LAST week I showed how the Elibank Plot to kidnap – and probably kill – King George II was the final serious attempt to overthrow the House of Hanover and the Union, as Charles had promised to do if he regained the throne. It was Charles himself who insisted on no assassinations and the plot fell apart, preserving the Union intact – for the moment …

Apologies to those who like their tales from Scottish history to be in chronological order, but this column is about events and personalities before the 45. Yet this is the last in this current series in which I have been showing how the Union was anything but robust from the outset in 1707 – as Unionists usually proclaim, and many Scots ignore because they have never been taught their own nation’s history.

From about three weeks after they first entered the new parliament of Great Britain in late 1707, the Parcel of Rogues who had sold their country for a mess of pottage began to have second thoughts about what they had done – simply because they were so badly treated by English lords, MPs and commoners in the streets of London who were correctly suspicious of these Scottish mountebanks.

The Act of Union was just four votes from being repealed in 1713, and I have shown how the 1715 Jacobite Rising and other thwarted uprisings were a direct consequence of the Union that James Stuart, or James VIII and III as he was recognised by Jacobites, promised to swiftly end if the Hanoverians could be expelled. I have also shown how Westminster’s imposition of the hated Malt Tax – strictly against the terms of the Union – caused riots across Scotland in 1725.

The greatest threat to the Union since 1707, the Jacobite Rising of 1745-46, was also driven not just by loyalty to the House of Stuart but also by hatred of the Union which, as I have demonstrated, brought no actual benefits to large swathes of Scotland – even England’s arch-spy Daniel Defoe admitted as much.

So returning to the theme of this series – that the Union took decades to “bed in” and was constantly under threat – I turn finally to the period 1725-1745. In particular, an episode which at once proved the fragility of the Union and also how the Government in Westminster was prepared to defend that Union with force if necessary.

As we have seen, the Malt Tax riots of 1725 were viewed by the government of Sir Robert Walpole (below) as a threat to the Union, and he wielded the axe. Since the demise of the Scottish Privy Council the year after the Union, there had been a makeshift “Scottish Government”, which was in effect a few powerful individuals imposed on Scotland by the monarch and the Government in Westminster.

The National:

Walpole was a fascinating individual, generally recognised as the first and longest-serving prime minister. An Old Etonian country landowner from Norfolk who became a Whig – and thus pro-Hanoverian – MP, Walpole became first lord of the Treasury in 1721, and held that office for more than 20 years. The current Prime Minister still holds that title.

Walpole had been one of the first MPs to take benefit from the Union, just as he was one of the few to make a huge fortune in the South Sea Bubble scandal. In 1712, that eye for a quick guinea almost destroyed him, because in his capacity as treasurer for the Army he took advantage of the new Union which had created foraging contracts to feed the Army in Scotland. Basically, Walpole signed off on these contracts to give his kinsman and business agent, Robert Mann, a large portion of the proceeds. Mann in turn seems to have fallen foul of several Scots who frankly diddled him and gained themselves hundreds of pounds. Though he was only a signatory and never reportedly benefited himself, Walpole was impeached and the Scottish Tory MP George Lockhart chaired the commission that inquired into the scandal, Mann testifying that he and he alone had made money out of the contracts. Lockhart declared however, that “it was at the same time publicly known that Mr Mann was Mr Walpole’s agent and accustomed to receive and pay out his cash”. Found guilty as charged, though he protested his innocence ever after, Walpole was dragged off to the Tower of London, was kicked out of the Commons and spent six months in prison, albeit a comfortable one.

Yet he survived that scandal, was soon back as an MP and minister, and became the most powerful man in Britain, though is it any wonder that he looked askance at Scotland from then on?

After the Malt Tax riots, Walpole sacked the lord advocate, Robert Dundas, who had opposed the hated tax. Walpole sent his fellow Whig, Archibald Campbell, the Earl of Islay and younger brother of the Duke of Argyll, to investigate the governance of Scotland and his report led to the removal of the Scottish secretary, the Duke of Roxburgh, and his replacement by Lord Islay himself.

THIS turned out to be a shrewd move by Walpole as Islay, later the 3rd Duke of Argyll, got together with his cronies such as Andrew Fletcher, Lord Milton – nephew of the patriot Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun – and Duncan Forbes of Culloden and took over the government of Scotland at almost every level. Judges, sheriffs, MPs, army officers, university professors and even Kirk ministers owed their careers to Islay, and for decades, Islay was effectively the first minister of Scotland, though that title was still 270 years away.

