The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Walter Scott

Chapter 6

But up then raise all Edinburgh.

They all rose up by thousands three.

Johnnie Armstrang’s Goodnight.

Butler, on his departure from the sign of the Golden Nag, went in quest of a friend of his connected with the law, of whom he wished to make particular inquiries concerning the circumstances in which the unfortunate young woman mentioned in the last chapter was placed, having, as the reader has probably already conjectured, reasons much deeper than those dictated by mere humanity for interesting himself in her fate. He found the person he sought absent from home, and was equally unfortunate in one or two other calls which he made upon acquaintances whom he hoped to interest in her story. But everybody was, for the moment, stark-mad on the subject of Porteous, and engaged busily in attacking or defending the measures of Government in reprieving him; and the ardour of dispute had excited such universal thirst, that half the young lawyers and writers, together with their very clerks, the class whom Butler was looking after, had adjourned the debate to some favourite tavern. It was computed by an experienced arithmetician, that there was as much twopenny ale consumed on the discussion as would have floated a first-rate man-of-war.

Butler wandered about until it was dusk, resolving to take that opportunity of visiting the unfortunate young woman, when his doing so might be least observed; for he had his own reasons for avoiding the remarks of Mrs. Saddletree, whose shop-door opened at no great distance from that of the jail, though on the opposite or south side of the street, and a little higher up. He passed, therefore, through the narrow and partly covered passage leading from the north-west end of the Parliament Square.

He stood now before the Gothic entrance of the ancient prison, which, as is well known to all men, rears its ancient front in the very middle of the High Street, forming, as it were, the termination to a huge pile of buildings called the Luckenbooths, which, for some inconceivable reason, our ancestors had jammed into the midst of the principal street of the town, leaving for passage a narrow street on the north; and on the south, into which the prison opens, a narrow crooked lane, winding betwixt the high and sombre walls of the Tolbooth and the adjacent houses on the one side, and the butresses and projections of the old Cathedral upon the other. To give some gaiety to this sombre passage (well known by the name of the Krames), a number of little booths, or shops, after the fashion of cobblers’ stalls, are plastered, as it were, against the Gothic projections and abutments, so that it seemed as if the traders had occupied with nests, bearing the same proportion to the building, every buttress and coign of vantage, as the martlett did in Macbeth’s Castle. Of later years these booths have degenerated into mere toy-shops, where the little loiterers chiefly interested in such wares are tempted to linger, enchanted by the rich display of hobby-horses, babies, and Dutch toys, arranged in artful and gay confusion; yet half-scared by the cross looks of the withered pantaloon, or spectacled old lady, by whom these tempting stores are watched and superintended. But, in the times we write of, the hosiers, the glovers, the hatters, the mercers, the milliners, and all who dealt in the miscellaneous wares now termed haberdasher’s goods, were to be found in this narrow alley.

To return from our digression. Butler found the outer turnkey, a tall thin old man, with long silver hair, in the act of locking the outward door of the jail. He addressed himself to this person, and asked admittance to Effie Deans, confined upon accusation of child-murder. The turnkey looked at him earnestly, and, civilly touching his hat out of respect to Butler’s black coat and clerical appearance, replied, “It was impossible any one could be admitted at present.”

“You shut up earlier than usual, probably on account of Captain Porteous’s affair?” said Butler.

The turnkey, with the true mystery of a person in office, gave two grave nods, and withdrawing from the wards a ponderous key of about two feet in length, he proceeded to shut a strong plate of steel, which folded down above the keyhole, and was secured by a steel spring and catch. Butler stood still instinctively while the door was made fast, and then looking at his watch, walked briskly up the street, muttering to himself, almost unconsciously —

Porta adversa, ingens, solidoque adamante columnae;

Vis ut nulla virum, non ipsi exscindere ferro

Coelicolae valeant — Stat ferrea turris ad auras — etc.1

— Dryden’s Virgil, Book vi.

1 Wide is the fronting gate, and, raised on high,

With adamantine columns threats the sky;

Vain is the force of man, and Heaven’s as vain,

To crush the pillars which the pile sustain:

Sublime on these a tower of steel is reard.

