The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History

Tim Flight - June 11, 2018

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
West Bow: Midnight by A.A. Ritchie, a depiction of Major Thomas Weir’s flaming coach, Edinburgh, 1843. Urban Ghosts Media

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.

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
James VI tries the North Berwick Witches, from his Daemonologie , Scotland, 1597. The Scotsman

The North Berwick Witch Trials

In September 1589, a 14-year-old princess, Anne of Denmark, was eagerly preparing to travel from the Danish coast to Scotland. She had just been married, by proxy, to her long-term suitor, the 23-year-old King James VI of Scotland, and was reported by English spies to be delighted with the match. However, ferocious storms at sea saw her vessel, the Gideon, so badly damaged that it had to anchor in Oslo for repairs. When her sailors refused to make the crossing until Spring, her anxious new husband had to make the crossing himself, marrying her in the city on 23rd November.

Some would put the delay to their formal marriage as bad luck, but James blamed the storms on witchcraft, and so began the most notorious witch hunt in Scottish history. The first to be arrested was Geillis Duncan, who was known to practice healing, who under torture implicated three others in the plot to raise storms to kill the new queen through sorcery. In all, more than 100 witches from across Scotland were accused and tortured, some confessing more readily than others. James personally interrogated a stubborn old woman, Agnes Sampson, who refused to confess, and oversaw her horrific torture.

Sampson was completely shaved, stripped naked, and tied to her cell wall with a scold’s bridle (an iron muzzle enclosing the head). She was prevented from sleeping for days, and unsurprisingly then confessed to the 53 charges against her. Another who refused to confess was Dr. John Fian, who had his fingernails removed with pliers and iron pins pushed into his fingertips, his thumbs crushed in thumbscrews, and his legs broken in the boot. Fian also confessed to being a witch. Both had been implicated by Geillis Duncan, and were burned at the stake for their crimes with unnumbered others.

In 1597 James VI wrote a pamphlet on witchcraft called Daemonologie, making him the only king in history to be a published demonologist. In this work, James describes the nature of witchcraft, and how to discover witches, extract confessions, and the best way to execute those convicted. ‘The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaues of the Deuill, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved me (beloued reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine’, he explains in the Preface. Included in the first edition was a pamphlet detailing the North Berwick Witch Trials.

Daemonologie was an important treatise, second in importance only to the Malleus Maleficarum to witch finders. James later became King of England, and Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to win royal favour, basing the Weird Sisters on descriptions from Daemonologie. There were many other witch trials in Scotland besides the North Berwick Witch Trials, and it has been estimated that between 3 and 4, 000 people were executed between 1560 and 1707. All were tortured (or at least threatened with it) to extract their confession to ludicrous Satanic crimes, as instructed by James and the Malleus, before being executed, mostly by burning.

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
The Massacre of Glencoe by John Hamilton, Britain, 1883-86. Art UK

The Massacre of Glencoe

James VI’s grandson, James II of England and VII of Scotland, became king when his brother, Charles II, died childless. As a Catholic ruling a Protestant kingdom, he was wildly unpopular, and his policy of religious tolerance led to Protestant noblemen inviting his nephew, Prince William of Orange in the Netherlands, to invade and take the throne. William successfully deposed his uncle, but support for James from Catholics remained, and in Scotland this resulted in the Jacobite Movement, which aimed to win him the throne back. Inevitably, Jacobitism led to bloody civil war in Scotland, placing clan against clan.

The Jacobite Uprising of 1689-92 failed to reinstall the king. One family who had been heavily involved was Clan MacDonald. They lived high up in the mountains around Rannoch Moor, and had a reputation for thieving, arson, and general lawlessness. They were also suspected of being Catholics due to their Jacobitism. Clan Campbell had fought against the Jacobites in 1689-92, and held ancient grudges against the MacDonalds. Nevertheless, when Robert Campbell of Glenlyon arrived with 120 government soldiers at the MacDonald homestead at Glencoe in January 1692, Highland hospitality dictated that he and his men were warmly welcomed and accommodated.

