Edinburgh Past And Present - The Edinburgh Website

Stories of Old Edinburgh 2


William Burke and William Hare were both born in Ireland in the 1790s and met in Edinburgh around 1818 while working on the Union Canal. When the canal was completed in 1822 Hare became a down and out but his luck changed when he met a woman by the name of Margaret. Her husband owned a lodging house and when he died, Hare stepped in, married Margaret and inherited the house. Burke meanwhile met a Mary Macdougall and did odd jobs such as hedging, farm work and shoemaking.

When an old soldier who lived at the lodging house was found dead, Hare felt cheated as the man owed him rent so he hatched a plan with Burke to earn some money. Hare removed the body from the coffin, put it in a sack and placed tree bark in the coffin. The two sold the body to a Dr Knox at the Royal College of Surgeons for £7 10s with no questions asked. Bodysnatching was not a new phenomenon in Edinburgh, in fact several graveyards had watch towers built to prevent this and it was with this in mind that the duo decided to use murder to obtain more bodies.

They targeted waifs and strays, people no one would miss. By hanging around at inns such as the Whitehart in the Grassmarket, they could spot likely victims. They would often get the victim drunk and usually kill them by suffocation as it didn't damage the body. The killings were often done in Hare's own lodging house.

Their last victim, an elderly lady called Mary Docherty had been conned into thinking Burke was a relative. He offered her a bed for the night in his house but first asked his lodger and family to stay the night at Hare's house. The pair suffocated the old lady but in the morning the lodger's wife returned to find Burke acting suspiciously. When he went out to buy some whiskey, she discovered the body and went straight to the police despite Helen Macdougal's (Burke's partner) pleading.

The two couples were questioned by police over the next month but as they couldn't find any evidence, gave the Hare's a chance to become informers. So at the trial which began on Christmas Eve, they Hares gave evidence against the Burkes. William Burke was found guilty of murder but his wife was let free. He was sentenced to hang with a public dissection afterwards.

25000 people watched Burke hanged on January 28th 1828, his body dissected and his skeleton put on display. The two women were hounded wherever they went and Hare, now a free man was last spotted in Carlisle. Knox the surgeon was never charged but the public didn't forgive and he left Edinburgh.

The exact number of murders committed was never known but it is in the region of 16. Today in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons at Surgeons Hall there is purse which it is said is made of Burke's skin.



  Riddles Court where Baillie McMorane lived

At the old High School one day in 1595, the scholars were having difficulty with a group of boys who had barricaded themselves in the school as a protest against their holidays being curtailed. Bailie John McMorane was sent to resolve the problem but together with his men were unable to reason with the youngsters. They attempted to break down the door but one of the boys vowed to put a pair of bullets in the Baillie's head. This threat was ignored so the boy fired killing the Baillie instantly. A William Sinclair son of the Chancellor of Caithness was imprisoned in the Tolbooth along with some of the other boys. A charge of murder was placed on William Sinclair but the King intervened and ordered all the boys to be released.


Although the city wasn't too badly affected in World War II there was a night of serious destruction across the city in World War I. On Sunday 2nd April 1916 at around 11.30pm a German Zeppelin was spotted crossing the Firth of Forth and heading towards Leith. The Dock area was first to be bombed before the Zeppelin turned its attention to the general population. Bombs fell in Commercial street, Sandport Street, Church Street and Mill Lane where a Manse was destroyed and Leith hospital had a near miss. Buildings, a railway and a tannery suffered hits at Bonnington.

The Zeppelin then headed for Edinburgh. 23 windows were broken in Longstone and bombs rained down as far away as Liberton. The area around Donaldson's Hospital was badly damaged and Canonmills was hit, with many windows being broken in a blast. Lauriston Place was badly affected including George Watson's College and many windows in the nearby Royal Infirmary were broken. Marchmont and Causewayside were both bombed and in the Grassmarket the White Hart Inn suffered damage and windows were blown out there as well as West Bow. A bomb landed on the Mound but caused no damage then one fell on the Castle Rock missing the Castle but causing damage to neighbouring streets including Lothian Road. Marshall Street in the Southside was the worst affected place with the highest number of casualties when a bomb fell opposite number 16. Nicolson Street and Simon Square also suffered extensive damage. The Zeppelin moved onto St Leonard's Hill causing a further casualty then into Queen's Park but causing little damage. There is uncertainty over the Zeppelin's path across the city, it seems to have jumped from one area to another in no particular order. In all 11 people died that night and countless were injured. Many buildings were damaged or destroyed yet little is now known of this night of terror that affected the residents of Edinburgh not so long ago.


There was disbelief in the city when old Major Weir admitted that he practised incest with his sister who he shared a house with. There was further disbelief when he told of sexual relations with his servant lady. He also told of sexual encounters with cows and horses and admitted that he practised witchcraft.

Major Weir was a well respected citizen and a member of a strict religious sect so it wasn't surprising that his confessions were heard with total disbelief. At first it was thought he was mad but after an examination proved he was sane, a prosecution took place. As his sister also confessed to practising witchcraft, she was tried with him.

Grizel Weir told how a fiery coach appeared one day and took them to Musselburgh and foretold the result of a future battle. She told how her brother's power was in the staff that he carried with him at all times and claimed that their mother had also been a witch. She said she bore the devil's mark on her forehead.

Major Weir was strangled and his body burned at the stake with his staff. Grizel was hanged in the Grassmarket and it is said she cast off all her clothes so she could die with all the shame she could.

For over a century afterwards, their house at West Bow remained unoccupied amid stories of ghostly goings on. People said they saw Satan himself take the Weir's out in his coach long after they were dead and that the Major's staff ran errands for him. No one wanted to live in the cursed house. That was until 150 years later when in 1819 a Seargant Patullo and his wife moved in, revelling in the publicity that spread around the city. They lasted one night, claiming that they saw a shape in the form of a calf which came from the embers of their dying fire and looked at the terrified couple. The house was demolished in 1878.


In 1836 5 boys made a very unusual discovery in a cave on Arthur's Seat. They found 17 miniature coffins with carved wooden figures inside, all dressed differently, and arranged in 3 tiers with 8 coffins on each (1 on the final tier suggesting it wasn't completed). The fist tier was decayed, the second less so and the third seemed recent.

No one knows what they were for or who carved and put them there. So many theories abound from witchcraft to sailors charms. My favourite is that they were carved by a shoemaker who knew Burk and Hare and each figure represents one of their victims. But we will never know. They were held in a private collection until 1901 when they were gifted to the Museum of Scotland. Only 8 have survived - the rest decayed - and can be seen today at the Royal Museum in Chambers Street.