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Book of Scottish Story
Traditions of the Celebrated Major Weir


By Robert Chambers, LL. D.

In one of the most ancient streets of Edinburgh, called the West Bow, stood the house formerly inhabited by Major Weir, whose name is scarcely more conspicuous in the Criminal Records of Scotland, than it is notorious in the mouth of popular tradition. The awful tenement was situated in a small court at the back ofthe main street, accessible by a narrow entry leading off to the east, about fifty yards from the top of the Bow. It was a sepulchral-looking fabric, with a peculiarly dejected and dismal aspect, as if it were conscious of the bad character which it bore among the neighbouring houses.

It is now about one hundred and fifty years since Major Weir, an old soldier of the civil war, and the bearer of some command in the City Guard of Edinburgh, closed a most puritanical life, by confessing himself a sorcerer, and being burnt accordingly at the stake. The scandal in which this involved the Calvinistic party seems to have been met, on their part, by an endeavour to throw the whole blame upon the shoulders of Satan ; and this conclusion, which was almost justified by the mystery and singularity of the case, has had the effect of connecting the criminal’s name inalienably with the demonology of Scotland.

Sundry strange reminiscences of Major Weir and his house are preserved among the old people of Edinburgh, and especially by the venerable gossips of the West Bow. It is said he derived that singular gift of prayer by which he surprised all his acquaintance, and procured so sanctimonious a reputation, from his walking-cane! This implernent, it appears, the Evil One, from whom he procured it, had endowed with the most wonderful properties and powers. It not only inspired him with prayer, so long as he held it in his hand, but it acted in the capacity of a Mercury, in so far as it could go an errand, or run a message. Many was the time it went out to the neighbouring shops for supplies of snuff to its master! And as the fact was well known, the shop-keepers of the Bow were not startled at the appearance of so strange a customer. Moreover, it often "answered the door,” when people came to call upon the Major, and it had not unfrequently been seen running along before him, in the capacity of link-boy, as he walked down the Lawnmarket. Of course, when the Major was burnt, his wooden lieutenant and valet was carefully burnt with him, though it does not appear in the justiciary Records that it was included in the indictment, or that Lord Dirleton subjected it, in common with its master, to the ceremony of a sentence.

It is also said that the spot on which the Major was burnt,—namely, the south-east corner of the esplanade on the Castle-Hill,—continued ever after scathed and incapable of vegetation. But we must beg to suggest the possibility of this want of verdure being occasioned by the circumstance of the esplanade being a hard gravel-walk. We are very unwilling to find scientific reasons for last-century miracles,—to withdraw the veil from beautiful deceptions,—or to dispel the halo which fancy may have thrown around the incidents of a former day. But a regard for truth obliges us to acknowledge, that the same miracle, attributed to the burning-place of Wishart, at St Andrews, may be accounted for in a similar way, the spot being now occupied by what the people thereabouts denominate, in somewhat homely phrase, " a mussel midden.”

For upwards of a century after Major Weir’s death, he continued to be the bugbear of the Bow, and his house remained uninhabited. His apparition was frequently seen at night flitting, like a black and silent shadow, about the purlieus of that singular street. His house, though known to be deserted by everything human, was sometimes observed at midnight to be full of lights, and heard to emit strange sounds, as of dancing, howling, and, what is strangest of all, spinning. It was believed, too, that every night, when the clock of St Giles tolled twelve, one of the windows sprung open, and the ghost of a tall woman in white, supposed to be the Major’s equally terrible sister, came forward, and bent her long figure thrice over the window, her face every time touching the wall about three feet down, and then retired, closing the window after her with an audible clang.

Some people had occasionally seen the Major issue from the low "close,” at the same hour, mounted on a black horse without a head, and gallop off in a whirlwind of flame. Nay, sometimes the whole of the inhabitants of the Bow together were roused from their sleep at an early hour in the morning, by the sound as of a coach-and-six, first rattling up the Lawnrnarket, and then thundering down the Bow, stopping at the head of the terrible "close” for a few minutes, and then rattling and thundering back again,—being neither more nor less than Satan come in one of h is best equipages, to take home to his abode the ghosts of the Major and his sister, after they had spent a night’s leave of absence in their terrestrial dwelling. In support of these beliefs, circumstances, of course, were not awanting. One or two venerable men of the Bow, who had. perhaps, on the night of the 7th September 1736, popped their night-capped heads out of their windows, and seen Captain Porteous hurried down their street to execution, were pointed out by children as having actually witnessed some of the dreadful doings alluded to. One worthy, in particular, declared he had often seen coaches parading up and down the Bow at midnight, drawn by six black horses without heads, and driven by a coachman of the most hideous appearance, whose flaming eyes, placed at an immense distance from each other in his forehead, as they gleamed through the darkness, resembled nothing so much as the night-lamps of a modern vehicle.