On 13th February, the Campbells suddenly turned on their hosts, massacring 38 members of Clan MacDonald in their homes as they slept. The foul weather and soldiers surrounding the escape routes from Glencoe meant that flight was impossible. When news broke of the act, Scotland was appalled by the abuse of hospitality and cowardly nature of the massacre. This led to a resurgence in Jacobite support, as the Campbells were acting under direct orders from the pro-English Scottish Government. Once again, the neighbours that God warned Scotland about had struck. Some have never forgiven Clan Campbell to this day.

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745 by David Morier, a depiction of the Battle of Culloden, Edinburgh, c.1745-85. Wikimedia Commons

Culloden Moor

Jacobitism did not end with the death of James II. By the mid-18th Century, James’s grandson, Charles Edward Stuart, better known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ or ‘The Young Pretender’, was the candidate to oust the House of Orange from the throne of England and Scotland. He arrived in Scotland in July 1745, and in the following September defeated the sole government army in Scotland at the Battle of Prestonpans. He then marched South to invade England, getting as far as Derbyshire in the East Midlands before he was forced to retreat to Scotland due to a lack of support.

King George II of England sent his son, the Duke of Cumberland, in pursuit of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite Army, and the rebel army was harried by the English and terribly fatigued by the time that the two sides met at Culloden, near Inverness, in April 1746. 7, 000 weary Jacobites met 8, 000 well-rested Englishmen with superior fire power. The Jacobite line was severely stretched, and for one reason or another the MacDonald regiment did not follow orders, leaving it skewed. Cannon, muskets, and guns cut through the beleaguered Jacobite line for the first half an hour.

At last, Charlie ordered his men to charge the English. Running through marshy ground, the Jacobite soldiers were sitting ducks for the English firearms. Those that did reach the English frontline were bayoneted en masse, and finally the decision was made to flee. Only 300 of the Duke of Cumberland’s men were slain, with around 2, 000 Jacobites dying on the battlefield. Culloden marked the end of the Jacobite Uprising, with those who escaped hunted down and killed in the period that followed, and Bonnie Prince Charlie making good his escape to France, where he enjoyed numerous love affairs.

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
Romantic ruins of abandoned crofts such as this one are all that remain of many farming communities in Scotland after the Highland Clearances. Urban Ghosts Media

The Highland Clearances

The aftermath of the Battle of Culloden was the wholesale destruction of the way of life in the Scottish Highlands. Highlanders were no longer allowed to wear their clan’s tartan, meet in public, or bear arms. The 1747 Act of Proscription even forbade teaching Gaelic and playing the bagpipes (a small mercy, some would argue). Though the act was repealed in 1782, when the English government felt safe from Jacobite sentiments, by that time an even graver threat to the old Highland way of life had emerged: the Highland Clearances, the violent eviction of families from their homes.

The primary cause of the clearances was the Agricultural Revolution, which had happened long before in other areas of Britain. Under this, the former system of individuals farming their livestock on common strips of land maintained by the community was replaced with huge areas of privately-owned farmland being enclosed to run enormous agricultural enterprises. Cattle, the traditional livestock of the Highlands, were replaced with the more profitable sheep, and different crops were grown on a huge scale for export. To achieve this, the locals had to be ousted by the landowners: effectively, landlords were valuing sheep above people.

The tenants in the Highlands, with few rental rights, were understandably furious about being forcibly ejected from areas that their families had farmed for centuries. This often led to violent clashes, as in the notorious clearance of Sutherland between 1811 and 1821. Riots could not dissuade the Countess of Sutherland from replacing her tenants with sheep, and many families were simply burned out of their homes or chased with dogs when they refused to leave. Whilst some Highlanders were forced to emigrate, mostly to America, many who stayed followed suit anyway when famine broke out in their meagre homesteads.

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
Deacon Brodie, engraving by John Kay, from Old & New Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 1890. Science Source

Deacon Brodie

William Brodie was a respected man about town in late-18th-century Edinburgh. He was a cabinet maker and locksmith, and also served as a deacon of a trade guild and as a city councillor. What people didn’t know was that Brodie was also a degenerate gambler who broke into houses partly to pay for his debts, and partly for the sheer fun of it. Like Major Thomas Weir (possibly) before him, Brodie lived a successful double-life for many years, but was caught after an audacious attempted robbery failed in 1788, shocking the city of Edinburgh to its very core.

