The West Bow – Quaint Character of its Houses – Its Modern Aspect – Houses of the Templar Knights – The Bowfoot Well – The Bow Port – The Bow-head – Major Weir’s Land – History of Major Thomas Weir – Personal Appearance – His Powerful Prayers – The “Holy Sisters” – The Bowhead Saints – Weir’s Reputed Compact with the Devil – Sick-bed Confession – Arrest – Search of his House – Prison Confession – Trial of Him and His Sister Grizel – Execution – What was Weir? – His Sister undoubtedly Mad – Terrible Reputation of the House – Untenanted for upwards of a Century – Patullo’s Experience of a Cheap Lodging – Weir’s Land Improved Out of Existence – Hall of the Knights of St. John – A Mysterious House – Somerville Mansion – The Assembly Rooms – Opposed by the Bigotry of the Times – The Lady Directress – Curious Regulations.
NO part of Edinburgh was so rich in quaint old houses as “the sanctified bends of the Bow” – singular edifices, many of them of vast and unknown antiquity, and all more or less irregular, with stone gables and dovecot gablets, timber-galleries, outshots, and strange projections, the dormer windows, patches and additions made in the succession of centuries, overhanging the narrow and tortuous street, which took the windings of the zig-zag road that led of old from the wooded waste to Dunedin, the fort on the slope, at the gates of which King David dispensed justice to his people and his queen daily distributed bread to the poor. Among the last charters of David II. is one to Thomas Webster, of “ane land in the West Bow.”
Its antique tenements, covered with heraldic carvings and quaint dates, half hidden by signboards or sordid rags drying on poles, its nooks, crooks, trap-doors, and gloomy chambers, abounded with old memories, with heroic stories of ancient martial families, and with grim legends and grandmother’s tales of ghosts and of diablerie; but to those who see it now, or all that remains of it, where it abuts on the Grassmarket, cut asunder by Victoria Terrace, replaced in one part by a flight of stairs, in another by the Free Church of St. John, and sloping away eastward into Victoria Street, it is impossible to realise what the old West Bow, which served as a connecting link between the High and Low Town, the Lawnmarket and the Grassmarket, really was. The pencil of the artist alone may reproduce its features.
At its lower end were the houses that belonged to the Knights of the Temple, whereon, to mark them as beyond the reach of corporation enactments, the iron cross of St. John was placed so lately as the eighteenth century, by the Bailie of Lord Torpichen, as proprietor of the lands of St. John of Jerusalem; and there flows, as of old, the Bowfoot Well, built by Robert Mylne in 1681, just where it is shown in Edgar’s map of the city when the Bow was then, as it had been centuries before, the principal entrance to the city from the west.
One of the chief relics in the West Bow was an enormous rusty iron hook, on which hung an ancient gate of the city wall, the upper Bow Port, built in 1450. It stood in the wall of a house at the first angle on the east side, about four feet from the ground. When Maitland wrote his history in 1753, two of these hooks were visible; but by the time that Chambers wrote his “Traditions,” in 1824, the lower one had been buried by the level of the street having been raised.
Among those slain at the Battle of Pinkey, in 1547, we find the name of John Hamilton (of the house of Innerwick), a merchant in the West Bow. This John Hamilton was a gallant gentleman, whose eldest son was ancestor of the Earls of Haddington, and whose second son was a secular priest, Rector of the University of Paris, and one of the Council of the League that offered the crown of France to the King of Spain in 1591.
Opposite St. John’s Free Church and the General Assembly Hall there stood, till the spring of 1878 that wonderfully picturesque old tenement, with a description of which we commenced the story of the houses on the south side of the Lawnmarket; and lower down the Bow was another, demolished about the same time.
The latter was a stone land, without any timber additions, having a dark grey front of polished ashlar, supposed to have been built in the days of Charles I. String-courses of moulded stone decorated it, and on the bed-corbel of its crow-stepped gable was a shield with the letters I. O., I. B., with a merchant’s mark between them, doubtless the initials of the first proprietor and of his wife.
