Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Skulferatu #18 - The Site of Major Thomas Weir's House, Victoria Terrace, Edinburgh


On a cold, damp, and dreich day I trudged around the empty streets of Edinburgh’s old town.  Well, when I say empty, what I mean is there was hardly anyone else out walking the streets, but there were workmen everywhere.  At the moment every second building seems to be shrouded in scaffolding and protective sheets of polythene.  When the Covid is over it looks like we’re going to have a shiny, newly refurbished city to run around in. 


So anyway, today I walked up the Canongate into the High Street and onto the Lawnmarket where I turned into Riddles Court.  This place is one of the architectural gems of old Edinburgh, however I wasn’t here to see quaint old buildings, but rather the dull back wall of the Quaker Meeting House.  A dull back wall steeped in the history of a notorious figure in Edinburgh- Major Thomas Weir.  His is a story of hypocrisy, cruelty, bigotry, sexual depravity, and supposedly black magic and pacts with the Devil.


The Site of Major Thomas Weir's House, Edinburgh.  Entrance into Riddle’s Court, Edinburgh by Kevin Nosferatu for the Skulferatu Project
Entrance into Riddle’s Court, Edinburgh


The Site of Major Thomas Weir's House, Edinburgh. Riddle’s Court – the lower building in background is reputed to be the remains of Major Weirs House. Photo by Kevin Nosferatu for the Skulferatu Project
Riddle’s Court – the lower building in background is reputed to be the remains of Major Weirs House.


Thomas Weir was born in 1599 in Lanarkshire.  He was the son of Thomas Weir, the Laird of Kirkton and his wife, Lady Jean Somerville.  His mother was reputed to have clairvoyant powers and was said to have taught her son the art of sorcery.  As a young man, Thomas joined the Scottish Army and in 1641 served in Ulster protecting the Scottish settlers there.  Before returning to Edinburgh, he is believed to have fought at the Battle of Benburb in 1646 when the Scots were defeated by the Irish Confederate army. 


Thomas was described as being a tall, thin man with a big nose who always looked severe and gloomy.  He dressed in black and wore a long, black cloak.  He always carried a staff with him wherever he went. He was a Covenanter, a strict Presbyterian and anti-Royalist and by all accounts was a humourless zealot, and a religious bigot, who was given to preaching and praying.  Amongst the other Covenanters he gained a reputation for being very pious and many gathered around him for private prayer meetings.  It is written of him that - ‘He had acquir’d a particular Gracefulness in Whining and Sighing, above any of the sacred Clan; and had learn’d to deliver himself upon all serious occasions, in a far more ravishing Accent than any of their ministers could attain unto.’   Amongst some of those who attended his prayer meetings Thomas was known as ‘Angelical Thomas’, as he seemed to them to be more angel than man.  Locally, he and those he met with were referred to somewhat sarcastically as the ‘Bow-Head Saints.’   The name coming from their perceived piety and that they usually met in the home Thomas shared with his sister Jane, near the top of the West Bow in Edinburgh. 


In 1650 Thomas was appointed to the rank of Major in the Edinburgh Town Guard.  During this time there he was very active in seeking out and imprisoning Royalists and gained a reputation for cruelty in the way he treated his prisoners.  It was said that he would insult and ‘triumph over’ those sentenced to death and would laugh and make sarcastic remarks to those on their way to the gallows.


After retiring from the Edinburgh Town Guard, Thomas fell ill with a severe sickness.  In 1670, from his sick bed, he began to make a series of confessions.  These were that he had been for many years in an incestuous relationship with his sister Jane, that he had committed adultery with many women, fornicated with beasts and had made a pact with the devil to be kept safe from harm. Those in his church were very worried by these confessions, and fearing the scandal they would cause, sought to keep them quiet.  However, rumours about Thomas were soon circulating around Edinburgh.  One of the ministers of his church then informed the Lord Provost, Sir Andrew Ramsay of Abbotshall, of Weir’s confessions.


