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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Captain James Burnet, the last Captain of the City Guard


The formation of the City Guard of Edinburgh, about the year 1690, is generally believed to have been a political measure, devised for the purpose of controlling the Jacobites, and protecting the city from any sudden tumult.

Arnot, in his "History of Edinburgh," published in 1788, gives the following account of the origin of the Guard:—"Of old, the citizens performed a species of personal service for the defence of the town, called watching and warding. By this, the trading part of the inhabitants were hound in person to keep watch alternately during the night, to prevent or suppress occasional disturbances. In the progress of manners, this personal attendance was found extremely inconvenient ; and the citizens were convinced that their own ease would be promoted, and the city more effectually protected, by a commutation of their services into money, to be paid by them for maintaining a regular Guard.

"Conform to this idea, the Town Council, a.d. 1048, appointed a body of sixty men to be raised, whereof the captain to have a monthly pay of ,£11 2s. 3d. sterling; two lieutenants of £2 each; two sergeants, of £1 5s ; three corporals of .£1; and the private men of 15s. each per month. No regular fund being provided to defray this expense, the old method of watching and warding was quickly resumed ; but those on whom this service was incumbent were become so relaxed in their discipline, that the Privy Council informed the magistrates, if they did not provide a sufficient Guard for preserving order in the city, the King's troops would be quartered in it. Upon this, forty men were again (1679) raised as a Town Guard. This body was, in the year 1682, augmented to 108 men, at the instigation of the Duke of York. The appointment of the officers was vested in the King, who was also declared to have a power of marching this corps wherever he thought proper. To defray the expense of this company, the Council imposed a tax upon the citizens, and the imposition was ratified by the King.

"Upon the Revolution, the Town Council represented to the Estates of Parliament, that they had been imposed upon to establish a Town Guard, and complained of it as a grievance which they wished to have removed. Their request was granted, and the citizens had recourse once more to toatching and warding. So speedily, however, did they repent themselves of the change, that the very next year they applied for the authority of Parliament to raise, for the defence of the city, a corps of no fewer than one hundred and twenty-six men, and to assess the inhabitants for discharging the expense.

"Since that period, the number of this corps, which is called the 'Town Guard,' has been very fluctuating. For about these thirty years it has consisted of only seventy-five private men; and, considering the enlarged extent of the city, and the increased number of inhabitants, it ought undoubtedly to be augmented. This, however, cannot be the case, unless new means are devised for defraying the expense, since the cost of maintaining the present Guard exceeds the sum allowed by Parliament to be levied from the citizens for that purpose.

"The Lord Provost of Edinburgh is commander of this useful corps. The men are properly disciplined, and fire remarkably well. Within these two years, some disorderly soldiers, in one of the marching regiments, having conceived an umbrage at the Town Guard, attacked them. They were double in number to the party of the Town Guard, who in the scuffle severely wounded some of their assailants, and made the whole of them prisoners."

The Guard consisted of about 120 men, divided into three companies, armed and equipped in a style peculiar to the times. During the disturbances of 1715 and 1745 the number was considerably augmented. The service of these civic warriors was limited to the guardianship of the city, and the preservation of public order. They were in reality a body of armed police, whose duty it was to attend the Magistrates in their official capacity—to be present on all public occasions—and, while the capital continued to maintain the character of a walled city, so many of their number were nightly placed as sentinels at the gates. Only a limited portion, however, of the three companies was kept regularly on duty. The remainder were allowed to work at their trades, subject, however, to be called out at a moment's notice.

The Guard was mostly composed of discharged soldiers—men who, although they might have seen a good deal of service, were still able to shoulder a musket, or wield a Lochaber axe, and possessed sufficient spirit to render them formidable in a street brawl. The officers were at times old military men, who had influence enough with the Town Council to procnre their appointment; and not a few of them had spent their youth in the service of the Dutch as soldiers in the Scots Brigade.

From the nature of their duties, the City Guard was repeatedly brought into contact with the people during periods of excitement. The most notable affair of this kind was the well-known "Porteous mob;" and it is probable that much of the odium, which subsequently attached to the corps arose from associating this unpopular individual with it. Prior to his appointment, almost no notice whatever occurs of the City Guard in the local history or traditions of the times. During the greater part of last century, however, a sort of hereditary feud seems to have existed betwixt the lower order of citizens and the "Town Eats," as they were called, and no opportunity of annoying them was allowed to escape. Fergusson the poet repeatedly alludes to these rencounters with the "black squad," whose tender mercies he had probably too often experienced in the course of his bacchanalian irregularities:—

"An' thou, great god o' aquavit're!
Wha' sway'st the empire o' this city;
Whan fa', we're sometimes capernoity;
Be thou prepar'd
To hedge us frae that black banditti—
The City Guard.'"