From its gloomy history and better architecture, the next tenement, which stood a little way back – for every house in the Bow was built without the slightest reference to the site of its neighbour – is more worthy of note, as the alleged abode of the terrible wizard, and bearing the name of Major Weir’s Land – but in reality the dwelling of the major stood behind it.
The city motto appeared on a curious dormer window over the staircase, and above the elaborately moulded entrance door, which was only five feet six inches in height by three feet six in breadth, were the legend and date,
SOLI . DEO . HONOR . ET
GLORIA. D.W. 1604.
In the centre were the arms of David Williamson, a wealthy citizen, to whom the house belonged. This legend, so common over the old doorways of the city, was the fashionable grace before dinner at the tables of the Scottish noblesse during the reigns of Mary and James VI., and like others noted here, was deemed to act as a charm, and to bar the entrance of evil. But the turnpike stair within, says Chambers, “was said to possess a strange peculiarity – namely, that people who ascended it felt as if going down, and not up a stair.”
A passage, low-browed, dark, and heavily vaulted, led, until February, 1878, through this tall tenement into a narrow court eastward thereof, a gloomy, dark, and most desolate-looking place, and there abode of old with his sister, Grizel, the notorious wizard whose memory is so inseparably woven up with the superstitions of old Edinburgh.
Major Thomas Weir of Kirktown was a native of Lanarkshire, where the people believed that his mother had taught him the art of sorcery, before he joined (as Lieutenant) the Scottish army, sent by the Covenanters in 1641 for the protection of the Ulster colonists, and with which he probably served at the storming of Carrickfergus and the battle of Benburn; and from this force he had been appointed, when Major in the Earl of Lanark’s Regiment, and Captain-Lieutenant of Home’s Regiment, to the command of that ancient gendarmerie, the Guard of Edinburgh, in which capacity he attended the execution of the great Montrose in 1650.
He was a grim-featured man, with a large nose, and always wore a black cloak of ample dimensions. He usually carried a staff, the supposed magical powers of which made it a terror to the community. He pretended to be a religious man, but was in reality a detestable hypocrite; and the frightful story of his secret life is said to have furnished Lord Byron with the plot of his tragedy Manfred; and his evil reputation, which does not rest on obscure allusions in legendary superstition, has left, even to this day, a deep-rooted impression on the popular mind.
A powerful hand at praying and expounding ” ‘he became so notoriously regarded among the Presbyterian sect, that if four met together, be sure Major Weir was one,’ ” says Chambers, quoting Fraser’s MS. In the Advocate’s Library; ” ‘at private meetings he prayed to admiration, which made many of that stamp court his converse. He never married, but lived in private lodging with his sister Grizel Weir. Many resorted to his house to join with him, and hear him pray; but it was observed that he could not officiate in any holy duty without the black staff, or rod, in his hand, and leaning upon it, which made those who heard him pray, admire his flood in prayer, his ready extemporary expression, his heavenly gesture, so that he was thought more an angel than a man, and was termed by some of the holy sisters, ordinarily Angelical Thomas.’ “
“Holy sisters,” in those days abounded in the major’s quarter; and, indeed, during all the latter part of the 17th century the inhabitants of the Bow enjoyed a peculiar fame for piety and zeal in the cause of the National Covenant, and were frequently subjected to the wit of the Cavalier faction; Dr. Pitcairn, Pennycook, the burgess bard, stigmatised them as the “Bow-head Saints,” the “godly plants of the Bow-head,” &c.; and even Sir Walter Scott, in describing the departure of Dundee, sings:-
“As he rode down the sanctified bends of the Bow,
Ilka carline was flying and shaking her pow;”
and it was in this quarter that many of the polemical pamphlets and sermons of Presbyterian divines have since been published.
Major Weir, “after a life characterised externally by all the graces of devotion, but polluted in secret by crimes of the most revolting nature, and which little needed the addition of wizardry to excite the horror of living men, fell into a severe sickness, which affected his mind so much that he made open and voluntary confession of all his wickedness.”