Having wasted half-an-hour more in a second fruitless attempt to find his legal friend and adviser, he thought it time to leave the city and return to his place of residence, in a small village about two miles and a half to the southward of Edinburgh. The metropolis was at this time surrounded by a high wall, with battlements and flanking projections at some intervals, and the access was through gates, called in the Scottish language ports, which were regularly shut at night. A small fee to the keepers would indeed procure egress and ingress at any time, through a wicket left for that purpose in the large gate; but it was of some importance, to a man so poor as Butler, to avoid even this slight pecuniary mulct; and fearing the hour of shutting the gates might be near, he made for that to which he found himself nearest, although, by doing so, he somewhat lengthened his walk homewards. Bristo Port was that by which his direct road lay, but the West Port, which leads out of the Grassmarket, was the nearest of the city gates to the place where he found himself, and to that, therefore, he directed his course. He reached the port in ample time to pass the circuit of the walls, and entered a suburb called Portsburgh, chiefly inhabited by the lower order of citizens and mechanics. Here he was unexpectedly interrupted.

He had not gone far from the gate before he heard the sound of a drum, and, to his great surprise, met a number of persons, sufficient to occupy the whole front of the street, and form a considerable mass behind, moving with great speed towards the gate he had just come from, and having in front of them a drum beating to arms. While he considered how he should escape a party, assembled, as it might be presumed, for no lawful purpose, they came full on him and stopped him.

“Are you a clergyman?” one questioned him.

Butler replied that “he was in orders, but was not a placed minister.”

“It’s Mr. Butler from Liberton,” said a voice from behind, “he’ll discharge the duty as weel as ony man.”

“You must turn back with us, sir,” said the first speaker, in a tone civil but peremptory.

“For what purpose, gentlemen?” said Mr. Butler. “I live at some distance from town — the roads are unsafe by night — you will do me a serious injury by stopping me.”

“You shall be sent safely home — no man shall touch a hair of your head — but you must and shall come along with us.”

“But to what purpose or end, gentlemen?” said Butler. “I hope you will be so civil as to explain that to me.”

“You shall know that in good time. Come along — for come you must, by force or fair means; and I warn you to look neither to the right hand nor the left, and to take no notice of any man’s face, but consider all that is passing before you as a dream.”

“I would it were a dream I could awaken from,” said Butler to himself; but having no means to oppose the violence with which he was threatened, he was compelled to turn round and march in front of the rioters, two men partly supporting and partly holding him. During this parley the insurgents had made themselves masters of the West Port, rushing upon the Waiters (so the people were called who had the charge of the gates), and possessing themselves of the keys. They bolted and barred the folding doors, and commanded the person, whose duty it usually was, to secure the wicket, of which they did not understand the fastenings. The man, terrified at an incident so totally unexpected, was unable to perform his usual office, and gave the matter up, after several attempts. The rioters, who seemed to have come prepared for every emergency, called for torches, by the light of which they nailed up the wicket with long nails, which, it seemed probable, they had provided on purpose.

While this was going on, Butler could not, even if he had been willing, avoid making remarks on the individuals who seemed to lead this singular mob. The torch-light, while it fell on their forms and left him in the shade, gave him an opportunity to do so without their observing him. Several of those who seemed most active were dressed in sailors’ jackets, trousers, and sea-caps; others in large loose-bodied greatcoats, and slouched hats; and there were several who, judging from their dress, should have been called women, whose rough deep voices, uncommon size, and masculine, deportment and mode of walking, forbade them being so interpreted. They moved as if by some well-concerted plan of arrangement. They had signals by which they knew, and nicknames by which they distinguished each other. Butler remarked, that the name of Wildfire was used among them, to which one stout Amazon seemed to reply.

The rioters left a small party to observe the West Port, and directed the Waiters, as they valued their lives, to remain within their lodge, and make no attempt for that night to repossess themselves of the gate. They then moved with rapidity along the low street called the Cowgate, the mob of the city everywhere rising at the sound of their drum, and joining them. When the multitude arrived at the Cowgate Port, they secured it with as little opposition as the former, made it fast, and left a small party to observe it. It was afterwards remarked, as a striking instance of prudence and precaution, singularly combined with audacity, that the parties left to guard those gates did not remain stationary on their posts, but flitted to and fro, keeping so near the gates as to see that no efforts were made to open them, yet not remaining so long as to have their persons closely observed. The mob, at first only about one hundred strong, now amounted to thousands, and were increasing every moment. They divided themselves so as to ascend with more speed the various narrow lanes which lead up from the Cowgate to the High Street; and still beating to arms as they went, an calling on all true Scotsmen to join them, they now filled the principal street of the city.

