"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Hellish Major Weir

The Devil pays a call on the Weir neighborhood.

In 1599, a man named Thomas Weir was born in Scotland. His father did not have the highest reputation for probity and his mother was suspected of sorcery, but such flaws were hardly uncommon in his milieu, and his upbringing could probably be called uneventful. When Thomas reached maturity, he served in the Puritan army in 1641, as well as in the Covenanting forces three years later. He attained the rank of Major. In 1649, he retired from active duty, and henceforth served as Edinburgh’s Captain of the City Guard.

His term in office was most notable for his rigid devotion to Covenanter principles, coupled with a corresponding zeal in persecuting Royalists. A contemporary account described Weir as “very active in discovering and apprehending the Cavaliers and bringing them to be arraing’d and try’d for their lives.” This cruel use of his power was, we are told, regarded by the people as a sign that the Major was “a singular Worthy whom God had raised up to support the Cause.” This “Worthy” was particularly lauded for his brutal treatment of the imprisoned Marquess of Montrose.

After several years in office, Weir left his post—whether it was due to dismissal or voluntary resignation is uncertain—leaving him free to devote himself more fully to religious exercises. His ardent devotion to Presbyterianism, coupled with his enormous knowledge of Scripture and compelling fluency in prayer, made him regarded by Edinburgh’s Godly as practically a living saint. “Happy was the Man with whom he would converse,” we are told, “and blessed was the Family in which he would vouchsafe to pray.” His fame spread to the point where people would travel dozens of miles just to hear “Angelical Thomas” give his extempore sermons.

Society knew of only one controversy surrounding this esteemed citizen. A minister, John Nave, was told by one of his parishioners that she had observed Major Weir in a field, having sexual relations with a mare. The claim was dismissed for lack of proof, and Weir’s accuser was subjected to a whipping by the local hangman “as a slanderer of such an eminent Holy Man.”

In 1642 Weir married a widow named Isobel Mein. It was after her death, and the marriage of his stepdaughter, that the Major's life took a fatal turn for the Weird. After he was left to live alone, he had his spinster sister Jean (or Grizel, in some accounts) move in with him as housekeeper. As events were to reveal, the relations between the two may well have been—to put it most delicately—more intimate than society allows between a brother and sister. It is likely the crushing psychological burden of this particular violation of taboo that led to the final tragedy.

Weir’s downfall was as unexpected as it was dramatic. On a certain day in the spring of 1670, there was a great religious meeting in Edinburgh, where Major Weir was, naturally, one of the most honored participants. At some point in the proceedings, he rose to address the faithful. However, instead of the usual “Enthusiastical phrases, Extasies, and Raptures,” he gave his audience something else entirely. Weir, in effect, committed suicide in front of their increasingly horrified eyes.

He began to tell them of his many sins—sins that left the brethren reeling in shock and disgust. This man that, for so many years, had been seen as the epitome of piety and virtue was, on his own volition, revealing himself to be a monster. He told of acts of incest (with both his sister and his stepdaughter,) bestiality, numerous sexual encounters with servant-girls, and Devil-worship. “Before God,” he cried, “I have not told you the hundredth part of that I can say more, and am guilty of!”

He had told them quite enough. The first instinct of his listeners was to launch a cover-up. It would hardly do to have this “confounding scandal” within their church made public. It could very well destroy the reputations of them all.

As an explanation for any reports of this shocking incident that may have leaked out, the brethren announced that Major Weir had been taken gravely ill. For several months, it looked as if the terrible truth of what the Kirk had harbored in its midst might be kept secret. However, one of the ministers confided to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir Andrew Ramsay, what had happened. Sir Andrew, assuming that “such horrid crimes as the Minister told him the Major had confessed,” were simply too bad to be true, sent several doctors to Weir’s home to “Physick him for his distempered Brain.” The medical men reported back that Weir appeared “free from Hypocondriack Distempers” and was quite sane. His only ailment, they judged, was “an exulcerated Conscience.” Weir wanted to be brought to justice, and in the opinion of the doctors, his wish should be granted. Some “Conventicle-Ministers” that the provost had also dispatched to meet with Weir agreed with this diagnosis. “The terrors of God,” they said, “urged him to confess and accuse himself.”

The town officials threw up their hands. Public scandal or no, they conceded, there was nothing for it but to put the Major on trial. Weir and his sister—whom he had implicated up to the hilt in his confession—were sent to the Tolbooth. When the siblings were apprehended, Jean told the officers to grab Weir’s “Magical Staff,” lest he use it to “drive them all out of doors, notwithstanding all the resistance they could make.”

This “Staff,” it was noted, was made of thorn-wood and decorated with centaurs. Jean Weir said her brother “received it of the Devil and did many wonderful things with it.” The authorities also discovered in his home a cloth containing “a certain root.” When this object was thrown into a fire, the flames “circled and sparkled like Gunpowder, and passing from the Funnel of the Chimney, it gave a crack like a little Cannon, to the amazement of all that were present.” We are also told of some coins Weir had possessed, which caused poltergeist-like disturbances wherever they were stored.

