The Witch and Warlock of the West Bow

One fateful Sunday morning, the church community was to bear witness to an event most peculiar, and their beloved West Bow Saint would never be the same again.

By Rebecca Brown

Major Thomas Weir was a good and well-respected Christian, and a man of Edinburgh’s City Guard. The people of Edinburgh looked up to him and his unparalleled devotion to the church earned him the nickname ‘The West Bow Saint’, on account of the little flat that he and his spinster sister Jean (or more commonly known as Grizel) occupied on Edinburgh’s West Bow. The pair had come from Lanarkshire, from a mother who was reputedly host to the Second Sight, but this did nothing to scupper their reputation as devout followers of God. 

Thomas was ever the enthusiastic preacher, but those who saw him preach without his trusty black staff, with which he was rarely parted, reported that his words fell flat and his addresses lacked their usual power. The dark staff, with its frightening head on top and carvings of satyrs about its shaft, was widely assumed to be nothing more than a walking aid, while others swore they had seen the staff move by itself, even running errands for Thomas, including opening doors like some ghostly butler. 

One fateful Sunday morning, the church community was to bear witness to an event most peculiar, and their beloved West Bow Saint would never be the same again. At the beginning of the service, Thomas stood before the congregation, as always, leaning on his staff for support. As he lifted his head, and raised his arms, the members of the congregation couldn’t help but notice the peaky hue to his skin. When Thomas opened his mouth, it was not prayers that spilled out, but a terrible confession that bound the congregation in horror. Thomas claimed responsibility for some of the most evil deeds: he plead to witchcraft, necromancy, and terrible intimate acts with beasts and his own sister. 

The clergy were shocked at what they had witnessed, but, reluctant to accuse such a revered member of their community of witchcraft, they called the best doctors the city had to offer. The doctors examined Thomas, but much to their collective bewilderment, each verdict was clear: never had there been a man so healthy in body and mind as Major Thomas Weir, who continued to insist on the crimes he had committed. 

At a loss for what to do, the authorities questioned Grizel Weir, Thomas’ spinster sister. Thomas had marred her good name in his proclamation, so surely she would shed some light on her brother’s madness?

But Grizel did nothing to clear the air, or even deny the repulsive accusations her own brother had levelled against her, instead readily admitting all that Thomas had already confessed to, and more. She admitted their sinful relations, and declared her mother was a witch skilled in necromancy. She recounted stories of devilry and fairy. She claimed on one occasion, a blazing carriage pulled by six charcoal horses arrived at their house on the West Bow to take them to their master, Auld Nick himself. She claimed one time a fairy gave to her a piece of tree root, an amulet and silver and when Grizel returned to her spinning wheel, she found more fine yarn than any person could have spun in the time that passed. 

With the pair unrepentant, the authorities had no other choice but to imprison Thomas and Grizel in the city Tolbooth to await the outcome of their trial. Witnesses were called from the congregation that had heard Thomas’ first dark confession.

The siblings, unsurprisingly, plead guilty, and with naught else to be done, the pair were sentenced to death. Thomas was to be strangled at the stake and burned to ash alongside his precious staff at the Gallows Lee between Edinburgh and Leith, while Grizel was to hang in the Grassmarket. It is said by those who watched the burning that Thomas took longer than it would take any normal person to burn, his staff writhing and twisting in the flames by his side. Grizel, on the other hand, stood on the gallows and attempted to remove all of her clothes before meeting her end, to the shock of the gathered onlookers. 

Following the execution of Thomas and Grizel Weir, the flat they had occupied on the West Bow was abandoned and left to decay. The public feared the evil spirits that might linger within, and while no person had dared to live there, mysterious happenings continued to be reported even years after its occupants death. In 1780 it was bought by an ex-soldier and his wife. The pair intended to settle despite the horrid rumours about the most haunted house in Edinburgh, only to flee on their first night when the apparition of a calf appeared at their bedside. 

Since, other reports include that the windows light up at night, strange music and laughter wafting into the street. Sometimes, the shapes of enormous women can be made out through the windows, and other times the mysterious black staff can be seen hovering its way down the street in search of its master. Sometimes, the sound of a coach and six horses can be heard thundering down the West Bow, bearing the spirits of Thomas and Grisel off back to Auld Nick. 

Edinburgh Lore and Legend, Marion Lochhead 
Traditions of Edinburgh, Robert Chambers

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