Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XVI - Two Edinburgh Criminals

"THAT marvellous country," says Froude of Scotland, "so fertile in genius and in chivalry, so fertile in madness and crime, where the highest heroism co-existed with preternatural ferocity, yet where the vices were the vices of strength, and the one virtue of indomitable courage was found alike in saint and sinner." The criminal records of Scotland, especially those of Edinburgh, illustrate this quotation. They are strange reading, with a horrible fascination of their own. Here are two instances, the very pick of the bundle, united by no other bond than that both are inexplicable to the verge of lunacy. The first is the case of Major Weir, which had for admirable theatre the West Bow.

It is commonplace steps to-day, most of it, commonplace dwellings, commonplace everything. How not to regret that old impressive street, lined with great, tall, gloomy houses, set off by "roundles" and "pends," and wynds and closes, and like devices of old Scots architecture? Here for the better part of two centuries stood one dismal mansion marked by a striking turret, half in ruin and uninhabited, because of the accursed shade of Major Weir. Even yet, R. L. S. assures us, "Old Edinburgh cannot clear itself of his unholy memory," and that memory still haunts the place, modern as it is. In the years that followed the Restoration there was none of this evil tang. The West Bow was the chosen abode of the strictest of the strict, the true blue upholders of the Covenant. "Bow-head saint" was a cant term of the time. Among the saints (temp. 1669) who so eminent a professor as Major Thomas Weir? A reputable and well-known citizen, he lived in his house there in peculiar strictness and sanctity. He was come of good landed folk in the west, had risen to his rank in the army, and had been appointed to the command of the City Guard. It was not a time of half measures, but Weir’s treatment of such Royal prisoners as fell to his charge was even then noted for its harshness. He had care of Montrose just before his execution; he held him strait, he showered on him a wealth of vituperative epithet. He was "dog, atheist, traitor, apostate, excommunicate wretch." Even Weir had his gentler hour. He was much sought after by those of his own sect; devout women reverenced him as "angelical Thomas." "His vast and tenacious memory" gave him complete command of fit scriptural expression; his fluency was wonderful; his gift of extempore prayer was the admiration of the elect; people came forty or fifty miles to hear him. He refused to preach (that, quoth he, was the province of those specially ordained), but he prayed "with great liberty and melting," leaning on the top of his Staff, which might well-nigh seem a part of himself. An impressive figure! A tall, thin man, with lean and hungry look, big, prominent nose, severe, dark, gloomy countenance, which grew yet more gloomy when one of the conforming ministers crossed his path. Then, with expressive gesture, be would draw his long black coat tighter about him, pull his steeple-hat over wrathful brows, and turn away with audible words of contempt. And as he went his Staff, with an indignant rat-tat, beat the stones of the street. That Staff was to become in after years a terror to all Edinburgh; it was of one piece, with a crooked head of thorn wood. When curiously examined afterwards it was seen to have carved on it the grinning heads of satyrs. And so, for many years, the Major lived on in the very odour of sanctity, in his turreted house in the West Bow, with his sister Jean—or, as some would have it, Grizel—Weir.

In 1670 the Major was between seventy and seventy-six, and a few quiet and safe years seemed his certain portion before he went to his honoured rest. Presently Edinburgh was startled by the report that he had confessed himself guilty of horrible and loathsome crimes, and had with terrible cryings and roarings demanded condign punishment The affair seemed so incredible that he was judged out of his senses—a theory still in favour with sceptical inquirers of to-day. Sir James Ramsay, then provost, sent physicians to report. His own sect also visited him, and a horrid certainty gained ground that the confessions were substantially true. The officers were ordered to secure him, and he and his sister, the accomplice of his crimes, were presently safely lodged in the gloomy old Tolbooth, which you will remember was a little way down the Lawnmarket, just where it joins the High Street. His Staff was not forgotten; his sister had implored the guards to keep it from his grip. Carefully looked after, and gingerly handled, it was lodged in the Tolbooth as securely as its master.

