People seem quite happy to associate Edinburgh's Old Town with death and murder, with the various ghost tour companies thrilling visitors with stories of bloodshed and misery.
But the New Town has its own share of crime and killings, one notorious example of which was brought to a grisly conclusion on this day, 1 May, in 1717.
At that time, fifty years before the development of Edinburgh's grand new housing development was undertaken, the area to the north of the valley where Princes Street Gardens are today was a patchwork of fields, farmland and parks. On some maps the area is referred to as Barefoot's (or Bearford's) Park - it was largely undeveloped space, and a prime location for the New Town development which would follow toward the latter end of the eighteenth century.
In the valley where Waverley Station stands today, was the village of Calton, and from it a rough track led over Multrees Hill (roughly where Multrees Walk - home of Harvey Nicols and Louis Vuitton - is today) and down to the north, toward the village of Silvermills. It was along this track that a young man called Robert Irvine was walking on 28 April 1717, accompanied by the two boys to whom he was employed as a tutor.
The boys, aged around 9 and 11 years old, were the sons of James Gordon, a wealthy merchant who lived in the Old Town. As well as being the boys' tutor, Irvine was also in relationship with a maid from the household.
Some weeks previously, upon learning that Irvine and the maid were conducting a relationship under his roof, Gordon had dismissed the maid from his household and thrown her out into the street. She was immediately made homeless, unemployed and - potentially - unemployable, as she would be unable to provide a reference or recommendation to a future employer.
After the maid's dismissal, Irvine had been instructed in no uncertain terms that he was not to have a relationship with any member of the household staff. Irvine was plunged into a jealous rage, humiliated by the intervention of Gordon in his private life.
He also resolved to have his revenge upon the family.
And so it was, on that bright spring day at the end of April, that Irvine was bringing the boys for a picnic in Barefoot's Park. As they passed along the path between Calton and Silvermills, Irvine took a penknife from his pocket. The boys, taking fright, ran from him, but being older and faster he quickly caught up with them. Holding the younger boy down with his knee, he cut the throat of the older boy, before killing the younger boy too.
It was a bloody and violent act, and Irvine probably would have had the fortune to get away with it - there being no witnesses to the crime on the remote rural pathway. If he oculd have claimed that the boys had been killed by robbers, with irvine unable to protect them, he may never have faced justice at all...
Except there was a witness to his acts. A man at Edinburgh Castle had observed the whole sequence of events through a telescope, and saw them in enough detail to be able to pass Irvine's description to the police.
Irvine was quickly arrested and brought to trial. (The maid was also arrested, but was later released on the grounds that she hadn't known of Irvine's bloody plans for revenge.) He was found guilty of the double murder, and sentenced to be hanged.
Before they hanged him, Irvine's hands were cut off using the knife he had used to kill the boys.... And so on 1 May 1717, Robert Irvine went to the gallows with his own severed hands hanging on a string around his neck.
Today, the stretch of path along which the events are believed to have occurred runs behind the Cafe Royal, immediately opposite the Balmoral Hotel, off the east end of Princes Street. It later became known as Gabriel's Road, after the angel Gabriel who would have come down to escort the souls of the two dead children up to heaven...
Explore more of the New Town's less gruesome history with my private city walking tours!
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