Scotland Magazine Issue 85
This article is 15 months old and some information provided may be time sensitive.
Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.
Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2017.
All rights reserved.
To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.
The Lords of Inobedience
James Irvine Robertson pays tribute to the long ago antics of the Edinburgh mob
Today the citizens of Edinburgh have a reputation for respectability and decorum but it was not ever thus. The streets of Edinburgh's Old Town were once a battleground between aristocratic factions. Assassinations were commonplace, and the authorities were always conscious of the mob, which could erupt onto the streets when they perceived injustice, rendering the city ungovernable and putting fear into the hearts of the magistrates. In 1736, even London was slapped in the face by the Edinburgh mob when Captain Porteous was hauled from his house and lynched for murder even though he had been pardoned by the King.
In 1560, the Scottish Parliament adopted Protestantism. Under the influence of the great reformer John Knox, the creed was an austere Calvinistic Presbyterianism. Bishops, masses, popes were all done away with - but so was quite a lot of fun.
The practice of Folly to prick pomposity was centuries old, stretching back beyond the Romans. Courts employed fools, whose function was to amuse and point out the absurdities of all men, including the ruler. Some used wit; others were natural fools whose antics were laughed at. On certain days of the year, the social order was, within reason, overturned. Master served servant, practical jokes abounded, and authority and the church were mocked.
In common with other towns, in Edinburgh people held a Day of Misrule. An Abbot of Unreason was appointed who was a paid official of the burgh. He organised dramatic games and selected a Robin Hood, a Little John and a Lord of Inobedience. If those selected declined the offer on grounds of gravitas and dignity, they paid a fine. Otherwise, they had 'to don a fantastic dress, caper and dance, and incite their neighbours to do the like.' Their jolly sports included parading with their weapons, archery, fighting with sticks, and bullying respectable citizens out of their purses. No doubt the entire occasion was fuelled by strong drink.
'As numerous meetings for disorderly mirth are apt to engender tumult in the minds of the people came to be agitated with religious controversy, it was found necessary to repress Robin Hood by statute.' Parliament banned such events in 1555, making the penalty for selecting a leader of revels punishable with five years imprisonment, and accepting such office being cause for banishment from the realm. Any women malefactors were to be 'handled and put upon the cookstool', which was probably worse than it sounds. It was one thing for the Catholic hierarchy to suffer mockery but not the worthies of the Kirk, and the frolics always took place on Sundays when sinners should be listening to sermons. Even Hugh Latimer, a famous 15th century reformer, later to be burnt at the stake by Queen Mary Tudor, could find nobody to listen to him when he came to Edinburgh to preach on the Day of Misrule.
But, in Edinburgh at least, citizens were unwilling to give up their revels. In 1561, Sunday 10th May was the day selected for the festival. People dressed in their best clothes and streamed out beyond the city walls to display what weapons they had to hand in a nearby field and there they had their fun. Under the leadership of one George Durie, appointed Robin Hood and Lord of Inobedience, and in spite of the efforts of the magistrates to stop them, they came back into the city led by a flag and cavorted their way up the High Street to Castle Hill and then down again. And they misbehaved about the city all night. It was consequently decreed that an example had to be made. James Gillon, a shoemaker's apprentice, who had been part of a gang that persuaded a John Mowbray to yield up 10 crowns, was sentenced to be hanged on 21st July. John Knox was asked to intervene by the deacons of the craftsmen to save his life but he declined.
On the due date, the hangman made his way to the Cross by Parliament Hall with his ladder for the condemned man to climb up so that he would be properly suspended from the gallows. Gillon's fellow apprentices gathered and suddenly there was a tumult. The gibbet was torn down and 'spitefully broken'. The rioters could not find the key to the Tolbooth, the city jail, so they beat down the door with sledgehammers, releasing everyone imprisoned there and bore Gillon in triumph down the High Street to the Netherbow Port. Finding the gate from the city locked, they processed back up the hill. Meantime, the Provost and the magistrates had gathered in the council chamber to discuss the matter. At the approach of the mob they scurried out and were trapped for a time in the writing-booth of Alexander Guthrie abutting St Giles. From there, they escaped to the Tolbooth and barricaded the broken door.
One of their number fired a pistol that wounded one of the crowd. A stand off ensued. For about four hours, the magistrates banged away with firearms and the mob replied with fusillades of stones. 'And never ane man of the toun stirred to defend their provost and Bailies.' The authorities were not popular and the deacons who could have controlled the apprentices preferred to have their usual leisurely Friday drinking session. 'They will be magistrates alone. Let them rule the multitude alone,' they decided.
Eventually word was conveyed to the Constable of Edinburgh Castle that his presence might be useful and he came down with an armed party to act as a referee. He brokered a deal whereby the magistrates were allowed their freedom on condition that they brought no charges against any of the rioters and forgave any past offences. And everyone went home.
There were some repercussions. The entire mob was excommunicated until those involved showed proper repentance. Some of senior craftsmen were tried and penalised for not assisting the magistrates. But the General Assembly of the Kirk continued to fulminate against the revels of Robin Hood for the ensuing thirty years.