Major Thomas Weir
In 1670, a 71-year-old man fell sick in the West Bow, Edinburgh. His had been an eminent and successful life. Born to one of the oldest and most powerful families in Lanarkshire, the Weir-de-Veres, the old man had been a lieutenant in the anti-monarchy Puritan Army and later a major in Edinburgh. He had even been a signatory of the Solemn League and Covenant which promised martial aid to the Parliamentarians in exchange for England becoming a Puritan country during the English Civil War, and was a member of the Covenanters, the strictest sect of the already-austere Presbyterian Church.
What happened next shocked everyone. At a Covenanters meeting that year, the old man confessed, under no duress, to having committed incest with his sister and stepdaughter, bestiality, worshipping Satan, and to have practiced black magic. That man’s name was Major Thomas Weir, perhaps Edinburgh’s most infamous ever resident. His sister, Jean, was questioned after Weir’s sanity had been established, and she, too, willingly corroborated her brother’s statements. She related that she and her brother had been driven by a stranger in a fiery coach to Dalkeith, where the devil gave them supernatural powers, including Weir’s famous magic staff.
The staff had a carved human head on top of it, and Jean warned that her brother’s power lay in the implement, which he was known to carry with him around the city. They were hurriedly brought to trial, where it was recalled that a woman had once claimed to have seen the Major having sex with a horse in a field near the city. No defence lawyer could be found for the siblings, who calmly asserted the truth of all that they had confessed. Both were found guilty, and hanged, the Major’s body burned to ashes for good measure.
Even today the case is staggering, and the thought of two elderly people suffering such a fate is terribly sad. As modern historians, we perhaps share the Puritan assembly’s initial incredulity about the charges and fear that the Major was suffering from mental illness, but this does not explain his sister’s willing complicity in the confession (unless she was tortured, which we cannot rule out). Whether claims of meeting the devil are a further instance of mental illness depends upon one’s religious beliefs. Either way, Major Weir’s reputedly-haunted former home was pulled down in 1830, having been abandoned for centuries.