rue Royale, leading to the port of Tournay, which is said to be the finest in Europe; but which I can assure you is not to be compared either in length or breadth to the High Street of Edinburgh; and would they be at the expense of removing some of the buildings which obstruct the view, by being placed in the middle of the street, nothing could be conceived more magnificent. Topham[1]                                                         

The middle row of buildings is as very great nusance (sic) to the Town, by darkening and spoiling the prospect of is noble and spacious High-Street, which for space and magnificence of houses, is probably not to be excelled. Maitland[2]

The guard-House was a long, low, ugly building, which, to a fanciful imagination, might have suggested the idea of a long black snail crawling up the middle of the High Street, and deforming is beautiful esplanade. Scott, Heart of Midlothian p247

The obstructions in the High Street to which Topham, Maitland and Scott refer were the Weigh House at the foot of Castle Hill, the Old Tolbooth together with the adjacent Luckenbooths alongside St Giles, the Guardhouse near the Tron Kirk, and the Merkat Cross, all of which can be seen in Kincaid’s Map.

Kincaid Map of 1784 showing the obstructions in the High Street from the left the Weigh House, Tolbooth and Luckenbooths, the Cross and the Guardhouse
The Guard-house Skene

The old Guardhouse which occupied the street midway between St Giles and the Tron Church was described by Scott as ‘a long, low, ugly building, which, to a fanciful imagination, might have suggested the idea of a long black snail crawling up the middle of the High Street, and deforming its beautiful esplanade.’[3] In 1787 it was the first of the ‘obstructions’ to be removed and the city guard was transferred to accommodation in the shops on the North side of the Old Tolbooth.  When the guards lost their accommodation on the demolition of the Old Tolbooth in 1817, they were disbanded. 


THE OLD TOLBOOTH

In the top left corner of the Painting, the roof of the Old Tolbooth can just be seen. It was the worst offender as it reduced the width of the High Street to fourteen feet.

A Fragment of the Old Tolbooth in the Painting visible above the Goldsmiths Hall

This picture of the west end of the Old Tolbooth shows the extent to which the building encroached on the width of the High Street (from Grant 1 p128)

In 1817 the Old Tolbooth and the Luckenbooths were demolished and this together with the earlier removal of the Guard House and the Weigh House allowed the opening up of the High Street in all its glory but by that time the New Town was well developed and its elegance and beauty had ‘rendered even those part of the Old City, which formerly might be thought to deserve notice, less remarkable’[4].


Engraving of Nasmyth’s painting of the Old Tolbooth (from Grant 1 p133)

The History of the Old Tolbooth

As Edinburgh developed it inevitably required a building in which to conduct civic business. In 1386 Robert II granted a piece of ground, 60 by 30 feet, in the High Street ‘to construct and erect houses and buildings on the foresaid land for the ornament of the said burgh and for their necessary uses’[5].  The four storey building was erected at the north-west corner of St Giles from which it was separated by a narrow passage. It was originally referred to as the Pretorium or the Belhous for it contained the bell which summonsed the guild brothers to meetings.  If they failed to attend they were fined 12 pence.  Later it became known as the Tolbooth, literally taxing office, although that was only one of its many functions which over the years included the residence of the Provost of St Giles, the meeting place of the Town Council from 1403, Scottish Parliament from 1449[6], Privy Council, Courts of Justice and the Conventions of Burghs. Rooms in the ground floor were let for offices, shops and a tavern. For four hundred years it occupied a central place in the civic life of Edinburgh justifying its title of the Heart of Midlothian given to it by Sir Walter Scott in his novel of that name. The location of the main entrance to the old Tolbooth is marked today on the pavement of the High Street by a heart shaped arrangement of stones, and the footprint of the building is outlined among the cobbles of the High Street, indicating today the extent to which it must have obscured the roadway.

The location of the main entrance to the Old Tolbooth in the High Street as it is marked today with a Heart of Midlothian.

