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Famous Ghosts of Edinburgh. The Wizard of the West Bow.

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Victoria Terrace in the West Bow of Edinburgh

Victoria Terrace in the West Bow of Edinburgh

Of all the many celebrated tales of folklore in the Old Town of Edinburgh one of the most bizarre and entertaining ghost stories of Scotland's capital concerns the strange happenings surrounding a 17th Century gentleman by the name of Major Thomas Weir or, as he posthumously became known, the 'Wizard of the West Bow'.

Buildings of the old West Bow

Buildings of the old West Bow

His title came from the West Bow area which is the name given in the city to the area of Victoria Street and Victoria Terrace just below the high end of the famous Royal Mile and it's where Major Weir lived towards the end of his life in the 1660s.

The puritanical streak of heavenly light.

By then, in retirement, he was known as 'Major' because he had once been in charge of the City Guard, a duty conferred upon him in 1650 which was the culmination of a long and distinguished military career.To be the city commander was a very important and prestigious position in a city prone to attack in those unsettled times.

In his old age, when he had laid down his arms, Major Weir continued his faithful following of a strict Presbyterian sect and was held in high regard for his fervour and piety, his inspirational knowledge of the bible and his passion for the scriptures.

The Puritan

The Puritan

The picture then is painted of a fine upstanding citizen of great repute and respect among the people- A a religious man, a good man, a godly worshipper who was consequently known as the 'Bowhead Saint' among his admirers.

But all was not as it seemed with Major Weir.

He regularly held meetings at his home in the West Bow when local people would come and hear him expound on religious matters and marvel at his deep faith and expansive knowledge of the Scottish church and religion.

Major Weir's house.

Major Weir's house.

The revelations bring the final chapter.

So, it must have been a shock when his gatherings took a sensational and unexpected turn. Instead of proclaiming the great words and work of the apostles and the miracles of Christ, Major Weir astounded his audience with public confessions of evil deeds that he had committed. Terrible acts that he had perpetrated all his life unbeknownst to others..

Instead of living a life of piety, he had been living a lie, instead of being a righteous beacon of goodness, he was an evil demon of depravity and black magic. In full and utterly frank confessions, suffering an illness in his old age, Major Weir was laying bare his soul to reveal his secret dealings in the black arts, sorcery and witchcraft.

At first the Lord Provost, Sir Andrew Ramsay, when informed of these bizarre admissions, refused to take them seriously and dismissed them as the rantings of an old man. Medical intervention even took place to examine the Major.

But the more he was ignored, the worse Major Weir's self-injurious allegations became. He added further startling exposés that he had fornicated with animals throughout his life and had even enjoyed carnal entwines with his own sister.

Incarceration for interrogation.

Eventually this became just too much for the authorities to turn a blind eye and Major Weir was taken in for questioning, as was his sister Jean Weir who lived with him. They were both held in the Tollbooth Jail in the Royal Mile.

However far from defending her brother Jean not only corroborated everything he said but went even further and piled on more damning testimony. She claimed that Major Weir's walking stick, made of oak with a hand-carved handle, was enchanted and even able to move around on its own accord. It was a gift from the Devil and capable of a malevolent power.

The good citizenry do their duty

When news of this revelation spilled onto the streets of Edinburgh witnesses came forward to say they had actually seen it, they had witnessed it on the Royal Mile. Major Weir had been seen strolling along the road with his walking stick ambling along in front of him all on it's own.

Jean then revealed the most spectacular of her brother's supernatural deeds. Once, in the stillness of a dark Edinburgh night, a ghostly, fiery carriage careered down from the Royal Mile into the West Bow.

Pulled by the combined forces of a phalanx of phantom horses it drew up outside Major Weir's home whereupon he came strolling out and entered the coach. It then carried him away down the West Bow, across the Grassmarket and all the way to the country village of old Dalkeith.

The fiery coach and horses

The fiery coach and horses

Incredibly, when news of this event reached the ears of the Edinburgh citizenry, people came forward to proclaim that they had seen the whole thing. Galloping horses and a ball of fire. The evidence was mounting, the eye-witnesses were clamoring and Major Weir's fate was assured.

Signed, sealed and delivered.

He was charged, put on trial and found guilty. The crimes that condemned him were not the supernatural and demonic utterances of an old man who was perhaps ill, perhaps suffering from dementia. It was the bestiality and the incest that consigned him to the ultimate legal sanction.

The sentence was death. For Jean the same conclusion awaited her as she was given the same mortal adjudication.

But not the same death. Jean Weir was hung from the noose in the Grassmarket, publicly in front of thousands of bloodthirsty spectators at this carnival of death.

Hanging was the traditional method and the Grassmarket the usual place of execution for common criminals in the 17th Century. But in a break from the customary showpiece Jean Weir frenetically ripped off her clothes in a last defiant act of depravity in front of the astounded onlookers.