On hearing of the horrendous crimes that Thomas had accused himself of, the Lord Provost at first refused to believe it could be possible and assumed him to be mad.  He asked two doctors to attend Thomas and see what mental ailment he was suffering from, however after examining him they concluded he was not mentally ill, but rather suffering from a guilty conscience.  This was then confirmed to the Lord Provost by several of the ministers from the church in which Thomas had preached, who stated that he was suffering from ‘the terrors of God, which were upon his soul.’


Given what he had been told, the Lord Provost ordered that Thomas, and his sister Jane be taken to the public gaol at the Tolbooth.  When the guards seized them at their home, Jane told the guards not to let Thomas get hold of his staff, as it was given to him by the Devil and had certain powers.  The brother, sister and the staff were all then taken to the Tolbooth.


While in prison Thomas confessed to committing adultery with some of the most devout women from his church and told how he had persuaded and seduced them.  He then told of one devout woman who had refused his advances, with help from the Devil he had entered her home and found her in bed.  She had then awoken and caused a great scene so, again with the help of the Devil, he had fled.  This woman had then fallen into a great melancholy and depression and died a few weeks later.  Thomas went on to confess that the Devil appeared to him as a beautiful woman and that his staff, a gift from the Devil, was what gave him the power to be so eloquent in prayer.


In prison Jane confessed that she had been an accomplice to her brother’s crimes and went on to tell a tale that in September 1648, she and her brother had been transported from Edinburgh to Musselburgh and back again in a flaming coach pulled by six horses.  In Musselburgh they had met with the Devil who told Thomas that the Royalist and Scots army had been defeated in Preston (Battle of Preston – 17 to 19 August 1648, when the Royalists and Scots, commanded by the Duke of Hamilton, were defeated by the New Model Army under the command of Oliver Cromwell).  This meant that Weir was aware of this event several days before the news arrived back in Edinburgh.  He used this knowledge to make people believe he had the spirit of prophesy. Jane said that she had gained little from their dalliances with the Devil, but she did have a familiar spirit who had spun her enormous quantities of yarn, more yarn than four women together could have spun.


On 9 April 1670 Thomas and Jane appeared for trial.  The charges against Thomas all related to incest, adultery, and bestiality.  The charges against Jane related to incest with her brother, committing sorcery and witchcraft and consulting with witches, necromancers, and devils.  Various witnesses were called, and they mainly confirmed the admissions that Thomas had made to them.  However, another of Thomas’s sisters was called as a witness and she stated that when Thomas was around 27 years of age, she had found him and her sister Jane naked together in bed and that the ‘bed did shake’, and she heard some ‘scandalous language between them’.  Evidence was also given that Thomas had committed incest with the daughter of his first wife, now deceased.   It was then declared to the court that in the year 1651 or 1652 there had been a report that Thomas had committed bestiality with a mare and had been seen by a witness to do this.


Thomas then spoke to the court and admitted to the charges against him.  In regard to the act of bestiality with the Mare, he admitted to this and said that the matter had been reported, as a woman had seen him and gone to tell a local minister.  He had later been seized by some soldiers but was freed, as they could find no evidence against him.  The woman who had made the allegation was then whipped as a punishment for slandering him.


Thomas was found guilty of all the charges against him and was sentenced to death.  The Judge ordered that on the 11 April 1670 he be taken and strangled at the stake and his body then burnt to ashes.  His staff was to be burned with him.  Jane was found guilty of the charge of incest and was also sentenced to death.  The Judge ordered that she be hanged at the Grassmarket the day after her brother was executed.


On 11 April 1670 Thomas was taken to Gallowlee, between Edinburgh and Leith.  There, before the sentence was carried out, he was asked to request God’s mercy.  To this Thomas replied – ‘Let me alone.  I will not.  I have lived as a beast, and I must die as a beast.’  He was then strangled, and his body burnt along with his staff.


Jane was hanged in the Grassmarket the next day.  As the rope was placed around her neck, she tried to strip off her clothing.  One of the presiding officials was so scandalised by this that he told the hangman to hurry up and get the job done.  For this Jane slapped him about the face, before being ‘thrown over’ and hanged. 


