Saturday, 1 February 2014

Major Weir - The Wizard of the West Bow

Edinburgh has had many notorious criminals through the centuries; some achieve a sort of immortality by having pubs named after them such as Maggie Dickson or Deacon Brodie. Other become the focus for the silver screen such as the serial killers Burke and Hare where their deeds are retold in a dozen different ways. Others however seem to have largely slipped from the public mind despite being almost too notorious for words in their own day. One such figure who seems to fit that category is Major Thomas Weir – The Wizard of the West Bow.

Born in Lanarkshire at the end of the sixteenth century little is known of his early life other than he served as a lieutenant in the regular army suppressing rebellions in Ireland before returning to Scotland in the 1630's. He was one of the signatories to the Solemn League and Covenant which called for the protection, by any means, of Scottish Presbyterianism from any outside influence, chiefly Charles I and his attempt to introduce an Anglican style of worship in the Church of Scotland. 

The signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard
To protect their vision of the true faith the Scots formed the Covenanting Army which Thomas Weir enlisted in and rose to the rank of major earning a reputation as a reliable and able commander of men on the field of battle.

At the age of 50 he retired from active service in the field and took up position as commander of Edinburgh's fledgling Town Guard. However it was his time in the Army of the Covenant which seems to have shaped the remainder of his life. He was imbued with the fiery zeal of the evangelist and would preach long and loud to anyone who would listen about the snares set by Rome and Satan for the unwary Protestant to fall into. From his home on the West Bow which ran from the Lawnmarket down a steep doglegged slope to the Grassmarket and where he lived with his sister Grizel, he would hold powerful prayer meeting with like minded Calvinists earning the group the sobriquet The Bowhead Saints. Such was Weir’s prominence in the Presbyterian community that it was said “if four met together, be sure Major Weir was one.” 

Physically he was an imposing figure standing six foot tall with a long lean body always dressed in dark clothes with a long black cloak sweeping around him and his face was turned to the ground below a wide brimmed black hat. Along with his ever present cloak and downcast eyes was a long staff of black wood carved into fantastical designs surmounted by the image of a satyr's head which he held tightly whenever he led a divine service. This staff would return to haunt him in more ways than one.

The first indication that perhaps not all was quite right with Major Weir came one evening as the clocks rung out midnight across the rooftops of Edinburgh in 1670. A young woman and her maid returning home from assisting her sister deliver her baby in the Lawnmarket had to pass Weir's house. As they approached they heard the sound of wild revelry from within where three strange women were seen laughing, shouting and applauding. More alarming was the Amazonian figure of a woman said to be twice the height of any other who stood at the foot of the stairs leading to Weir's door. This giantess began to walk before them cackling unnaturally and jerking her body wildly until the unwilling followers reached a narrow close which the strange figure ducked into. Somewhat alarmed by the presence of the cackling figure the woman and her maid cautiously peered within to see the stinking alley illuminated by burning torches and ringing with the sound of several people cackling madly. More alarming was the fact that no one could be seen. Needless to say both women rushed home where they reported the frightening experience to the husband.

Major Weir's on the West Bow
The next day he and friends retraced their steps but finding no evidence of trace of the weird figure or torches they turned their attention towards the house of Major Weir. None was prepared to approach him openly but a whispering campaign that something wasn't normal about the house or its occupants began to spread.

Perhaps a week after the encounter the women had suffered Major Weir fell ill and was confined to bed for several weeks. Seeming to recover he announced he would lead a prayer meeting and his fellow Bowhead Saints and a crowd soon gathered for the expected sermon issuing fire and brimstone onto the sinners. What they got though left them open-mouthed in horror and disgust as Major Weir launched into a foul tirade where he described decades of sexual abuse and depravity before their astonished eyes. Worse than that, to them at least, was the revelation he had conjured demons and held Black Masses in order to be granted power by Satan himself.

Thinking that the poor man had taken leave of his senses the crowd attempted to cover up what had been said but this was Edinburgh where gossip could travel from Castle Hill to the foot of the Royal Mile faster than a man could run. Weir's confession was overnight the sole topic of every conversation and while certain prominent figures wanted the whole thing hushed up lest it reflect badly on the Presbyterian faith it was too late to stop the wagging tongues.

Sir Andrew Ramsay, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, soon learned of Weir's words and while he personally held no stock in the claims believing them too monstrous to be true did order that doctors examine the major for evidence of a 'distempered brain'. Much to the Provost's surprise, and to many others, the doctors could find no proof of illness and now left with no choice due to public clamour Sir Andrew had Weir arrested.