According to Professor Sinclair, the major had made a compact with the devil, who of course outwitted his victim. The fiend had promised, it was said, to keep him scatheless from all peril, but a single “burn;” hence the accidental naming of a man named Burn, by the sentinels at the Nether Bow Port, when he visited them as commander of the Guard, cast him into a fit of terror; and on another occasion, finding Libberton Burn before him, was sufficient to make him turn back trembling.
His sick-bed confession, when he was now verging on his seventieth year, seemed at first so incredible that Sir Andrew Ramsay of Abbotshall, who was Lord Provost from 1662 to 1673, refused for a time to order his arrest. Eventually, however, the major, his sister (the partner of one of his crimes), and the black magical staff, were all taken into custody and lodged in the Tolbooth.
The staff was secured by the express request of his sister, and local superstition still records how it was wont to perform all the major’s errands for any article he wanted from the neighbouring shops; that it answered the door when “the pin was tirled,” and preceded him in the capacity of a link-boy at night in the Lawnmarket. In his house several sums of money in dollars were found wrapped up in pieces of cloth. A fragment of the latter, on being thrown on the fire by the bailie in charge, went up the wide chimney with an explosion like a cannon, while the dollars, when the magistrate took them home, flew about in such a fashion that the demolition of his house seemed imminent.
While in prison he confessed, without scruple, that he had been guilty of crimes alike possible and impossible. Stung to madness my conscience, the unfortunate wretch seemed to feel some comfort in sharing his misdeeds with the devil, yet he refused to address himself to Heaven for pardon. To all who urged him to pray, he answered by wild screams. “Torment me no more – I am tortured enough already!” was his constant cry; and he declined to see a clergyman of any creed, saying, according to “Law’s Memorials,” that “his condemnation was sealed; and since he was to go to the devil, he did not wish to anger him!”
When asked by the minister of Ormiston if he had ever seen the devil, he answered, “that any fealling he ever hade of him was in the dark.”
He and his sister were tried on the 9th of April, 1670, before the Justiciary Court; he was sentenced to be strangled and burned [the usual punishment for witchcraft in Scotland], between Edinburgh and Leith, and his sister Grizel (called Jean by some), to be hanged in the Grassmarket.
When his neck was encircled by the fatal rope at the place of execution, and the fire that was to consume his body – the “burn” to which, as the people said the devil had lured him – he was bid to say, “Lord, be merciful to me!” But he only replied fiercely and mournfully, “Let me alone – I will not; I have lived as a beast and must die like a beast.” When his lifeless body fell from the stake into the flaming pyre beneath, his favourite stick, which (according to Ravaillac Redivivus) “was all of one piece of thornwood, with a crooked head,” and without the aid of which he could perform nothing, was cast in also, and it was remarked by the spectators that it gave extraordinary twistings and writhings, and was as long in burning as the major himself. The place where he perished was at Greenside, on the sloping bank, whereon, in 1846, was erected the new church, so called.
If this man was not mad, he certainly was a singular paradox in human nature, and one of a kind somewhat uncommon – outwardly he exhibited the highest strain of moral sentiment for years, and during all that time had been secretly addicted to every degrading propensity; till eventually, unable to endure longer the sense of secret guilt and hypocrisy, with the terrors of sickness and age upon him, and death seeming near, he made a confession which some at first believed, and on that confession alone was sentenced to die.
If Weir was not mad, the ideas and confessions of his sister show that she undoubtedly was. She evidently believed that her brother’s stick was one possessed of no ordinary power. Professor Sinclair tells us, that on one of the ministers returning to the Tolbooth from Greenside, she would not believe that her brother had been burned till told that it had perished too; “whereupon, notwithstanding her age, she nimbly, and in a furious rage, fell upon her knees, uttering words horrible to be remembered.” She assured her hearers that her mother had been a witch, and that when the mark of a horse-shoe – a mark which she herself displayed – came on the forehead of the old woman, she could tell of events then happening at any distance, and to her ravings in the Tolbooth must some of the darkest traditions of the West Bow be assigned.
