The Story of Deacon Brodie – His Career of Guilt – Hanged on his own Gibbet – Mauchline’s Close, Robert Gourlay’s House and the other Old Houses therein – The Bank of Scotland, 1695 – Assassination of Sir George Lockhart – Taken Red Hand – Punishment of Chiesly.
FROM such a character as Sir Francis Grant of Cullen, a single-minded and upright man, the transition is great indeed to the occupant who gave his name to the next close – a name it still retains – a notorious character, who had a kind of dual existence, for he stood high in repute as a pious, wealthy, and substantial citizen, until the daring robbery of the Excise Office in 1788 brought to light a long-continued system of secret house-breaking and of suspected murder, unsurpassed in the annals of cunning and audacity.
William Brodie, Deacon of the Wrights and Masons of Edinburgh, was the son of Convener Francis Brodie, who had an extensive business as a cabinet maker in the Lawnmarket; and in 1781 the former was elected a Deacon Councillor of the city. He had unfortunately imbibed a taste for gambling, and became expert in making that taste a source of revenue; thus he did not scruple to have recourse to loaded dice. It became a ruling passion with him, and he was in the habit of resorting almost nightly to a low gambling club, kept by a man named Clark, in the Fleshmarket Close, He had the tact and art to keep his secret profligacy unknown, and was so successful in blinding his fellow-citizens that he continued a highly reputable member of the Town Council until within a short period of crime for which he was executed, and, according to “Kay’s Portraits,” it is a singular fact, that little more than a month previously he sat as a juryman in a criminal case in that very court where he himself soon after received sentence of death.
For years he had been secretly licentious and dissipated, but it was not until 1786 that he began an actual career of infamous crime, with his fellow-culprit, George Smith, a native of Berkshire, and two others, named Brown and Ainslie. He was in easy circumstances, with a flourishing business, and his conduct in becoming a leader of miscreants seems unaccountable, yet so it was. In and around the city during the winter of 1787 there were committed a series of startling robberies, and no clue could be had to the perpetrators. Houses and shops were entered, and articles of value vanished as if by magic. In one instance a lady was unable to go to church from indisposition, and was at home alone, when a man entered with crape over his face, and taking her keys, opened her bureau and took away her money, while she remained panic-stricken; but as he retired she thought, “surely that was Deacon Brodie!” But the idea seemed so utterly inconceivable, that she preserved silence on the subject till subsequent events transpired. As these mysterious outrages continued, all Edinburgh became at last alarmed, and in all of them Brodie was either actively or passively concerned, till he conceived the – to him – fatal idea of robbing the Excise office in Chessel’s Court, an undertaking wholly planned by himself. He visited the office openly with a friend, studied the details of the cashier’s room, and observing the key of the outer door hanging from a nail, contrived to take an impression of it with putty, made a model therefrom, and tried it on the lock by way of experiment, but went no further then.
On the 5th of March, Brodie, Smith, Ainslie, and Brown, met in the evening about eight to make the grand attempt. The Deacon was attired in black, with a brace of pistols; he had with him several keys and a double picklock. He seemed in the wildest spirits, and as they set forth he sang the well-known ditty from the “Beggar’s Opera” –
“Let us take the road,
Hark! I hear the sound of coaches!
The hour of attack approaches;
To your arms brave boys, and load.
“See the ball I hold;
Let chemists toil like asses –
Our fire their fire surpasses,
And turns our lead to gold!”
