"Sure Major Weir, or some sic warlock wight,
Has flung beguilin’ glances owre your sight."
The Ghaists: a Kirkyard Eclogue
The narrow winding streets and dark cavernous closes of Edinburgh can feel eerie enough at night as you walk alone. But listen out for the wrap of a cane on the cobbles and look out for a dark shadowy figure for it may be the ghost of Major Weir - the Wizard of the West Bow!
You may remember Jean Weir, the 17th-century school teacher who sat at her spinning wheel, from my "Fairy Tale Familiars" post. She was approached by an old woman who offered to make a pact, on Jean's behalf, with the Queen of Elphame.
Although Wilby refers to Thomas as a cunning man (implying that he served as a magic worker for his community), this is somewhat misleading; no mention is made of the fact that it was only after a sudden illness, late in life, that he began to confess to diabolic acts of witchcraft. Though there were some who claimed to have observed strange phenomena occurring in his presence - such as the sight of his cane hopping before him of its own volition, as he strolled down the lane - these confessions came as a shock to the community at large, who knew him as a religious orator, renowned in his strict Presbyterian community for his piety. Authorities remained skeptical of his claims, suspecting dementia, until his sister corroborated all his accounts of satanism and venery, without hesitating to add her own sins to the list of crimes. She was quite open about the sources of their magic; in addition to her pact with Elphame, she claimed to have inherited magical powers from their mother - Lady Jean Somerville, who was herself known as a clairvoyant - and that her brother's powers came from his evil walking stick, given to him by the Devil. (Popular tradition asserts that this staff was made of blackthorn.)
I uncovered a lot more about the Weirs in Thomas Wright's "Narratives of Sorcery and Witchcraft." Now, I'm not sure what it is about this story that affects me - maybe it's the imagery, or the urban setting - but this is one of the most chilling accounts of witchcraft and spiritual phenomena I've ever read. Wright doesn't ascribe any truth to it, but see if your blood doesn't run cold by the end:
This man had distinguished himself by his extraordinary zeal in the cause of the covenant, and had been appointed, in 1619, with the rank of major, to command the city-guard of Edinburgh. He lived in a retired manner with a maiden sister [Jean.] Both professed in their utmost rigor the severe doctrines of the party whose cause they had espoused, and the major, who always appeared in his ordinary behavior reserved and melancholy, was especially endowed with the gift of prayer, which made him a welcome visiter to the side of a sick-bed. After the restoration, the melancholy of the major and his sister appeared to have become more and more sombre, until it settled into a kind of lunacy, and they believed themselves guilty of the most revolting crimes which disgrace humanity. The major now began to make extraordinary confessions to his friends, declaring that his sins were of that character that he had no hopes of salvation, unless he should be brought to a shameful end in this world. His presbyterian friends did their utmost to restrain him, alarmed at the scandal that Weir's conduct was likely to bring on their religion; but the affair soon reached the ears of the royalists, who were just as glad to seize upon any occasion of hurting the cause of their opponents. Major Weir and his sister were arrested, and both made what was called a full confession, involving crimes of a degrading character. As these were most of them vices which the king's party had long been in the habit of ascribing to their religious adversaries, we are perhaps justified in believing that they may have taken advantage of their state of mind to suggest to them some of these self-accusations. They found two or three witnesses to those parts of his story which were most improbable. His sister declared that he had a magical staff, which he always carried with him, and which gave him eloquence in prayer. She said that once a person called upon them at noonday with a fiery chariot, visible only to themselves, and took them to visit a friend at Dalkeith, where her brother received information, by supernatural means, of the event of the battle of Worcester, and that she herself had intercourse with the queen of the fairies, who assisted her in spinning an unusual quantity of yarn.
