The Unlikely Witch of Edinburgh

From late 17th-century Scotland comes one of the strangest stories of witchcraft to emerge out of that period. Most people who were convicted and executed for the crime of witchcraft had to have their confessions tortured or bullied out of them. But this person’s confession was totally voluntary and completely unexpected.

Major Thomas Weir was a respected member of Edinburgh society in the mid-1600s. He was a devout Presbyterian, who regularly held well-attended prayer meetings in the city and in his own home. He was also a retired soldier who had been appointed commander of the Town Guard in 1650. It was all of these things that made his sudden confession of witchcraft, while at a church service no less, so shocking.

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The 70-year-old Weir had been ill for some time, so when he confessed to such sins as incest, sorcery, and necromancy, many thought that his illness had begun to affect his mind. The authorities refused to believe his claims, and he was declared mentally unstable by a doctor.

But Weir would not give up. He insisted he was a witch and that he deserved punishment. But his self-accusations were ignored until his sister, Grizel, confirmed them. Not only that, she confessed to participating in her brother’s dark deeds, and the pair claimed to have been carrying on an incestuous relationship. They both admitted to meeting with a demon who would take them to Satanic meetings in the woods. They both claimed that Weir’s walking stick, which was topped with a carved human head, was a gift from Satan that gave him special powers.

After such a confession, the authorities felt they had to take the siblings seriously, and the two were imprisoned in the Tolbooth prison. They were interrogated and Weir’s “magical” cane was taken from him. They were put on trial, charged with unnatural sexual practices rather than witchcraft, because the church was embarrassed and did not want one of their prominent members found guilty of such a crime.

Brother and sister were both found guilty and sentenced to death. Major Weir was strangled and then burnt. He never recanted his confession even as he was being led to his execution. His walking stick was burned along with his body. His sister, Grizel, was hung and then burnt. As she was led to the scaffold, she tried to take off her clothes in an effort to shock the crowd, but she was prevented from doing so completely.

Their deaths might have been the end of this strange story of what were probably two mentally ill people, were it not for some strange happenings at their house in the West Bow area of Edinburgh. After their executions, people claimed to see strange figures in the now-empty house, and lights going on and off at all hours. For many years, no one would live in the house. The only people who tried moved out after one night, claiming to have seen a demon calf staring at them in the middle of the night.

Part of the house was demolished in the 1800s, but for years many people did not know that it had not been completely destroyed. Parts of it had been incorporated into a new building that was built on the site.

You can still visit what is left of Weir’s haunted home in the restrooms of the Quaker Meeting House that stands there today. Staff who work there still claim to see ghosts, even the figure of Major Thomas Weir himself, drifting through walls of the religious center’s toilet stalls.

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