The office was shut at night, but no watchman came till ten. Ainslie kept watch in Chessel’s Court, Brodie inside the outer door, when he opened it, while Smith and Brown entered the cashier’s room. All save the first carried pistols, and Brodie had a whistle by which he was to sound an alarm if necessary. In forcing the second or inner door, Brown and Smith had to use a crowbar, and the coulter of a plough which they had previously stolen for the purpose. Their faces were craped; they had with them a dark lantern, and they burst open every desk and press in the room. While thus engaged, Mr. James Bonnar, the deputy-solicitor, returned unexpectedly to the office at half-past eight, and detection seemed imminent indeed! “The outer door he found shut, and on opening it a man in black (Brodie) hurriedly passed him, a circumstance to which, not having the slightest suspicion, he paid no attention. He went to his room up-stairs, where he remained only a few minutes, and then returned, shutting the outer door behind him. Perceiving this, Ainslie became alarmed, gave a signal and retreated. Smith and Brown did not observe the call, but thinking themselves in danger when they heard Mr. Bonnar coming down-stairs, they cocked their pistols, determined not to be taken.”
Eventually they got clear off with their booty, which proved to be only sixteen pounds odd, when they had expected thousands! They all separated – Brown and Ainslie betook themselves to the New Town, Brodie hurried home to the Lawnmarket, changed his dress, and proceeded to the house of his mistress, Jean Watt, in Liberton’s Wynd, and on an evening soon after the miserable spoil was divided in equal proportions. By this time the town was alarmed, and the police on the alert. Brown (alias Humphry Moore), who proved the greatest villain of the whole, was at that time under sentence of transportation for some crime committed in his native country, England, and having seen an advertisement offering reward and pardon to any person who should discover a recent robbery at the shop of Inglis and Horner, one of the many transactions in which Brodie had been engaged of late with Smith and others, he resolved to turn king’s evidence, and on the very evening he had secured his share of the late transaction he went to the Procurator Fiscal, and gave information, but omitted to mention the name of Brodie, from whom he expected to procure money for secrecy. He conducted the police to the base of the Craigs, where they found concealed under a large stone a great number of keys intended for future operations in all directions. In consequence of this, Ainslie, Smith and his wife and servant, were all arrested. Then Brodie fled, and Brown, revealed the whole affair.
Mr. Williamson, king’s messenger for Scotland, traced the Deacon from point to point till he reached Dover, where after an eighteen days’ pursuit he disappeared; but by a sort of fatuity, often evinced by persons similarly situated, he gave clues to his own discovery. He remained in London till the 23rd of March. He took his passage on board the Leith smack Endeavour for that port, disguised as an old man in bad health, and under the name of John Dixon; but on getting out of the Thames, according to some previous arrangement, he was landed at Flushing, and from thence reached Ostend. On board the smack he was rash enough to give in charge of a Mr. Geddes letters addressed to three persons in Edinburgh, one of whom was his favourite mistress in Cant’s Close. Geddes, full of suspicion, on reaching Leith gave the documents to the authorities. Mr. Williamson was once more on his track, and discovered him in Amsterdam, through the treachery of an Irishman named Daly, when he was on the eve of his departure for America; and on the 27th of August, 1788, he was arraigned with Smith in the High Court of Justiciary, when he had as counsel the Hon. Henry Erskine, known then as “Plead for all, or the poor man’s lawyer,” and two other advocates of eminence, who made an attempt to prove an alibi on the part of Brodie, by means of Jean Watt and her servant, but the jury, with one voice, found both guilty, and they were sentenced to be hanged at the west end of the Luckenbooths on the 1st October, 1788. Smith was deeply affected; Brodie cool, determined, and indifferent. His self-possession never forsook him, and he spoke of his approaching end with levity, as “a leap in the dark,” and he only betrayed emotion when he was visited, for the last time, by his daughter Cecil, a pretty child of ten years of age. He came on the scaffold in a full suit of black, with his hair dressed and powdered. Smith was attired in white linen, trimmed with black. “Having put on white night-caps,” says a print of the time, “Brodie pointed to Smith to ascend the steps that led to the drop, and in an easy manner, clapping him on the shoulder, said, ‘George Smith, you are first in hand.’ Upon this Smith, whose behaviour was highly penitent and resigned, slowly ascended the steps, followed by Brodie, who mounted with briskness and agility, and examined the dreadful apparatus with attention, particularly the halter destined for himself;” and well might he do so with terrible interest, as he was to be the first to know the excellence of an improvement he had formerly made on that identical gibbet – the substitution of what is called the drop, for the ancient practice of the double ladder. The ropes proving too short, Brodie stepped down to the platform and entered into easy conversation with his friends.
