Changing of the Guard: Governance, Policing, Masculinity, and Class in the Porteous Affair and Walter Scott's Heart of Midlothian

By Broomhall, Susan; Barrie, David G. | Parergon, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Changing of the Guard: Governance, Policing, Masculinity, and Class in the Porteous Affair and Walter Scott's Heart of Midlothian


Broomhall, Susan, Barrie, David G., Parergon


I. Introduction

Thus ended the life of Captain John Porteous, a man possessed of such great qualifications that, had they been properly applied, would have rendered him an ornament to his country, and made him exceedingly useful in a military capacity. To his uncommon spirit and invincible courage, was added a nobleness of soul, that would have done honour to the greatest hero of antiquity. But when advanced to power, he became intoxicated with pride, and instead of being the admiration of, he became despised and hated by, his fellow-citizens. The fate of this unhappy man, it is hoped, will be a caution to those in power not to abuse it; but, by an impartial distribution of justice, render themselves worthy members of society. (1)

Thus concluded William Jackson in his 1794 New and Complete Newgate Calendar, in which John Porteous (c. 1695-1736), the Captain of the Edinburgh City Guards responsible for watching the city, was listed alongside other criminals of the early modern British Isles. The name of the man who earned the hatred of the Edinburgh mob was recorded for posterity in the Porteous Riots of September 1736. Despite being found guilty of firing on the crowd attending the execution of Andrew Wilson, Porteous was nonetheless seized from the city Tolbooth and hanged in the streets by a crowd who believed, as the public instrument of the city's governing men, Porteous might yet escape punishment. To readers of the Newgate Calendar, the story was one of male governance gone wrong, a failure to exercise appropriately the power entrusted to an individual who was expected to be able to control his passions and to better himself in society through honourable action. In 1818, Walter Scott reprised the story as a key narrative in his novel, The Heart of Midlothian, offering a new interpretation of the relationship between masculine conduct, governance, and class. In this essay, we explore why interpretation of the Porteous affair was important to Scott's vision of Edinburgh's past and what significance it held in the early nineteenth-century city.

Increasingly, historians have paid attention to distinctions in early modern and nineteenth-century notions of masculinity, particularly as they were experienced and demonstrated in different spheres. Much early research has focused on the domestic sphere and men's roles as fathers, husbands, and as patriarchs. (2) More recently, scholars have examined how ideas of fatherhood translated into civic paternalism through governance of poor relief boards or other activities in a broader community domain. (3) At this period, men of the middling classes increasingly exercised political power through displays of manly virtues including sobriety, in deliberate distinction from the perceived luxury, ostentation, and effeminacy of contemporary courtly culture. (4) Robert B. Shoemaker has observed that over the long eighteenth century there was growing criticism in literary texts and conduct manuals of masculine insolence, pride, and violence, and an emerging masculine ideal that involved greater sensitivity and consideration for others'. (5) For Scotland, it has been argued that Enlightenment intellectuals rejected aristocratic models of manhood that were seen as effeminate, in favour of men's improvement through polite society, including interactions through commerce and in civic administration. (6) For the self-made men of the burgeoning cities of Lowland Scotland, civic participation was an attractive expression of masculine political power. (7)

Policing the urban environment was one dimension of such civic activities. Although urban elites and the upper middle ranks retained a firm grip on civic administration in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, policing represented one of the emerging forms of civic governance in which men from the middle and working classes could (in different ways) participate. This included voting in police elections, serving on local police boards, keeping a close superintendence of wards, and day-to-day patrolling. …

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