The History of Leith

December 14, 2006

The Strange Case of Major Thomas Weir

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 lie probably served at the storming of Carrickfergus and the battle of Benburb; 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 Welt 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 a 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 flow-head,” &c,; and even Sir Walter Scott, in describing the departure of Dundee, sings
“As he rode down the sanctified bends of the Bow,
Ilkaca was flyting 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 charactetised 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

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, how ever, the major, his sister (the partner of one of his crimes), and the black magical stall; 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 is several sums of money in dollars were found wrapped up in pieces of cloth. A fragment of the a 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 by 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 I” was his constant cry; and he declined to see a clergyman of any creed, say ing, 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 bade of him was in the dark.” He and his sister were tried on the 9 of April,1670, before the Justiciary Court; he was sentenced to be strangled and burned, 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 r replied fiercely and mournfully, “Let me alone— I will not I have lived as a beast and must die I 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 per form 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

From Old and New Edinburgh 1883

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