The Works of Sydney Fowler Wright 1874 - 1965

The Heart of Midlothian

by S. Fowler Wright

Written September 1938

The Heart of Midlothian

(The nickname of the old Tolbooth prison in Edinburgh.)

        In the year 1737, a Scottish smuggler, Andrew Wilson, who had been ruined through his illicit goods being seized two or three times by preventive officers, held up and robbed a customs official near Edinburgh, taking from him a sum of public money, which he considered to be an act of lawless justice, repaying him for what he had lost.

        He and a young companion, commonly known as Robertson, were arrested, lodged in the Tolbooth, tried, and sentenced to death.

        On the Sunday before the day fixed for the execution, the two men were taken, as was customary, to attend public worship at the church near the prison, under a military guard. Putting his companions safety before his own, Wilson contrived to impede the soldiers so that the younger men escaped.

        From this and other reasons and other reasons, popular feelings in Edinburgh was strongly stirred in Wilson's favour, but efforts to obtain a reprieve were fruitless.

        When the day for the execution arrived, the magistrates, fearing that there might be an attempt at rescue, ordered Captain John Porteous, who commanded the city guard, to protect, the scaffold.

        The execution took place, however, without interference from a sullen crowd, but subsequently there was some disturbance, upon which, without adequate reason, Captain Porteous ordered his soldiers to fire, with the result that about twenty spectators were killed or injured, many of whom were certainly not of a riotous disposition.

        This action of Captain Porteous aroused intense indignation in Edinburgh. He was tried for murder, and condemned to death.

        Queen Caroline, who was governing Britain with a Council of Regency, during the absence of George II on the continent, at the time, granted a pardon to Porteous.

        On this news reaching Edinburgh, the Tolbooth prison was broken into during the night, and Porteous was taken out and hanged.

        The government in London, and the Queen personally, regarded this defiance of their authority as a rebellious insolence, which was not improved by the professed inability of the Edinburgh magistrates to discover those who had been concerned in the lynching. (Actually, the event had been so well organized, and carried out in so determined and orderly a manner, that the identity of those concerned was never revealed. Severe penalties upon the city were proposed, and some were inflicted, in consequence; but they do not concern this story).

        At this time there was lying in the Tolbooth awaiting trial a young girl, Effie Deans, on a charge of infanticide. She was the daughter of a small Midlothian farmer, David Deans, who had brought her up, together with a half-sister, Jeanie, about ten years older than herself, in the strictest forms and beliefs of Presbyterian puritanis. . . .

        At the age of seventeen, Effie had been sent to live with an Edinburgh saddlemaker, and to assist in the shop. Here she had been seduced, under promise of marriage, by a young man, George Staunton, of superior rank, but wild and ill-regulated character, who had, however, intended to keep his promise, there being a genuine bond of love between them.

        But his love of lawless adventure had caused him to associate with Andrew Wilson, and it was he who, under an assumed name, had been arrested with him for

the robbery of the customs officer, had been condemned to death and escaped through Wilson's self-sacrifice.

        Meanwhile, Effie Deans' condition had been observed by neighbours and customers, who had suggested to her that she was pregnant, which she had vigorously denied. Her mistress had fallen ill, so that she had known nothing of the matter, until the day came when Effie suddenly left.

        A week or two later, the girl returned to her own home, pale and thin, and obviously ill, but refusing any explanation, until officers entered the cottage, and arrested her on a charge of child-murder.

        Owing to the prevalance of infanticide in Scotland during the previous century, a severe law had been passed that concealment of pregnancy, followed by the death or disappearance of the child, should be regarded as legal evidence of murder, and entail the capital penalty, though such sentences had not usually been carried out, a term of imprisonment being substituted.

        Effie Deans, being questioned before a magistrate, admitted that she had borne a child, but denied having harmed it, or intended to do so. It had, she said, been taken from her. Beyond that, she refused all information.

        The fact was that Staunton, having been confined in the Tolbooth awaiting trial, and then under sentence of death, had been unable either to marry her or to make any proper provision for the coming of the child. He had done what he could by letters from jail, both to her and to a female acquaintance of dubious character on whom he had been obliged to rely. This woman had consented to do what was required, but through jealousy had made away with the child.

        Staunton was now a fugitive from justice, but he contrived, at a great risk, to obtain an interview with Jeanie Deans, to whom he pointed out that, by the statute under which Effie was charged, concealment of pregnancy

was an essential element in the presumption of guilt. She had therefore only to give evidence that her sister had confided her condition to her, and - in the absence of any direct evidence that she had murdered the missing child, or even that it was dead, the charge must collapse.

        Jeanie was a young woman of strong, simple, pious character, devotedly attached to her younger sister, and more than willing to believe in her innocence. But she had been brought up in the most rigid tenets of the puritanism of the Lowland peasant. To tell a lie under any circumstance was against her conscience, and to give false witness under a solemn oath appeared to her as a deadly sin which no earthly circumstance could excuse. Even an interview with her sister in the Tolbooth prison could not reconcile her mind to saving her in such a manner.

        Yet when the trial came on, the defending attorney called her, having no better line of defence, in anticipation that she would give way. But after a long pause, she answered that her sister had told her nothing.

        There was intense sympathy in court for the accused girl, in whose innocence most people were inclined to believe, and the identity of whose lover, with the obligation of silence which it imposed upon her, were generally guessed; but the judge charged the jury that they had no option, under their oaths, and the terms of the statute, but to bring in a verdict of guilty, which they did, with a strong recommendation to mercy attached thereto.

        Under normal circumstances, this recommendation would have secured an easy pardon, or, at worst, a reprieve, but the King was not in the mood to give further pardons to Scottish offenders, after the sequel to that which had been granted to Porteous. Effie and her family were told that there was no hope that the King would interfere with any sentence which had been passed by a Scottish court.

        On hearing this, Jeanie set out on a bare-foot walk to London, with the object of obtaining an audience of the King, and bringing back a pardon before the sentence could be carried out.

        Having reached London, she succeeded in seeing the Duke of Argyle, and arousing his sympathy. She was taken by him to Richmond Park, and introduced her to Queen Caroline, to whom, without knowing certainly to whom she was speaking, she pleaded successfully for her sister's 1ife: "Oh, madam, if ever ye kend what it was to sorrow for and with a sinning and a suffering creature, whose mind is sae tossed that she can neither be ca'd fit to live or die, have some compassion on our misery. . . . Save an honest house from dishonour, and an unhappy girl, not eighteen years of age, from an early and dreadful death. . . . It is not when we sleep soft and wake merrily ourselves, that we think on other people's sufferings. Our hearts are waxed light within us then, and we are for righting our ain wrangs and fighting our ain battles. But when the hour of trouble comes to the mind or to the body - and seldom may it visit your Leddyship - and when the hour of death comes, which comes to high and low - lang and late may it be yours - Oh, my Leddy, then it isna what we hae dune for oursells, but what we hae dune for ithers, that we think on maist pleasantly. And the thought that ye hae intervened to spare the puir thing's life will be sweeter in that hour, come when it may, than if a word of your mouth could hang the haill Porteous mob at the tail of ae tow."

        . . . The sentence of death is changed to a period of banishment, and Effie leaves the country with her lover, who has succeeded in avoiding arrest.

The End