The modern Grassmarket and Edinburgh Castle

The modern Grassmarket and Edinburgh Castle

But Major Weir was no ordinary criminal, his crimes were revolting, occult and his punishment was cruel. As was befitting the end for anyone involved in witchcraft in Scotland he was taken to the pyre of the stake at the Gallowlee.

This was on the road from Edinburgh to the port of Leith (Nowadays the site of the execution is in modern Edinburgh on Leith Walk, near Pilrig Church) There he was asked to repent his sins and beg forgiveness to perhaps help save his blackened soul.

Pilrig Church in Leith Walk.

Pilrig Church in Leith Walk.

He is said to have replied:

"Let me alone, I will not! I have lived as a beast and I must die as beast"

And so he did. In the manner of witch executions in Scotland he was strangled to death and then his body tied to the stake and burned. He was immolated to cleanse his soul and rid him of the evil that had insidiously absorbed his being when he was alive.

His 'haunted' walking stick was also thrown into the fire and, again, witnesses claimed to have seen it wriggle and writhe like a serpent in its final throes as it was consumed by the flames.

The return of the major.

But that was not the end of Major Weir it seems.

If we are to believe the local folklore of the city because, after his execution, people say they saw his ghostly figure haunt the West Bow and from the house came flashes of light, strange noises and music as well as terrifying human figures gazing out from the windows of the vacant house

ghosts-of-edinburgh-the-wizard-of-the-west-bow

It was no surprise that the house in which he had lived in the West Bow lay empty for over a century. Such was the fear among the local people that no-one would dare stay in it.

That was until 1780 when a couple rented it the property against better advice. An ex-soldier named William Patullo and his wife moved in.

They lasted one night.

During that night as the story goes, lying in bed, they heard a 'clopping' sound and rising up from their slumbers they sat staring into the eyes of the ghostly figure of a calf with its forelegs resting on the foot of their bed.

The sound they had heard came from it's hooves, presumably a recently diseased extra-large portion of veal from the cattle-droving business of the nearby Grassmarket. The Patullos fled the house and never went back.

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

And so the haunted house remained empty until 1830 when Major Weir's old home was torn down and replaced with a new building. Finally this marked the demise of the ghost of Major Weir.

Such was his fame even then that the celebrated author Sir Walter Scott pronounced publicly that " The Wizard of the West Bow" was no more and the dastardly legend was laid to rest.

"At the time I am writing, this last fortress of superstitious renown is in the course of being destroyed." he wrote.

A new revelation, a confession revealed

However in 2014 an academic from Cardiff University named Dr Jan Bondeson arrived in Edinburgh to do some field research into the historic tales of folklore from Edinburgh's past.

On the site of Major Weir's old home stands the 19th Century structure which now houses the Quaker Meeting House on Victoria Terrace. Dr Bondeson visited the premises and examined the building as part of his academic work.

He made an astonishing discovery.

ghosts-of-edinburgh-the-wizard-of-the-west-bow

He found out that the old house of Major Weir had not actually been completely demolished in the 19th Century reconstruction, Instead of being razed to the ground and pulverised into dust, Dr Bondeson found that parts of the structure of the old house remained. The later building had only been built around it and incorporated large sections of the stonework into its design.

It was then that the Quakers broke their silence and revealed something they had kept hidden. A ghost had indeed been seen inside the building. In the 21st Century.

During a quiet, dark evening the ghostly apparition of an elderly gentleman was witnessed walking the floors of the Quaker Meeting House. The description of the clothing he wore matched the dress-wear typical of that period of the late 17th Century when Major Weir had lived.

This was too good for the Press to resist and it made the headlines in the news.

Sensational headlines in a national newspaper

Sensational headlines in a national newspaper

In the words of Anthony Buxton, manager of the Quaker Meeting House,

"...... one of my staff some years ago said he had seen Weir walk through the wall. If Dr Bondeson is right, Weir’s house is in our toilet, which seems appropriate."

So it appears, quite literally, that the 'Wizard of the West Bow' is still with us.

The celebrities and superstars of modern magic.

Today his story still enthralls and excites the many tourists on the trail around the streets and shadowy closes of old Edinburgh and his presence prevails among the believers.

However, nowadays he is not alone as a new generation has arrived and he has a competitor in the wizardry stakes. A certain Harry Potter, the creation of JK Rowling, who as a resident of Edinburgh wrote the now monumentally successful stories in the coffee shops of the city.

In fact it is said that the West Bow gave her the inspiration to create Diagon Alley, the fictitious street of peculiar, idiosyncratic shops in the Harry Potter tales.

Therefore, as you might expect, you can find all the esoteric accoutrements and exotic paraphernalia of the magical schoolboy right there in the souvenir shops of the West Bow.

It seem Major Weir has a young sorcerer's apprentice to continue his good work.

The lower West Bow at the Grassmarket

The lower West Bow at the Grassmarket