Part of Brodie’s effective camouflage came from his ancestry. He was the son of a successful businessman, and grandson to 2 prominent lawyers, and thus had a misleadingly-bourgeois reputation. Being a cabinet maker and locksmith was also vital. Brodie would design and build furniture for his wealthy clients, giving him intimate knowledge of where valuables could be stored, and was also the city’s premier locksmith, which meant that he could make wax impressions of keys, get duplicates made, and rob his unsuspecting customers. As well as his gambling debts, Brodie also had 2 mistresses and 5 children to support.

Though it is thought that his first robbery was of £800 from a bank in 1768, Brodie’s criminal career only really took off in summer 1786 when he formed a gang with 2 other thieves to launch a campaign against businesses and the city’s richest denizens. Brodie’s downfall came when he bungled the armed robbery of the Excise Office in Edinburgh. His accomplices were bribed to give him up, and Brodie was tracked down hiding in the Netherlands. A staggering 40, 000 people turned out to see him hanged in October 1788; testament to a bloodthirsty and punitive age.

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
Burke and Hare, engraving taken at their trial in 1828, Edinburgh, 1829. Daily Record

Burke and Hare

In the early 19th Century, Edinburgh was at the forefront of anatomical research and discovery. It was home to several prominent anatomists, including Alexander Monro and Robert Knox, who lectured on the subject to students, leading to massive advances in surgery and making the study of anatomy a recognised scientific discipline. Unfortunately, teaching anatomy required a good supply of dead bodies, for which Scottish law permitted the bodies of prisoners, suicides, and orphans to be used. Supply could not meet demand, however, and so ‘resurrection men’ illicitly dug up cadavers and sold them to the anatomists on the black market.

The ‘resurrection men’ soon realised that fresher bodies commanded a bigger price, and so newly-buried bodies had to be guarded by the deceased’s relatives. This confluence of circumstances led 2 men involved in the trade, William Burke and William Hare, to resort to murdering people to provide fresh, lucrative corpses to the (probably unsuspecting) Robert Knox. They entered the trade by accident, when one of Hare’s tenants died owing him rent, and his body was sold to settle the debt. Thus they began luring poor and vulnerable people to Hare’s lodging house, where they were usually murdered by suffocation.

Over their 10-month career, Burke and Hare murdered 16 people, selling them for up to £10 to Knox. They were caught when 2 legitimate lodgers, Ann and James Gray, were paid to stay away for a night (while a murder took place). When they returned the next morning, Hare would not let them collect their belongings, and their suspicions led them to find the concealed body of the pair’s final victim later that night. Attempts to bribe the Grays failed when the lodgers confronted their landlords, and Burke and Hare, along with their complicit spouses, were arrested in November 1828.

Knox’s laboratory was searched, and the four accused blamed one another. Their trial began on Christmas Eve, and by the end of Christmas Day the jury had found Burke guilty of murder, with the other 3 released due to insufficient evidence. 25, 000 people turned out to see Burke hanged at Lawnmarket on 31st January 1829. Hare escaped to England, and though Knox was cleared of any complicity, he resigned under pressure from his position of curator of the College of Surgeons’ Museum. Burke’s body was, fittingly, donated to science, and his skeleton remains displayed at the Edinburgh Medical School.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Baxter, Colin, and C.J. Tabraham. Scottish History. Edinburgh: Lomond Books, 1998.

James I. Daemonologie. New York: Da Capo Press, 1969.

Prebble, John. The Highland Clearances. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

Prebble, John. The Lion in the North. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

Ritchie, William K. Mary Queen of Scots. Harlow: Longman, 1990.

Tacitus. Agricola and Germania. Trans. by James Rives. London: Penguin, 2010.

Wallace, Margaret. William Wallace: Champion of Scotland. Musselburgh: Goblinshead, 1999.