She confessed that she was a sorceress, and among other incredible things, said that many years before a fiery chariot, unseen by others, came to her brother’s house in open day; a stranger invited them to enter, and they proceeded to Dalkeith. While on the road another stranger came, and whispered something in the ear of her brother, who became visibly affected; and this intelligence was tidings of the defeat of the Scottish army, that very day, at Worcester. She stated, too, that a dweller in Dalkeith had a familiar spirit, who span for her an extraordinary quantity of yarn, in the time that it would have taken four women to do so.
At the place of execution in the Grassmarket a frenzy seized her, and the wretched old creature began to rend her garments, in order, as she shrieked, that she might die “with all the shame she could!”
Undeterred by her fate, ten other old women were in the same year burned in Edinburgh for alleged dabbling in witchcraft.
The reverend Professor who compiled “Satan’s Invisible World,” relates that a few nights before the major made his astounding confession, the wife of a neighbour, when descending from the Castle Hill towards the Bow-head, saw three women in different windows, shouting, laughing, and clapping their hands. She passed on, and when abreast of Major Weir’s door, she saw a woman of twice mortal stature arise from the street. Filled with great fear, she desired her maid, who bore a lantern, to hasten on, but the tall spectre still kept ahead of them, uttering shouts of “unmeasurable laughter,” till they came to the narrow alley called the Stinking Close, into which the spectre turned, and which was seen to be full of flaming torches, as if a multitude of people were there, all laughing merrily. “This sight, at so dead a time of night, no people being in the windows belonging to the close, made her and her servant haste home, declaring all that they saw to the rest of the family.”
“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,” says Chambers, “was frequently seen at night, flitting like a black and silent shadow about the 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. Some people occasionally saw the major issue from the low close at midnight, mounted on a black horse without a head, and gallop off in a whirlwind of flame. Nay, sometimes the whole inhabitants of the Bow would be roused from their sleep at an early hour in the morning by the sound of a coach and six, first rattling up the Lawnmarket, 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 his best equipages to take home the major and his sister after they had spent a night’s leave of absence in their terrestrial dwelling.”
Scott also tells us in his “Letters on Demonology,” that bold indeed was the urchin who approached the gloomy house, at the risk of seeing the major’s enchanted staff parading the desolate apartments, or hearing the hum of the necromantic wheel which procured for his sister such a reputation as a spinner.
About the beginning of the present century, according to the author above quoted, when Weir’s house was beginning to be regarded with less superstitious terror, an attempt was made by the luckless proprietor to find one bold enough to become his tenant, and such an adventurer was procured in the person of a dissipated old soldier named William Patullo, whose poverty rendered him glad to possess a house at any risk, on the low terms at which it was offered; and the greatest interest was felt by people of all ranks in the city, on its becoming known that Major Weir’s house was about to have a mortal tenant at last!
Patullo and his spouse felt rather flattered by the interest the excited; but on the first night, as the venturesome couple lay abed, fearful and wakeful, “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, which came forward to the bed, and setting its fore-feet upon the stock, looked steadfastly at the unfortunate pair. When it had contemplated them thus for a few minutes, to their great relief it took itself away, and, slowly retiring, vanished from their sight. As might be expected, they deserted the house next morning; and for another half century no other attempt was made to embank this part of the world of light from the aggressions of the world of darkness.”
But even the world of spirits could not withstand the Improvement Commission, and the spring of 1878 saw the house of the wizard numbered with the things that are no more in this quarter of Edinburgh, and to effect the removal of which the Commissioners gave freely the sum of £400,000.
Behind the abode of the major in the West Bow, but entered from Johnstone’s Close, Lawnmarket, was another very remarkable old house which was demolished about the same time.
Of this building Wilson says in his “Memorials,” that it exhibits an interior “abounding with plain arched recesses and corbelled projections, scattered throughout in the most irregular and lawless fashion, and with narrow windows thrust into the oddest corners, or up even above the very cornice of the ceiling, in order to catch every wandering ray of light, amid the jostling of its pent-up neighbourhood. A view of the largest apartment is given in the Abbotsford edition of the Waverley novels, under the name of the ‘Hall of the Knights of St. John, St. John’s Close, Canongate.’ ” But he adds that he had failed in every attempt to obtain any clue to the early history of this mysterious edifice which tradition thus associated with the soldier-monks of Torphichen.