The town was in an uproar. All sorts and conditions of men "flocked thither to see this monster and discourse with him upon his horrible crimes," and the attitude of the prisoner was such as to increase the morbid interest and excitement to the highest pitch. All he said but whetted a curiosity that could not be satisfied. "Had he seen the Devil?" eagerly demanded a certain honest divine, named John Sinclair. "He had felt him in the dark!" was the mysterious reply. To another ghostly adviser he asserted, "that Satan had appeared in the shape of a beautiful woman." He went so far as to describe the very scene of his crimes. It was a spot in Fife, and the curious preacher rushed off to inspect. "No grass grew there," was his quite tame report. Indeed, to ears prepared for blood-curdling horrors, nothing could be less satisfying. He refused to confess or be absolved. He roundly declared "that he had sinned himself beyond all possibility of repentance, that he was already damned." And to one of the city ministers who persistently urged him ‘he responded: "Trouble me no more with your beseeching me to repent, for I know my sentence of damnation is already sealed in heaven, and I feel myself so hardened within that if I might obtain pardon of God and all the glories in heaven for a single wish that I had not committed the sins with the sense whereof I am so prevented, yet I could not prevail myself to make that single wish." And again, "I find nothing within me but blackness and darkness, brimstone and burning to the bottom of hell." Here and elsewhere we seem to hear the wailing of a lost soul. The stern Calvinist accepts with a certain terrible fortitude his place among the souls elected to perdition. Yet one officious divine was not to be denied, he was deaf to every refusal. "Sir, I will pray for you in spite of your teeth and the devil your master too." Weir needs must listen in gloomy silence.

The accused were tried on 9th April 1670 before two Judges of Commission, a Court specially constituted, it would seem, for the purpose. Sir John Nisbet of Dirleton, the Lord Advocate, prosecuted. His task was an easy one, for brother and sister were indicted together and both admitted their guilt. It is impossible to reproduce here the records, or even to name the charges, though the English law of yesterday would have taken cognizance of but one of them. Weir was not directly accused of any dealings with the powers of darkness. There is only an incidental reference to the supernatural in the accusation. Of such trials the end in any event was a foregone conclusion. Both were adjudged guilty and Weir was ordered to be strangled at the stake on the Gallowlee, between Edinburgh and Leith, on the Monday following—the 11th April. The Edinburgh mob had an extensive and peculiar acquaintance with every judicial atrocity, but never had the most regular attendant at the ghastly spectacles such a feast of morbid horrors. Weir was stubborn to the last. "When the roap was about his neck to prepare him for the fire, he was bid say ‘Lord be merciful to me.’ ‘Let me alone, I will not. I have lived as a beast, and I must die as a beast." It would appear the strangling, from malice or accident, was ill done, but the curtain must fall on the scene. The Staff was consumed in the fire with its master. It gave "rare turnings, and was long in burning," so the curious observers noted.

His sister also was condemned to death. Besides being an accomplice in her brother’s crimes, she was charged with consulting witches, necromancers and devils; likewise she entertained a familiar spirit at Dalkeith to spin for her enormous quantities of yarn. She was softer metal than the other and confessed copiously. She had been transported from Edinburgh to Musselburgh and back in a coach and six, which "seemed all on fire," with much more to the same effect. The only thing definite was the extraordinary quantity of yarn. She was wont in prison, when earnestly solicited, to "put back her headdress, and seeming to frown, there was an exact horseshoe shape for nails on her wrinkles, terrible I assure you to the beholder." She was hanged in the Grassmarket the day after her brother’s execution. Excitement and suffering had shaken wits never of the strongest. On the ladder she groaned out a pious commonplace of the time: "I see a great crowd of people come hither to-day to behold a poor old miserable creature’s death, but I trow there will be few among you who are weeping and mourning for a broken Covenant." She tried to throw off her clothing that she might die with the greater shame. Bailie Oliphant, the presiding city dignitary, much scandalized, ordered the hangman to be quick about his work. This last roughness irritated the poor patient, who roundly smacked his face. Thrown over, she got hold of a rung of the ladder with one of her hands, and gruesomely protracted the inevitable.

Weir’s epitaph was written in various fashion. "Thus did the holy justice of God eminently shyne forth in detecting such wretched hypocrites." Then a wild rumour arose in the west that the Major had gone to Holland with money for the exiled brethren. The person burned was not Weir, "but another wicked person bribed by wicked prelates and curates to personate him." Out of China such personation were surely impossible. The wits had, as was to be expected, many a scornful jibe at the expense of the true blues, and then the noise died away. But popular imagination set to work and touched the legend to srange issues. The building was used as a brazier’s shop, and later as a magazine for lint, but none would stay in it for the night. At midnight the house flashed with light, sounds of ghostly revolt echoed within the deserted walls; the noise of dancing and spinning incongruously mixed with howling fell on your affrighted ears. Anon the Major would issue from the door, mount a black horse without a head, and ride off in a game. Again a magic coach and six, in grim parody of fashion, would call for him and his sister. The magic Staff loomed ever larger, improving on its early record. It ran messages, answered the door, acted as linkboy for the Major o’ dark nights as he went about his unholy errands. Such are the fragments collected in Chambers’s Traditions of Edinburgh, first written in 1823. Long before this, somewhere about 1771 in fact, Robert Fergusson had referred to the wizard in The Ghaists: a Kirkyard Eclogue, whereof the scene is the Old Grey-friars Churchyard. Watson’s Hospital, in the course of their talk, says to Heriot’s:

"Sure Major Weir, or some sic warlock wight,
Has flung beguilin’ glances owre your sight."

