The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History

Tim Flight - June 11, 2018

An old Scottish joke describes God’s creation of Scotland. ‘Scotland will have spectacular mountains, imposing glens, and stunning lochs. Plump salmon will swim through the rivers, thousands of deer will run wild through the hills and supply you with delicious venison, and the finest whiskey in the world will be distilled in Scotland. The nation will also provide some of the world’s greatest inventions and thinkers,’ God tells the first Scotsman. ‘That all sounds fantastic, but surely there must be something wrong with Scotland?’, returns the suspicious man. ‘Just wait until I tell you about the neighbours,’ replies God.

Today’s vision of Scotland, all shortbread and tartan, is largely the romantic invention of Sir Walter Scott and his Victorian admirers, including Queen Victoria herself. But behind this gentle veneer lie thousands of years of bloody battles, hardships, and oppression, which we should remember today. Although not all of Scotland’s historical misfortunes have been caused by ‘the neighbours’, meaning England, the joke above is certainly accurate about a great proportion of Scotland’s bloodiest tales. In this list, we will learn of battles, great heroes, murders, and conspiracies. You’ll never look at a kilt in the same way again.

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
Hadrian’s Wall, built to keep the Scottish out of Britannia. Hadrian’s Wall Country

Battle of Mons Graupius

Though Julius Caesar failed to conquer Britain in 55-54 BC, the Romans returned to finish the job in 43 AD under the instruction of the Emperor Claudius. Led by Aulus Plautius, the legions soon subdued south eastern England and, after overcoming the odd rebellion such as that of Boudica and the Iceni in 60-61 AD, began to press further north. In 77 AD, Gnaeus Julius Agricola became Governor of Britain, and moved his army into Scotland, then known as Caledonia. In 80 AD Agricola marched his troops as far as the Firth of Tay in central Scotland.

Agricola’s invasion was not welcomed by the locals, who launched guerrilla attacks on the forts he built in Caledonia. A serious confrontation between the two sides was inevitable, and in 83 or 84 AD, it finally came. Our source for the great battle that soon erupted is Agricola’s son in law, the Roman historian Tacitus (c.56-120 AD). It is thus not surprising that Tacitus gives a glowing account of the Governor in his biographical work known as The Agricola: ‘no fort on a site of his choosing was ever taken by storm, ever capitulated, or was ever abandoned’ (22).

According to Tacitus, the Roman Army numbered 8, 000 infantry and 3, 000 cavalry, with unnumbered legionaries waiting in reserve. Modern estimates give the size of the army as 17-30, 000 soldiers in total. The Scottish army outnumbered the Romans, and was mostly located on hilltops ‘in a manner calculated to impress and intimidate its enemy’ (35), and so Agricola took the gamble of spreading his men in a thin line to avoid being attacked from the flanks. The Caledonians were armed with long swords and small shields, with which they parried the missiles launched at them by the invaders.

Unfortunately for the Scots, their long swords were unsuitable for close-range combat, and so when the soldiers on lower ground launched a frontal attack they were mown down by blows from shield bosses and the short Roman gladius sword. Seeing this, the Caledonian army on the hilltops charged, but were intercepted by a cavalry unit, which ‘turned their spirited charge into a disorderly rout’ (37). The fleeing Scottish were overtaken and slain by the cavalry: ‘whole groups, though they had weapons in their hands, fled before inferior numbers’ (37). In total, 360 Romans and 10, 000 Scotsmen were killed.

Despite this one-sided victory, the Romans never did succeed in subduing all of Caledonia. Soon after the Battle of Mons Graupius, Agricola was recalled to Rome, and his unnamed successors seem to have been unable or unwilling to maintain dominance. Most likely, continuing resistance from the Scottish made war unattractive economically and politically. In 122 AD, the Emperor Hadrian ordered defensive walls (limites), to be erected, in order to mark the limit of the Roman Empire and to keep the Scottish out. Hadrian’s Wall ran 80 miles coast-to-coast, and symbolised the ultimate failure of the Caledonian conquest.

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
The Trial of William Wallace at Westminster, England, 1920s. The Society of William Wallace

William Wallace

Scotland’s greatest hero was a tall, strong, and courageous man, probably born in Paisley to Norman parents in 1270. Little is known of his life before his decisive appearance in 1297, when he ruled Scotland for a year, but this has merely fired the imaginations of spinners of myth. Most egregious of these myths is, undoubtedly, the anachronistic 1995 film Braveheart, starring the Australian actor Mel Gibson as William Wallace. However bad that film was, it has not stopped Scots from celebrating Wallace’s life, and the enormous Wallace Monument near Stirling remains an important centre for Scottish identity.

