On this day, 14 April, 1670, one of Edinburgh's most infamous figures met his death following a short but sensational trial for witchcraft.
Thomas Weir had retired to live with his sister in a house on the top part of West Bow, for centuries one of the main routes to the top of the Royal Mile. He'd been born at the end of the previous century in Lanarkshire, and as a septuagenarian gained a reputation for his devotion to the Protestant cause, giving impromptu anti-Catholic sermons to public gatherings when he left the house, which he shared with his older sister, Jean.
Neither of the pair was married, and the community also considered them to be a strange couple. Jean, in particular, was often referred to by the nickname 'Grizel', and despite Thomas's reputation for religiosity rumours abounded about the precise nature of their relationship.
Thomas also held the prestigious position of captain of the city guard, a body of men (largely ex-soldiers) who were charged with enforcing a rough sense of law and order in the city.
One day in 1670, Thomas Weir had accumulated a small crowd waiting for one of his denouncements of the Catholic faith, when instead they were treated to Thomas's confession of a lifetime of heinous crimes. Of particular note was his sworn friendship with the devil, whom he would meet in Dalkeith (on the outskirts of Edinburgh) or bring to his house, where he and Jean would entertain him with food and dancing.
Other salacious confessions followed, including admissions of bestiality, and confirmation of the local rumours that he and Jean were engaged in an unnatural relationship with each other.
Thomas was promptly arrested, shortly followed by his sister Jean, when he corroborated his claims. The pair were put on trial for witchcraft, and were (of course) found guilty, and sentenced to death. Jean was hanged in the Grassmarket, where she determined to go to her death with the least dignity possible by stripping naked as she climbed the steps to the gallows.
The night before his execution. Thomas was offered a final opportunity to make his peace with God. He declined, claiming:
"I have lived as a beast and must die as a beast!"
... on which basis, on 14 April, they burned him alive, and buried him in a shallow grave with Jean.
It was said that no one would then live in the Weirs' old house for the following two centuries, spooked by the usual array of supernatural effects (strange lights, noises, doors opening and closing) as well as the creatively described effect of going upstairs but feeling as though you were going downstairs...
It was thought the house was lost when the area around the the Lawnmarket and West Bow was being redeveloped in the 1830s. Recent archaeological surveys have discovered that the house survives largely intact, inside the shell of the surrounding facade which was built in the 1880s.
The surrounding streets have been reconfigured slightly from Weir's time, and the street today bears little resemblance to the image above.
For those who believe such things, the building is considered one of the most haunted buildings in Edinburgh. For those who don't believe such things, the building today is the Quaker Meeting House.
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