The novel I’m writing is set in 18th century Edinburgh. At that time, architects, politicians, and builders were creating the city’s new town, a spacious, orderly, modern district — which stood in complete contrast to Edinburgh’s “old city”: ancient, warren-like, unsanitary, densely populated.
Here’s the idea of the novel:
A young boy is recruited by Edinburgh’s leading architects when they discover he has an unusual ability to tell time, to keep track of events and people. He is delighted to work with these men and women, and to help them create a more rational, mathematical, philosophical city: his family is very poor and they live next door to a terrifying woman, Granny Wynd, who everyone suspects is a witch. However, as the architects attempt to bring their vision into being, they run into implacable opposition. In order to defeat those opponents, the boy has to return to the witch’s house, and ask for her help. The more help she gives him, the more haunted and wild the city becomes, and he grows into adulthood wishing for some way to undo the pacts he made as a child.
Now, there is a large complication with writing a novel about supernatural events in historic Edinburgh. The city is already full of strange legends.
In particular, it doesn’t take long to learn about one of the most famous villains of the city: Major Thomas Weir and his sister, Jean. Major Weir was a devoutly religious man — devout even by the standards of 17th century Scotland — who was always in the company of his staff. He lived, unmarried, with his sister, admired by all. In old age, Weir grew sick and confessed his many crimes, yet refused to ask forgiveness from God. His sister claimed to possess to many outlandish powers: both were executed.
It’s unclear, from the versions of the legend I’ve read, whether either Weir really committed any crimes, or whether they were simply unhinged. What is universally agreed is that after their deaths, their home was believed to be furiously haunted. People said it was lit up at night, and they thought they heard Jane Weir spinning on her wheel. At night, they saw Major Weir riding a headless horse down the street; some early mornings, the whole of West Bow was woken by the sound of a coach riding to the small square on which the Weirs’ had lived: this was the devil and his horses, returning the brother and sister from a visit to hell.
You can read one version of the story in the amazing book, The Traditions of Edinburgh, by Robert Chambers. This huge tome, looking back at the Edinburgh of the past, was written in 1824. Chambers was a young man then, and the city of the 18th century was largely still intact. He revised the book in old age, in 1868, when Victorian-era reforms had made vast changes to the old city, knocking down ancient buildings and altering streets. Many of the sites he describes in the book’s first edition had already vanished.
Major Weir and his sister were executed in 1670. According to Chambers, their house was left untouched for a century, with no one daring to pull it down or live in it (and it was not the only house in the city so abandoned because of hauntings). But by the late eighteenth century, a new air had come to Edinburgh. This, after all, was the age of rational philosophy, of Adam Smith and David Hume. Superstition no longer seemed like a good enough reason to leave a house empty, and the owner of the property looked around for someone to take on the rent. Surely there was no reason to fear the spirit of the Weir siblings, a century after their demise.
Chambers tells the story of what happened next:
I love this story. The calf is just the perfect detail: low key and yet menacing, more plausible because it is so unexpected, with no apparent logical connection to the apparitions of the past. The Weirs’ house is a gateway to elsewhere, and that is all that can be known about it. Wise people stay away.
P.S. The home was, until recently, thought to have been destroyed in the 1870s. In 2014, however, a researcher claimed to have found it, its walls incorporated into a Quaker meeting house: Edinburgh’s Most Haunted House Rediscovered.
Do you know of any other legends of Edinburgh?