The Tolbooth Prison

In the fifteenth century one room was designated as a prison. It was small for such a purpose for there were many categories of crimes in those days. In addition to robbers and murderers, debtors, blasphemers, fornicators and witches all merited severe punishment but there were many non-custodial ways of dealing with miscreants. These ranged from the stocks and pillory to banishment or execution by hanging, decapitation, drowning or burning.[7]  After the many civic and national functions of the Old Tolbooth were transferred to the New Tolbooth in the sixteenth century, the Old Tolbooth, apart from a few shops remaining in the ground floor, became almost exclusively a notorious prison from 1640 to 1817. 

The ground floor of the Old Tolbooth when converted to a prison (from Reekiana)

The prison was by all accounts a place of intolerable degradation. Arnot described children being retained in locked cells, without ventilation, in conditions of dreadful squalor. 

Nothing but the habit of seeing prisoners in a wretched situation, influences the mind to behold such scene unmoved, Nothing can be more inhumane than such treatment of prisoners.  Does any gentleman use his horses or his dogs so? [8]

Other observers noted that ‘The situation of the prisoners thronged together without respect to the various degrees of delinquency or state of health, was dreadful beyond description’.[9] ‘The Old Tolbooth was indeed as vile a place as could be expected in a town which  was itself, in former times, one of the filthiest in the world’.[10] There was no ventilation, piped water or privy. Filth was collected in a hole within the house at the foot of the stair which was supposed to be connected with a drain, but this was blocked so that the jail was filled with a disagreeable stench.  The straw on the floor of the cells was unchanged for long periods and prisoners were offered no change of clothing.

Second floor of the Old Tolbooth showing the platform where executions took place (from Reekiana).

The building can be seen to be in two parts – the older east end (the bellhouse) being faced with ashlar masonry and the western part, a later development, dating from the time of Charles I, with rubble walls.  Felons were confined to the east half in conditions of considerable security while debtors were held in the western part in more relaxed circumstances.  Here they could have visitors at any time and had access to Lucky Laing’s tavern in the ground floor, but could be held in their ‘open prison’ for many months for debts as small as £3[11]. They were greeted with a verse[12]:

Welcome, welcome, brother debtor,
To this poor but merry place;
Here not bailiff, dun, nor fetter,
Dare to show his gloomy face.

A homeless individual by the name of Davie managed to live in the debtor’s prison for several years by running errands for the prisoners, his comings and goings being permitted by Peter the doorman.  A doctor ‘broken down by intemperance’ made a living by issuing sick certificates to inmates for five shillings and a dram.  With this a debtor was allowed to return home.[13]

Arnot, writing in 1779[14], describes the conditions in the felons section which he encountered during a prison visit.  There were twenty nine prisoners of whom some were allowed freedom of movement, the rest were confined in cells.  In one room there were three boys; one about fourteen and the others about twelve. ‘In the corner of the room, we saw shoved together, a quantity of dust, rags and straw, the refuse of a long accession of criminals.  The straw had been originally put in the room for them to lie upon, but had suffered to remain, till, worn by successive convicts, it was chopped into bits two inches long’.  In another cell were two boys under twelve ‘no sooner was the door opened, than such an insufferable stench assailed us, from the stagnant and putrid air of the room, as, notwithstanding our precautions, utterly to overpower us.’ Jail fever (typhus) was common. John Howard, the prison reformer, visited the Old Tolbooth in 1782 and again in 1787 giving it a scathing report but the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars preoccupied the public attention and delayed the much needed construction of a new jail. 

The jailors, who were poorly paid, made their livelihood by selling food and other necessities to the prisoners at inflated prices. Those who had no money subsisted on bread and water and later small beer.  Bribery was accepted and wealthy prisoners were able to pay for the best available accommodation[15].  It was not uncommon for wealthy prisoners to escape.  Chambers writes ‘One of the most distinguished traits in the character of the Old Tolbooth was that it had no power of retention over people of quality. …Almost every criminal of more than ordinary rank ever confined in it, somehow or other contrived to get free.’[16] He details several instances.  Lord Burleigh, an insane peer and murderer escaped by changing clothes with his sister. Another concealed in a trunk was carried out by a porter, although later recaptured.[17] A mass escape was attempted in March 1786 when the prisoners obtained the keys of the cells and the tools for releasing the irons of prisoners.  The turnkey who held the key of the main door managed to frustrate their getaway by hiding the key and summoning help.