the Weirs' fiery, spectral coach
There was a woman who lived in the West Bow, at no great distance from Major Weir's house, who gave the following evidence. She was a substantial merchant's wife, and "being very desirous to hear him pray, for that end spoke to some of her neighbors, that when he came to their house she might be sent for. This was done, but he could never be persuaded to open his mouth before her — no, not to bless a cup of ale; he either remained mute, or up with his staff and away. Some few days before he discovered himself, this gentlewoman coming from the castle-hill, where her husband's niece was lying-in of a child, about midnight perceived about the Bow-head three women in the windows, shouting, laughing, and clapping their hands. The gentlewoman went forward, till just at Major Weir's door, there arose, as from the street, a woman about the height of two ordinary females, and stepped forward. The gentlewoman, not as yet excessively feared, bid her maid step on, if by the lantern they could see what she was; but haste what they could, this long-legged spectre was still before them, moving her body with a vehement cachination — a great, immeasurable laughter. At this rate the two strove for place, till the giantess came to a narrow lane in the Bow, commonly called the Stinking-close, into which she turning, and the gentlewoman looking after her, perceived the close full of flaming torches (she could give them no other name), and as it had been a great multitude of people, stentoriously laughing, and gaping with tahees of laughter. This sight, at so dead a time of the night, no people being in the windows belonging to the close, made her and her servant haste home, declaring all what they saw to the rest of the family, but more passionately to her husband. And though sick with fear, yet she went the next morning with her maid to view the noted places of her former night's walk, and at the close inquired who lived there. It was answered, Major Weir; the honest couple now rejoicing that to Weir's devotion they never said amen."The accounts of their resulting execution are similarly haunting. They were set to be hung and burned. Thomas "would not hear any minister pray to and for him, telling, his condemnation was sealed, and now since he was to goe to the devil, he would not anger him." When bid to pray for forgiveness as they hung the noose around him, he protested, "Let me alone - I will not - I lived as a beast and must die as a beast." His weird cane was thrown into the fire with him. It's said that it took an abnormally long time to burn as it twisted eerily in the flames.
Jean went to her death the next day. Wright tells us that as she was brought to the gallows, she cried, "Many weep and lament for a poor old wretch like me; but alas! few are weeping for a broken covenant." Wilby tells us that "Jean resolved 'to die with all the shame she could,' and to this end she 'cast away hir mantell, hir gown-tayle, and was purposed, as was sayde, to cast off all hir clothes before all the multitude; bot Baylie Oliphant, to whom the businese was intrusted, stoped the same, and commanded the executioner to doe his office.' But Jean did not give up her efforts, for when the executioner 'was about to throw hir ovir the leather, she smote the executioner on the chieke' and continued to resist him until the very end."
As often happens with such memorable persons and events, local legends abound concerning the Wizard of West Bow - along with the ghost of Major Weir himself, it's said that his staff can still be seen roaming the neighborhood at night. The Weirs' abandoned home was long reputed to be deeply haunted, remaining uninhabited for more than a century. In Edinburgh and the Lothians, we read, "At midnight the house flashed with light, sounds of ghostly revolt echoed within the deserted walls; the noise of dancing and spinning incongruously mixed with howling fell on your affrighted ears. Anon the Major would issue from the door, mount a black horse without a head, and ride off in a game. Again a magic coach and six, in grim parody of fashion, would call for him and his sister. The magic Staff loomed ever larger, improving on its early record. It ran messages, answered the door, acted as linkboy for the Major o’ dark nights as he went about his unholy errands." Traditions of Edinburgh relates that the house was eventually bought in 1780 by an ex-soldier, William Patullo, and his wife. On their first night in that home, they were visited, in the dark, by the apparition of a lamb, walking into their room on its hind legs, who stopped at the foot of the bed and simply stared. They didn't wait until morning to flee the scene.
Aside from all such legends, and the tragedy of their fate, I'm intrigued by the cultural aspects of their story. One element to consider, in terms of lore, is the fact that the Devil was sometimes consort to the Queen of Elphame in popular Scottish belief - albeit she was given to take any mortal man she liked as a lover. On that note, I came across an online archive on the House of Vere (Weir), into whose family Lady Somerville was wed and, interestingly enough, has historically claimed the fairy Melusine as an ancestor. The webmaster has no qualms about taking this literally - being the author of a book called The Dragon Legacy, which is just what it sounds like - and espouses a notion of "elven" lineage running throughout his family history. In any case, like all such theorists, he seems to have access to some interesting historical sources...whatever they might be. (I'm not asking for formal citations, but come on.) Now, all those qualifications out of the way, he writes of Thomas Weir as "Sorcerer, King of the Witches of the Lallan [Lowland] and Elven Prince Consort to the Queen of Fairy or Elphame - or as some say - 'The Queen of Hell.'" I don't have the slightest idea of where such come from, but it's not as unlikely as might sound at first - readers of this blog should know of another wizard who enjoyed such intimate company with the Queen of Elphame, and Thomas himself said that the Devil appeared to him in the shape of a beautiful woman. I still haven't seen any evidence to suggest that there was any community awareness of the Weirs as sorcerers before their confession. However, accusations of witchcraft - and prosecutions against cunning folk - were "rife" across Edinburgh and East Lothian in the preceding century. Maybe it was one such practitioner who first approached Jean and inducted her into an especially hardcore society; Jean claimed that her brother possessed a witch's mark, and she herself was shown to have evidence of a horseshoe having been nailed to her head.
Poor, poor Jean. I wonder where her ghost is.