The History of Leith

December 8, 2006

The Gallowlee

The Gallowlee midway between Edinburgh and Leith and near the present Shrub Place was a well known and famous place. An old “Chronical of Tales and Traditions of Leith” thus narrates about it-“During the troublous times of Morton’s regency the Gallowlee had rather an undue share of notoriety.

According to Captain Grant while Morton strung up his prisoners by fifties on a gigantic gallows at the Gallowlee midway between Leith and Edinburgh, the Loyalists displayed an equal number on a gibbet which reared its ghastly outline on the Castle Hill, in view of the Regents camp.

The gibbet at the Gallowlee was occasionally used for the purpose of exhibiting the effigies of individuals who had rendered themselves in some way obnoxious to the populace. For example when the celebrated John Wilkes in 1763 published the memorable No 45 of his periodical entitled, the North Briton, the bitter satire in which he indulged towards Scotland and Scotchmen gave great offence in the North and a famous leader of the Edinburgh mob, named “Bowed Joseph” got a cart fitted up with a high gallows from which depended a figure stuffed with straw intended to represent the arch enemy of Scotland with the Devil perched on his shoulder.

The cart with its curious burden was leisurely paraded through the principal streets until it reached the Gallowlee where two criminals were at that moment dangling in chains and alongside of these Wilkes and his companion the devil were elevated amid the enthusiastic applause of the multitude. No opposition was offered by the authorities to the proceedings for two reasons the fully participated in the angry feelings entertained towards Wilkes and they were not in a position t the will of such an independent leader as “Bowed Joseph”. The magistrates on many occasion displayed a disgraceful timidity unbecoming their position and they frequently sent for the “bowed” leader to consult him regarding the best means of dispersing and appeasing a troublesome mob. On such occasions he always stood up zealously for his compeers and his boldness generally compelled the feeble authorities to comply with whatever terms he dictated. These interviews generally ended in his being authorised to promise a reform of the evils complained of and also to dispense among his followers a hogshead of good ale. The promise and libation never failed to success and the popular favourite had no difficulty in clearing the streets by the simple command of “Now, disperse my lads”

According to that excellent authority Robert Chambers this mob director must have been a formidable person “After he had figured for a few years as an active partisan of the people his name waxed of such an account with him that it is said he could in the course of an hour collect a crowd of not fewer than ten thousand people all ready to obey his orders or disperse at his bidding ”He collected his forces by beating a drum and he strode along “thudding out his noisy summons every close and alley poured out their dingy denizens to swell his train “Bowed Joseph” was at last killed by a fall from the top of a Leith stage while returning from the races on Leith sands in a state of intoxication about the year 1780. In the “Traditions of Edinburgh” will be found an interesting account of this singular character.

The fine sand of which the mound at the Gallowlee was composed was carted away to be mixed with the lime used in the erection of the New Town of Edinburgh. The spot once known the dreaded Gallowlee is now or was lately occupied as a marble work. But chiefly by the nursery of Thomas Methven and Sons. The proprietor of the ground at the time referred to according to Mr Chambers was nearly as much of a sand bed as his property. He was a big sizes man one of those persons on whom drink never seemed to have much effect. It is related that every day while the carts were taking away his sand he stood regularly at the place receiving money in return which was immediately converted into liquor and applied to the comfort of the inner man.

A public house was at length erected at the spot for his particular behoof and assuredly as long as the Gallowlee lasted this pub house did not want his custom. It must be borne in mind however that the gibbet laird only got quit of the hillock of sand in this way he still retained the ground the grog supplying process having merely converted it from a considerable eminence into a deep hollow which remains to the present day as nursery ground.
The Gallowlee and the victims of its gibbets are now only matters of history.

From “Reminiscences of the Port and Town of Leith“by John Martine 1888

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