An occasional glimpse of a more sympathetic attitude towards the prisoners is recorded. In Heart of Midlothian, Scott describes the imprisonment of the heroine Effie Dean while awaiting her execution.  The warder treated her kindly and even refused to accept a sum of money to give her special attention. In June 1806 the Lord Provost and Magistrates of City donated the sum of two guineas to the prisoners so that they could drink the health of Lord Melville on his acquittal of the charge of misappropriation of public money.[18] A benign governor Captain Sibbald was known to pay the debts of bankrupts who had large family responsibilities out of his own pocket and even permitted prisoners awaiting execution to have additions to the bread and water diet to which they were restricted by regulation. The twelve debtors, imprisoned at the time of the demolition of the prison in 1817, were liberated – their debts being paid by public donations organised by Baillie Robert Johnstone.  

The Old Tolbooth with the extension on the west wall for public executions

Over the years, alterations were made to the Old Tolbooth prison. It was enlarged in 1654 to accommodate Cromwell’s political prisoners.  A two storey extension was built at the west end of the building in 1785. The ground floor was occupied by the shop of Robert Ross, bookseller and auctioneer. The flat roof of the extension was used as the site for public executions, the gibbet having been moved there from the Grassmarket, which had been the site for public executions for the previous century. The first to be hanged in the new location in 1785 was a boy aged fifteen who had stolen goods from Neidpath Castle. 

Deacon Brodie

One of the most celebrated criminals to be executed there in 1788 was William Brodie, a locksmith, Deacon of the Incorporations of Wrights and Masons and a Councillor of the City. Behind this respectable facade, however, he led a dissolute life as a gambler who kept bad company and fathered many illegitimate children.  In 1786 he embarked on a life of crime in the company of some associates and a great number of robberies were carried out in the city causing much concern.  Brodie’s role in these affairs was unsuspected until a bungled attempt to rob the Excise Office on 5 March 1788 led eventually to his exposure. Brodie escaped at first to London and from thence to Amsterdam where he was discovered, arrested, brought back to Edinburgh and imprisoned in the Old Tolbooth. George Williamson, the King’s Messenger, who escorted Brodie from London to Edinburgh reported that during the journey Brodie ‘behaved with much levity of manner’.[19] This light-hearted behaviour was characteristic of the man.  He appears to have entered into his career as a burglar more for the excitement than for need of money, for he had a successful business, although he did have expensive tastes in gambling and mistresses. 

His trial took place in 27 August 1788 and lasted 21 hours without interruption, concluding at 6 am the following morning.  He was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Among the fifteen jurymen were two publishers, William Creech and James Donaldson, who feature in Publishing in the Square. Brodie maintained his attitude of complete composure to the end. His execution together with that of one of his confederates, George Smith, took place on the extension of the Tolbooth. A periodical described the event:[20]

About a quarter past two, the criminals appeared on the platform… When Mr Brodie came to the scaffold, he bowed politely to the Magistrates and the people.  He had on a full suit of black – his hair dressed and powdered….Having put on a white nightcap, Brodie pointed to Smith to ascend the steps that led to the drop; and in an easy manner, clapping him on the shoulder, said, ‘George Smith, you are first in hand.’ Upon this Smith, whose behaviour was highly penitent and resigned, slowly ascended the steps, and was immediately followed by Brodie, who mounted with briskness and agility, and examined the dreadful apparatus with attention, and particularly the halter designed for himself. The rope being too short tied, Brodie stepped down to the platform, and entered into conversation with  his friends….Brodie ascended a  third time, and the rope being at last properly adjusted, he deliberately untied his neckcloth, buttoned up his waistcoat and coat, and helped the executioner to fix the rope. He then took a friend…by the hand, bade him farewell, and requested that he would acquaint the world that he was still the same, and that he died like a man….This execution was conducted with more than usual solemnity; and the great bell tolled during the ceremony, which had an awful and solemn effect. The crowd of spectators was immense.