Discoveries made in the course of its demolition added to the mystery concerning it. In the stair leading from the court to the hall there was a quaint holy-water font; and in clearing out the interior, it was found that the ceiling had at one time been beautifully painted with flowers and geometric designs. In the great open chimney-place of the hall there were, singularly enough, two small windows; and in the heart of the massive walls were found secret stairs that led from the hall to rooms above it.
In addition to these secret passages, the walls disclosed four recesses that had been faced with stone, and which concealed the relics of more than one crime or mystery that will never be unravelled. One held the skeleton of a child, with its cap and part of its dress; and in the other there were quantities of human bones. In a built-up cupboard a large vertebral bone of a whale was discovered. “The beams of the hall,” says the Scotsman of 8th February, 1878, “and indeed of the whole house, were of oak, which, according to tradition, was grown on the Burghmuir, and, with the exception of the ends which had been built into the wall, the wood was found to be perfectly sound and beautifully grained.”
Immediately opposite the close that led to the house of Major Weir, and occupying nearly the site of the present St. John’s Free Church, stood an old tenement, which bore the date 1602, with the arms of the Somerville family, and the initials P. S. and J. W., being those of a once worthy and wealthy magistrate and his wife, whose son Bartholomew Somerville was a benefactor to the University of Edinburgh, when that institution was in its infancy. The architrave of the door bore also the legend
IN . DOMINO . CONFIDO.
A narrow spiral stair led to a lofty wainscoted room, with a fine carved oak ceiling, on the second floor. This was the first Edinburgh Assembly Room, off which was a closet or recess, forming an out-shot over the street, wherein the musicians could retire for refreshments, or to rosin their bows. Here then did the fair dames of Queen Anne’s time, in their formal stomachers, long gloves, ruffles and lappets, meet in the merry country dance, or the stately minuet de la cour, the beaux of the time, with their square-cut velvet coats and long-flapped waistcoats, with sword, ruffles, and toupee in tresses, when the news was all about the battle of Almanza, the storming of Barcelona, or the sinking of the Spanish galleons by Benbow in the West Indies, or it might be – in whispers – of the unfurling of the standard on the Braes of Mar.
The regular assembly, according to Arnot, was first held in the year 1710, and it continued entirely under private management till 1746, but though the Scots as a nation are passionately fond of dancing, the strait-laced part of the community bitterly inveighed against this infant institution. In the Library of the Faculty of Advocates there is a curious little pamphlet, entitled, a “Letter from a Gentleman in the Country to his Friend in the City, with an Answer thereto concerning the New Assembly,” which affords a remarkable glimpse of the bigotry of the time:-
“I am informed that there is lately a society erected in your town, which I think is called an Assembly. The speculations concerning this meeting have of late exhausted the most part of the public conversation in this countryside: some are pleased to say that ’tis only designed to cultivate polite conversation, and genteel behaviour among the better sort of folks, and to give young people an opportunity of accomplishing themselves in both; while others are of opinion that it will have quite a different effect, and tends to vitiate and deprave the minds and inclinations of the younger sort.”
The author, who might have been Davie Deans himself, and who writes in 1723, adds that he had been too much stirred on this matter by the approaching solemnity of the Lord’s Supper, and that he had been “informed that the design of this (weekly) meeting was to afford some ladies an opportunity to alter the station that they had long fretfully continued in, and to set off others as they should prove ripe for the market.”
The old Presbyterian abhorrence of “promiscuous dancing” was only held in check by the less strait-laced spirit of the Jacobite gentry; but so great was the opposition to the Edinburgh Assembly, as Jackson tells us in his “History of the Stage,” that a furious rabble once attacked the rooms, and perforated the closed doors with red-hot spits.
Arnot says that the lady-directress sat at the head of the room, wearing the badge of her office, a gold medal with a motto and device, emblematic of charity and parental tenderness.
After several years of cessation, under the effect of local mal-influence, when the Assembly was re-constituted in 1746, among the regulations hung up in the hall, were two worth quoting:-