Major Thomas Weir, Wizard of West Bow: Edinburgh’s Most Terrifying Witch

The house of Major Thomas Weir in West Bow, Edinburgh. (Image: James Skene. Major Thomas Weir’s house in West Bow, Edinburgh)

Walk down the storied streets of Edinburgh and the city’s history becomes almost tangible. Peeling back the layers of one of Europe’s most vibrant cities reveals a past that is often dark. One of the most bizarre stories in the history of Scotland’s capital might be the confessions, trial and execution of Major Thomas Weir.

Weir was a devout Presbyterian, a former soldier, and a highly respected pillar of the community. But in 1670, while attending a service, he suddenly stood up and confessed to witchcraft. His confession came out of nowhere, and absolutely no-one suspected Weir and his sister, Grizel, of leading anything but the most pious of lives.

So unexpected and out of character was Weir’s confession that, when the other members of the congregation couldn’t convince him that he wasn’t a witch, they sought the opinion of doctors, who declared him mentally unstable. In spite of the doctors’ findings, Weir insisted that he was a witch and should be punished accordingly.

Major Thomas Weir's flaming coach passing along West Bow at midnight, possessed by the Devil himself. (Image: Alexander A. Ritchie. Illustration of Weir’s flaming coach)

When Weir confessed, he implicated his sister, who even confirmed his claims. And those claims were extremely unsettling. Weir confessed that the black staff he carried had been given to him by the devil, and that he was carrying on an incestuous relationship with his sister. What’s more, he said that the whole thing had begun with their mother, who was also a witch.

A mark on Grizel’s forehead was supposedly put there by the Devil himself, who had allegedly granted her the ability to spin yarn (yarn that would break when anyone else tried to use it) at an ungodly speed. She claimed that the pair had regular meetings with a “dark stranger”, who took them to meetings in Dalkeith in a fiery coach drawn by six flaming horses.

Grizel and the Major also claimed to be able to speak to the dead. No matter how many people tried to convince them otherwise, both insisted it was true. Weir and his sister were finally tried for witchcraft. Both were found guilty based on their confessions. Grizel was hanged while her brother was strangled then burned. According to witnesses, their executions took an unsettling amount of time.

The Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse. (Image: John William Waterhouse. The Magic Circle, Tate Britain)

But that wasn’t the end of the story. For decades after the children of Edinburgh were warned to avoid the home that once belonged to the Weirs. It was said that the fiery coach occasionally visited the house, which continued to be haunted by the ghosts of their victims. Strange shapes could be seen in the windows, candles would flicker to life when no-one was there, and passers-by would swear they heard someone playing music in the abandoned home.

What became of the house, you may be wondering? For a long time, it was believed that the home was destroyed along with a series of buildings in 1878 as part of a large-scale demolition project. But in 2014 Cardiff University historian Dr Jan Bondeson revealed that the house may not have been destroyed after all.

Researchers concluded that the sinister residence had likely been incorporated into a rather unlikely structure – a Quaker meeting house – that now stands on Upper Bow, above Victoria Terrace, in Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town. What’s more, they found that the remains of what was once the Weir home were now, oddly enough, part of the meeting house’s toilet.

The Quaker Meeting House in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Image: Kim Traynor. Quaker Meeting House in Edinburgh’s Old Town)

Anthony Buxton, manager of the Quaker Meeting House, told the Edinburgh Evening News: “This was the first time I had been told Major Weir’s home was actually here. I have to say, from my reading of its history I thought it had been demolished by people who did not want anything to do with it. That said, one of my staff some years ago said he had seen Weir walk through the wall. If Dr Bondeson is right, his house is in our toilet – which seems quite appropriate.”

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