Scotland

The Myth of the Wizard of West Bow by M J Steel Collins

The story of Major Thomas Weir, known also as the Wizard of West Bow or the De’il of West Bow, is one of Scotland’s most famous supernatural legends. Strip back the sensationalist tales of ghostly satanic parties, and what you have is a tragic story of insanity and sexual abuse that surely has to be one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in Scottish history. However, it is a story that needs to be told in order to break down the mythology that obscures the injustice, something all too common with Scotland’s mythical witch trials. What follows comes with a trigger warning.

Major Thomas Weir was a strict Covenanter and Presbyterian. He was born around about 1599 or 1600 in Carluke, Lanarkshire. His parents were the Laird of Kirkton, also called Thomas Weir, and Lady Jean Somerville. It is rumoured that his mother was clairvoyant. Major Weir had quite a colourful career in the anti-Royalist Scots army; he served as a Lieutenant in Ulster during the 1641 Irish Rebellion, and in 1643, was a signatory on the Solemn League and Covenant. This was a treaty between the English Parliament (at the time amidst the thralls of Oliver Cromwell), and Scotland, promising to protect reformed religion, i.e. Presbyterianism, in Scotland and to reform religion in England and Ireland, which were distinctly not Presbyterian.

In 1650, Weir became a Major and put in charge of the Edinburgh Town Guard. He gained some notoriety for mistreating James Graham, the First Marquis of Montrose, when he was brought back to Edinburgh for execution during the Covenanting wars. Initially head of the Covenanters army, with whom Major Weir served, Montrose later switched sides to the Royalists, and was captured for his troubles. Over the years, Major Weir obtained a reputation for being a staunch Calvinist and adherent of Presbyterianism. He was known as one of the Bowhead Saints, the term applied to the particularly devout Presbyterians living in Edinburgh’s West Bow, where Major Weir lived with his unmarried sister Jean Weir, better known as Grizel. The Major was well known for his powerful prayers, which usually attracted visitors to his house. Described by Rev Frazer of Wardlaw in Divine Providences (1670), as a tall man who always looked to the ground, Weir was of a dark complexion and constantly wore a dark cloak. He never went anywhere without his large black staff, which, it is noted he always gripped when conducting prayers.

It was during one of those prayer meetings in 1670 that Major Weir scandalized his Presbyterian brethren with a startling confession. A few days prior, one of Edinburgh’s respectable ladies had a terrifying experience when walking by the Weir house with her maid on their way home from helping a relative in labour at Castlehill. It was around about midnight, and the maid was lighting the way with a lantern. Reaching West Bow, they saw three women through a window, laughing, shouting and applauding – most unusual. Then, as they passed the Weir’s door, the bizarre figure of a tall woman, twice the height of a regular woman, emerged before them, cackling and writhing violently. The weird entity remained one step ahead of the mistress and her maid. As they passed by the Stinking Close, real name Anderson’s Close, the being ducked down it. Despite her fear, the woman stopped her maid and looked down the Close. The thin alley was lit up with torches and resounded with eerie laughter. No lights were discerned in the houses themselves. Thoroughly terrified, the two women ran home and told their bizarre story. The next day, their steps were retraced and the house from which the strange happenings seem to focus on was confirmed as Major Thomas Weir’s. The story was documented by George Sinclair in Satan’s Invisible World Discovered in 1685.

It’s unclear if this tale got back to Major Weir by time he confessed at the prayer meeting. However, it wasn’t dealings with the underworld he confessed to, but incest with his sister, bestiality and other ‘fornications’. Those who heard the confessions were keen to keep them a secret, lest they get out and tarnish the name of the Presbyterian Church. They managed this for several months, until a minister informed Andrew Ramsay, Lord Abbotsford, and the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Both thought that Major Weir had lost his senses, the Lord Provost reluctant to believe him, but eventually, Bailies were sent to West Bow, and the Major and his sister were arrested and taken to Edinburgh Tolbooth. It seems from a modern perspective, that the Lord Provost was right, and that Major Weir was suffering mental health problems. However, the confessions of Grizel, his sister put a new spin on the matter – and perhaps in our 21st century eyes make Major Weir appear less innocent.

At the Tolbooth, Grizel Weir corroborated her brother’s confessions, saying he had been ‘having relations’ with her from when she was 16, until she reached 50, and participating in other forms of sexual deviancy. In addition, she accused him of witchcraft, describing how in 1651, he had been picked up in a strange carriage and taken to Dalkeith. During the journey Major Weir was informed by a strange man via supernatural means that the Scots had lost the Battle of Worcester, which had taken place that day. In fact, Grizel began indicating her brother’s alleged satanic dealings when the Bailies arrived at the house. She showed them several packets of money, wrapped up in old cloths, and advised them to take Major Weir’s oft-used black staff, but keep it away from him. She claimed had been given to him by the Devil and was the source of the Major’s powers, which he would use against them.

