The History of Leith

February 15, 2012

A strange story

An old house at the head of the Canongate, on the north side, somewhere in the vicinity of Coull’s Close, but now removed, was always indicated as being the scene of that wild story which Scott
relates in his notes to the fifth canto of ” Rokeby,” and in his language we prefer to give it here. He tells us that ” about the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the large castles of the
Scottish nobles, and even the secluded hotels; like those of the French noblesse, which they possessed in Edinburgh, were sometimes the scenes of strange and divine of singular sanctity was called up at midnight to pray with a person at the point of death. This was no unusual summons ; but what followed was alarming. He was put into a sedan-chair, and after he had been transported to a remote part of the town the bearers insisted upon his being blindfolded. The request was enforced by a cocked pistol, and submitted to; but in the course of the discussion he conjectured, from the phrases employed by the chairmen, and from some parts of their dress not completely concealed by their cloaks, that they were greatly above the menial station they had.assumed. After many turnings and windings the chair was carried up-stairs into a lodging, where his eyes were uncovered, and he was introduced into a bed-room, where he found a lady newly delivered of an infant, and he was commanded by his attendants to say such prayers by her bedside as were fitting for a person not expected to survive a mortal disorder.” He ventured to remonstrate, and observed that her safe delivery warranted better hopes; but he was sternly commanded to obey the orders first given, and with difficulty recollected himself sufficiently to acquit himself of the task imposed on him. He was then again hurried into the chair; but as they conducted him down-stairs he heard the report of a pistol! He was safely conducted home, and a purse of gold was forced upon him; but he was warned at the same time that the least allusion to this dark transaction would cost him his life. He betook himself to rest, and after long and broken musing, fell into a deep sleep. From this he was awakened with the dismal news that a fire of uncommon fury had broken out in the house of , near the head of the Canongate, and that it was totally consumed, with the shocking addition that the daughter of the proprietor, a young lady eminent for beauty and accomplishments, had perished in the flames. The clergyman had his suspicions; but to have made them public would have availed nothing. He was timid ; the family was of the first distinction; above all, the deed was done, and could not be amended. Time wore away, and with it his terrors; but he became unhappy at being the solitary depositary of this fearful mystery, and mentioned it to some of his brethren, through whom the anecdote acquired a sort of publicity. The divine had long been dead when a fire broke out on the same spot where the house of ? had formerly stood, and which was now occupied by buildings of an inferior description. When the flames were at their height, the tumult that usually attends such a scene was suddenly suspended by an unexpected apparition. A beautiful female in a nightdress, extremely rich, but at least half a century old, appeared in the very midst of the fire, and uttered these tremendous words in her vernacular idiom :—’ Anes burned—twice burned—the third time I’ll scare you all !’ The belief in this story was so strong, that on a fire breaking out, and seeming to approach the fatal spot, there was a good deal of anxiety testified lest the apparition should make good her denunciation.” According to a statement in Notes and Queries, this story was current in Edinburgh before the childhood of Scott, and the murder part of it was generally credited. He mentions a person acquainted with the city in 1743 who used to tell the tale and point out the site of the house. It is remarkable that a great fire did happen there.

source-Old and New Edinburgh

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