In olden times it was the custom that the heads of executed notables were impaled on spikes high up on the north aspect of the Old Tolbooth as a warning to the public.  The building was rarely without such a macabre decoration.  Among the most famous individuals given this treatment were the Regent Morton, and the Marquises of Montrose and Argyll.  The crime for which the devious Earl of Morton was punished was his alleged involvement in the murder of Lord Darnley, husband of Queen Mary.  He was beheaded in 1581 by the ‘maiden’, a Scottish version of the guillotine. His head remained on the spike for eighteen months.

The Maiden

The Marquises of Montrose and Argyll were executed for the parts they played in the civil war. The gallant Montrose was punished in 1650 for his military campaign in support of Charles I.  His sentence was particularly unpleasant.  He was:

…to be carried to the Edinburgh Cross, and there be hanged on a gibbet 30 feet high for the space of three hours; then be taken down, his head be cut off upon a scaffold, and affixed to the prison; his legs and arms be stuck up in the four chief towns of the Kingdom; his body be buried in the place appointed for common malefactors.[21]

Montrose commenting on his sentence stated that;

For my part I am prouder to have my head affixed to the place where it is sentenced to stand, than to have my picture hung in the King’s bedchamber. – So far from being sorry that my quarters are to be sent to four cities of the kingdom, I wish I had limbs enow to be dispersed into all cities of Christendom, there to remain in favour of the cause for which I suffer.

After the Restoration of the Monarchy, Montrose’s arch enemy Argyll, a prominent Covenanter, was beheaded by the maiden in 1661 for his support of Cromwell and his head followed that of Montrose on the spike. One of the first actions of Charles II was to have the body parts of Montrose reassembled, given a state funeral and honourable burial in St Giles in the tomb of his ancestors. Both Montrose and Argyll are now commemorated in the Church by splendid memorials erected at a later date – Montrose in 1888 and Argyle in 1895.

The New Tolbooth

In the mid sixteenth century the fabric of the Old Tolbooth was deteriorating and it was becoming unfit for its multiple functions.  Arnot wrote[22] ‘in the progress of refinement in manners, the grossness was discovered, of having the same apartments allotted for the high court of parliament, for the supreme courts of justice, and for the confinement of debtors and malefactors; and the city found herself under the necessity of raising a new building’. In 1560 the judges threatened to move to St Andrews unless their accommodation improved.  Queen Mary, in February 1561, sent a letter to the town council demanding that they build a New Tolbooth to accommodate the Parliament and the Courts of Justice and that the Old Tolbooth be demolished.

The Council had difficulty in complying with the Queen’s command because of inadequate funds and in the interim accommodation for the Town Council and the Court of Session was created in the south-west corner of St Giles which became known as the Outer Tolbooth and later as the Tolbooth Church when it was returned to religious use. Eventually money was raised and a New Tolbooth was completed in 1564 at a cost of £4012 Scots.  It was built on the site of what is now the entrance to the Signet Library, near the south west corner of St Giles. A bridge, at the level of the second floor, connected the New Tolbooth to the Outer Tolbooth in St Giles which continued to function for some years so that there were in effect three Tolbooths co-existing for a time. The connecting bridge between the New and the Outer Tolbooths created an archway under which people entering Parliament Square through the west entrance had to pass. Masonry for the New Tolbooth was obtained from the ruins of the Chapel of the Holy Rood, which had existed in the ‘nether kirkyard’ between St Giles and the Cowgate.  A partial demolition of the Old Tolbooth had been started in compliance with Queen Mary’s command and material, including joists, was salvaged to be used in the new building.[23]  Objections by the shopkeepers who rented premises in the Old Tolbooth, coupled with the loss of the rental income and the continuing requirement for a prison, persuaded the Council to halt the demolition and the old building continued in use.  

