The History of Leith

January 22, 2012

Major Thomas Weir

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 crowstepped 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 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 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 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 latterpart 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 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 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 linkboy at night in tire 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 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 !” 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, 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 thorn wood, 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.

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