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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Sir James Stirling, Bart., Lord Provost of Edinburgh


This gentleman, whose father was a fishmonger at the head of Marlin's Wynd, had the merit of being the architect of his own fortune. Marlin's Wynd, which stood east of the Tron Church, was demolished to make way for the South Bridge. Mr. Stirling had for his sign a large, clumsy, wooden Black Bull, which is preserved as a relic in the Museum of the Scottish Antiquaries. In early life he went to the West Indies, as clerk to an extensive and opulent planter, Mr. Stirling of Keir, where he conducted himself with such propriety, that, in a short time, through the influence of his employer, he was appointed Secretary to the Governor of the Island of Jamaica, Sir Charles Dalling.

Having in this situation accumulated a considerable sum of money, he at length returned to Edinburgh, and was assumed a partner in the banking concern of "Mansfield, Rarnsay, & Co." (lately Ramsay, Bonar, & Co.), whose place of business was then in Cantore's Close, Luckenbooths. Not long after he had entered into this concern, Mr. Stirling, naturally of an irritable temperament, became uneasy at the extent and responsibility of a banking establishment, and proposed selling his estate of Saughie, which he had recently purchased. Old Mr. William Ramsay, having been apprised of his intention, addressed him one day after dinner in his usual familiar manner—"I hear, Jamie, that ye're gaun to sell the Saughie property. If that be the case, rather than let you advertise it in the newspapers, and thereby bring suspicion on the stability of the concern, I'll tak it frae you at what it cost ye." Stirling instantly agreed to the proposition ; and scarcely had the property been transferred to Mr. Ramsay when that gentleman had the offer of nearly double the purchase-money. The value is now more than quadrupled. In this copartnery he was very prosperous; and his good fortune was increased by obtaining the hand of Miss Mansfield, the daughter of the principal partner.

Mr. Stirling first became connected with the Town Council in 1771, when he was elected one of the Merchant Councillors. During the years 1773-4, he held the office of Treasurer; and, from 1776 till 1790, was frequently in the magistracy. At the annual election of the latter year, he was chosen Lord Provost, and held that office during the city riots of 1702.

At this period politics ran high. The Reform of the Royal Burghs of Scotland had been keenly agitated throughout the country forborne time previous; and a motion on the subject, by Mr. Sheridan, in the House of Commons, on the 18th of April, which was negatived by a majority of twenty-six, had incensed the public to a great degree. Henry Dundas Lord Melville, then Principal Secretary of State for the Home department, by his opposition to the motion, rendered himself so obnoxious to the people, that in various parts of Scotland he was burnt in effigy by the mob. The Pitt administration had become unpopular, by a proclamation, issued at the same time, against certain publications—a measure which the people viewed as an attack upon the liberty of the press. In this state of excitement the authorities of Edinburgh contemplated the approaching King's birth-day on the 4th of June, with much uneasiness; but the measures of precaution adopted by them were imprudent, and tended rather to irritate than conciliate the populace. The disturbances which ensued are thus recorded in the journals of the day :—

"The Magistrates of Edinburgh, having got information by anonymous letters and otherwise, that, on the King's birth-day, many persons who had taken offence at the parliamentary conduct of Mr. Dundas, in the opposition of the Scottish Burgh Eeform, were determined to burn his effigy, in imitation of the burghs of Dundee, Aberdeen, &c, in consequence of this information, they took the opinion of the high officers of the Crown, with regard to the conduct which it was proper to pursue, when they resolved to prevent, if possible, the designs of the populace, by bringing in some troops of dragoons to overawe and intimidate them. Accordingly, in the afternoon of the King's birth-day (Monday, 4th June, 1792), the dragoons made their appearance in Edinburgh, riding furiously through the streets, with their swords drawn. This behaviour, instead of having the desired effect, provoked the indignation of the people, who saluted them with hootings and hisses as they passed along. In the afternoon, when the Magistrates were assembled in the Parliament House, to drink the usual healths and loyal toasts, the populace also assembled, and were indulging themselves, according to a custom which has prevailed in Edinburgh for many years, in the throwing of dead cats, &c, at one another, and at the city-guard, who are always drawn up to fire vollies as the healths are drunk by the Magistrates. At this time some dragoon officers, incautiously appearing on the streets, were .insulted by the rabble. This induced them to bring out their men, who were accordingly directed to clear the streets. Some stones were thrown at them; but at last the mob retired without doing any material mischief.

"On the evening of the next day, Tuesday, a number of persons assembled before Mr. Dundas's house in George Square, with a figure of straw, which they hung upon a pole, and were proceeding to burn, when two of Mr. Dundas's friends came out from the house, and very imprudently attempted to disperse the mob by force. Their conduct was immediately resented. The gentlemen were soon obliged to retire again into the house; and the mob began to break the windows. Not content with this, they proceeded to the house of the Lord Advocate (Dundas of Arniston), whose windows they broke. It then became necessary to bring a party of the military from the Castle to prevent farther mischief. The Sheriff attended and read the riot act; but the mob not dispersing, after repeated intimation of the consequences, the military at last fired, when several persons were wounded, and some mortally. This put a period to the outrages for that night.