This occurred no less than three times, while the great bell of St. Giles’s was tolling slowly, and the crowd of spectators was vast. Brodie died without either confessing or denying his guilt; but the conduct and bearing of Smith were very different. In consequence of the firmness and levity of the former, a curious story became quickly current, to the effect that in the Tolbooth he had been visited by Dr. Pierre Degraver, a French quack, who undertook to restore him to life after he had hung the usual time, and that, on the day before the execution, he had marked the arms and temples of Brodie, to indicate where he would apply the lancet. Moreover, it was said that having to lengthen the rope thrice proved that they had bargained secretly with the executioner for a short fall. When cut down the body was instantly given to two of his own workmen, who placed it on a cart, and drove at a furious rate round the back of the Castle, with the idea that the rough jolting might produce resuscitation! It was then taken to one of his workshops in the Lawnmarket, where Degraver was in attendance; but all attempts at bleeding failed; the Deacon was gone, and nothing remained but to lay him where he now lies, in the north-east corner of the Chapel-of-ease burying-ground. His dark lantern and sets of false keys, presented by the Clerk of Justiciary to the Society of Antiquaries, are still preserved in the city.
He had at one time been Deacon Convener or chief of all the trades in the city, an office of the highest respectability. His house in Brodie’s Close is still to be found in nearly its original state; the first door up a turnpike stair; and this door, remarkable for its elaborate workmanship, is said to have been that of his own ingenious hand. The apartments are all decorated; and the principal one, which is of great height, contains a large painting over the stone fireplace of the Adoration of the Wise Men.
A few steps from this was the old Bank Close (so-called from the Bank of Scotland having been in it), a blind alley, composed wholly of solid, handsome, and massive houses, some of which were of great antiquity, and of old named Hope’s Close, from the celebrated Sir Thomas Hope, King’s Advocate in the time of Charles I., prior to whom it had borne the name of Mauchline’s Close, about the year 1511.
Here, on the site of the present Melbourne Place, stood a famous old mansion, almost unique even in Edinburgh, named Robert Gourlay’s House, with the legend, above its door, “O Lord in the is al my traist 1569”; and it is somewhat singular that the owner of this house was neither a man of rank nor of wealth, but simply a messenger-at-arms belonging to the Abbey of Holyrood, an office bestowed upon him by the Commendator, Adam Bothwell, Bishop of Orkney. In 1574 Robert Gourlay was an elder of the kirk, and in that year had to do his public penance therein “for transporting wheat out of the countrie.” In 1581, when the Regent Morton was about to suffer death, he was placed in Gourlay’s house for two days under a guard; and there it was that those remarkable conferences took place between him and certain clergymen, in which, while protesting his innocence of the murder of Darnley, he admitted his foreknowledge of it. Among many popular errors, is one that he invented the “maiden” by which he suffered; but it is now known to have been the common Scottish guillotine, since Thomas Scott was beheaded by it on the 3rd of April, 1566.
On the 7th of January, 1582, Moyse tells us in his Memoirs, “there came a French ambassador through England, named La Motte (Fenelon), he was lodged in Gourlay’s house near Tolbooth, and had an audience of his Majesty; with him there also came another ambassador from England, named Mr. Davidson, who got an audience also that same day in the king’s chamber of presence.” This was probably a kinsman of De la Motte, the French ambassador, who was slain at Flodden. He left Edinburgh on the 10th of February.
Herein resided Sir William Drury during the siege of the Castle in 1573, and thither, on its surrender, his brother Sir James Kirkaldy and others; and it was here that in later years the great Argyle is said to have passed his last hours in peaceful sleep before his execution. So Robert Gourlay’s old house had a terrible history. By this time the house had passed into the possession of Sir Thomas Hope. Hence it has been conjectured that Argyle’s last sleep took place in the Laigh Council Room, whither, Wodrow says, he was brought before execution.