The Netherbow Port might be called the Temple Bar of Edinburgh, as, intersecting the High Street at its termination, it divided Edinburgh, properly so called, from the suburb named the Canongate, as Temple Bar separates London from Westminster. It was of the utmost importance to the rioters to possess themselves of this pass, because there was quartered in the Canongate at that time a regiment of infantry, commanded by Colonel Moyle, which might have occupied the city by advancing through this gate, and would possess the power of totally defeating their purpose. The leaders therefore hastened to the Netherbow Port, which they secured in the same manner, and with as little trouble, as the other gates, leaving a party to watch it, strong in proportion to the importance of the post.

The next object of these hardy insurgents was at once to disarm the City Guard, and to procure arms for themselves; for scarce any weapons but staves and bludgeons had been yet seen among them. The Guard-house was a long, low, ugly building (removed in 1787), 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. This formidable insurrection had been so unexpected, that there were no more than the ordinary sergeant’s guard of the city-corps upon duty; even these were without any supply of powder and ball; and sensible enough what had raised the storm, and which way it was rolling, could hardly be supposed very desirous to expose themselves by a valiant defence to the animosity of so numerous and desperate a mob, to whom they were on the present occasion much more than usually obnoxious.

There was a sentinel upon guard, who (that one town-guard soldier might do his duty on that eventful evening) presented his piece, and desired the foremost of the rioters to stand off. The young Amazon, whom Butler had observed particularly active, sprung upon the soldier, seized his musket, and after a struggle succeeded in wrenching it from him, and throwing him down on the causeway. One or two soldiers, who endeavoured to turn out to the support of their sentinel, were in the same manner seized and disarmed, and the mob without difficulty possessed themselves of the Guard-house, disarming and turning out of doors the rest of the men on duty. It was remarked, that, notwithstanding the city soldiers had been the instruments of the slaughter which this riot was designed to revenge, no ill usage or even insult was offered to them. It seemed as if the vengeance of the people disdained to stoop at any head meaner than that which they considered as the source and origin of their injuries.

On possessing themselves of the guard, the first act of the multitude was to destroy the drums, by which they supposed an alarm might be conveyed to the garrison in the castle; for the same reason they now silenced their own, which was beaten by a young fellow, son to the drummer of Portsburgh, whom they had forced upon that service. Their next business was to distribute among the boldest of the rioters the guns, bayonets, partisans, halberts, and battle or Lochaber axes. Until this period the principal rioters had preserved silence on the ultimate object of their rising, as being that which all knew, but none expressed. Now, however, having accomplished all the preliminary parts of their design, they raised a tremendous shout of “Porteous! Porteous! To the Tolbooth! To the Tolbooth!”


Tolbooth, Cannongate

They proceeded with the same prudence when the object seemed to be nearly in their grasp, as they had done hitherto when success was more dubious. A strong party of the rioters, drawn up in front of the Luckenbooths, and facing down the street, prevented all access from the eastward, and the west end of the defile formed by the Luckenbooths was secured in the same manner; so that the Tolbooth was completely surrounded, and those who undertook the task of breaking it open effectually secured against the risk of interruption.

The magistrates, in the meanwhile, had taken the alarm, and assembled in a tavern, with the purpose of raising some strength to subdue the rioters. The deacons, or presidents of the trades, were applied to, but declared there was little chance of their authority being respected by the craftsmen, where it was the object to save a man so obnoxious. Mr. Lindsay, member of parliament for the city, volunteered the perilous task of carrying a verbal message, from the Lord Provost to Colonel Moyle, the commander of the regiment lying in the Canongate, requesting him to force the Netherbow Port, and enter the city to put down the tumult. But Mr. Lindsay declined to charge himself with any written order, which, if found on his person by an enraged mob, might have cost him his life; and the issue, of the application was, that Colonel Moyle having no written requisition from the civil authorities, and having the fate of Porteous before his eyes as an example of the severe construction put by a jury on the proceedings of military men acting on their own responsibility, declined to encounter the risk to which the Provost’s verbal communication invited him.

More than one messenger was despatched by different ways to the Castle, to require the commanding officer to march down his troops, to fire a few cannon-shot, or even to throw a shell among the mob, for the purpose of clearing the streets. But so strict and watchful were the various patrols whom the rioters had established in different parts of the streets, that none of the emissaries of the magistrates could reach the gate of the Castle. They were, however, turned back without either injury or insult, and with nothing more of menace than was necessary to deter them from again attempting to accomplish their errand.

