The History of Leith

April 4, 2012

Robert Irvine

In 1717 Broughton was the scene of the trial
and execution in a remarkable case of murder,
which made famous the old pathway known as
Gabriel’s Road. By some strange misconception,
in ” Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk,” the murderer
is called ” Gabriel,” and in a work called ” Celebrated
Trials” (in six volumes), he is called the
Rev. Thomas Hunter, whereas in reality his name
was Robert Irvine. Of this road, to which we
have already referred, Chambers gives us the following
description :—”Previous to 1767 the eye of
a person perched in a favourable situation in the
Old Town surveyed the whole ground on which
the New Town was built. Immediately beyond
the North Loch was a range of grass fields called
Bearford’s^Parks, from the name of the proprietor,
Hepburn of Bearford, in East Lothian. Bounding
these on the north, in the line of the subsequent
Princes Street, was a road enclosed by two dry
stone walls, called the Lang Dykes
The main mass of ground, originally rough with
whins and broom, but latterly forming what was
called Wood’s Farm, was crossed obliquely by a
road extending between Silver Mills, a rural hamlet
on the mill course of the Leith, and the passage
into the Old Town at the bottom of Halkerston’s
Wynd. There are still some traces of this
road. You will see it leave Silver Mills behind
West Cumberland Street. Behind Duke Street,
on the west side, the boundary wall of the Queen
Street garden is oblique, in consequence of its
having passed that way. Finally, it terminates in a
short oblique passage behind the Register House,
wherein stood till lately ‘Ambrose’s Tavern.
This short passage bore the name of Gabriel’s
Road, and was supposed to do so in connection
with a remarkable murder of which it was the
Mr. James Gordon, of Ellon, in Aberdeenshire,
a rich merchant of Edinburgh, and once a bailie
there, in the early part of the eighteenth century
had a villa on the north side of the city, somewhere
between this road and the village of Broughton.
His family consisted of his wife, two sons, and a
daughter, these being all of tender age. He had a
tutor for his two boys—John and Alexander—a
licentiate of the Church, named Robert Irvine, who
was of respectable attainments, but had a somewhat
gloomy disposition. Views of predestination,
drawn from some work of Flavel’s, belonging to
the college library, had taken possession of his
mind, which had, perhaps, some infirmity ready to
be acted upon by external circumstances and dismal
Having cast eyes of admiration on a pretty
servant-maid in Mr. Gordon’s house, he was
tempted to take some liberties with her, which
were observed, and mentioned incidentally by his
pupils. For this he was reprimanded by Mr.
Gordon, but on apologising, was forgiven. Into
Irvine’s morbid and sensitive nature the affront, or
rebuke, sank deeply, and a thirst for revenge
possessed him. For three days he revolved the
insane idea of cutting off Mr. Gordon’s three
children, and on the aSth of April, 1717, he found
an opportunity of partially accomplishing his terrible
It was Sunday, and Mr. and Mrs. Gordon went
to spend the afternoon with a friend in the city,
taking their little daughter with them. Irvine, left
with the two boys, took them out for a walk along
the then broomy and grassy slope, where now York
Place and St. Andrew Square are situated. While
the boys ran about gathering flowers and pursuing
butterflies, he sat whetting the knife with which
he meant to destroy them !
” Calling the two boys to him, he upbraided
them with their informing upon him, and told them
that they must suffer for it. They ran off, but he
easily overtook and seized them. Then keeping
one down upon the grass with his knee, he cut the
other’s throat, after which he dispatched in like
manner the remaining one.” ”
By a singular chance a gentleman enjoying his
evening stroll upon the Castle Hill obtained a perfect
view of the whole episode—most probably
with a telescope—and immediately gave an alarm.
Irvine, who had already attempted, but unsuccessfully,
to cut his own throat, now fled from his pursuers
towards the Water of Leith, thinking to drown
himself, but was taken, brought in a cart to the
tolbooth of Broughton, and there chained down
to the floor like a wild beast.
In,those days there was a summary process in
Scotland for murderers, taken as he was—red hand.
It was only necessary to bring him next day before
the judge of the district and have sentence passed
upon him. Irvine was tried before the Baronbailie
upon the 3oth of April, and received sentence
of death.
In his ” dying confession,” supposed to be unique,
it is recorded that ” he desired one who was present
to take care of his books and conceal his
papers, for he said there were many foolish things
in them. He imagined that he was to be hung in
chains, and showed some concern on that account.
He prayed the parents of the murdered children to
forgive him, which they, very christianly, consented
to. At sight of the bloody clothes in which the
•children were murdered, and which were brought
to him in the prison a little before he went to the
place of execution, he was much affected, and
broke into groans and tears. When he came to
the place of execution the ministers prayed for him,
and he also prayed himself, but with a low voice.
. . . . Both his hands were struck off by the
executioner, and he was afterwards hanged. While
he was hanging the wound he gave himself in the
throat with the penknife broke out afresh, and the
blood gushed out in great abundance.”
He was hanged at Greenside, and his hands were
stuck upon the gibbet with the knife used in the
murders. His body was then flung into a neighbouring

source-Old and New Edinburgh c1883

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