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Famous Ghosts of Edinburgh. The Vengeance of Johnny One-Arm.


There have been many dark moments and terrible deeds committed on the cobbled streets and alleyways of Edinburgh Old Town. To be exact, in the local vernacular, the 'setts' on the ground and the 'closes' off the Royal Mile of the Scottish capital with its famous and equally infamous history.

A particularly memorable tale is that of a Mr John Chiesly or 'Johnny One-Arm' as he later became known. He was a significant and dark character in Edinburgh folklore before, during and long after his death.

Chiesly lived in the 17th Century although not in Edinburgh proper. He had a large house in the old village of Dalry some 2 miles from the city centre. The village was eventually swallowed up by the expansive development of Edinburgh but back then it was a quiet little hamlet all on its own.

Chiesly was a familiar figure in the capital city though as he was a businessman and where better to do business than where the capital was, in two senses of the word. Edinburgh was also the financial centre of Scotland and a lot of money could be made there, which Chiesly certainly did.

He was successful in business and became very rich in the process, hence the fabulous home in Dalry, and he wanted for nothing. Except, that is, a happy and settled home-life, a loving family and peace of mind.

Chiesly was allegedly a brute, a womaniser and an absent husband for most of the time. His work compelled him, or perhaps allowed him, to travel regularly and extensively and so he was away from home for frequent and long periods of time.

But this was maybe a blessing for his wife Margaret and their ten children. Some sources claim they actually had eleven children. Perhaps the chroniclers lost count along the way. Chiesly it seems was industrious and energetic in many ways and not only in business.

But he was not a good spouse to Margaret Chiesly, nee Nicholson. When he wasn't neglecting her, it was said he was abusing her, he was even suspected of beating her and gained a reputation as a man with a ferocious and violent temper.

Eventually their sad and unhappy union ended up in court as papers were filed for divorce. They arrived at the seat of justice on the Royal Mile to settle things once and for all.

The case was presided over by Sir George Lockhart of Carnwarth the highest-ranking judge in the land, in fact his official title was President of the Court of Session as well as him being a distinguished knight of the realm.

 Sir George Lockhart of Carnwarth

Sir George Lockhart of Carnwarth

After hearing all the evidence the judge agreed to permit the divorce. But more significantly, in light of future events, he granted a huge maintenance figure for Chiesly to pay to his now ex-wife and family.

Margaret was awarded 'aliment' to the sum of £93 per annum (or 1,700 merks in the currency of the time). It may not sound much today but back in 1688 that was an enormous sum, probably equivalent to around £80,000 in the modern currency of the 21st Century.

Chiesly was apoplectic with rage at Lockhart's decision and in keeping with his rash nature gave the judge a verbal lashing across the courtroom. Lockhart dismissed this as the ravings of another embittered husband in the wake of losing out from a divorce case.

No more was heard of the matter until one day, several months after the court case, an Edinburgh lawyer came with a warning. He had just come back from London on business and whilst there had bumped into Chiesly who was also doing some work down south.

He informed Lockhart that Chiesly still carried that fury which he had unleashed in court and was actually making threats against the judge. It is said that Lockhart took this more seriously and was on his guard for the eventual return of Chiesly to Edinburgh.

Chiesly even sent a threatening letter, described by one as a "counter offer to this liberal award" that Lockhart had granted, In it he wrote that he "desir'd a speedy remedie, else he would attack him either in kirk, or mercat." as he demanded the maintenance payments be scrapped.

Soon their paths were indeed destined to cross again with dramatic consequences.

The story moves forward to the following year. Sunday March 31st 1689 to be precise and it was Easter Sunday with many of the inhabitants of the Old Town gathered in the High Kirk of St Giles in the heart of the Royal Mile to mark the occasion.

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The High Kirk of St Giles

The High Kirk of St Giles

When the service ended, the judge left with the rest of the worshippers, down the steps of the Kirk and across the setts of the Royal Mile crossing the High Street section and onto the Lawnmarket where he lived.

He was accompanied by his cousins John Lockhart (Lord Castlehill) and Daniel Lockhart. Chiesly followed closely behind, stalking his intended victim and ready to satisfy his lust for vengeance.

It has been said that outside the kirk, a strange man approached the group and tipped his hat in greeting as he passed. Sir George commented to John and Daniel that he thought he recognised him but couldn’t quite place the face. He also got a feeling that he was being followed. He looked back but saw nothing

Therefore he had no real inkling of what was about to happen as he strolled back home along the busy Lawnmarket. He reached the entrance of Old Bank’s Close where he lived and bidding farewell to John and Daniel he continued down the narrow lane to the gates of his house. Chiesly followed, quickly but quietly, gaining on the judge.


Just as Lockhart was about to open up the gate he beckoned Daniel back to approach him about a matter. But Chiesly got there first and made his final approach. He brushed past Daniel, walked right up behind the judge and without any warning drew a pistol from underneath his clothes. There were no words exchanged, no confrontation as Chiesly, coldly and callously, opened fire with a cowardly shot in the back.

The judge fell to the ground, mortally wounded. He called out to his cousin "Hold me, Daniel, hold me."

But Chiesly, rather than running away or even quietly and furtively making his escape, stayed where he was. He stood his ground over the prostrate figure of Lockhart even as a crowd gathered, summoned by the loud crack of the gun discharging.

Chiesly made no attempt to flee or fight himself out of trouble. Instead he shouted to the onlookers "I have taught the President how to do justice!". proud of what he had just done. The ailing Lockhart was carried into his home but died quickly of his wounds.

