Edinburgh Bookshelf

Memorials of Edinburgh in the Olden Time


THE WEST BOW AND SUBURBS. 335 perties, which would seem to imply that these sacred legends were not always effectual in guarding the thresholds over which they were inscribed as charms against the approach of evil. A low vaulted passage immediately adjoining it leads through the tall tenement to a narrow court behind, and a solitary and desolate abode, once the unhallowed dwellingplace of the notorious Major Weir. The wizard had cast his spell over the neighbouring stair, for old citizens who have ceased to tempt such giddy steeps, f i r m that those who asceuded it of yore felt as if they were going down. We have tried the ascent, andrecommend the sceptical to do the same ; happily the old wizard‘s spells have defied even an Improvements Commissiou to raze his haunted dwelling to the ground’ No story of witchcraft and necromancy ever left so general and deep-rooted an impression on the popular mind as that of Major Weir; nor was any spot ever more celebrated in the annals of sorcery than the little court at the head of the Bow, where the wizard and his sister dwelt. It appears, however, that he had long lodged in the Cowgate before he took up house for himself, as we learn from that curious old book, Ravaillac Redivivus, that Mitchell, the fanatic assassin who attempted the life of Archbishop Sharp in 1668, afterwards came to Edinburgh, where he lived some years in a widow’R house, called Mrs Griasald Whitford, who dwelt in the Cowgat, and with whom that dishonour of mankind, Major Weir, was boarded at the same time.” ’ Unfortunately, Widow Whitford’s house is no longer known, as we can scarce doubt that the lodging of such a pair must still be haunted by some awfully significant memorial of their former abode. Whatever was his inducement to remove to his famed dwelling in the West Bow, it was only beseeming its character as a favourite haunt of the most zealous Presbyterians, that one who at that time stood in eminent repute for his sanctity should choose his resting-place in the very midst of the Bowhead Saints,” as the cavalier wits of his time delighted to call them. The reputation of this prince of Scottish wizards rests on no obscure allusions in the legends of sorcery and superstition. His history has been recorded by contemporary annalists with all the minuteness of awe-struck credulity and gossipping wonder, and has since been substantiated as an article of the vulgar creed by numerous supernatural evidences in corroboration of its wildest dittays. Major Weir was the son of a Clydesdale proprietor, and served, according to Professor Sinclair, as a lieutenant in Ireland against the insurgents of 1641. On his fiettling in Edinburgh, he entered the Town Guard, where he afterwards rose to the rank of major. According to his contemporary, Master James Frazer, minister at Wardlaw, who saw him at Edinburgh in 1660, ‘‘ his garb was still a cloak, and somewhat dark, and he never went without his staff. He was a tall black man, and ordinarily looked down to the ground; a grim countenance, and a big nose. At length he became so notourly regarded among the Presbyterian strict sect, that if four met together, be sure Major Weir was one; and at private meetings he prayed to admira- I l From some allueiona to an apparition that disappeared in a cloae a little lower down, and which ia given further on, from “Sulan’r InuisSi62e World Diacouered,” it has been frequently affirmed of late that Major Weir’s houae was among the tenements demolished in 1836, but popular tradition ia supported by legal documentary evidence in firing on the house described in the text.- Vi&, p. 167. Much of Sinclair’a amount of the Major appears to be taken nearly verbatim from a MS. life, in “ Fraser’s Providential Paclsagea,” Advocates’ Libmy, dated 1670, the year of his execution, ’ Ravaillac Redivivus, p. 12.
Volume 10 Page 366
  Enlarge Enlarge  
3 36 MEMORIALS OF EDINBURGH. tion, which made many of that stamp court his converse. He never married, but lived in a private lodging with his sister Grizel Weir. Many resorted to his house to hear him pray, and join with him; 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 angel than man, and was termed by some of the holy sisters ordinarily Angelical Thomas.”’ This magical black staff was no less marvellous a character than the Major himself. According to veracious tradition, it was no uncommon thing for the neighbours to see it step in and tap at their counters on some errand of its master, or running before him with a lantern as he went out on nocturnal business, and gravely walked down the Lawnmarket behind his mysterious link-boy. The Major, in fact, had made a compact with the Devil, of which this was part payment ; but the foul fiend as usual overreached his dupe. He had enga.ged, it would seem, to keep him scatheless from all dangers but one burn. The accidental naming of a Mr Burn by the waiters of the Nether Bow Port, as he visited them in the course of his duty, threw him into a fit of terror that lasted for weeks ; and the intervention of a water brook called Libberton Burn in his way was sufficient to make him turn back. “A year before he discovered himself, he took a sore sickness, during which he spake to all who visited him like an angel.” !a He found it, however, impossible longer to withstand the dreadful tortures of conscience ; and summoning some of his neighbours to his bedside, he made voluntary confession of crimes, which needed no supernatural accessories to render them more detestable. His confession seemed ao incredible, that the magistrates at first refused to take him into custody ; but he was at length carried off to prison, and lodged in the Tolbooth along with his sister-the partner, if not the victim, of one of his crimes. As might have been expected, strange and supernatural appearances accompanied his seizure. The staff was secured by his Bister’s advice, and carried to prison along with them. A few dollars were also found, wrapped up in some rags, and on the latter being thrown into the fire, they danced in circles about the flames in an unwonted manner, while ‘‘ another clout, found with some hard thing in it, which they threw into the fire likewise, circled and sparkled like gunpowder, and passing from the tunnel of the chimney, it gave a crack like a little cannon, to the amazement of all that were present.” The money was no less boisterous than its wrappers, and threatened to pull the bailie’s house about his ears, who had taken it home with him. On being carried to prison, the Major sunk into a dogged apathy, from which he never afterwards reviyed, furiously rejecting the ministrations of the clergymen who visited him, and replying only to their urgent exhortations with the despairing exclamation, Torment me not before the time ! ” adding, with somewhat more philosophic foresight, according to another annalist, “ that now, since he was to go to the Devil, he would not anger him.” * He was tried April 9, 1670, and confessed himself guilty both of possible and impossible crimes. - There can be no doubt, indeed, that the wretched hypocrite was driven desperate by the stings of conscience, and felt some relief in giving the Devil a share of his misdeeds. He waa sentenced to be strangled and burnt, ’ Fraser’a Providential Passages. MS. Advocates’ Library. * Satan’s Invisible World Discovered, p. 146. a Ihid, p. 147. Law’s Memorials, p. 23.
Volume 10 Page 367
  Enlarge Enlarge