Admiral Duncan fights off the Edinburgh Mob – 5 June 1792
In June 1777 the then 45 year-old Captain Adam Duncan of the Royal Navy had married 28 year-old Henrietta Dundas, the daughter of the Right Hon. Robert Dundas of Arniston, who had been the M.P for Midlothian from 1754-61, and in 1760 had become the Lord President of the Court of Session in Scotland.
For a Scottish naval officer seeking the very best employment the service had to offer this marriage was simply one made in heaven, as the Dundas family was one of the most influential judicial and political families in the whole of Great Britain, let alone Scotland, and had the potential to exert great influence over key appointments. Among its number were such leading lights as Robert Dundas of Arniston the Younger, who had succeeded his father as the M.P for Midlothian in 1761, General Francis Dundas, who would become the governor of the Cape Colony in 1798, and William Dundas, who would later serve as the secretary of War from 1804-6. Affiliated to the ‘clan’ by marriage had been the late Vice-Admiral Sir John Lockhart-Ross, who had been wealthy enough to discount his rent arrears by a third when the going got tough for his tenants. But of all the members of the Dundas family none was more influential than Henry Dundas, the future Viscount Melville, who despite being just seven years her senior was Henrietta Duncan’s uncle.
The reason for such a small differential in age between two relatives of successive generations was that Henry Dundas was a son of Henrietta’s grandfather’s second marriage, and thus a much younger half-brother of her father. In 1774 he had been elected to the parliamentary seat of Midlothian in the Tory interest, and by displaying great oratory and political skills had risen by 1791 to become the Secretary of State for Home Affairs in William Pitt’s government. More pertinently however, he had acquired hegemony over the Scottish boroughs to such a degree that in the general election of 1790 the Scottish Whigs had been almost extinguished by his drive to deliver the country to Pitt’s administration. It was therefore little surprise that amongst various other nicknames he was known as ‘King Harry IX, the Uncrowned King of Scotland’.
Despite, or perhaps because of his electoral success, the all-conquering Henry Dundas had made many political enemies in Scotland, and in 1791 his opposition to the repeal of the anti-Roman Catholic and non-conformist Test Act as it pertained to Scotland had caused even more people to turn against him. The final straw for many came in April 1792 when he blocked the proposed reform of the Scottish boroughs as advocated by the Whig playwright and constant thorn in William Pitt’s side, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. For many, perhaps emboldened by events in the French Revolution, and by the banning of a number of publications that the government considered seditious, it was time to take to the streets, and in the succeeding weeks effigies of Dundas were burned throughout Scotland.
It was at this point that Adam Duncan, now a 61 year-old rear-admiral, became involved, for he happened to be in Edinburgh when the King’s birthday of 4 June approached. The authorities in the Scottish capital were expecting trouble, and on that afternoon a party of dragoons appeared in the city and paraded through the streets with swords drawn. Rather than intimidate the angry populace into submission the display of military force had the opposite effect, with the soldiers being greeted by insults and hisses. That afternoon an angry mob gathered outside the parliament building where the great and good were drinking to the health of His Majesty, and soon the old Edinburgh tradition of flinging dead cats and other such missiles began, to be followed by a hail of stones at the soldiers who were summoned to clear the streets.
On the next night, 5 June, a mob gathered outside the home of Henry Dundas’ mother in George Square carrying a life-size effigy of the secretary of state on a pole which they then proceeded to set afire. At this point Admiral Duncan and a 21 year-old student at the university, Patrick Murray of Ochtertyr, came out of the house to drive the protestors away. Two men against a raging mob might have seemed long odds, but at well over six foot tall, and of a strong athletic stature, Duncan cut a most imposing figure; indeed in his younger days it had not been unusual for an admiring crowd to gather around him as he performed the simple act of walking through the streets of Chatham.
Wielding a crutch belonging to his mother-in-law which he had seized upon marching out of the door, Duncan plunged into the mob and swung into action with such alacrity that the head of his makeshift weapon soon fractured. Nothing daunted, he continued to belabour his enemy with all his force until their greater number got the better of him and he was forced to beat a retreat into the house. As a result of the melee he found himself wounded in the chest and nursing a broken finger, whilst his ally, Patrick Murray, at one point was given to fear for his life. The wounds sustained by the mob were not recorded, but given Duncan’s immense strength and enthusiasm for his task they must have been considerable.
Once the mob had forced the two men back into the house they smashed the windows and damaged some of the furniture and decorations before moving on to break the windows at another Dundas family residence nearby. The military were summoned once again and the Riot Act was read, but the mob failed to disperse and more trouble followed in nearby George’s Street when the troops opened fire, killing one rioter and seriously wounding three others.
At this point the mob scattered, only to gather again on the following afternoon with the intention of setting out for Melville Castle, Henry Dundas’ ostentatious country pile that had allegedly cost over one hundred thousand pounds (or nearly eight million pounds in today’s money) to construct, and which lay some eight miles to the south-east of the city. This time the authorities were ready for trouble, and a signal was sent from the castle to summon the dragoons from Dalkeith, as well as the marines from the frigate Hind 28, Captain Hon. Alexander Forester Inglis Cochrane, which was berthed at nearby Leith. Seeing the forces ranged against them, and no doubt wary of the wounds they had suffered at the hands of one single naval officer in the shape of Admiral Duncan, the mob thought better of causing any further disorder and made their way home. Through both coercion and dialogue the authorities in Edinburgh were able to prevent any further riots and peace soon reigned over the city once more.
Admiral Duncan would forever be reminded of the day that he took on the mob, for thereafter he was obliged to wear a ring linking the third and little fingers of his left hand as the latter had been broken. This disability did not seem to affect him much, for even seven years later, as he approached his 70th year, he was able to pick a mutineer up by the scruff of his neck with his good hand and dangle him over the side of his ship as a warning to anyone else planning to dispute his authority.