As if things were not bad enough for Thomas Weir already his sister Grizel now decided that she too must confess her sins. She claimed that from the age of 16 she and Thomas had been lovers and she had always assisted him in his spell-making and wizardry. She further claimed that Satan had once sent a coach drawn by six steeds made of fire and smoke to their door which carried them to the town of Dalkeith where they met Satan in person who told them that a Scots army alongside their Royalist allies had been defeated by Cromwell's forces at the Battle of Worcester. They had returned to Edinburgh where Major Weir spread the news of the defeat several days before any other word had reached the city. What had been then as proof of his religious zeal where he received divine news it was now seen as evidence of the supernatural. It was also now claimed that the ever present staff had been a gift from their dark master and had been the source of his skill as an orator.

Both brother and sister were sent for trial and found guilty of witchcraft, incest and various other crimes against Man, Nature and God and were sentenced to death.

Thomas was the first to be executed. He was taken from the Tolbooth by St Giles to Gallowlee, a spot between Edinburgh and Leith where he was told to pray for forgiveness. He refused to do so and said, “let me alone, I have lived as a beast and I shall die as a beast!”. He was strangled to death and his body and staff thrown onto a bonfire where both were claimed to have roared and writhed in the flames as further proof of the evil being consumed by fire. No one seems to have considered the possibility that Major Weir had not been fully finished off by the executioner and had still lived when cast into the flames.

Grizel was to be spared the flames and for her the end would come on the gallows on the Grassmarket not far from her home. The day after Thomas' death she was led down the West Bow to the great open space where she addressed the crowd bravely but then caused further scandal by trying to strip herself naked before death. The hangman had to restrain her and then carry her up the ladder to the noose while she tried all she could to resist him, even sticking her old head between the rungs of the ladder until he could finally get the rope around her neck. With a final heave Grizel Weir was sent from this world into the next.

Whether the Weirs were Satanists or just two old people suffering from mental illness is impossible to determine now. Medical examinations would not meet standards these days so the findings of no sign of illness by the doctors must be taken with a grain of salt. You must decide for yourself what you consider the truth to be.

Most people now felt that with the deaths the matter could be quietly forgotten but the story about the laughing women at Weir's window and the cackling giantess were already firmly rooted in the public imagination. As the years went by and the house remained empty the stories only grew: lights had been seen within the tall buildings, the sounds of revelry were commonly heard and faces were said to have been seen stared balefully down at passer-bys. Occupants of the West Bow were awoken by the sound of an unseen coach and horses thundering down the road and the tap tap tap of the Major's staff could heard as it made its way through the dark wynds and closes of town. 

The shop with the blue front marks the location of
Major Weir's house before it was removed
Perhaps it is understandable then that the house with its haunted reputation should have stood empty for almost a century before anyone was brave, or foolish, enough to wish to live there. A former soldier named Patullo and his wife rented the house but on the first night as they lay in bed a strange light formed in their bedchamber which coalesced  into the shape of a calf which placed its forelegs on the end of their bed and observed them for some time before fading away. They left the next day never to return.

The house continued to stand empty until 1870 when redevelopment in the area saw the destruction of the house to make way for further improvements to Victoria Street and Terrace. Whether the occupants of the shops which now stand on Victoria Street have reported any spectral activity is unknown to me.

To celebrate the release of the latest Robert Young of Newbiggin Mystery - Major Weir's Dark Legacy -- on Saturday 8th February I will be giving away an eBook copy on Friday 7th. To be entered in the draw for this and have the chance to receive an advance copy of the book before general release simply leave a comment here or on the Facebook page before next Friday midday GMT

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Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries.

 His blog can be followed at 


  1. Please enter me Stuart! This sound like its going to be a thrilling scary tale - just up my own alley!

  2. Deirdre O'Mahony1 February 2014 at 10:00

    This sounds fascinating! Please enter me in the draw as well!

  3. Wow Stuart, the more I learn about Scottish history, the more I need to know. Great blog!

  4. I really enjoyed this post. Edinburgh is full of many strange tales- and I love visiting it. Please enter me, too, Stuart.

  5. Thank you for your comments ladies. Your names are all in the hat for the draw on Friday afternoon. Stuart.

  6. Gosh Stuart that sounds scary....Edinburgh id my home town and When I go up nest moth i'll make sure I walk down that way . Thanks for allowing me to enter


  7. I am a Robert Young I would love to win this book!!

  8. It's not often that I get surprised by a story set in Edinburgh, but I didn't know about this! I am excited to read this. Great blog post, too.

  9. Love this Stuart about my favourite City . Would love to win this book

  10. Good blog mate....Enter me in the draw mate if i dont win i will stamp my feet and cry

  11. Fab post. Put me in the hat for a chance. Thank you.

  12. Stuart, that was an absorbing read! I'd love to take your story with me on holiday, it would be just the thing!

  13. Fascinating Story and definitely a dangerous revelation for those days. Please enter me.
    Marilyn Watson

  14. Please enter me if I am not already entered at the other site.

  15. Im intrigued a man of many talents