Muskets and swords in hand, a menacing band of men patrolled the city day and night drumming up fear and bringing law and order to the streets of 18th-century Edinburgh for the first time.
And now, more than 200 years after their fierce unit was disbanded, the story of the city’s earliest police force – the Town Guard – is being told at the Museum of Edinburgh.
One of the oldest police forces in the world, the Town Guard was formed to carry out basic duties.
But it developed a fearsome reputation due to its fondness for alcohol and a willingness to use weapons in enforcing the 8pm curfew.
Exhibition curator Nico Tyack said: “Renowned as an aggressive and feared group of retired Highland soldiers, Sir Walter Scott described Edinburgh’s Town Guardsman as the fiercest-looking he ever saw, while Captain of the Town Guard John Porteous was famously lynched by a mob in the Grassmarket for murdering protesters.”
Musket, Axe and Drum: The Town Guard in a Time of Unrest opens today and displays never-before-seen documents and rare weapons.
Highlights of the city’s rare collection of early muskets – thought to be the largest in the world – will be exhibited next to axes, drums and halberds used by the Town Guard and a recently rediscovered sword, which is thought to have been brandished in the Grassmarket in 1735 by the controversial Captain Porteous.
“Despite this violent reputation, our new research suggests many Town Guardsmen acted as vital peacemakers during a century full of rebellion and unrest,” said Mr Tyack.
“They were feared by suspicious lowlanders because they had been Highland soldiers, and many stories of their cruel ways may have been Old Town myths. Either way, their weaponry is fascinating.
“The muskets we have on display, dating between 1730 and 1740, are now thought to be amongst the first standard-issue weapons given to the British Army.
“They have been witness to some of the bloodiest and most defining moments in history and we are excited to be able to display many of them in their historical context for the very first time.”
Exhibition highlights also include a lock and chains from the Old Tolbooth jail, documents signed by Bonnie Prince Charlie and a parole book detailing the Town Guard’s daily duties.
Lord Provost Frank Ross said: “Edinburgh’s Town Guard played an important role as the city’s first police force. This exhibition is a chance to discover the story of these early and controversial peacemakers, whose drums could be heard up and down the streets of the Old Town as they called curfews, raised alarms and protected the Lord Provost’s city boundaries 200 years ago.”
The exhibition, which opens today, is free and will run until October 30.