The same vigilance was used to prevent everybody of the higher, and those which, in this case, might be deemed the more suspicious orders of society, from appearing in the street, and observing the movements, or distinguishing the persons, of the rioters. Every person in the garb of a gentleman was stopped by small parties of two or three of the mob, who partly exhorted, partly required of them, that they should return to the place from whence they came. Many a quadrille table was spoilt that memorable evening; for the sedan chairs of ladies; even of the highest rank, were interrupted in their passage from one point to another, in spite of the laced footmen and blazing flambeaux. This was uniformly done with a deference and attention to the feelings of the terrified females, which could hardly have been expected from the videttes of a mob so desperate. Those who stopped the chair usually made the excuse, that there was much disturbance on the streets, and that it was absolutely necessary for the lady’s safety that the chair should turn back. They offered themselves to escort the vehicles which they had thus interrupted in their progress, from the apprehension, probably, that some of those who had casually united themselves to the riot might disgrace their systematic and determined plan of vengeance, by those acts of general insult and license which are common on similar occasions.

Persons are yet living who remember to have heard from the mouths of ladies thus interrupted on their journey in the manner we have described, that they were escorted to their lodgings by the young men who stopped them, and even handed out of their chairs, with a polite attention far beyond what was consistent with their dress, which was apparently that of journeymen mechanics.2

It seemed as if the conspirators, like those who assassinated Cardinal Beatoun in former days, had entertained the opinion, that the work about which they went was a judgment of Heaven, which, though unsanctioned by the usual authorities, ought to be proceeded in with order and gravity.

While their outposts continued thus vigilant, and suffered themselves neither from fear nor curiosity to neglect that part of the duty assigned to them, and while the main guards to the east and west secured them against interruption, a select body of the rioters thundered at the door of the jail, and demanded instant admission. No one answered, for the outer keeper had prudently made his escape with the keys at the commencement of the riot, and was nowhere to be found. The door was instantly assailed with sledge-hammers, iron crows, and the coulters of ploughs, ready provided for the purpose, with which they prized, heaved, and battered for some time with little effect; for the door, besides being of double oak planks, clenched, both endlong and athwart, with broad-headed nails, was so hung and secured as to yield to no means of forcing, without the expenditure of much time. The rioters, however, appeared determined to gain admittance. Gang after gang relieved each other at the exercise, for, of course, only a few could work at once; but gang after gang retired, exhausted with their violent exertions, without making much progress in forcing the prison door. Butler had been led up near to this the principal scene of action; so near, indeed, that he was almost deafened by the unceasing clang of the heavy fore-hammers against the iron-bound portal of the prison. He began to entertain hopes, as the task seemed protracted, that the populace might give it over in despair, or that some rescue might arrive to disperse them. There was a moment at which the latter seemed probable.

The magistrates, having assembled their officers, and some of the citizens who were willing to hazard themselves for the public tranquillity, now sallied forth from the tavern where they held their sitting, and approached the point of danger. Their officers went before them with links and torches, with a herald to read the riot-act, if necessary. They easily drove before them the outposts and videttes of the rioters; but when they approached the line of guard which the mob, or rather, we should say, the conspirators, had drawn across the street in the front of the Luckenbooths, they were received with an unintermitted volley of stones, and, on their nearer approach, the pikes, bayonets, and Lochaber-axes, of which the populace had possessed themselves, were presented against them. One of their ordinary officers, a strong resolute fellow, went forward, seized a rioter, and took from him a musket; but, being unsupported, he was instantly thrown on his back in the street, and disarmed in his turn. The officer was too happy to be permitted to rise and run away without receiving any farther injury; which afforded another remarkable instance of the mode in which these men had united a sort of moderation towards all others, with the most inflexible inveteracy against the object of their resentment. The magistrates, after vain attempts to make themselves heard and obeyed, possessing no means of enforcing their authority, were constrained to abandon the field to the rioters, and retreat in all speed from the showers of missiles that whistled around their ears.

The passive resistance of the Tolbooth gate promised to do more to baffle the purpose of the mob than the active interference of the magistrates. The heavy sledge-hammers continued to din against it without intermission, and with a noise which, echoed from the lofty buildings around the spot, seemed enough to have alarmed the garrison in the Castle. It was circulated among the rioters, that the troops would march down to disperse them, unless they could execute their purpose without loss of time; or that, even without quitting the fortress, the garrison might obtain the same end by throwing a bomb or two upon the street.

Urged by such motives for apprehension, they eagerly relieved each other at the labour of assailing the Tolbooth door: yet such was its strength, that it still defied their efforts. At length, a voice was heard to pronounce the words, “Try it with fire.” The rioters, with an unanimous shout, called for combustibles, and as all their wishes seemed to be instantly supplied, they were soon in possession of two or three empty tar-barrels. A huge red glaring bonfire speedily arose close to the door of the prison, sending up a tall column of smoke and flame against its antique turrets and strongly-grated windows, and illuminating the ferocious and wild gestures of the rioters, who surrounded the place, as well as the pale and anxious groups of those, who, from windows in the vicinage, watched the progress of this alarming scene. The mob fed the fire with whatever they could find fit for the purpose. The flames roared and crackled among the heaps of nourishment piled on the fire, and a terrible shout soon announced that the door had kindled, and was in the act of being destroyed. The fire was suffered to decay, but, long ere it was quite extinguished, the most forward of the rioters rushed, in their impatience, one after another, over its yet smouldering remains. Thick showers of sparkles rose high in the air, as man after man bounded over the glowing embers, and disturbed them in their passage. It was now obvious to Butler, and all others who were present, that the rioters would be instantly in possession of their victim, and have it in their power to work their pleasure upon him, whatever that might be.3

2 A near relation of the author’s used to tell of having been stopped by the rioters, and escorted home in the manner described. On reaching her own home one of her attendants, in the appearance a baxter, a baker’s lad, handed her out of her chair, and took leave with a bow, which, in the lady’s opinion, argued breeding that could hardly be learned at the oven’s mouth.

3 The Old Tolbooth.

The ancient Tolbooth of Edinburgh, Situated as described in this CHAPTER, was built by the citizens in 1561, and destined for the accommodation of Parliament, as well as of the High Courts of Justice;* and at the same time for the confinement of prisoners for debt, or on criminal charges. Since the year 1640, when the present Parliament House was erected, the Tolbooth was occupied as a prison only.

Gloomy and dismal as it was, the situation in the centre of the High Street rendered it so particularly well-aired, that when the plague laid waste the city in 1645, it affected none within these melancholy precincts. The Tolbooth was removed, with the mass of buildings in which it was incorporated, in the autumn of the year 1817. At that time the kindness of his old schoolfellow and friend, Robert Johnstone, Esquire, then Dean of Guild of the city, with the liberal acquiescence of the persons who had contracted for the work, procured for the Author of Waverley the stones which composed the gateway, together with the door, and its ponderous fastenings, which he employed in decorating the entrance of his kitchen-court at Abbotsford. “To such base offices may we return.” The application of these relies of the Heart of Mid-Lothian to serve as the postern-gate to a court of modern offices, may be justly ridiculed as whimsical; but yet it is not without interest, that we see the gateway through which so much of the stormy politics of a rude age, and the vice and misery of later times, had found their passage, now occupied in the service of rural economy. Last year, to complete the change, a tomtit was pleased to build her nest within the lock of the Tolbooth — a strong temptation to have committed a sonnet, had the Author, like Tony Lumpkin, been in a concatenation accordingly.

It is worth mentioning, that an act of beneficence celebrated the demolition of the Heart of Mid-Lothian. A subscription, raised and applied by the worthy Magistrate above mentioned, procured the manumission of most of the unfortunate debtors confined in the old jail, so that there were few or none transferred to the new place of confinement.

[The figure of a Heart upon the pavement between St. Giles’s Church and the Edinburgh County Hall, now marks the site of the Old Tolbooth.]

* [This is not so certain. Few persons now living are likely to remember the interior of the old Tolbooth, with narrow staircase, thick walls, and small apartments, nor to imagine that it could ever have been used for these purposes. Robert Chambers, in his Minor Antiquities of Edinburgh, has preserved ground-plans or sections, which clearly show this — the largest hall was on the second floor, and measuring 27 feet by 20, and 12 feet high. It may have been intended for the meetings of Town Council, while the Parliament assembled, after 1560, in what was called the Upper Tolbooth, that is the south-west portion of the Collegiate Church of St. Giles, until the year 1640, when the present Parliament House was completed. Being no longer required for such a purpose, it was set apart by the Town Council on the 24th December 1641 as a distinct church, with the name of the Tolbooth parish, and therefore could not have derived the name from its vicinity to the Tolbooth, as usually stated.]

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29