The city’s historic West Bow is situated at the foot of Victoria Street.
Legend has it that the street’s unusual name (Bow) evolved from ancient times when a bowman could reach the area from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle with a well placed arrow. The property overlooks the ancient street, which predates Mary Queen of Scots, and was originally part of a four-storey dwelling house built around 1720 AD, replacing much older buildings on the same site.
The whole of the south side of the Grassmarket had been pulled down and rebuilt several times before 1879, among the oldest buildings being those of the Temple Tenements and the Greyfriars Monastery. The Temple tenements, dating from the 16th century, had formerly been the property of the Knights Templar and subsequently the Knights of St John, following the dissolution of the former order, and were distinguished by having iron crosses on their fronts or gables, one of these crosses still being visible in 1834.
The Temple Close was a narrow close that passed beneath the tenements, but all had been entirely swept away by 1870. Uberior House, built as offices for the Bank of Scotland, now the Apex City Hotel, currently occupies this site. The Knights also had premises at the foot of the West Bow.
Major Thomas Weir began his adult life in the Covenanter Army, a force formed to maintain the independence of the Presbyterians from the Catholic Church.
He even spent time fighting in Cromwell’s Puritan army to suppress Catholicism in Ireland. When he retired from army life, he moved to Edinburgh with his sister Jean and took up the position of captain of the town guard.
The Covenant was a crown-sanctioned concordance that set Presbyterianism as the official religion of Scotland, thus declaring that God spoke to all people individually. Subsequently, Catholics became a particular target, since in accordance with their faith the word of God was delivered through the Pope.
As a veteran of the Covenanter Army, Weir maintained the principles of the Covenant in his civilian life and preached them to all who would listen.
His hatred of all priests and ministers was such that he would refuse to even acknowledge their existence, tipping his hat over his eyes as a sign of contempt. The strength of his convictions led to his nickname of Angelic Thomas, as well as becoming leader of the Bowhead Saints, a pious collection of Covenanters living on and around the West Bow.
Such was Weir’s prominence in the Presbyterian community that “if four met together, be sure Major Weir was one.” As well as the strength of his convictions and enthusiasm in vocalising them, his appearance also lent itself to his notoriety. He was a tall man in a time when malnutrition inhibited the growth of most commoners and strode around town in a black cloak carrying a long thornwood staff carved with the heads of satyrs.
In the spring of 1670 he stood before a crowd, gathered to hear him deliver one of his regular denouncements of all he considered unholy. Instead, he gave a lengthy and somewhat graphic condemnation of himself, detailing such crimes as bestiality and incest with his sister.
Additionally, he confessed to being a witch and having made a pact with the devil in return for the authority and adoration he enjoyed from the general populace, as well as being able to carry on committing the aforementioned perverse carnality without consequence. He finally declared “I have not told you the hundredth part of what I am guilty of!” to the aghast masses before collapsing in front of them.
His friends quickly disseminated a story that he was severely ill to explain away the dramatic oratory and did their best to stop news of the event reaching outside the close-knit circle of Presbyterians. However, despite their efforts a minister discovered what had happened and took it to Sir Andrew Ramsay, Edinburgh’s Lord Provost. However, Ramsay placed no credulity in the tale, believing “human nature incapable of such horrid crimes” and ordered Weir to be examined by doctors and treated for a “distempered brain.” But contrary to expectations, Ramsay’s doctors could found no evidence of illness, so instead the leaders of the city’s Presbyterian churches were summoned to ascertain his guild or innocence on spiritual grounds. With no other basis for their findings than his unforced confession, he was proclaimed guilty.
No longer able to contain the story, Ramsay sent the town guard to arrest their former captain as well as his sister, who through implication in Weir’s confession was deemed just as guilty. It seemed that whatever malady affected Weir had also taken root in Jean, as when the guards arrived she wasted no time in condemning her brother and demanding that they remove his staff, claiming it to be the font of much of his power.
Once incarcerated, Jean’s claims grew more detailed and fanciful. Apparently, she was the one who had introduced Weir to witchcraft, having inherited her power from her mother. Expanding on her claims about Weir’s staff, she declared it to be a gift from the devil when he made the pact, granted instead of an animal familiar on account of being less conspicuous. He could command the rod to perform any task he wished of it and his ownership of it was the source of his charisma and talent for public speaking. Pointing out that the image of the head of a satyr (a mythological man-goat hybrid) bears a striking resemblance to that of the devil served to add weight to her ravings.
The tales spiralled in scale before reaching a zenith of Jean claiming that she and Weir had been taken to Musselburgh in a black coach pulled by six flaming horses. There they had met the devil who gave them the news of the defeat of the Engagers (a faction of the Covenanter Army) and the English Royalists by Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. Weir had passed on this information on his return to Edinburgh, and his somehow being aware of it several days before the news broke was originally seen proof of his exalted holiness. Presented in this different light, it became further evidence of his exploits into black magic.
When the unholy pair were put on trial they stood alone, unsurprising on account of the alleged crimes and people’s fear of guilt by association, as well as the Weirs’s lack of interest in defending themselves. Many people came forward to give evidence heard at the Major’s confession and after the accused repeated their original confessions they were immediately found guilty and sentenced to death.
Two days later Weir was taken to the execution site at the foot of Calton Hill, where we was to be burned at the stake. When the priests present began praying for his soul, he swiftly bid them to stop. “I have lived as a beast and I must die as a beast,” he proclaimed. As an act of mercy, he was strangled before the fire was lit, but reports stated that as soon as the flames touched him, his body signified its “impurity” with a tumultuous display.
Although this was taken to be the evil being purged from Weir’s body, it could also be interpreted as the strangling only leaving him unconscious and that he ended up being burned alive. The notorious staff was tossed into the flames beside him where it “twisted like a serpent,” granting final proof of its cursed origin.
Prior to her execution the next day, Jean had sword that she would “die with all the shame she could.” As she was led to the hangman’s noose at Grassmarket she started tearing off her clothes and would have carried on had the bailiff not ordered her to be restrained. Before she could be lifted up to her short drop she managed to wriggle her head between two of the ladder’s steps and jam it in place, delaying proceedings while she was pulled free. Eventually she was forced under control and she took her final plunge.
However, the demise of Thomas and Jean Weir only signalled the beginning of the fallout. Long after their deaths, their house seemingly remained a focal point for supernatural occurrences. Reports of ghostly figures, eldritch torchlight and spectral gatherings were commonplace, as were sightings of the Major’s infamous staff floating unaccompanied down the street and of the coach that bore the Weirs to the meeting with the devil. Even the Major himself was occasionally glimpsed riding upon a headless horse and shrouded in infernal flame.
Anyone brave enough to live in the house could never tolerate the inexplicable visions for long; the only proper use the building got was as a shop or storehouse and even then was never occupied overnight. The phantasms appeared relentlessly for over two hundred years, until the building was finally demolished and replaced by those that stand there today. Weir, his staff, and his sister vanished without a trance and have never been seen since.
Precisely what prompted Major Weir to make his ill-fated confession on that spring morning was never truly explained. What is clear is that he was over 70 years old at the time, making it possible that he and his sister were suffering from dementia. It’s also possible that he may have been truly guilty of some of the crimes he confessed to, though no evidence exists to establish the truth one way or the other.