Chiesly was arrested by the City Guards and taken away to the Tolbooth Jail for questioning, investigation and 'severe' interrogation'. In other words he was tortured. The classic instruments of thumbscrews were applied to crush his fingers, and 'booties' to compress his legs.

The latter were strips of cowhide, soaked in water, wrapped around the ankle and tied with rope. Then, when the hide started to dry it shrunk and crushed the leg. Not enough to break the bone but enough to cause enormous pain and damage to the skin and soft tissue underneath. Pus would even ooze out of the leg.

But Chiesly was not tortured to extract a confession to the crime he had just committed. That was not necessary as he had already publicly admitted to it in front of dozens of witnesses in broad daylight. He was tortured because the authorities just didn't believe that he had acted alone and purely for personal motives.

Because Sir George Lockhart was such a high-ranking and notable figure in legal circles and public life it was strongly suspected that Chiesly was part of a political conspiracy to kill Lockhart.

It was thought that he was only the hired gun paid by some unknown and shadowy but influential figures in Scottish society who wanted rid of the judge. So torture was used “for discovering if ther were any accomplices, advysers, or assisters to him in that horrid and most inhumane act"

And so they wanted to get names from Chiesly, they wanted him to reveal who were his co-conspirators, who were his paymasters and why did they employ him to be their assassin. They didn't believe Chiesly's claims that he was a lone-gunman and had acted alone. Therefore they cruelly inflicted grievous and unyielding punishments on his being to extract those names.

However, eventually the torturers of Chiesly and the city authorities were satisfied that the accused had killed Lockhart on his own for no other reason than revenge. A crime of passion by a ruthless and violent man.


He was found guilty and accordingly sentenced to death for the crime at his trial the very next day. Justice was swift in those times and the execution was also quickly scheduled for that Wednesday 3rd April.

But before he was strung up he was subjected to an extra special penalty at the Mercat Cross next to the Tolbooth on the Royal Mile. His right hand was chopped off and held up to the cheers of the crowd.


But it was also a vivid reminder for anyone else that wished to transgress the law and how they might be dealt with if they did. The hand was the bodily instrument that pulled the trigger.

Poetic justice indeed. And to further embellish the gruesome symbolism his pistol, the murder weapon, was attached to a chain and hung around his neck.

He was then transported north to the usual place of execution. He was hung by the noose on the scaffold at the Gallowlee on the road to Leith.


After the hanging Chiesly's body was also placed on display for the populace to see and again for them to comprehend the brutal consequences of crime in 17th Century Edinburgh. Transgressors would be dealt with the full force of the law.

The corpse of John Chiesly was mounted onto the West Port gate of the city with the chain and pistol around the neck and it remained there for three days.

However, early one morning soon after, the local people awoke to find that it had gone. Disappeared in the night and never to be seen again.

Or so they thought.

Chiesly's notoriety continued beyond the grave as reports came in from Edinburgh citizens of strange occurrences in the Lawnmarket, the scene of the infamous murder. People walking in the street late at night, or in the evening quiet, swore that they heard footsteps following them along the street and in the closes.

They would turn around only to see nothing behind them or anyone in sight in their vicinity. People also claimed to have heard his disembodied voice laughing and screaming in the dark confines of the closes and courtyards

Even more dramatically some poor unfortunates were startled by the sound of gunfire echoing around the high walls of the tenements and claustrophobic enclosures.

The clear and distinctive sound of the crack of a pistol caused alarm but again no sign of anyone around the area. The people of the Royal Mile were convinced that Chiesly was haunting them in another furious act of spectral revenge from the afterlife.

But it was not only the Royal MIle where Chiesly was causing mischief and fear. Over in his old village of Dalry the local people said that his ghost was not only heard but seen.

Sightings of him strolling along the street, or dragging his crippled legs, in the dead of night became part of the folklore and the legend of Chiesly, or as he was now known 'Johnny One-Arm', grew as he came back from the grave.

He became the local bogey-man as his spiritual return offered a golden opportunity for mothers to keep their insubordinate children in line. If the kids wouldn't listen to mother or father and continued to misbehave then a quick threat that "Johnny One-Arm wull get ye!" could be enough to instill parental discipline.

But the story of Chiesly gradually dwindled with the passing of time and the fading of memory. With each generation the bogey-man stories had less effect and the ghostly sightings were no more. Until that is, one day, centuries later, Chiesly resurfaced, quite literally.

In 1965 a cottage in Dalry was undergoing renovation and refurbishment and part of the work was to rip out the old fireplace which still stood there after hundreds of years. When the workmen broke away the brickwork and lifted out the pieces of masonry they were shocked to discover a skeleton that had been concealed behind the fireplace.


Were these bones the mortal remains of Chiesly resting and hidden for so long? Taken down from the West Port and secreted away by friends or family back in 1689? It did seem so as the right hand was missing from the skeleton and if that wasn't enough proof there was another piece of even more compelling evidence.

Although now rusted and rotten the chain and pistol were still around the neck.

In an interesting coda to this story Sir George Lockhart was interred, as a tribute, in the Mackenzie family vault in the graveyard of the Greyfriars Kirk in Candlemaker Row less than half a mile south of the Royal Mile.

The vault is the home of the Mackenzie Poltergeist and the graveyard is reputed to be one of the most haunted places on earth.

But that's another story.

The Mackenzie Vault in Greyfriars  graveyard.

The Mackenzie Vault in Greyfriars graveyard.

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