Edgar’s Map showing the location of the New Tolbooth

The New Tolbooth was a three storey building which held the offices of the Town Council, the High Court of Justiciary and a masonic lodge. The last Scottish Parliament to be held there was presided over by Charles I in July 1633 following his coronation. This was also the last Scottish Parliament to be presided over by royalty.  Thereafter the majority of the functions of the New Tolbooth were transferred to the Parliament House which was completed in 1640.  The downgraded building, which was never comfortable or suitable for the important and dignified uses for which it had been built, was renamed the Town Council House and was used for meetings of the Town Council. It served as a repository for the fine robes of the Councillors[24], a vestry for the clergy of St Giles and an armoury. The criminal court presided over by a sheriff was the last to remain. Other organisations such as the Merchant Company, the WS Society, the Incorporations of Shoemakers and Weavers and the Goldsmiths, after their Hall was burnt down in 1796, were accommodated there until the New Tolbooth was demolished in 1811 to make way for the building of the Signet and Advocate’s Libraries. During its 250 years of existence the unloved building had fulfilled many functions but ‘it seems to have passed into oblivion, and has not been celebrated either in song or story.’[25]

The last days of the Old Tolbooth prison.

The Old Tolbooth outlived the New Tolbooth by six years and continued as a prison until it too was demolished together with the Luckenbooths in 1817. The twelve remaining debtors still imprisoned at the time of demolition were all liberated, their debts having be cleared by a subscription organised by a baillie Robert Johnston.[26]  The gibbet was erected in the Lawnmarket opposite Libberton’s Wynd, where the notorious William Burke was hanged on 28 January 1829.  The last public execution in Edinburgh was held on 21 June 1864. The Capital Punishment Act of 1868 decreed that all capital punishments would be carried out within the confines of a prison.  The new prison, which superseded the Old Tolbooth, was built on Calton Hill to a design by Robert Adams and was a great improvement, praised for its cleanliness and good food. 

Naysmith’s painting of the demolition of the Old Tolbooth in 1817

Despite the awfulness of the old prison Cockburn, who loved Edinburgh’s old heritage, lamented its loss.[27]

The completion of the new jail implied the removal of the old one; and accordingly in a few years after this the “the Heart of Midlothian” ceased to beat.  A most atrocious jail it was, the very breath of which almost struck down any stranger who entered its dismal door; and as ill placed as possible, without one inch of ground beyond its black and horrid walls.  And these walls were very small; the entire hole being filled with little dark cells; heavy manacles the only security; airless, waterless, drainless; a living grave. One week of that dirty, fetid, cruel torture-house was a severer punishment than a year of our worst modern prison – more dreadful in its  sufferings, more certain in its corruption, overwhelming the innocent with a more tremendous sense of despair, provoking the guilty to more audacious defiance.  But yet I wish the building had been spared.  It was of great age: it once held the parliament (though how it could, I can’t conceive): it was incorporated with much curious history, and its outside was picturesque.  Neither exposing St Giles, nor widening the street, nor any other such object, ought to have been allowed to extinguish so interesting a relic.

Sir Walter Scott, another lover of the old heritage and a compulsive collector of old artefacts, wrote when he heard that the building was to be demolished “I expect to get some decorations from the Old Tolbooth of Edinburgh, particularly the cope-stones of the doorway,….and a niche or two…Better to get a niche from the Tolbooth than a niche in it.”[28] Scott was extending his house at Abbotsford at the time and was keen to incorporate bits of old Edinburgh. In the event he salvaged the main stone gateway together with the massive wooden door and a padlock. Scott’s servant, Tom Purdie, advised him against putting the door to functional use as it had ‘been grippit ower often by the hangman’[29]. Scott accepted that advice and had it built into the outside wall of Abbotsford together with its surrounding stone framework as a decoration rather than using it as a door. The lock was massive measuring two feet by one foot and the key likewise was large looking ‘like a huge iron mace’.[30]  Scott noted with delight in 1829 that a tom-tit had nested in the lock. The large key-hole which gave access to the nest is visible in the illustration. The carving on the stone pediment, which is incorporated above the door,[31] reads:

BLISSIT AR THAY THAT TRUST IN THE LOR

The mason must have misjudged the space and had to add the missing D beneath the R.  

