EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
One of the most poplar stories from my tours - and guides across the city will all tell their own version - is that of a man named William Brodie, who was a local figure who went on to inspire one of the world's most enduring and recognisable literary works.
Brodie's family had been a respectable one, living in property on the Lawnmarket section of the Royal Mile, where the lane they occupied still has their name - Brodie's Close. (Across the road from Brodie's Close you'll find a popular pub named for Brodie himself.)
Brodie's father was a carpenter and undertaker, and William Brodie himself was a deacon, and became a locksmith and cabinet maker of some renown, producing furniture for high society families - the writer Robert Louis Stevenson inherited a desk from his father which had been made by William Brodie.
But for all that his reputation was as a fine, upstanding member of society, by night Brodie had an alternative life. Having recruited three unsavoury figures from Edinburgh's underworld, Brodie embarked on a life of crime. Using his access to wealthy properties as a legitimate businessman, Brodie would take the opportunity to see what might have been worth stealing, and then make a duplicate of the key to provide his men with easy access.
Under cover of darkness his men would slip into these high-status houses, and steal the specific pieces of jewellery or property that Brodie had identified as being of particular value. If those homeowners later contracted William Brodie to come and replace their locks, it could prove a very lucrative way of doing business!
There are various explanations for why the gang attempted a much larger job than usual - gambling debts, 'one last job' and simple over-ambition are all speculated upon - but whatever the reason, this final job would end up being Brodie's downfall.
The target of the job was Edinburgh's customs house, on the Royal Mile just past the World's End. This building on Chessel's Court was where market traders making their way into the city would stop off to pay and the tax and the duty on the goods they planned to sell. Having broken in the gang escaped with just £16 in cash, and the next day two of the gang were arrested.
Brodie feared the law would catch up with him, and he fled Scotland, seeking refuge in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Through a somewhat circuitous series of events - again the subject of speculation - the Scots police intercepted a letter that Brodie had sent back to Edinburgh, and now that they had an address for him they secured the right to go over and arrest him in Amsterdam.
After his return to Edinburgh in August 1788, Brodie faced trial for masterminding this series of robberies, and was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. An estimated 40,000 spectators turned out to witness his execution, on 1 October 1788, at the Old Tolbooth on the Royal Mile, outside St Giles' Cathedral. He was buried in an unmarked grave at the Buccleuch Church on Guse Dub.
A number of local legends grew up from that incident:
A century later, Robert Louis Stevenson would pen one of his best known stories, drawing on the case of Deacon William Brodie, called The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And so Brodie is often cited as the original Jekyll-and-Hyde figure, the man with two sides to his personality...
And Stevenson may have sat to write his story at a desk that Brodie himself had built!
Find out more about Brodie and other notorious figures from Edinburgh's history on my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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