Thomas Elder of Forneth

30] Thomas Elder, (1732-1799).  Just visible in the top left corner of the Square, Thomas Elder can be seen amid a troop of soldiers.  A prosperous wine merchant, he was elected Lord Provost of Edinburgh on three occasions between 1788-1798 – a period of considerable unrest when ‘Friends of the People’ were agitating for political reform.  At a protest meeting of the British Convention in December 1793, the Provost accompanied by a few loyalists broke up the meeting and arrested several of the principal members.  The trial of one of these, Maurice Margarot, was held a month later.  He approached the court accompanied by an immense crowd of supporters bearing a banner inscribed Liberty and Justice. The Provost, anticipating trouble, had gathered the Magistrates, the city guard and constables who, supported by the crew of a frigate lying at Leith, managed to disperse the crowd and threw the banner over the side of the North Bridge.  Margarot together with four other agitators including Thomas Muir[i] were sentenced to transportation for seditious activity. Years later, when the reformers had won the day, a Martyrs’ Monument commemorating these five men was erected on Calton Hill in 1844. 

This magnificent obelisk, erected in 1844 on Calton Hill, is the Martyrs’ Monument commemorating Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmers, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald, who were punished for their campaign for parliamentary reform. The building was the home of the Governor of the Calton Prison.

To thank Provost Elder for his efforts, he was awarded an inscribed silver plate and appointed colonel of the regiment of Royal Edinburgh Volunteers which was created in 1794. Perhaps these are the soldiers surrounding him in the Painting and if so it is another pointer towards the dating of the Painting.  George III recognised his contribution by appointing him Postmaster General of Scotland. Elder assisted the University in its plans to rebuild the College for which the Principal and Professors thanked him by having his portrait painted by Henry Raeburn (as they had also done for Dr William Roberston). Kay records that ‘Under his guidance, the political measures of the city were regulated with much tact and propriety; and the interest of the ruling party was never more firmly or honourably maintained.’

[i] Thomas Muir (1765-1799) a resolute supporter of parliamentary reform, was tried for sedition 1793 and was sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay for 14 years together with the four other reformers.  He managed to escape from Australia to France, where he died of complications of wounds sustained during his escape.