Photograph of the door of the Old Tolbooth set into the wall of Abbotsford

Scott’s love of antiquity was not shared by all.  The Edinburgh Magazine[32] reported that ‘the Tolbooth to the unutterable delight of the inhabitants, is journeying quickly to Fettes Row, there to be transferred into common sewers and drains…’

The Weigh House

The Weigh House or Butter Tron was a cumbrous and ungainly building, which stood at the foot of Castle Hill marking the west extent of the Lawnmarket which it provided service for weighing items such as butter and cheese. lt was the last obstruction in the High Street to be removed in 1822 to make way for the public entry of George IV. It had been used by Prince Charles troops during the blockade of Edinburgh Castle in 1745 and during its demolition cannon balls were found embedded in its walls which had been fired from the battery on the Castle.

The Weigh House by Daniel Wilson
The rubble in the foreground is from the demolished Weigh House – the last obstruction to be removed from the High Street..
This painting by Alexander Nasmyth shows the High Street, cleared of the Luckenbooths and Old Tolbooth, revealing a distant view of East Lothian (Royal collection)

The Porteous Riot

One of the most interesting and dramatic events which took place near Parliament Square was the Porteous Riot which Scott describes in vivid detail in The Heart of Midlothian published in the same year as the demolition of the eponymous building. Scott’s interest in acquiring the door of the Old Tolbooth may be due to the prominent part played by the previous door which was destroyed in this remarkable epic. There are many accounts of the Riot[33], Scott himself wrote a second version in Tales of a Grandfather which was written some years later.  The account given here is based largely on Scott’s Heart of Midlothian version and the quotations are all from this source.

In 1736, when smuggling was so universal as to be accepted by many as a legitimate occupation, a smuggler called Andrew Wilson, became so frustrated at being harassed by authority that he decided to rob the Collector of Customs at Kirkcaldy.  With an associate George Robertson and two others, the men carried out a bold robbery in broad daylight and obtained with ease about £200.  They were pursued and arrested and Wilson and Robertson were tried and condemned to death.  While awaiting execution in the Tolbooth, sympathetic friends managed to pass files to the prisoners with which they cut a bar from their window.  Wilson, who decided to go first although he was the bulkier of the two, got stuck in the gap and their escape failed. Wilson, distressed by the fact that he had denied his friend the opportunity of escape, determined to try to put things right and conceived a remarkable plan.  

Condemned prisoners were allowed to attend church under guard on the Sabbath before their execution.  This custom took place in the adjacent Tolbooth Church – one of the four churches then occupying St Giles. The two men escorted by four soldiers of the city guard attended this service and heard the clergyman exhorting them to ‘redeem the time, my unhappy brethren, which is yet left; and remember that, with the grace of Him to whom space and time are but as nothing, salvation may yet be assured, even in the pittance of delay which; the laws of your country afford you.’  Robertson was reduced to tears but Wilson had other thoughts.  As they were leaving the church Wilson, who was powerfully built, seized two of the guards and threw himself on a third while shouting to his friend ‘Run Geordie, run!’  Robertson who had been taken by surprise managed to elude the remaining guard and escaped with the acquiescence of the congregation, and disappeared without trace never to be recaptured. This elusive figure becomes one of the main characters in Scott’s Heart of Midlothian as the father of Effie Dean’s illegitimate child.