You could not expect the masters of Scots romance to leave the Major alone. In Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft the hum of the necromantic wheel and the enchanted Staff parading through the gloomy ruins are commemorated as traditions of his own youth, and he notes the house in 1830 as just being pulled down, though James Grant affirms, in his Old and New Edinburgh, that the last relics were only removed as late as 1878. Indeed I have heard it suggested that part of a wall actually remains as the western boundary of a house in Riddle’s Court, which you may remember is at the east of the Bow Head, at the upper end of the Lawnmarket. In "Wandering Willie’s Tale" in Redgauntlet, the brief story that is the supreme flower of Scott’s genius, the jackanapes that mocked the dying agonies of its master, Sir Robert Redgauntlet, is called " Major Weir, after the warlock that was burned." There is also the horseshoe mark on Redgauntlet’s forehead. R. L. S. describes how his own father had often heard the story, only half sceptical as to its falsehood, in the nursery. It held such a place in the son’s memory that some rather fancifully believe it influenced the name of the unfinished Weir of Henniston. The legend of Major Weir is real essential tragedy, more impressive when the "properties" of staff and spinning-wheel and black art are brushed away, and the matter nakedly regarded as the record of a human soul whelmed in storm and tempest.

I have said that Major Weir’s house abutted on Riddle’s Court. Going eastward along that same south side of the Lawnmarket a step or two brings you to Fisher’s Close, another step or two to Brodie’s Close, so called after Deacon Brodie, the subject of my second criminal portrait, he who repeated a century after Weir the strange drama of the double life. His story is quaint and piquant. It is tragedy, for it ended in his death on the scaffold, a disgrace to a highly respectable burgher family; but it is altogether in a lighter vein.

There are strong dashes of comedy. The Deacon himself had a pretty wit and a very sustained courage, and even if some was bravado the very bravado required infinite pluck. The story in outline is briefly this. Brodie was of a good Edinburgh family. His father was Deacon, or bead, of the Incorporation of Wrights or Cabinet-makers. The old man died in 1782, when the son was forty-one years old. He succeeded to his father’s business. He was believed to have inherited £10,000 in cash and considerable house property. He, like his father, was Deacon of the Wrights. He was a marvellously good workman—an artist as we should say. As Deacon of the Wrights, he was on the Town Council and had the best Corporation work. Thus Brodie was to all appearance a reputable and prosperous man; in fact he was given over to all the vices of Old Edinburgh. Drinking and cock-fighting were not perhaps thought of as vices, but he was a desperate and inveterate gambler in a low den in the Fishmarket Close kept by one Clarke. He was not above the use of loaded dice, and he kept two mistresses, each with a family. Jean Watt in Libberton’s Wynd with her two children, and Ann Grant in Cant’s Close with her three. His fortune was gone, and he was ever in want of fresh supplies. He got in tow with a certain George Smith, an Englishman of ill repute, and two others, Ainslie and Moore, completed the gang. A series of burglaries of the most astonishing character was set on foot. The skill of the Deacon as a craftsman, a certain simplicity about Old Edinburgh arrangements, made every house in the city patent to those remarkable rogues. The stories are numerous. A man has the Deacon to supper, shows him out and retires to bed. He wakens in the middle of the night, a burglar is in the room—his guest the Deacon! An old lady is at home o’ kirk time reading her Bible. A figure enters, robs her cabinet, and then discovers he is not alone. Equal to the occasion he bows and retires with his booty. Of course it is the Deacon, but neither lady nor gentleman can believe their senses; at any rate they say nothing.