"In fact," says the author of Waverley, "the soldiers of the City Guard, being, as we have said, in general discharged veterans, who had strength remaining for their municipal duty, and being, moreover, in general, Highlanders, were, neither by birth, education, nor former habits, trained to endure with much patience the insults of the rabble. or the provoking petulance of truant-boys, and idle debauchees, of all descriptions, with whom their occupation brought them into contact. On the contrary, the tempers of the poor old fellows were soured by the indignities with which the mob distinguished them on many occasions, and frequently might have required the soothing strains of the poet just quoted:—

"O soldiers! for your am dear sakes,
For Scotland's love—the land o' cakes,
Gie not her bairns sic deadly paiks,
Nor be sae rude,
Wi firelock or Lochaber axe,
As spill their blude.

"On all occasions—when holiday licenses some riot or irregularity —a skirmish with these veterans was a favourite recreation with the rabble of Edinburgh."

The recollection of many of our readers will enable them to appreciate the truth of this quotation from the Heart of Mid-Lothian. The "Town Rats," when annually mustered in front of the Parliament House—

"Wi' powdered pow an' shaven beard,"

to do honour to the birth of his Majesty, by a feu dejoie—were subject to a species of torture, peculiarly harassing—dead cats, and every species of "clarty unction," being unsparingly hurled at their devoted heads:

"'Mong them fell inony a gawsey snout,
Has gusht in birth-day wars,
Wi' blude that day."

The last vestige of the Town Guard disappeared about the year 1817 —a period particularly fatal to many of the most ancient characteristics of the Old Town. "Of late," continues the author of Waverley, "the gradual diminution of these civic soldiers remind one of the abatement of King Lear's hundred knights. The edicts of each set of succeeding Magistrates have, like those of Gonerill and Regan, diminished this venerable band with the similar question—' What need we five-and-twenty?—ten?—or five? ' And it is now nearly come to— 'What need we one? ' A spectre may indeed here and there still be seen of an old grey-headed and grey-bearded Highlander, with warworn features, but bent double by age: dressed in an old-fashioned cocked hat, bound with white tape instead of silver lace; and in coat, waistcoat, and breeches, of a muddy coloured red, bearing in his withered hand an ancient weapon, called a Lochaber axe, namely, a long pole, with an axe at the extremity, and a hook at the back of the hatchet. Such a phantom of former days still creeps, I have been informed, round the statue of Charles the Second, in the Parliament Square, as if the image of a Stuart were the last refuge for any memorial of our ancient manners ; and one or two others are supposed to glide around the door of the Guard-House, assigned to them at the Luckenbooths, when their ancient refuge in the High Street was laid low. But the faith of manuscripts bequeathed to friends and executors is so uncertain, that the narrative containing these frail memorials of the Old Town Guard of Edinburgh, who, with their grim and valiant corporal, John Dhu (the fiercest looking fellow I ever saw), were, in my boyhood, the alternate terror and derision of the petulant brood of the High School, may perhaps only come to light when all memory of the institution is faded away, and then serve as an illustration of Kay's Garicatiires, who has preserved the features of some of their heroes."

Towards the close of last century, several reductions had taken place in the number of the Guard ; and, in 1805, when the New Police Bill for Edinburgh came into operation, the corps was entirely broken up. At the same time, however, partly from reluctance to do away all at once with so venerable a municipal force, and by way of employing, instead of pensioning off, some of the old hands, a new corps, consisting of two sergeants, two corporals, two drummers, and thirty privates, was formed from the wreck of the former. Of this new City Guard, as it was called, the subject of our sketch, Mr. James Burnet—the senior Captain—was appointed to the command, and was the last who held the situation.

Captain Burnet was a native of East-Lothian. He was one of the Captains of the Guard who had not previously been in the army; and, it' we except his experience as a member of the First Regimeut of Edinburgh Volunteers, may be supposed to have been a novice in military matters. Previous to his appointment, he kept a grocer's shop at the head of the Fleshmarket Close.