Leaving aside the myths about Wallace’s early years, he emerged in response to a rebellion against English rule in 1297. With the Scottish crown in dispute, the English King Edward I, known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, took advantage by invading in 1296. He had been claiming homage from Scotland since 1278, but his bloody invasion and theft of the Stone of Destiny (the ancient Scottish coronation stone, still kept at Westminster Abbey) inspired fierce resistance. Though Edward returned triumphantly to England in 1296, the following year rebellion broke out again, with Wallace playing a crucial role.

In May 1297, Wallace led an uprising in Lanark, and assassinated the English Sheriff of Lanark, William de Heselreig. This marked the beginning of the First War of Scottish Independence, and soon afterwards Wallace joined forces with another rebel, William the Hardy, Lord of Douglas, and was put in command of a small army. His next decisive action was to raid Scone, where the English justiciar, William de Ormesby, was outlawing those who would not take an oath of loyalty to Edward I. These actions stirred up the beleaguered Scots, who suddenly saw an end to English tyranny.

Adding to the romance of his tale, Wallace hid with his men in the Forest of Ettrick. Many of his infantrymen were trained by Wallace himself and were armed with homemade weapons. In September 1297, Wallace led his rag-tag group of rebels to the town of Stirling, having launched many other raids. There he saw a far better-equipped English army, but refused to mediate with them. The Battle of Stirling Bridge thus erupted across the narrow, eponymous river crossing, wide enough for only 3 horses at a time. As the English slowly crossed the bridge, they were slaughtered.

After Wallace’s (quite literally) finest hour defeating a much larger English army at Stirling Bridge, he was made Guardian of Scotland. Unfortunately, after Wallace raided Cumbria and Northumbria across the border, Edward I invaded Scotland again in 1298, and Wallace was forced into hiding until his capture in 1305. He was taken to the Tower of London and charged with treason and war-crimes, to which he responded: ‘I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject’. Unsurprisingly found guilty, Wallace was dragged naked through the streets by his heels, then hanged, drawn, and quartered.

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
Reenactment of the Battle of Bannockburn on its 700-year anniversary in 2014. Daily Record

Battle of Bannockburn

After the death of Edward I (warmly received in Scotland, at least), his weak son, Edward II, came to the English throne. Robert the Bruce had retaken the Scottish throne in 1306, shortly before the elderly Hammer of the Scots died, and Edward II struggled to inspire a successful campaign against him, eventually withdrawing large numbers of troops. Bruce set about ridding his country of the remaining English overlords. Edward’s response to this was characteristically weak and half-hearted. After the successful capture of strategically-important castles ruled by the English, Bruce turned his attention to the last English stronghold, Stirling Castle.

Stirling Castle guards an important crossing of the River Forth – the Stirling Bridge at which William Wallace had been so successful in 1297 – and thus controlling the castle, in the very centre of Scotland, was hugely important. When Robert the Bruce began besieging Stirling, Edward II responded by coming to Scotland in person to see about defending it. He had an army of 2-3, 000 knights on horseback and 15, 000 archers and spearmen. The heavily-armed cavalry was the decisive part of the army, for it could quickly devastate infantry in short, strategic manoeuvres. Not, however, at Bannockburn.

Bruce’s men were heavily outnumbered. He had, at his disposal, only 500 cavalry, archers, and infantry, numbering no more than 10, 000 in total. Bruce’s army dug a ‘honeycomb’ of postholes in order to confine the English cavalry to a narrow thoroughfare on the marshy field of Bannockburn, not far from the bridge, where the battle took place. On the first day of the battle, 23rd June 1314, the cavalry clashed, and Bruce scored an important strategic victory when he personally cleaved in twain the skull of Henry de Bohun, nephew of the hated Earl of Hereford, in single combat.

At the start of the second day, the English occupied a position on marshy ground at the bottom of the hill guarded by the Scots. The infantry, armed with spears, advanced a little way down the slope towards the cavalry before driving the shafts firmly into the earth (a schiltron). Foolishly, the cavalry was convinced that it had enough to overcome the Scottish infantry, and made the terrible decision to charge up the slope. They were run through with the spears. The Scots continued their advance, hemming the English in the short space between themselves and the large burn (stream).

The cramped conditions meant that the English could not use their longbows against their enemy. A slaughter ensued, resulting in the deaths of at least 700 cavalry and around 7, 000 infantry from the English army. It was said that the flower of English chivalry was slain that day. Edward II surrendered, and left the battlefield under a guard of 500 knights. Defeat at Bannockburn left Northern England vulnerable to Scottish raids, and the Scots made the most of the opportunity, also invading Ireland. Eventually, the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton was signed in 1328, recognising Scotland as an independent country.

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
The Battle of Flodden Field by Sir John Gilbert, England, 1878. The Daily Telegraph

Battle of Flodden Field

Relations with England were frosty, at best, following the Battle of Bannockburn, often breaking out into open hostilities. In 1295, when Edward I had begun exerting diplomatic pressure on Scotland, the country had signed a treaty with France, known as the Auld Alliance, which stipulated that if either France or Scotland were attacked, the other would invade England. The alliance of its northern and southern neighbours did not stop England from making war on France and Scotland on numerous occasions, however, and in 1513 King James IV of Scotland actually invaded England when Henry VIII started a campaign in France.