Wilson’s bold action attracted much public admiration and sympathy.  On the due date of his execution, 14 August, 1736, the magistrates, sensing that there might be some unrest, arranged to reinforce the elderly City Guard with a detachment of the Welsh Fusiliers – 120 soldiers in all under the command of an experienced Captain, John Porteous.  The hanging took place in the Grassmarket, witnessed by a vast crowd.  At this juncture the multitude reacted by crowding forward, throwing missiles at the guard and cutting down the dead body.  The guard opened fire at the order of Porteous who himself fired a shot.  Several people were killed or wounded.  When the angry crowd pursued the guard as they retreated up the West Bow toward the Guardhouse in the High Street; the guard turned and fired another volley bringing the total to six killed and eleven wounded.

Porteous was charged with murder, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged on 8 September 1736. One of the witnesses called to give evidence at the trial was the banker, Sir William Forbes, who had observed the scene from a window on the south side of the Grassmarket. He testified that he had observed flame and smoke coming from the gun held by Porteous. While awaiting his execution, imprisoned in the Tolbooth, members of the government considered the case and raised doubts as to whether or not Porteous had simply carried out his duty.  Queen Caroline, acting as regent in the absence of her husband George II, who was then in the Continent, on the advice of the Secretary of State ordered a temporary reprieve.  The populace were incensed and were not to be denied their revenge.  On the evening of 7 September, the day before that which had been appointed for the execution, Porteous was celebrating his reprieve with some friends within the Tolbooth, when a mob from all quarters of the city armed with whatever they could lay their hands on assembled and marched on the Tolbooth. As they passed the Guardhouse they appropriated the muskets, halberds and Lochaber axes from the City Guards with little opposition.

With sledge-hammers and axes they attempted to break down the outer door of the Tolbooth but it resisted their efforts.  They then hit on the idea of setting fire to the door using tar barrels and by this means gained entry[34].  At first they failed to find Porteous but eventually found him hiding in a chimney and dragged him down to the Grassmarket, only to find that the gibbet and rope had been removed.  They broke into the shop of a dealer in cordage in the West Bow and took a length of rope, for which they left a half guinea, and created a gibbet of sorts from a dyer’s pole.  Unskilled in the art of hanging and using makeshift materials they had to make three attempts before they succeeded.  A vast cheer echoed up the Castle rocks at their achievement.

James Burnet, who later became a judge with the title of Lord Monboddo, arrived in Edinburgh on the day of the Porteous riot to begin his career as an advocate;

When retiring to rest his curiosity was excited by the noise and tumult in the streets, and in place of going to bed he slipped to the door, half-dressed, with a night-cap on his head.  He speedily got entangled in the crowd of passers-by and was hurried along with them to the Grassmarket, where he became an involuntary witness of the last act of the tragedy.  This scene made so deep an impression on his lordship that it not only deprived him of sleep for the remainder of the night, but induced him to think of leaving the city altogether, as a place unfit for a civilised being to live in.[35]

The government in London was incensed and offered a reward of £200 for the arrest of any of the people involved but without response. The ring leaders were never revealed although it was rumoured that some fled abroad where they made their fortunes. The government threatened the City with dire penalties for its failure to control the populace but in the end settled for a fine of £2000 to be paid to Isobel Gordon, Porteous’ widow.  She declined the full amount, having already received some compensation from the City, but in the end accepted £1500, equivalent to about £150,000 today.

Lord Monboddo (1714-1799) referred to above was a most interesting character – typical of the Edinburgh Enlightenment which prevailed at the time of the Painting. He studied many languages and their evolution and theorised that man had evolved from monkeys a century before Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man (1871).

Kay did several portraits of Lord Monboddo. In the image on the right he talking with James Hutton the geologist, another eminent Enlightenment figure, author of Theory of the Earth. The monkey sketched in the background is a reference to Monboddo’s belief that man was descended from monkeys – a concept which was much ridiculed at the time.


[1] Topham Letter II  p8

[2] Maitland p181

[3] The Weigh House was the last to be cleared in 1822 in time for the visit of King George IV.  

