Sunday, 26 August 2012

Angelic Thomas Weir the Wizard of West Bow

The old preacher stood up and his audience eagerly listened for his condemnation of everything ungodly. Instead they heard him confess to a list of sins that must have left their jaws dropping. Perhaps some even heard of new sins. Of course they decided he was mad. But when his sister confirmed his story and added even more details he ended in court and was then burned at the stake together with the staff he habitually carried with him. But Major Thomas Weir did not rest quietly in his grave.

Major Thomas Weir

Thomas was born in 1599 in Carluke in South Lanarkshire and belonged to one of the oldest and most powerful families in the county, the Weir-Deveres ( No relation to werewolves I think). Lieutenant Thomas Weir served in Ulster during the 1641 Irish Rebellion and Major Thomas Weir retired in 1650 and became Comander of the Edinburgh Town guard.

At some point he became a Covenanter, which means he signed the covenant of 1638 to maintain Presyterianism as the sole religion of Scotland. This would have been mandatory for all Scots citizens after 1640. And he got religion. Nowadays he would be called a fanatic. It was said that whenever four divines were together in Edinburgh he would be one of them. He was a tall man who always wore a long black cloak and carried a black thornwood staff carved with the heads of satyrs. A powerful orator he would say passionate prayers to huge audiences.

The Confession
In 1570 Weir was leading a prayer meeting when he confessed to committing incest with his sister, with home he lived, practicing witchcraft and sorcery and other crimes and accused his sister of being a witch.

Naturally people thought he had gone insane: an old man with dementia. But his sister confirmed his statements and said he got his powers from his staff. She also said they had learned magic from their mother. Apparently both had physical peculiarities that they and others believed were witchmarks. Believing them innocent but insane the congregation managed to hush the matter up for six months till the Lord Provost heard of the matter and had him examined finding him to be in good health and sane.

The two were executed by burning. Some say this was at Greenside, others that it was near Pilrig Street. Thomas refused to repent, saying he had lived as a beast and had to die like a beast. Not many would take such responsibility for their actions at any time, especially one feels, in the 21st Century. It was said he and his staff were difficult to burn.

After the executions his house gained a reputation for being haunted with ghostly party sounds at midnight. His staff was seen floating in front of the building and a Phantom coach was seem to pull up in front of the door allegedly to take the Weirs to Hell. Sometimes, the major was seen emerging from the alley astride a headless black horse galloping in a whirlwind of fire. Sir Walter Scott visited the house shortly before it was demolished and testified to its eerie atmosphere. The Weir residence, located between Edinburgh Castle and the Grassmarket, was torn down in the 1800s but people have seen strange lights and heard sounds of revelry in its former site. 

It would be impossible to say whether Weir and his sister committed the crimes to which they confessed but their house stood close to GreyFriars Kirk with its unseen attacker and evidence of various crimes was found in a neighbouring house so perhaps the whole incident was orchestrated by a malevolent force in the area. Or perhaps the hauntings are hust what people expected to see.


The house is gone, it stood halfway up West Bow, and the street is occupied by little shops and an Irish Pub. The Grassmarket, once the scene of hangings is full of restaurants and bars, including the ambiguously named Last Drop tavern. From West Bow you can walk to GreyFriars Kirk or George the Fourth Bridge. A bit further you come to the Royal Mile. Here History lies under every stone. But there are some good bars, cafes and Restaurants in the area.

If you happen to choose the Badjao Bed and Breakfast for your stay in Edinburgh we recommend you take a bus to West Bow because the local council make life hard and parking expensive for drivers in the city.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The mystery of Edinburgh's Gilmerton Cove.

Gilmerton Cove is a set of underground chambers and passages in the South of Edinburgh near Gilmerton Crossroads, an otherwise unremarkable part of Edinburgh. No one is sure when where or how it was built but since 2003 it has been open to the public. At the end of the twentieth century the entry was through a betting shop but now the entry is through a visitor centre adapted from a traditional mining cottage (According to the Scotsman the entrance was a former Plumber's workshop).

Records of the cove go back to the 18th century though it seems to be much older. A local blacksmith, George Patterson, occupied the caves from 1724 to 1735 and claimed to have chiselled them from the local sandstone by hand. In addition to his work as a Blacksmith

Two caves, one larger than the other, have continuous horseshoe benches round the edges and long tables have been carved from the rock and a bowl has been carved out of one table. There are also blocked tunnels, no one knows where they lead, though apparently an exit from one of those passages once led to an open field, which might suggest they were designed as escape routes, if they were not back and side doors. Some of the tables have crudely drawn masonic symbols and on one table is a drawing of a cat. It is hard to imagine anyone living there but it may well have been vastly superior to accommodation above ground.

Patterson used the Cove as a drinking den, patronised by the gentry. When hauled in front of the local church officials for selling liquor on a Sunday he claimed he had closed the front door but his wife must have let customers in by the back door. Of course he could simply have given the liquor away with a snack as an 18th century meal deal but that might not have worked on the local priests.

In 1897 a detailed study of the caves indicated that one man could not have dug them out in 5 years, as Patterson claimed and that the tool marks on the walls were made by pointed instruments not chisels. Since mining was carried out in the area since the 15th century it is likely the Cove started as a test seam that found no coal and was then used as a hiding place when English and other raiders came to town. With increasingly rare raids from England work on improving the Cove ceased. Nothing more is known for certain till Patterson took over the Cove.

Post Patterson the Cove was more than once passed around as payment for gambling debts and again used as an illegal drinking den and possibly housed an illegal still. There was a belief a Scots king was buried under the Cove .

There are theories that the cove was used by a Witches coven and a Masonic Lodge, probably not on a time sharing basis, or as a covenanters' refuge. All these theories have weaknesses and the idea the Knights Templar were involved is very unlikely, but fun.

Like the Arthurian Chapel that used to exist under a store near Edinburgh's Holy Corner ( Four churches and two banks, truly sacred to God and Mammon) it could just have been a folly, but follies take money to build and the builders are usually well known.

In 2017 two new chambers were were discovered using  ground penetrating Radar.   The study has shown the site to be twice as big as previously thought and there are hopes of finding where the blocked tunnels lead.  It would be fantastic if they linked to say Rosslyn Chapel but the more likely explanation is they either peter out or lead to nearby fields suggesting they were escape routes leading to nearby fields.

Gilmerton Cove is about 30 minutes from the city centre on the way to Dalkeith and would make a pleasant change from the sights of the city centre. Being underground it would be a good place to visit on a rainy day. From the Badjao Bedand Breakfast it is most easily reached by car or after a short walk, by bus and takes about an hour. Wear  suitable clothes and check opening and tour times in advance.

For the nervous the Cove seems to be one of the few old places in Edinburgh that is not haunted.  

For more information see the Mystery of Gilmerton Cove website.