Henry had long-expected an invasion ever since he announced himself overlord of Scotland and refused to punish those making raids on the Scottish Borders, and so had prepared a garrison in the North of England. James saw this as an act of war, in addition to his fidelity to the Auld Alliance, and thus invaded England with 30, 000 men, the largest army in Scottish history. When the invasion began in August 1513, Henry was in France, and it was down to his queen, Catherine of Aragon, who was acting as regent at the time, to save his kingdom.

James IV, acting according to the mores of chivalry, had preposterously announced his intention of invading a whole month before doing so, which meant that Henry could make preparations to defend the realm. On 3rd September, Catherine responded to confirmed news of the invasion taking place by ordering an army to be gathered in the Midlands and to march immediately to the Borders. The English army, in total, amassed 26, 000 men. The sides met near the village of Branxton, Northumberland, only 3 miles from the Scottish Border (the name Flodden refers to the mountains where the Scottish were encamped).

Under the cover of smoke from the burning of their camp, the Scottish army travelled to the ridge of Branxton Hill. The battle began with the exchange of artillery fire, which resulted in the death of Scotland’s master gunner, Robert Borthwick. At this setback, rather than holding his position and forcing the English to climb the slippery grass to the top of Branxton Hill, James gave the insane order to charge down the hill. In an eerie reverse of the events of the Battle of Bannockburn, the Scottish army was slaughtered on the plain with long-handled English bills.

James IV of Scotland has the unhappy distinction of being the last British monarch to die in battle, covered with arrows, his hand severed, and decapitated by a bill. His body was disembowelled and embalmed, then sent on to a doubtless-disgusted Catherine of Aragon. Around 13, 000 other Scots lost their lives at Flodden Field, and the slaughter was made worse because so many officers died that a retreat could not be organised. The Scottish cannon were captured by the Treasurer of the English Army, Sir Philip Tilney, who was delighted at gaining such a valuable prize for his arsenal.

The Bloodiest Tales of Scottish History
Mary Queen of Scots by François Clouet, France, 1558-60. Wikimedia Commons

Mary Queen of Scots

The Auld Alliance was to produce one of the most problematic figures in English history, Mary Queen of Scots (1542-87). She became Queen of Scotland before she was a week old after the death of her father, Henry V, and was raised in France whilst regents ruled the land in her stead. She married the dauphin (heir to the throne) of France, the eventual King Philip II, making her a very real threat to England. As the niece of Henry VIII, Mary also had close links to the English crown, which saw her become inevitably embroiled in Tudor politics.

Mary I of England was the daughter of Henry VIII by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She died childless and her half-sister, Elizabeth, was named her successor, but because Catholics did not recognise divorce, attempts were made to prevent the woman seen as the illegitimate daughter of Anne Boleyn becoming queen. Henry II, king of Catholic France, proclaimed Mary and his son King and Queen of England, and others agreed, especially in Scotland. Eventually, Scotland signed a treaty recognising Elizabeth as Queen of England, which Mary never signed. Consequently, Elizabeth never stopped viewing Mary with great suspicion.

When Francis, by then King of France, died in 1560, the heartbroken Mary returned to Scotland for the first time since the age of 5, unaware that her strident Catholicism would prove divisive amongst her subjects. Mary married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in 1561, an alliance which Elizabeth saw as a threat. Darnley grew too cocksure, and demanded that Mary make him co-sovereign of Scotland rather than just Queen’s Consort. Infuriated, Darnley began to work in secret against Mary with her Protestant enemies, all the while growing jealous of his wife’s Catholic private secretary, David Rizzio.

In March 1566, the pregnant Mary was hosting a dinner party at Holyrood House, Edinburgh, when Darnley burst in with a group of conspirators, seized Rizzio (whom he accused of impregnating Mary), and stabbed him 56 times, before throwing him down the staircase. Although Darnley again switched sides to Mary 2 days later, he still met his own sticky end. The marriage never recovered, and in February 1567, 2 explosions were heard from Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh, where Darnley was recovering from smallpox. His body was found alongside his valet’s in the orchard adjoining the house, apparently strangled to death.

Lord Bothwell, assumed to be responsible for Darnley’s murder, married Mary on 15th May 1567. This made Mary wildly unpopular, and she was forced to abdicate in 1568. She asked Elizabeth to help her regain the throne, but Elizabeth instead placed her in custody. Mary was beheaded after being discovered conspiring to replace Elizabeth as queen in 1587, and her death was appropriately tumultuous. The clumsy executioner’s first blow missed her neck, striking her instead across the shoulders, and his second did not sever Mary’s head altogether. Horrifically, the executioner then knelt on her back, sawing the remaining sinews asunder.

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.