More preternatural events were reported immediately after the Weirs were taken to the Tolbooth. The Bailies returned to West Bow and retired to a local tavern. They unwrapped the money from the ancient cloths, putting the cash together in one bag. The cloths were thrown on the fire, and apparently frolicked strangely in the flames. An unknown root found amongst the rags was also burned, except it made all kinds of strange popping noises before vanishing up the chimney with the sound akin to canon fire, scaring everyone in the bar. One of the Bailies was given the bagged money to store at home. As he placed the sack in a trunk, his wife heard a massive crash coming from the room he was in, and ran to check if he was still alive. Strangely, the man hadn’t heard a thing.

Meanwhile, the Weirs were put on trial. A variety of lurid stories came out. According to one legal historian, Lord Hailes, the Presbyterians were concerned that a charge of witchcraft be attached to one of their better known figures, and instead had the charges set at bestiality and fornication. Not like that would make any difference to protecting the ‘guid name’ of the Kirk. Both Weirs were found guilty and sentenced to death, being executed in 1670. They were kept at the leper colony of Greenside prior to their execution. It is said that Major Weir was told to pray for forgiveness, but he responded, “Let me alone – I will not – I have lived as a beast, I will die as a beast.” He is also alleged to have confessed to witchcraft and dealings with the devil shortly before he was executed. Major Weir was put to death by strangulation and burnt at Gallowlee. Another apocryphal tale is told of the event concerning the infamous black staff; it was apparently thrown on the flames with Weir’s body and began to turn strangely as it burned.

When Grizel was told of her brother’s execution, her response was that he was now with the devils. Her own execution occurred at Grassmarket, and was particularly poignant. She addressed the crowd, and then had to be restrained by the hangman as she tried to take her clothes off. Her only crime it seems is to have been sexually exploited by her brother.

Following the deaths of the Major and Grizel, the salacious ghostly tales spread thick and fast about Edinburgh. Much, if not all, were probably fabrications designed to enthral. The house on West Bow lay empty for over a century because it had a strong reputation of being haunted. Although it was known that nobody lived there, many people reported seeing lights in the windows, and the sound of revelry, replete with cackling, howling, and ‘the hum’ of Grizel’s evil spinning wheel. The ghost of Major Weir was supposed to issue from the small adjoining close, astride a headless black horse, and gallop off in a cloud of flame. Similarly, Thomas Stevenson, a lighthouse designer, and father of author Robert Louis Stevenson, told tales from his childhood where everyone in West Bow was awoken by the sound of the Devil’s carriage arriving outside the cursed house to take Major Weir and Grizel to Dalkeith. The staircase adjoining the house was reputed to be cursed by Major Weir, and people climbing up it would get the uncanny feeling that they were actually going downstairs.

Schoolboys would dare one another to go into the house and risk facing the Major’s ghost, as Sir Walter Scott recalled. Another story relates to the famous black staff that went everywhere with Major Weir. Apparently, it had an afterlife despite being burned, and could be seen tapping about the house, and also going on errands along the street, sometimes with a lantern hanging from its handle of carved heads. The story also expanded to somewhat spurious accounts of the stick being seen tapping along the pavement of its own accord in front of Major Weir during his lifetime as he went about his daily business.

Anyone trying to stay overnight in the haunted house wouldn’t make it to dawn. One ex-soldier, Patullo and his wife rented it, seemingly unaware of the stories. On their first night there, they were awoken by a strange light in the bedroom, which coalesced into the form of a calf. The apparition then put its forelegs on the bed and looked at them quizzically before fading away. The couple left the next morning. Strange stories continued to circulate about the house, until the remnants of it were destroyed during building work in the 1870s. Since then, the stories have entered the Scottish folkloric conscience.

With the passage of almost 350 years, we’re not exactly in a position to find out exactly what happened. One thing we can conclude is that something was drastically wrong to cause both the Major Weir and his sister to make such confessions. Modern retellings of the affair posit that both were mentally unstable. Speculation on the matter is fruitless. However, it seems to be apparent that Jean ‘Grizel’ Weir was executed for the ‘crime’ of being the victim of alleged sexual abuse. That, I believe, to be the true horror.

Main Sources:

Robertson, James (1996) Scottish Ghost Stories Sphere

Brown, Raymond Lamont (1994) Scottish Witchcraft Chambers Reference

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