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King George II in particular was pleased that Scotland was increasingly stable and no longer a threat to his throne. It has to be said that many Scots, especially in the Lowlands, were won over to this more peaceful government by patronage, and Glasgow in particular began to reap huge benefits from the Union through increased and Royal Navy-protected trade across the Atlantic.

As brother to the chief of the most powerful Highland clan, the Campbells, Islay only had to keep the Jacobite-sympathising clan chiefs happy to assure peace across Scotland. In this he was assisted by the shrewd military command and road-building across the Highlands of General George Wade. They probably did not evince it, but most Scots were becoming accustomed to the Union, buying into the fantasy that Scotland was still a “devolved” part of the UK with its own Kirk, schools and legal system.

It was nothing of the sort, as was brutally proven in Edinburgh in 1736. I wrote about the Porteous Riots back in 2016, but what I failed to do at the time was to put the Riots in the context of the Union and I will attempt to do that now.

A CRACKDOWN on Scottish smuggling had been one of the effects of the Union and it was the misfortune of two convicted smugglers, Andrew Wilson and George Robertson, and their accomplice, often named as William Hall, to be caught up in what was effectively a government-sponsored crackdown on smuggling. They had raided a customs officer in Fife and got away with £200 of what the public considered to be the customs official’s ill-gotten gains.

They were caught when Hall was duped into naming his colleagues with the promise of a pardon for turning them in. He got no pardon but was allowed to flee. Robertson and Wilson were tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. It had been nothing more than a show trial to demonstrate the Westminster government’s campaign to deter smugglers. They were taken to church before their execution, and somehow Wilson managed to battle against three guards, allowing Robertson to escape – he was never seen again.

Enter John or Jock Porteous, the captain of the Town Guard, a Borderer and career soldier and as nasty a specimen as you could find in such a role. Effectively Edinburgh’s chief of police, he led his guards to take Wilson to his public execution where the crowd was in sympathy with Wilson as smuggling was considered fair game by the Scottish public.

We have an eye-witness account of what happened next by Allan Ramsay, the poet, with his original spellings: “The criminal was conducted to the tree by Captain Porteous and a strong party of the city guard. All was hush, Psalms sung, prayers put up for a long hour and upwards and the man hang’d with all decency and quietnes.

“After he was cut down and the guard drawing up to go off, some unlucky boys threw a stone or two at the hangman, which is very common, on which the brutal Porteous (who it seems had ordered his party to load their guns with ball) let drive first himself amongst the innocent mob and commanded his men to follow his example which quickly cleansed the street but left three men, a boy and a woman dead upon the spot, besides several others wounded, some of whom are dead since …

“Believe this to be true, for I was ane eye witness and within a yard or two of being shot as I sat with some gentlemen in a stabler’s window oposite to the Galows.

“After this the crazy brute march’d with his ragamuffins to the guard, as if he had done nothing worth noticing but was not long there till the hue and cry rose from them that had lost friends and servants, demanding justice.

“He was taken before the Councill, where there were aboundance of witnesses to fix the guilt upon him. The uproar of a mob encreased with the loudest din that ever was heard and would have torn him, Council and Guard all in pices, if the Magistrates had not sent him to the Tolbooth by a strong party and told them he should be tried for his life, which gave them some sattisfaction and sent them quietly home.”

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Nine people were killed in all, many more wounded, and Porteous was tried and found guilty of murder. Now the Union government acted: instead of immediate execution as was the norm, Porteous was kept in the Tolbooth, the capital’s main prison, while a royal reprieve from Queen Consort Caroline – she was acting as regent as her husband was abroad – was sought. The Government could not have such an important member of the authorities put to death, even if his crime was so horrendous, and Islay had to stand aside as his rule of Scotland was temporarily set aside.

On the morning of September 7, the day of Porteous’ execution, the Edinburgh mob erupted from the streets on hearing that Queen Caroline had given the reprieve to the captain the previous day. They went home, only to emerge under the guidance of ringleaders that evening, and at 10pm the feared mob – not for nothing known as the Beast of Edinburgh – broke into the Tolbooth and frogmarched Porteous to the Grassmarket. The scaffold had already been taken down but they strung him up anyway. You can read a fairly accurate account of the Porteous Riot in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Heart of Midlothian – the nickname of the Tolbooth.

Incensed, the Westminster government sacked the Lord Provost and the council and fined Edinburgh £2000. Much worse punishments were planned by Walpole and crew, but Islay’s brother the Duke of Argyll sagely persuaded Walpole that the Union itself might well be at risk if the Government in London overreacted.

So much for the robustness of their precious Union. Yet it survived riots and risings – but hopefully not a second referendum.