Weir, as he awaited trial, treated his fate with weary indifference. He rejected calls for him to repent with the reply that he was irrevocably damned, and any sort of prayers would be useless. A contemporary historian attributed Weir’s attitude to guile: “that now since he was to goe to the Devil he would not anger him.”

His sister told authorities that she had inherited a talent for black magic from her mother. Jean also—penitently? proudly?—displayed a horseshoe-shaped “witch-mark” on her brow. According to Jean, she and her brother had been in partnership with the Devil for many years. On September 7, 1648, she said, they had been carried from Edinburgh to Musselburgh and back by a Satanic coach and six horses “which seemed all of fire.” She gave details of her brother’s “inchanted Staff,” that he used “to commit filthinesse not to be named.” Jean also related how some years back, when she was a schoolteacher (!) a woman asked her to “spick for her to the Queen of Fairie.” The next day, another lady gave her “a piece of a tree or root” which would enable her “to doe what she should desyre.”

On April 9th, 1670, these strangest of siblings went on trial for incest, fornication, and adultery. For whatever reason, the indictment against the Major concentrated on his sexual sins, while only Jean's emphasized the sorcery charges.  No lawyer could be found willing to defend them. Both defendants readily asserted the truth of all the charges, and the jury had no difficulty whatsoever in pronouncing them guilty. Two days later, the Major was strangled, and his body "burnt to ashes." The day after the death of her brother, Jane Weir was hanged. It is related that Thomas Weir met his doom “in despair, declaring that he had no hopes of mercy.” As the rope was being placed around his neck, he was encouraged to pray. “I will not,” he snapped. “I have lived as a Beast and I must die as a Beast.” His magical stick was burned with him, and it was said to have made "rare turnings" in the flames.  Jane, on the other hand, went to the gallows in a far less resigned spirit. She died “in a furious rage,” “uttering words horrible to be remembered,” and slapping the executioner’s face.

Over the years, many lurid and increasingly outlandish myths were told about Weir, who remains Scotland’s most notorious “warlock.” These tales seem like gilding the lily. Surely, the bare facts of his story are quite blood-curdling enough.

It not until a century after Weir's death that anyone was willing to live in his home, a site the townspeople firmly believed was impregnated with evil. That first intrepid tenant lasted for exactly one night, claiming he had seen “a form like that of a calf” appear by his bed during the night. The home eventually was occupied by various businesses, but it was never used as a private residence again. According to the Scottish historian and folklorist Andrew Lang, the unquiet spirits of Thomas and Jean Weir were seen as recently as the early 20th century. For many years, it was believed the sinister Weir home was demolished in 1878. However, in the February 2014 issue of "Fortean Times," Jan Bondeson revealed that his researches led him to discover that the home was assimilated into an existing building which is, at this date, the Quaker Meeting House at No. 7 Victoria Terrace.

And, yes, occupants of the building have reported seeing ghosts about the place. I would be greatly disappointed in the Major if they had not.


  1. As a Royalist, I may have to excuse myself from commenting on the proclivities of a man who must have considered himself one of the King's most implacable enemies...

  2. I didn't know there were still Royalists. As an American living in Australia, what exactly does that mean? There simply are none in the US. In Australia, it means that you'd prefer the monarchy over a republic. Would that mean the same thing? Is there a strong republican movement in the UK? Sorry for the ignorant questions.

    1. You'll pardon my late response, I hope. I'm an American, born and bred, and am most assuredly a Royalist. I'm far from being the only one. The painting by Hogarth which heads up each edition of this blog seems to me to perfectly illustrate the nature of unrestrained Republicanism.

      If you look at the United States today, this is where you get with the rule of the common man. We're rich and powerful, but mainly because we never let any consideration of decency or the rights of the weak stand in our way. God help you if you can't defend what's yours. We talk a lot about how rights and dignity derive from natural law, but the concept of the inalienable rights of man didn't really help the indians much whenever they had anything that we wanted; nor does it seem to help the poor very much when they can be exploited for gain.

      When you give up the Monarchy, you free everyone to do anything the majority dictates, and is capable of enforcing. Anything. Americans are taught from the cradle to worship that idea without thinking. It's the law of the jungle in fancy dress.

      The existence of the Queen somehow protects the weak and exploitable. The indians are Her subjects, just as the poor are. I think that single concept - that your fellow citizens are also answerable to and in the care of the Queen, just as you are - is the single most important difference between the US and the Commonwealth. The Canadians never slaughtered their indians en masse like we did. They don't let their poor die for lack of medical care and housing like we do. They *could* do those things - they elect their government more or less as we do. They don't though, and I think the concept of everyone being the Queen's subjects is why.

  3. I'm actually a Canadian. There is a republican movement in Britain, but from what I understand, it is not strong. They think that having a president rather than a monarch will solve all the country's problems, the way it has in the U.S., Russia, North Korea and Iraq. Seriously, though, I'm a Royalist because, among other things, I feel a monarchy gives a non-political focus to a country's people, a tradition that runs through its history and a great deal of character and colour.

    Sorry for usurping your blog for the moment, Undine...

    1. Oh, hell no. This blog could probably use all the usurping it can get.


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