[4] Kincaid (1787) p108

[5] Miller, R (1895) The Municipal Buildings of Edinburgh  p 10.  There is a note of an earlier praetorium or town hall near this site which was probably destroyed when Edinburgh was burned by Richard II’s forces in 1385.  Inventory of the ancient and historical monuments of the City of Edinburgh  1951 p xl

[6] The Scottish Parliament had met in various locations including Perth, Stirling, Linlithgow and St Giles. The Old Tolbooth and the New Tolbooth where the last until Parliament House was built.  The last sitting in the Old Tolbooth was in 1633.

[7] These alternatives included pillory, kuck stool (a variant of the stocks), the jugs or jougs (a metal collar fixed to a wall by a short chain), the branks or scold’s bridle (a metal frame around the head with an insert in the mouth which inhibited talking), nailing of ears to the tron, cutting off of ears, scourgings, whipping, branding, ducking or drowning in the Nor Loch, banishment from the town, transportation to slavery, hanging, beheading, burning at the stake etc.  Drowning was considered more suitable than hanging for female offenders. Descriptions of these brutal punishments are given in Wilson, D (1847) Appendix XX p453-6; Miller, P (1886)  PSAS 20 p370; Fairley, J A (1911) BOEC IV p79.

[8] Arnot p174

[9] Storer (1820) in legend to illustration of the Old Tolbooth.(no page number)

[10] Chambers Reekiana  p132

[11] Ibid p229 footnote. Debtors of the upper class tended to be incarcerated in the Canongate Tolbooth at the eastern end of the High Street where they had  more comfortable rooms paid for by their creditors

[12] Chambers Traditions of Edinburgh p86

[13] Chambers Memoirs p102-7

[14] Ibid p230

[15] Defoe p 314 described the Old Tolbooth as ‘a miserable hole it is to say no worse of it; tho’ for those that can pay for it, there are some apartments tolerable enough and persons of quality are sometimes confin’d there’.

[16] Reekiana pp155-6

[17] Chambers Traditions pp87-8. Grant I p127-8 gives a rather different account of these two events.

[18] Storer (1818) p117

[19] Kay’s Portraits II p 121

[20] Quoted in Kay’s Portraits I p 261 The periodical is not named

[21] Kincaid (1787) p360-1

[22] Arnot p224

[23] Wilson, D Memorials of Edinburgh  p71-2 

[24] Maitland p180 details these ‘sumptuous robes anciently (sic) worn by City representatives in Parliament together with the rich trappings and accoutrements for their horses, which were used in the pompous cavalcade at the opening of the Scottish Parliament’.

[25] Edinburgh 1329-1929 p4

[26] Reekiana p153

[27] Cockburn Memorials p229

[28] Letter to Daniel Terry, 12 November 1816, in Letters vol 4 p 289

[29] Purdie’s comment is quoted in Miller, R (1895)  p32  The authenticity of this door is queried by Kerr, H F OEC IV (1911) read again

[30] Wilson, D  p185fn

[31] Glendinning p207 states that this pediment was salvaged from a window in Parliament Hall during the refacement of the façade by Reid.  It frames the Old Tolbooth door so exactly that it seems much more likely that it was part of the original door surround.  It is improbable that the careless carving would have been allowed in the construction of such an important building as Parliament House.

[32] Edinburgh Magazine November 1817  p322

[33] Scott’s dramatic accounts which are contained in Heart of Midlothian  chapters 2-7 and Tales of A Grandfather Vol 5 chapter 14. Some details have been added from  Grant Vol I p128-131, Wilson p194-6, and Browne p163-4. 

[34] This was not the first time that this method of releasing prisoners was used.  Wilson p106 describes an occasion in1695 when a mob, celebrating the successful landing at Darien, burned down the door and released the prisoners.  When the Darien expedition failed, the rioting mob expressed their disappointment by repeating this curious method of demonstrating their feelings.

[35] Kay’s Portraits  I p19