For years after, the house the Weirs had lived in was used during the day by various businesses, but no-one would stay the night in it.  It was believed to be haunted by Thomas and the devils and spirits he had summoned.  Those who lived nearby said that at night terrible noises came through the walls of the house and anyone passing by would hear what sounded like a crowd of ghouls and demons howling and spinning and dancing.  Some even told tales of seeing Thomas, in the dead of night, leaving the house to mount a headless black horse and ride off into the darkness.  One couple were enticed to stay the night in the house, but fled in terror after a demonic calf entered their bedroom and stood by their bed staring at them.


Scary stuff or what!!! 


The house was eventually torn down to make way for a new building and the Quaker Meeting House on Victoria Terrace, by Upper Bow now stands upon part of the land where the house once was.


View up Victoria Street, Edinburgh to Quaker Meeting HousePhoto by Kevin Nosferatu for the Skulferatu Project
View up Victoria Street to Quaker Meeting House


Quaker Meeting House – encompasses part of land that Major Weir’s House stood on.  Photo by Kevin Nosferatu for the Skulferatu Project
Quaker Meeting House – encompasses part of land that Major Weir’s House stood on

View of Quaker Meeting House from Victoria Terrace, Edinburgh.  Photo by Kevin Nosferatu for the Skulferatu Project
View of Quaker Meeting House from Victoria Terrace


As there was no access to the back wall of the Weir’s house, I walked round to Victoria Street and up the steps to Victoria Terrace.  There I left the Skulferatu that had accompanied me on today’s walk on a ledge above a pillar at the front of the building.  Its silent scream can join in with those from the demons who reside here at night.

Skulferatu #18 at Victoria Terrace, Edinburgh.  Photo by Kevin Nosferatu for the Skulferatu Project
Skulferatu #18


Skulferatu #18 on stone ledge at site of Major Weir’s house, Edinburgh.  Photo by Kevin Nosferatu for the Skulferatu Project
Skulferatu #18 on stone ledge at site of Major Weir’s house

Skulferatu #18 on stone ledge at site of Major Weir’s house, Edinburgh.Photo by Kevin Nosferatu for the Skulferatu Project
Skulferatu #18 on stone ledge at site of Major Weir’s house


Google Map - site of Major Weir’s house, Edinburgh
Google Map showing location of Skulferatu


The coordinates for the location of the Skulferatu are:


Latitude 55.948816

Longitude -3.193375


I used the following sources for the tale of Major Weir – 


The Spirit of Fanaticism exemplified in the trials of Mr James Mitchell (a Presbyterian Minister, who was Hang’d at Edinburgh, for an Attempt made upon the Archbishop of St. Andrews) and Major Thomas Weir (a Gifted Brother at the Knack of Extempore Prayer) who was Burnt between Edinburgh and Leith April 11th, 1670 for Adultery, Bestiality with a Mare and a Cow, and Incest with his own Sister, who was likewise Hang’d the next Day after him.

Published, London 1710

Available on Google Books

Note: Reading this document does make one see the story of Major Weir in a different light from the tale normally told.  If the Devil and witchcraft aspects are put to one side, then the tale of Major Weir is one of a sexual predator who has sexually abused and taken advantage of those around him, including his young stepdaughter.  He has used his position within his faith to badger and harass women to have sex with him and his actions appear to have caused the death of one of the female followers of his faith.  Also, his sister Jane can be seen as someone who has been destroyed by years of abuse, someone driven mad by her brother’s lusts.  It is interesting how in the main she is the one who when questioned talks of witchcraft and devils, almost as a way of explaining her brother.  Or could it be that Thomas used stories of his pact with the Devil to control her and keep her silence about his sexual proclivities?  It is something we will never know.  It does appear that the pacts with the Devil, the witchcraft and other magical elements of this tale have been embellished over the years, especially by later writers who have removed or lessened the sexual aspects to Weir’s crimes.)


Satan’s Invisible World Discovered

by George Sinclair 

Published, Edinburgh 1779

Available on Google Books


Old and New Edinburgh, Volume 1

Published 1883

by James Grant


Edinburgh and the Lothians (Chapter XVI)

By Francis Watt

Published 1912

Available at https://electricscotland.com


Wikipedia article on Major Thomas Weir

Article and photographs are copyright of © Kevin Nosferatu, unless otherwise specified.

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