John Gourlay, son of Robert, erected a house at the foot of this ancient close. It bore the date 1588, with the motto, Spes altera vitæ. Herein was the Bank of Scotland first established in 1695, and there its business was conducted till 1805, when it was removed to their new office, that stupendous edifice at the head of the entrance to the Earthen Mound. Latterly it was used as the University printing-office; and therein, so lately as 1824, was in use, as a proof press, the identical old wooden press which accompanied the Highland army, in 1745, for the publication of gazettes and manifestoes.
Robert Gourlay’s house passed from the possession of Sir Thomas Hope and Lord Aberuchill into that of Sir George Lockhart (the great legal and political rival of Sir George Mackenzie), Lord President of the Session in 1685, and doomed to fall a victim to private revenge. Chiesly of Dalry, an unsuccessful litigant, enraged at the president for assigning a small aliment of £93 out of his estate – a fine one south-westward of the city – to his wife, from whom we must suppose he was separated, swore to have vengeance. He was perhaps not quite sane; but anyway, he was a man of violent and ungovernable passions. Six months before the event we are about to relate he told Sir James Stewart, an advocate, when in London, that he was “determined to go to Scotland before Candlemas and kill the president!” “The very imagination of such a thing,” said Sir James, “is a sin before God.” “Leave God and me alone,” was the fierce response, “we have many things to reckon betwixt us, and we will reckon this too!” The Lord President was warned of his open threats, but unfortunately took no heed of them. On Easter Sunday, the 31st of March, 1689, the assassin loaded his pistols, and went to the choir of St. Giles’s church, from whence he dogged him home to the Old Bank Close, and though accompanied by Lord Castlehill and Mr. Daniel Lockhart, shot him in the back just as he was about to enter his house – the old one whose history we have traced. Lady Lockhart – aunt of the famous Duke of Wharton – was confined to her bed with illness, but sprang up on hearing the pistol-shot; and on learning what had occurred, rushed forth in her night-dress and assisted to convey in the victim, who was laid on two chairs, and instantly expired. The ball had passed out at the left breast. Chiesly was instantly seized. “I am not wont to do things by halves,” said he, grimly and boastfully; “and now I have taught the president how to do justice!” He was put to the torture to discover if he had any accomplices; and as he had been taken red hand, he was on Monday sentenced to death by Sir Magnus Price, Provost of the city, without much formality, according to Father Hay, and on a hurdle he was dragged to the Cross, where his right hand was struck off when alive; then he was hanged in chains at Drumsheugh, says another account; between the city and Leith at the Gallowlee, according to a third, with the pistol tied to his neck. His right hand was nailed on the West Port. The manor house of Dalry, latterly the property of Kirkpatrick, of Allisland, was after this alleged to be haunted, and no servant therein would venture, after dark, alone into the back kitchen, as a tradition existed that his body – which his relations had unchained and carried off, sword in hand, under cloud of night – was buried somewhere near that apartment. “On repairing the garden-wall at a later period,” says Dr. Wilson, “an old stone seat which stood in a recess of the wall had to be removed, and underneath was found a skeleton entire, except the bones of the right hand – without doubt the remains of the assassin, that had secretly been brought thither from the Gallowlee.” But Dr. Chambers also writes of a skeleton, found a century after, “when removing the hearth-stone of a cottage in Dalry Park, with the remains of a pistol near the situation of the neck. No doubt was entertained that these were the remains of Chiesly, huddled into this place of concealment, probably in the course of the night in which they had been abstracted from the gallows.” This pistol is still preserved.
In this close “the great house pertaining to the Earl of Eglintoun,” with its coach-house and stables, is advertised for sale in the Evening Courant of April, 1735.