The Heart of Mid-Lothian, by Walter Scott

Chapter 4

“The hour’s come, but not the man.”1


On the day when the unhappy Porteous was expected to suffer the sentence of the law, the place of execution, extensive as it is, was crowded almost to suffocation. There was not a window in all the lofty tenements around it, or in the steep and crooked street called the Bow, by which the fatal procession was to descend from the High Street, that was not absolutely filled with spectators. The uncommon height and antique appearance of these houses, some of which were formerly the property of the Knights Templars, and the Knights of St. John, and still exhibit on their fronts and gables the iron cross of these orders, gave additional effect to a scene in itself so striking. The area of the Grassmarket resembled a huge dark lake or sea of human heads, in the centre of which arose the fatal tree, tall, black, and ominous, from which dangled the deadly halter. Every object takes interest from its uses and associations, and the erect beam and empty noose, things so simple in themselves, became, on such an occasion, objects of terror and of solemn interest.

Amid so numerous an assembly there was scarcely a word spoken, save in whispers. The thirst of vengeance was in some degree allayed by its supposed certainty; and even the populace, with deeper feeling than they are wont to entertain, suppressed all clamorous exultation, and prepared to enjoy the scene of retaliation in triumph, silent and decent, though stern and relentless. It seemed as if the depth of their hatred to the unfortunate criminal scorned to display itself in anything resembling the more noisy current of their ordinary feelings. Had a stranger consulted only the evidence of his ears, he might have supposed that so vast a multitude were assembled for some purpose which affected them with the deepest sorrow, and stilled those noises which, on all ordinary occasions, arise from such a concourse; but if he had gazed upon their faces, he would have been instantly undeceived. The compressed lip, the bent brow, the stern and flashing eye of almost everyone on whom he looked, conveyed the expression of men come to glut their sight with triumphant revenge. It is probable that the appearance of the criminal might have somewhat changed the temper of the populace in his favour, and that they might in the moment of death have forgiven the man against whom their resentment had been so fiercely heated. It had, however, been destined, that the mutability of their sentiments was not to be exposed to this trial.

The usual hour for producing the criminal had been past for many minutes, yet the spectators observed no symptom of his appearance. “Would they venture to defraud public justice?” was the question which men began anxiously to ask at each other. The first answer in every case was bold and positive — “They dare not.” But when the point was further canvassed, other opinions were entertained, and various causes of doubt were suggested. Porteous had been a favourite officer of the magistracy of the city, which, being a numerous and fluctuating body, requires for its support a degree of energy in its functionaries, which the individuals who compose it cannot at all times alike be supposed to possess in their own persons. It was remembered, that in the Information for Porteous (the paper, namely, in which his case was stated to the Judges of the criminal court), he had been described by his counsel as the person on whom the magistrates chiefly relied in all emergencies of uncommon difficulty. It was argued, too, that his conduct, on the unhappy occasion of Wilson’s execution, was capable of being attributed to an imprudent excess of zeal in the execution of his duty, a motive for which those under whose authority he acted might be supposed to have great sympathy. And as these considerations might move the magistrates to make a favourable representation of Porteous’s case, there were not wanting others in the higher departments of Government, which would make such suggestions favourably listened to.

The mob of Edinburgh, when thoroughly excited, had been at all times one of the fiercest which could be found in Europe; and of late years they had risen repeatedly against the Government, and sometimes not without temporary success. They were conscious, therefore, that they were no favourites with the rulers of the period, and that, if Captain Porteous’s violence was not altogether regarded as good service, it might certainly be thought, that to visit it with a capital punishment would render it both delicate and dangerous for future officers, in the same circumstances, to act with effect in repressing tumults. There is also a natural feeling, on the part of all members of Government, for the general maintenance of authority; and it seemed not unlikely, that what to the relatives of the sufferers appeared a wanton and unprovoked massacre, should be otherwise viewed in the cabinet of St. James’s. It might be there supposed, that upon the whole matter, Captain Porteous was in the exercise of a trust delegated to him by the lawful civil authority; that he had been assaulted by the populace, and several of his men hurt; and that, in finally repelling force by force, his conduct could be fairly imputed to no other motive than self-defence in the discharge of his duty.