There came an end to such pranks. The gang at last robbed the Excise Office in Chessel’s Court. They got a mere trifle, for they were frightened from their booty by a curious alarm. It was a Government office, the commotion was extreme. And then Moore peached, and Smith and Ainslie, laid by the heels, made a clean breast of it. And though the Deacon fled to London, and from thence to Holland, he was unearthed and brought back. It is the most exciting story imaginable. You will find it told at length by Mr William Roughead in his Trial of Deacon Brodie (1906). And to the same source I must refer for an account of the trial itself. It is only that of Brodie and Smith; the Crown had accepted Ainslie and Moore as King’s evidence. To let Ainslie go was really superfluous caution. The evidence was carefully got up, and the thing as competently stage-managed then as it could be to-day. Some of the technicalities strike you as ridiculous, but it was the "tune o’ the time," or the time’s law, and at any rate made in favour of the prisoners. The proof was crushing. Smith had elaborately confessed during the examination, an interrogatory to which prisoners are subjected in Scots and French procedure. That did away with him, and did far to do away with Brodie. Then there was the testimony of Moore and Ainslie. There were certain intercepted letters of Brodie which clearly amounted to a confession, and all the minor details exactly fitted in. An alibi, supported by the evidence of Matthew Sheriff, prisoner’s brother-in-law, and Jean Watt, already mentioned, was attempted, but in vain. Henry Erskine, Dean of Faculty, perhaps the most brilliant advocate that ever pleaded at the Scots Bar, did all he could for Brodie. But what could he do with such materials? John Clerk, afterwards Lord Eldin, tried what was practically his ‘prentice hand on the defence of Smith. There were no less than five judges on the bench, of whom Braxfield and Hailes are still remembered. Clerk had violent quarrels with Braxfield. Mr Roughead thinks his conduct of the case a mistake. I venture to hold otherwise. It was perhaps just possible that by creating a scene he might have forced Braxfield to put the case at once to the jury and snatched a preposterous verdict through detestation of the judge, who even then was unpopular. Braxfield, however, was too much for him. He finally allowed him to finish. The court had sat from nine o’clock on Wednesday morning till six o’clock on Thursday morning, and Braxfield then adjourned it for the verdict till one o’clock. And this deliberation ruined any chance the prisoners might have had. They were condemned to death, which they suffered in due course after a reasonable interval of thirty-four days. Brodie showed courage if not bravado to the last. The day before the end he sung a stave from the Beggar’s Opera, made some jesting remark to his companion in suffering the next morning. "It is fortune de Ia guerre," quoth he, a scrap that reminds one of like Gallic efforts of Robert Bums. He had, as wright to the Corporation, done something to improve the apparatus by which he suffered, yet the bolt did not work at the first or the second trial. Between the acts, so to speak, Brodie came down and conversed coolly with his friends. The third time the thing went and all was over. A desperate attempt was presently made to resuscitate Brodie by bleeding and so forth, but it failed. It is believed that an expectation of those attempts buoyed up the Deacon in his last minutes. Popular tradition, that had kept alive James after Flodden, and Major Weir after the fire on the Gallowlee, would not let Brodie perish at the west end of the Tolbooth on the afternoon of 2nd October 1788. It was rumoured that no body was found in the grave to which he had been in appearance consigned, and that he himself in the flesh was afterwards encountered in Paris, that paradise of unholy joys to every generation of Scotsmen. Brodie when he ended was forty-seven years of age. A slender, small man, a cast in his eye that made him look like a Jew, high, smooth forehead, ever carefully and precisely dressed—such is the picture of him that remains. The peculiar piquancy of Brodie’s position fascinates you to-day. It had an unholy attraction for himself.

The profits were small though useful, but the very idea of outwitting all those grave and reverend people was inexpressibly alluring. One has to recognize the criminal instinct as a fact of life. The plot and the mystery of wrongdoing have their own independent attraction for certain minds.

How far, you wonder, was the Deacon suspected? The gossip that went on in those Old Edinburgh taverns, hour after hour, all the night long, what did it say? One has a horrible suspicion that the double life in some form or other was no uncommon thing in Old Edinburgh, and that there was a general convention of toleration and silence until some criminal or other committed the unpardonable offence of being flagrantly found out. There are many references in contemporary and later ephemera, and there is one piece of literature with this for subject—the play of Deacon Brodie, or the Double Life by Henley and Stevenson. Very considerable liberties are taken with the facts. Jean Watt is a graphic portrait of a lower-class Edinburgh woman of the period, and R. L. S. never drew with a stronger and a surer hand. She lives with the vitality given by Shakespeare or Scott. R. L. S. knew his High Street closes and old world types not yet extinct, and the quite mythical Bow Street Runner of W. E. H. is also superb. The problem of the double life had always an attraction for Stevenson. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is only another version of the remarkable affair of Deacon Brodie.

Return to Edinburgh and The Lothians index page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus