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Issue 46 - Edinburgh's great beast

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Scotland Magazine Issue 46
August 2009


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Edinburgh's great beast

Rioting in 18th century Edinburgh was once a common occurence. James Irvine Robertson looks at why.

A Great Beast once lurked in the heart of Edinburgh, savage and virtually uncontrollable, and the Government of both the Nation and the City offended it at their peril.

Those were the days before the creation of the New Town of Edinburgh when 25,000 people were crammed together on either side of the spine of the High Street which runs downhill from the castle to the Canongate in tenements only a few feet apart and up to 14 storeys high.

All classes of society would live in the same building. The ground floor might house a shop or a tavern; above there might be an earl or a judge, a prosperous merchant on the next floor, a brace of aristocratic maiden ladies above that, and so on up to a beggar perched in a single room in the garret. All shared a common stair and, if the slops were not thrown out of the window with the famous shout of ‘Gardy Loo’, then they ended up in a barrel on each landing which some gallant soul would empty daily and carry the results, carefully, down to the street. Most of this would end up in the Nor Loch where Waverley Station and Princes Street Gardens stand today.

Such living conditions made for easy socialising since nobody was more than a few minutes walk from anyone else. And it made for easy rioting too as it took only seconds for a mob to form, pouring out of the narrow pends and vennels into the High Street. This activity, which became known as “The Beastt,” was a ferocious phenomenon.

However, it could also be positive.

In 1492, for example, it forced the release of King James III who was being held in the Castle by supporters of his brother the Duke of Albany whom they preferred as king. It rioted against King Charles I’s prayer book when Jenny Geddes famously threw her stool at the preacher in St Giles Kirk. Furious at the Catholic leanings of James VII, it ransacked Holyrood Abbey in 1688. The English informer and writer Daniel Defoe watched as it went on the rampage against the Act of Union in 1707. He described its members as ‘a hardened, refractory and terrible people.’ As was often the case, Government troops poured into the City to support the ineffectual Town Guard and to regain control.

Perhaps the mob’s most notorious escapade took place in 1736. Three men were condemned to death for robbing the Customs House at Pittenweem. One had his sentence commuted to transportation overseas; one escaped; but one, Andrew Wilson, who had assisted the fugitive, was hanged in the Grassmarket. The Great Beast did not approve.

Wilson was an Edinburgh man, and robbing a Customs House was considered to be sport more than theft. Wilson had further endeared himself by helping his fellow villain to abscond. A riot ensued. The Provost called out the Town Guard and, in response to a hail of stones, its commander, Captain John Porteous, ordered his men to fire on the crowd. Six were killed.

Porteous was tried and sentenced to death. The authorities in London intervened, the sentence was deferred and the Captain was imprisoned in the Tolbooth. A 4,000- strong mob then formed itself, overpowered the guards, dragged the prisoner from his cell, gave him a severe beating and hanged him from a dyer’s pole in the Grassmarket.

In the middle of the 18th century, the Great Beast found a leader by the name of “Bowed Joseph,” a hunch-backed cobbler in the Cowgate with strong arms, a strong voice, and a demagogue’s head on his shoulders. The feeble City Council found him useful when men began to gather in the streets, take up cudgels and fire up their tempers at some perceived offence.

Bowed Joseph would go before the City Fathers as if he were an ambassador to a foreign power and negotiate a hogshead of ale to appease his followers. With his wife, who answered to his whistle and stayed always several paces to his rear, he would march the streets with a drum. The Town Guard locked their door and quaked when they heard the sound. In an hour he could have 10,000 men – and his wife who had to be quick on her feet to stay at the requisite distance when he turned round – behind him. ‘As he strode along, the street cleared of its loungers, every close pouring forth an addition to his train, like the populous glens adjacent to a Highland strath’ in response to the Fiery Cross.

Bowed Joseph’s causes ranged wide and often. The Douglas Cause in 1761 was one. The first and last Duke of Douglas died without an heir; his title died with him, but his estates were disputed by his cousin, the young Duke of Hamilton, and his alleged nephew, a child born in France under mysterious circumstances when his ostensible mother was aged 51. The case became a popular sensation. When the Court of Session ruled in favour of the Duke, Joseph called out the mob in protest. When the House of Lords overturned the decision, Joseph had 15 figures dressed as judges mounted on donkeys and paraded them through the streets claiming that they were the 15 judges whose decision had been overturned.

He called out the mob again in 1763 to decry John Wilkes’s North Briton journal, published in London and deeply anti- Scottish. He summoned it again when a man a little behind in his rent hanged himself after returning home from work to find himself evicted, his family on the street, and his furniture seized and sold.

When Joseph heard the story, he banged his drum and had himself raised on the shoulders of his men while he harangued his forces, by now several thousand strong. They marched to the landlord’s house, found that he had made his escape, and emptying every article from his abode, set fire to them in the street. It was noted than even some banknotes went up in the blaze and a clock struck 10 o’clock before the flames caught it.

On another occasion, when scarcity threatened, Joseph brought out his followers to demand lower meal prices.

One dealer agreed; Joseph’s men stood outside his door and people filed through until the stock was exhausted, The mob dispersed. The dealer made the error of boasting that he had made a profit by selling short measures. Such things are impossible to be kept quiet. The mob returned. Joseph forced the dealer to make up the difference; he was then beaten up and his shop sacked. Only then did Joseph dismiss his army.

In 1780, Joseph met his end by falling from the top of a stage coach when returning home drunk from Leith Races. By then, the New Town of Edinburgh was being built, the warrens round the High Street were emptying, and the days of the Great Beast, otherwise known as the Edinburgh Mob were over.