These considerations, of themselves very powerful, induced the spectators to apprehend the possibility of a reprieve; and to the various causes which might interest the rulers in his favour, the lower part of the rabble added one which was peculiarly well adapted to their comprehension. It was averred, in order to increase the odium against Porteous, that while he repressed with the utmost severity the slightest excesses of the poor, he not only overlooked the license of the young nobles and gentry, but was very willing to lend them the countenance of his official authority, in execution of such loose pranks as it was chiefly his duty to have restrained. This suspicion, which was perhaps much exaggerated, made a deep impression on the minds of the populace; and when several of the higher rank joined in a petition, recommending Porteous to the mercy of the Crown, it was generally supposed he owed their favour not to any conviction of the hardship of his case, but to the fear of losing a convenient accomplice in their debaucheries. It is scarcely necessary to say how much this suspicion augmented the people’s detestation of this obnoxious criminal, as well as their fear of his escaping the sentence pronounced against him.

While these arguments were stated and replied to, and canvassed and supported, the hitherto silent expectation of the people became changed into that deep and agitating murmur, which is sent forth by the ocean before the tempest begins to howl. The crowded populace, as if their motions had corresponded with the unsettled state of their minds, fluctuated to and fro without any visible cause of impulse, like the agitation of the waters, called by sailors the ground-swell. The news, which the magistrates had almost hesitated to communicate to them, were at length announced, and spread among the spectators with a rapidity like lightning. A reprieve from the Secretary of State’s office, under the hand of his Grace the Duke of Newcastle, had arrived, intimating the pleasure of Queen Caroline (regent of the kingdom during the absence of George II. on the Continent), that the execution of the sentence of death pronounced against John Porteous, late Captain-Lieutenant of the City Guard of Edinburgh, present prisoner in the Tolbooth of that city, be respited for six weeks from the time appointed for his execution.

The assembled spectators of almost all degrees, whose minds had been wound up to the pitch which we have described, uttered a groan, or rather a roar of indignation and disappointed revenge, similar to that of a tiger from whom his meal has been rent by his keeper when he was just about to devour it. This fierce exclamation seemed to forbode some immediate explosion of popular resentment, and, in fact, such had been expected by the magistrates, and the necessary measures had been taken to repress it. But the shout was not repeated, nor did any sudden tumult ensue, such as it appeared to announce. The populace seemed to be ashamed of having expressed their disappointment in a vain clamour, and the sound changed, not into the silence which had preceded the arrival of these stunning news, but into stifled mutterings, which each group maintained among themselves, and which were blended into one deep and hoarse murmur which floated above the assembly.

Yet still, though all expectation of the execution was over, the mob remained assembled, stationary, as it were, through very resentment, gazing on the preparations for death, which had now been made in vain, and stimulating their feelings, by recalling the various claims which Wilson might have had on royal mercy, from the mistaken motives on which he acted, as well as from the generosity he had displayed towards his accomplice. “This man,” they said — “the brave, the resolute, the generous, was executed to death without mercy for stealing a purse of gold, which in some sense he might consider as a fair reprisal; while the profligate satellite, who took advantage of a trifling tumult, inseparable from such occasions, to shed the blood of twenty of his fellow-citizens, is deemed a fitting object for the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy. Is this to be borne? — would our fathers have borne it? Are not we, like them, Scotsmen and burghers of Edinburgh?”

The officers of justice began now to remove the scaffold, and other preparations which had been made for the execution, in hopes, by doing so, to accelerate the dispersion of the multitude. The measure had the desired effect; for no sooner had the fatal tree been unfixed from the large stone pedestal or socket in which it was secured, and sunk slowly down upon the wain intended to remove it to the place where it was usually deposited, than the populace, after giving vent to their feelings in a second shout of rage and mortification, began slowly to disperse to their usual abodes and occupations.

The windows were in like manner gradually deserted, and groups of the more decent class of citizens formed themselves, as if waiting to return homewards when the streets should be cleared of the rabble. Contrary to what is frequently the case, this description of persons agreed in general with the sentiments of their inferiors, and considered the cause as common to all ranks. Indeed, as we have already noticed, it was by no means amongst the lowest class of the spectators, or those most likely to be engaged in the riot at Wilson’s execution, that the fatal fire of Porteous’s soldiers had taken effect. Several persons were killed who were looking out at windows at the scene, who could not of course belong to the rioters, and were persons of decent rank and condition. The burghers, therefore, resenting the loss which had fallen on their own body, and proud and tenacious of their rights, as the citizens of Edinburgh have at all times been, were greatly exasperated at the unexpected respite of Captain Porteous.

It was noticed at the time, and afterwards more particularly remembered, that, while the mob were in the act of dispersing, several individuals were seen busily passing from one place and one group of people to another, remaining long with none, but whispering for a little time with those who appeared to be declaiming most violently against the conduct of Government. These active agents had the appearance of men from the country, and were generally supposed to be old friends and confederates of Wilson, whose minds were of course highly excited against Porteous.

If, however, it was the intention of these men to stir the multitude to any sudden act of mutiny, it seemed for the time to be fruitless. The rabble, as well as the more decent part of the assembly, dispersed, and went home peaceably; and it was only by observing the moody discontent on their brows, or catching the tenor of the conversation they held with each other, that a stranger could estimate the state of their minds. We will give the reader this advantage, by associating ourselves with one of the numerous groups who were painfully ascending the steep declivity of the West Bow, to return to their dwellings in the Lawnmarket.

“An unco thing this, Mrs. Howden,” said old Peter Plumdamas to his neighbour the rouping-wife, or saleswoman, as he offered her his arm to assist her in the toilsome ascent, “to see the grit folk at Lunnon set their face against law and gospel, and let loose sic a reprobate as Porteous upon a peaceable town!”

“And to think o’ the weary walk they hae gien us,” answered Mrs. Howden, with a groan; “and sic a comfortable window as I had gotten, too, just within a penny-stane-cast of the scaffold — I could hae heard every word the minister said — and to pay twalpennies for my stand, and a’ for naething!”

“I am judging,” said Mr. Plumdamas, “that this reprieve wadna stand gude in the auld Scots law, when the kingdom was a kingdom.”

“I dinna ken muckle about the law,” answered Mrs. Howden; “but I ken, when we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament men o’ our ain, we could aye peeble them wi’ stanes when they werena gude bairns — But naebody’s nails can reach the length o’ Lunnon.”

“Weary on Lunnon, and a’ that e’er came out o’t!” said Miss Grizel Damahoy, an ancient seamstress; “they hae taen away our parliament, and they hae oppressed our trade. Our gentles will hardly allow that a Scots needle can sew ruffles on a sark, or lace on an owerlay.”

“Ye may say that — Miss Damahoy, and I ken o’ them that hae gotten raisins frae Lunnon by forpits at ance,” responded Plumdamas; “and then sic an host of idle English gaugers and excisemen as hae come down to vex and torment us, that an honest man canna fetch sae muckle as a bit anker o’ brandy frae Leith to the Lawnmarket, but he’s like to be rubbit o’ the very gudes he’s bought and paid for. — Weel, I winna justify Andrew Wilson for pitting hands on what wasna his; but if he took nae mair than his ain, there’s an awfu’ difference between that and the fact this man stands for.”

“If ye speak about the law,” said Mrs. Howden, “here comes Mr. Saddletree, that can settle it as weel as ony on the bench.”

The party she mentioned, a grave elderly person, with a superb periwig, dressed in a decent suit of sad-coloured clothes, came up as she spoke, and courteously gave his arm to Miss Grizel Damahoy.

It may be necessary to mention, that Mr. Bartoline Saddletree kept an excellent and highly-esteemed shop for harness, saddles, &c. &c., at the sign of the Golden Nag, at the head of Bess Wynd.2

His genius, however (as he himself and most of his neighbours conceived), lay towards the weightier matters of the law, and he failed not to give frequent attendance upon the pleadings and arguments of the lawyers and judges in the neighbouring square, where, to say the truth, he was oftener to be found than would have consisted with his own emolument; but that his wife, an active painstaking person, could, in his absence, make an admirable shift to please the customers and scold the journeymen. This good lady was in the habit of letting her husband take his way, and go on improving his stock of legal knowledge without interruption; but, as if in requital, she insisted upon having her own will in the domestic and commercial departments which he abandoned to her. Now, as Bartoline Saddletree had a considerable gift of words, which he mistook for eloquence, and conferred more liberally upon the society in which he lived than was at all times gracious and acceptable, there went forth a saying, with which wags used sometimes to interrupt his rhetoric, that, as he had a golden nag at his door, so he had a grey mare in his shop. This reproach induced Mr. Saddletree, on all occasions, to assume rather a haughty and stately tone towards his good woman, a circumstance by which she seemed very little affected, unless he attempted to exercise any real authority, when she never failed to fly into open rebellion. But such extremes Bartoline seldom provoked; for, like the gentle King Jamie, he was fonder of talking of authority than really exercising it. This turn of mind was, on the whole, lucky for him; since his substance was increased without any trouble on his part, or any interruption of his favourite studies.

This word in explanation has been thrown in to the reader, while Saddletree was laying down, with great precision, the law upon Porteous’s case, by which he arrived at this conclusion, that, if Porteous had fired five minutes sooner, before Wilson was cut down, he would have been versans in licito; engaged, that is, in a lawful act, and only liable to be punished propter excessum, or for lack of discretion, which might have mitigated the punishment to poena ordinaria.

“Discretion!” echoed Mrs. Howden, on whom, it may well be supposed, the fineness of this distinction was entirely thrown away — “whan had Jock Porteous either grace, discretion, or gude manners? — I mind when his father”

“But, Mrs. Howden,” said Saddletree —

“And I,” said Miss Damahoy, “mind when his mother”

“Miss Damahoy,” entreated the interrupted orator

“And I,” said Plumdamas, “mind when his wife”

“Mr. Plumdamas — Mrs. Howden — Miss Damahoy,” again implored the orator — “Mind the distinction, as Counsellor Crossmyloof says —‘I,’ says he, ‘take a distinction.’ Now, the body of the criminal being cut down, and the execution ended, Porteous was no longer official; the act which he came to protect and guard, being done and ended, he was no better than cuivis ex populo.

Quivis — quivis, Mr. Saddletree, craving your pardon,” said (with a prolonged emphasis on the first syllable) Mr. Butler, the deputy-schoolmaster of a parish near Edinburgh, who at that moment came up behind them as the false Latin was uttered.

“What signifies interrupting me, Mr. Butler? — but I am glad to see ye notwithstanding — I speak after Counsellor Crossmyloof, and he said cuivis.

“If Counsellor Crossmyloof used the dative for the nominative, I would have crossed his loof with a tight leathern strap, Mr. Saddletree; there is not a boy on the booby form but should have been scourged for such a solecism in grammar.”

“I speak Latin like a lawyer, Mr. Butler, and not like a schoolmaster,” retorted Saddletree.

“Scarce like a schoolboy, I think,” rejoined Butler.

“It matters little,” said Bartoline; “all I mean to say is, that Porteous has become liable to the poena extra ordinem, or capital punishment — which is to say, in plain Scotch, the gallows — simply because he did not fire when he was in office, but waited till the body was cut down, the execution whilk he had in charge to guard implemented, and he himself exonered of the public trust imposed on him.”

“But, Mr. Saddletree,” said Plumdamas, “do ye really think John Porteous’s case wad hae been better if he had begun firing before ony stanes were flung at a’?”

“Indeed do I, neighbour Plumdamas,” replied Bartoline, confidently, “he being then in point of trust and in point of power, the execution being but inchoat, or, at least, not implemented, or finally ended; but after Wilson was cut down it was a’ ower — he was clean exauctorate, and had nae mair ado but to get awa wi’ his guard up this West Bow as fast as if there had been a caption after him — And this is law, for I heard it laid down by Lord Vincovincentem.”

“Vincovincentem? — Is he a lord of state, or a lord of seat?” inquired Mrs. Howden.3

“A lord of seat — a lord of session. — I fash mysell little wi’ lords o’ state; they vex me wi’ a wheen idle questions about their saddles, and curpels, and holsters and horse-furniture, and what they’ll cost, and whan they’ll be ready — a wheen galloping geese — my wife may serve the like o’ them.”

“And so might she, in her day, hae served the best lord in the land, for as little as ye think o’ her, Mr. Saddletree,” said Mrs. Howden, somewhat indignant at the contemptuous way in which her gossip was mentioned; “when she and I were twa gilpies, we little thought to hae sitten doun wi’ the like o’ my auld Davie Howden, or you either, Mr. Saddletree.”

While Saddletree, who was not bright at a reply, was cudgelling his brains for an answer to this homethrust, Miss Damahoy broke in on him.

“And as for the lords of state,” said Miss Damahoy, “ye suld mind the riding o’ the parliament, Mr. Saddletree, in the gude auld time before the Union — a year’s rent o’ mony a gude estate gaed for horse-graith and harnessing, forby broidered robes and foot-mantles, that wad hae stude by their lane wi’ gold brocade, and that were muckle in my ain line.”

“Ay, and then the lusty banqueting, with sweetmeats and comfits wet and dry, and dried fruits of divers sorts,” said Plumdamas. “But Scotland was Scotland in these days.”

“I’ll tell ye what it is, neighbours,” said Mrs. Howden, “I’ll ne’er believe Scotland is Scotland ony mair, if our kindly Scots sit doun with the affront they hae gien us this day. It’s not only the blude that is shed, but the blude that might hae been shed, that’s required at our hands; there was my daughter’s wean, little Eppie Daidle — my oe, ye ken, Miss Grizel — had played the truant frae the school, as bairns will do, ye ken, Mr. Butler?”

“And for which,” interjected Mr. Butler, “they should be soundly scourged by their well-wishers.”

“And had just cruppen to the gallows’ foot to see the hanging, as was natural for a wean; and what for mightna she hae been shot as weel as the rest o’ them, and where wad we a’ hae been then? I wonder how Queen Carline (if her name be Carline) wad hae liked to hae had ane o’ her ain bairns in sic a venture?”

“Report says,” answered Butler, “that such a circumstance would not have distressed her majesty beyond endurance.”

“Aweel,” said Mrs. Howden, “the sum o’ the matter is, that, were I a man, I wad hae amends o’ Jock Porteous, be the upshot what like o’t, if a’ the carles and carlines in England had sworn to the nay-say.”

“I would claw down the Tolbooth door wi’ my nails,” said Miss Grizel, “but I wad be at him.”

“Ye may be very right, ladies,” said Butler, “but I would not advise you to speak so loud.”

“Speak!” exclaimed both the ladies together, “there will be naething else spoken about frae the Weigh-house to the Water-gate, till this is either ended or mended.”

The females now departed to their respective places of abode. Plumdamas joined the other two gentlemen in drinking their meridian (a bumper-dram of brandy), as they passed the well-known low-browed shop in the Lawnmarket, where they were wont to take that refreshment. Mr. Plumdamas then departed towards his shop, and Mr. Butler, who happened to have some particular occasion for the rein of an old bridle (the truants of that busy day could have anticipated its application), walked down the Lawnmarket with Mr. Saddletree, each talking as he could get a word thrust in, the one on the laws of Scotland, the other on those of syntax, and neither listening to a word which his companion uttered.

1 There is a tradition, that while a little stream was swollen into a torrent by recent showers, the discontented voice of the Water Spirit was heard to pronounce these words. At the some moment a man, urged on by his fate, or, in Scottish language, fey, arrived at a gallop, and prepared to cross the water. No remonstrance from the bystanders was of power to stop him — he plunged into the stream, and perished.

2 [Maitland calls it Best’s Wynd, and later writers Beth’s Wynd. As the name implies, it was an open thoroughfare or alley leading from the Lawnmarket, and extended in a direct line between the old Tolbooth to near the head of the Cowgate. It was partly destroyed by fire in 1786, and was totally removed in 1809, preparatory to the building of the new libraries of the Faculty of Advocates and writers to the Signet.]

3 A nobleman was called a Lord of State. The Senators of the College of Justice were termed Lords of Seat, or of the Session.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00