The personal appearance of Mr. Burnet is well delineated in Kay's Portrait. He was a man of great bulk; and when in his best days, weighed upwards of nineteen stone. He was nevertheless a person of considerable activity, and of much spirit, as will appear from the following instance. Along with one or two gentlemen, he was one summer day cooling himself with a meridian draught in a well known tavern, when the late Mr. James Laing, Deputy City Clerk, who was one of the party, took a bet with the Captain that he would not walk to the top of Arthur's Seat, from the base of the hill, within a quarter of an hour. Mr. Burnet at once agreed to the wager; and Mr. Smellie, who happened to be the lightest and most active of the company, was appointed to proceed with the pedestrian in the capacity of umpire. The task, it must be admitted by all who know anything of the locality, was an amazing one for a person of nineteen stone on a hot summer day! The Captain courageously set about his arduous undertaking, Seeing his way by St. Anthony's Well, up the ravine. But to describe his progress, as he literally melted and broiled under the rays of the pitiless sun, would require the graphic pen of a Pindar. Never did "fodgel wight or rosy priest" perform such a penance. When he reached the most difficult part of his journey, the Captain looked as if about to give up the ghost; but Mr. Smellie, still keeping a-head with a timepiece in his hand, so coaxed and encouraged his portly friend, that he continued his exertion, and actually gained the top of the hill within half a minute of the prescribed period. The moment he achieved the victory, he threw himself, or rather fell, down, and lay for some time like an expiring porpoise—neither able to stir nor speak a single word. While thus extended at full length, a young cockney student, who had been amusing himself on the hill, came forward, and holding up his hands, exclaimed, as he gazed in amazement at the Captain—"Good heavens! what an immense fellow to climb such a hill!" When Mr. Burnet had sufficiently recovered, Mr. Smellie and he returned victorious to their friends; and, it need not be doubted, potations deep were drunk in honour of the feat.

Few men of his time enjoyed their bottle with greater zest than Captain Burnet; and at the civic feasts, with which these palmy times abounded, no one did greater execution with the knife and fork. He seldom retired with less than two bottles under his belt, and that too without at all deranging the order of his "upper story." "Two-and-a-half here," was a frequent exclamation, as ho clapped his hand on his portly paiiuch, if he chanced to meet a quondam bon vivant, on his way home from the festive board.

The Captain was altogether a jolly, free sort of fellow, and much fonder of a stroll to the country on a summer Sunday, than of being pent up in a crowded church. In a clever retrospective article in Chambers's Journal, he is alluded to as one of the "Turners," so called from their habit of taking a turn (a walk) on the Sabbath afternoon. "About one o'clock," says the paper alluded to, " Mr. J[ohn] L[ittle] might be seen cooling it through Straiton, in the midst of a slow procession of bellied men—his hat and wig perhaps borne aloft on the end of his stick, and a myriad of flies buzzing and humming in the shape of a pennon from behind his shining pow. Perhaps Captain B[urnet], of the City Guard, is of the set. He has a brother a farmer about Woodhouselee, and they intend to call there and be treated to a check of lamb, or something of that kind, with a glass of spirits and water; for really the day is very warm. The talk is of Sir Ralph Abercromby, and General Brune, and the Duke of York, and the Texel: or a more interesting subject still, the last week's proceedings of the Edinburgh Volunteers in the Links."

Captain Burnet was also one of the well known Lawnmarket Club, described in the Traditions as a dram-drinking, news mongering, facetious set of citizens, who met every morning about seven o'clock ; and, after proceeding to the Post Office to ascertain the news, generally adjourned to a public-house, and refreshed themselves with a libation of brandy.

From such reminiscences it may be guessed that the philosophy of Mr. Burnet was not of that morose description which converts the sweets of life into sour. He saw much in life worth living for; but yet, while he possessed a "feeling for all mankind," there existed within him enough of the devil to render applicable in his case the well known motto of the thistle. He was not to be insulted with impunity. Having gone into a tavern with a few friends one excessively warm day, the Captain, in order to cool himself, laid aside his sword and belt. In the meantime, another party entering the room, one of them, in approaching the table, took the liberty of removing Mr. Burnet's sword; and, by way of ridicule, placed it in a position which few men of spirit would have submitted to in silence. Neither did our excellent friend. Springing to his feet in a paroxysm of rage, he unsheathed the weapon, and, running on the offender, would have transfixed him to the wall, but for the interference of a third party, who fortunately parried the thrust.

The death of this veteran of the Guard, which occurred on the 24th August, 1814, is thus recorded in the Scots Magazine:—"At Seton, Mr. James Burnet, many years Captain of the Town Guard of this city. Mr. Burnet is much regretted by a numerous acquaintance, who greatly respected him as a cheerful companion and an honest man."


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