"On Wednesday, in the evening, the mob assembled in the New Town, with an intention of destroying the house of the Chief Magistrate. A fire was lighted on the Castle, and two guns were fired, as a signal to the marines of the Hind frigate, stationed at Leith, and the dragoons, quartered about a mile east of the town. On their appearance the mob finally separated."

During the prevalence of these riots, Provost Stirling prudently sought shelter in the Castle. In so doing he acted wisely, as, if the mob had laid hands on him, there is no saying what might have followed. It was at this time that "Lang Sandy Wood," whom the crowd mistook for the Provost, narrowly escaped being thrown over the North Bridge.

The Magistrates, naturally alarmed at what had occurred, thought it best to lay the whole facts of the case before their fellow-citizens. With this view, a public meeting of the inhabitants was called, in the New Church aisle, on the Thursday forenoon following. The Lord Provost in the chair. Of this meeting the following account is given in the journals:—

"The Lord Advocate, Mr. Sheriff Pringle, the Lord President, Lord Adam Gordon, Commander-in-Chief, Mr. Solicitor Blair, and several others, declared their sentiments. The meeting unanimously expressed their full approbation of the measures pursued by the Magistrates and the Sheriff, for suppressing the riots; and published resolutions to that effect.

"A proclamation was issued the same evening, recommending to the people not to assemble in crowds, or remain longer on the streets than their lawful business required, as the most decisive measures had been resolved upon for quieting the least appearance of any further disorder; and offering a reward of one hundred guineas for discovery of the ring-leaders. Fifty guineas were also offered by the Merchant Company, who, and all the incorporations, voted thanks to the Magistrates for the measures taken to suppress the riots. It is said, that certain attempts to procure a vote of thanks to the Magistrates for introducing the military into the town, -previous to any riotous act, proved abortive."

Perhaps the zeal displayed by Provost Stirling, in support of the existing administration on this occasion, may have recommended him as a suitable object for ministerial favour; however this may be, on the 17th of July following, " the King was pleased to grant the dignity of a Baronet of the kingdom of Great Britain to the Bight Hon. James Stirling, Lord Provost of the city of Edinburgh, and the heirs-rnale of his body lawfully begotten."

The irritation of the populace against Sir James gradually subsided; and latterly vented itself entirely in pasquinadoes and lampoons, in which the humble origin of the Baronet was not spared.

The satirical allusion of a second Print will be best understood by reference to the debate in the House of Commons in the month of May prior to the distubances. The subject of discussion was the King's proclamation (already alluded to), which the Whigs opposed as tyrannical and unnecessary. After several speakers had delivered their sentiments, Mr. Courtenay said—"The proclamation was a severe censure on ministers for not having discharged their duty—in not having prosecuted the libels, which they said had existence for several months. He declared his misbelief of the proclamation having been intended for insidious purposes by one of his Majesty's cabinet ministers, the Home Secretary (Mr. Dundas), whose good nature and civility had always induced him to accommodate himself to every minister; which good nature and civility called to his mind the old man in Edinburgh, who used to go about with a pail and great-coat, calling out—' Wha wants me ?' The honourable Secretary, upon every change of administration, had imitated the old man, by calling out—'Wha wants me? ' This readiness to oblige, therefore, did away with all suspicion of malice."

To this sally of humour, Dundas of course made no reply. He was impenetrable to all such assaults. It did not fail, however, to excite the notice of his opponents north of the Tweed; and we have seen by the "Patent of Knighthood " how the artist improved upon the suggestion.

Notwithstanding his temporary unpopularity, Sir James was subsequently at the head of the magistracy in 1794-5, and again in 1798-9. During the latter warlike period his conduct was truly meritorious. Scottish commerce had suffered considerably from the attacks of French and Dutch privateers, even on our very coasts, which had been left in a shamefully unguarded condition. By the representations of Sir James, and his judicious applications to Government, proper convoys were obtained for the merchantmen, and due protection afforded to our bays. He zealously forwarded the plan of arming the seamen of Leith and the fishermen of Newhaven, by which a strong body of men were organised in defence of the harbour and shipping.

So highly were the services of Sir James appreciated, that at the annual Convention of the Eoyal Burghs of Scotland (of which he was preses), held at Edinburgh in 1799, the thanks of the Convention were presented to him in a gold box, "for his constant attention to the trade of the country, and in testimony of the Convention's sense of his good services in procuring the appointment of convoys, and in communicating with the outports on the subject."

Sir James Stirling died on the 17th February, 1805. In private life, he was very much respected: of mild, gentlemanly manners, but firm in what lie judged to be right. His habits were economical, but not parsimonious; and the party entertainments given at his house were always in a style of magnificence. In person, he was tall and extremely attenuated. It is related of Sir James, that on being pointed out to a country woman while walking, attired in his velvet robes, in a procession, she exclaimed—"Is that the Lord Provost? I thocht it was the corpse rinnin' awa' wi' the mort-cloth."

At one period Sir James resided in St. Andrew's Square, the first house north from Piose Street; and, latterly, at the west end of Queen Street, not far from the Hopetoun Rooms. He acquired the estate of Larbert, in Stirlingshire, which, with his title of Baronet, descended to his son, the present Sir Gilbert Stirling, then a Lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards. He left two daughters, Janet and Joan, the former of whom was married to Admiral Sir Thomas Livingstone of Westquarter, near Falkirk.


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