About forty years ago, when the shades of superstition began universally to give way in Scotland, Major Weir’s house came to be regarded with less terror by the neighbours, and an attempt was made by the proprietor to find a person who would be bold enough to inhabit it. Such a person was procured in William Patullo, a poor man of dissipated habits, who, having been at one time a soldier and a traveller, had come to disregard in a great measure the superstitious of his native country, and was now glad to possess a house upon the low terms offered by the landlord, at whatever risk. Upon it being known in the town that Major Weir’s house was about to be re-inhabited, a great deal of curiosity was felt by people of all ranks as to the result of the experiment; for there was scarcely a native of the city who had not felt since his boyhood an intense interest in all that concerned that awful fabric, and yet remembered the numerous terrible stories which he had heard told respecting it. Even before entering upon his hazardous undertaking, Williani Patullo was looked upon with a flattering sort of interest—an interest similar to that which we feel respecting a culprit under sentence of death, a man about to be married, or a regiment on the march to active conflict. It was the hope of many that he would be the means of retrieving a valuable possession from the dominion of darkness. But Satan soon let them know that he does not ever tamely relinquish the outposts of his kingdom.

On the very first evening after Patullo and his spouse had taken up their abode in the house, a circumstance took place which efectually deterred them and all others from ever again inhabiting it. About one in the morning, as the worthy couple were lying awake in their bed, not unconscious of a considerable degree of fear, a dim uncertain light proceeding from the gathered embers of their fire, and all being silent around them, they suddenly saw a form like that of a calf, but without the head, come through the lower panel of the door and enter the room. A spectre more horrible, or more spectre-like conduct, could scarcely have been conceived. The phantom immediately came forward to the bed; and setting its fore-feet upon the stock, looked steadfastly in all its awful headlessness at the unfortunate pair, who were of course almost ready to die with fright. When it had contemplated them thus for a few minutes, to their great relief it at length took away its intolerable person, and slowly retiring; gradually vanished from their sight. As might be expected, they deserted the house next morning; and from that time forward, no other attempt was ever made to embank this part of the world of light from the aggressions of the world of darkness.

In the course of our experience we have met with many houses in "Auld Reekie" which have the credit of being haunted. There is one at this day [1829] in Buchanan’s Court, Lawnmarket, in the same "land" in which the celebrated editor of the Edinburgh Review first saw the light. It is a flat, and has been shut up fromtime immemorial. The story goes, that one night, as preparations were making for a supper party, something occurred which obliged the family, as well as all the assembled guests, to retire with precipitation, and lock up the house. From that night to this it has never once been opened, nor was any of the furniture withdrawn ;—the very goose which was undergoing the process of being roasted at the time of the dreadful occurrence is still at the fire! No one knows to whom the house belongs ; no one ever inquires after it ; no one living ever saw the inside of it;—it is a condemned house ! There is something peculiarly dreadful about a house under these circumstances. What sights of horror might present themselves if it were entered! Satan is the ‘ultimus hares’ of all such unclaimed property.

Besides the numberless old houses in Edinburgh that are haunted, there are many endowed with the simple credit of having been the scenes of murders and suicides. Some we have met with, containing rooms which had particular names commemorative of such events, and these names, handed down as they had been from one generation to another, usually suggested the remembrance of some dignihed Scottish families, probably the former tenants of the houses.

The closed house in Mary King’s Close (behind the Royal Exchange) is believed by some to have met with that fate for a very fearful reason. The inhabitants at a very remote period were, it is said, compelled to abandon it by the supernatural appearance which took place in it, on the very first night after they had made it their residence. At midnight, as the goodman was sitting with his wife by the fire, reading his Bible, and intending immediately to go to bed, a strange dimness which suddenly fell upon the light caused him to raise his eyes from the book. He looked at the candle, and saw it was burning blue. Terror took possession of his frame. He turned away his eyes from the ghastly object; but the cure was worse than the disease. Directly before him, and apparently not two yards off, he saw the head as of a dead person looking him straight in the face. There was nothing but a head, though that seemed to occupy the precise situation in regard to the floor which it might have done had it been supported by a body of the ordinary stature. The man and his wife fainted with terror. On awaking, darkness pervaded the room. Presently the door opened, and in came a hand holding a candle. This advanced and stood—that is, the body supposed to be attached to the hand stood—beside the table, whilst the terrified pair saw two or three couples of feet skip along the floor, as if dancing. The scene lasted a short time, but vanished quite away upon the man gathering strength to invoke the protection of Heaven. The house was of course abandoned, and remained ever afterwards shut up.


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