Every city has skeletons in its closet, but when it comes to grisly secrets, it’s hard to rival the gruesome history of Edinburgh. Centuries of terrible events including “witch” burnings, mass murders, hangings and more… It’s all here, in this potted history of dangerous, dodgy, haunted Edinburgh.
Burke and Hare
In 19th century, this rotten pair were the most infamous killers in Auld Reekie; children even sang nursery rhymes warning, “Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief, Knox the boy that buys the beef.” That’s the song, but what’s the story?
In 1827, William Hare was renting out his lodgings. When one of his guests suddenly died, he had two problems on his hands: a dead body and a guest too dead to pay his bill. Turning to his friend William Burke for advice, they decided to sell the corpse to Dr. Robert Knox, a local lecturer in anatomy who was always in need of fresh bodies to dissect in front of his eager students. There was quite a shortage of cadavers, due to strict guidelines about how they could be obtained, so Knox turned a blind eye and bought the body. (Pointless fact: he actually was blind in one eye.) He paid them well, and extended an open invitation for more bodies whenever they had “another to dispose of”. You may imagine, then, Burke and Hare’s delight when a couple of months later, another lodger became unwell. They thought that a guest with a fever could put off other potential guests from staying, so they killed two birds with one stone (or rather, killed one lodger with one pillow). The victim was suffocated, and the men received £10 for their efforts. And thus began a 10 month spree in which 16 innocent people – mostly women – were killed for profit by the deadly duo.
Once caught, Hare testified against Burke, and Hare walked free – as did Knox. For his crimes, Burke was hanged in front of tens of thousands of people, and in a grimly suitable ending, his body was dissected for an audience of anatomy students. Today, his skeleton hangs in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School.
See for yourself: visit Surgeons Hall Museum to see the book made with Burke’s skin, and the death mask made from a cast of his face.
Half Hangit Maggie Dickson
Housekeeper Margaret Dickson was accused of infanticide in 1724, to which she pled innocent. Her baby, she said, had been stillborn, so she left its body on the riverbank. It was thought that one of the men in her employer’s household had impregnated her, and she wished to keep the pregnancy and the loss a secret in order to retain her job.
There was almost no evidence to convict her, so it seems most likely that she was innocent. But this was the 18th century, and as a woman with a dead, illegitimate child, Maggie was sentenced to hang.
Her body dangled from the gallows for 30 minutes in front of a baying crowd, and was then cut down, put in a coffin and set in a wagon to Musselburgh. After some time, the driver of the horse and cart stopped for a rest, and heard muffled noises. When he went to investigate, he discovered that Maggie was still very much alive, probably revived from unconsciousness by the jostling of the wagon. Nobody knows how she survived the hanging.
By law, she had served her sentence, and could not be hanged a second time. She was well enough to walk all the way home from Musselburgh that day, and lived for several decades more after that.
If that isn’t triumph, then what is?
See for yourself: visit the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh to see the space where the gallows once stood. Pop into the Maggie Dickson’s pub afterwards for a stiff drink.
Prisoners in Edinburgh Castle
Looming over the city on a huge hill, Edinburgh Castle is a formidable presence, and not just for the people looking on from a distance. For 700 years between the 12th century and 20th century, the screams of prisoners echoed inside the stone walls of the building. All manner of convicts were held here, from nobility to military captives from the Napoleonic War.
See for yourself: visit Edinburgh Castle to see the stone vaults, iron bars and prisoners’ desperate carvings in the wooden doors.
Witch-hunting is a horrifying chapter of Scotland’s history, with the country having the worst reputation for “witch” persecution across all of Europe. Despite their small population, almost 4000 Scottish women were killed in witch hunts during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Women were blamed for almost anything: crop failure, the death of an animal, the illness of a relative… Once accused, they were tortured to elicit a confession. Records show that Midlothian woman Agnes Sampson was secured to a wall while “investigators” stabbed her face repeatedly with an iron fork, piercing all the way through her cheeks and tongue. Witches were also “douked” or “ducked” as a test of their innocence (strapped to a chair and held underwater until they drowned). Not the fairest justice system, one might argue.
Once found guilty (inevitably: people will confess anything under torture), women were either beheaded, hanged, strangled, drowned or burned at the stake. Many human bones were recovered from Nor Loch when it was drained in the 19th century.
See for yourself: visit the commemorative Witches’ Well on the Tartan Weaving Mill at the high end of the Royal Mile. 300 women were burned at the stake at this spot. Walk through Princes Street Gardens, which used to be Nor Loch.
In the Old Town of Edinburgh lies a graveyard filled with ancient headstones, tombs and vaults. J.K. Rowling took inspiration for some of her Harry Potter villains’ names from this kirkyard, and many ghost walks and tours pass through it every day.
You may already know the sweet story of Greyfriars Bobby. Bobby was a faithful dog who guarded his owner’s resting place for 14 years until he, himself, died in 1872. The general public were so touched by his daily presence at the grave that they gave him scraps of food, which of course encouraged him to stay in the area, perpetuating the legend.
Not all Greyfriars tales are so cutesy, though. Bluidy (Bloody) Mackenzie was a lawyer who imprisoned 1200 protestant rebels because they refused to pledge allegiance to the King. George Mackenzie’s nickname came from the brutal treatment he afforded his religious captives at Greyfriars, and after his own death, his body was put in a a mausoleum at the same location as his thousands of victims. Ghost tours would have you believe that this conflict has Mackenzie spinning in his grave, and that his violent poltergeist has attacked and bruised more than a few visitors wandering too close to his resting place.
See for yourself: Visit Greyfriars Kirkyard to see George Mackenzie’s mausoleum (don’t walk too close), and the statue of Greyfriars Bobby atop a disused drinking fountain, with a high well for humans, and a ground-level one for dogs.
William Brodie, better known by his prestigious title, ‘Deacon’, was an absolute rogue. Rumoured to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde character, he was a person of two halves.
During the day, Deacon Brodie was a carpenter, which meant he was often responsible for lock fittings. He held the highest position in his trade’s guild, was a councillor for the city, and ostensibly, was a family man. He was considered a pinnacle of society.
After dark, though, Brodie was a rapscallion and a criminal, living a life of debauchery. He had made secret copies of all the locks he installed, allowing him to commit burglaries on some of the town’s wealthiest households. All the money robbed from others came in very useful to fund his gambling addiction, and support his secret mistresses (who had five of his illegitimate children between them).
Brodie was eventually found out. He was hanged in 1788 in front of a crowd of 40,000 people. Rumour has it that he secretly wore a steel collar and bribed the hangman to remove him quickly from the rope, in order to evade death. Unfortunately for him, his own expert carpentry skills had been utilised in the recent redesign of the Edinburgh gallows, meaning that they worked very efficiently indeed. No Half Hangit Deacon Brodies after that! His body was buried in an unmarked grave, which has since been paved over to become a car park. A fitting end for such an unscrupulous reprobate.
See for yourself: visit Brodie’s Close, off Royal Mile, to where the Brodie Mansion used to stand, and pop into the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street to inspect some of his carpentry work, and his collection of lock-picks which were found and used as evidence against him.