“If the Devil were dead, folk would do little for God’s sake” – Scottish Proverb
In the 17th Century there were two rules for being a warlock. The first rule was don’t talk about being a warlock. The second rule was don’t talk about being a warlock. A minor corollary was don’t let your sister talk about your being a warlock. These are relatively simple rules to follow, but like most rules there’s always somebody who thinks rules are for the little people. Given, I hear tell that little sisters can be spiteful creatures, but one expects a measure of family loyalty in extreme circumstances, particularly instances where one might be burned at the stake, drawn and quartered, or otherwise adjudicated with extreme prejudice. Imagine you’ve lived a long and nefariously fruitful life of dark arts, devil worship, and debauchery, and find yourself at the tender age of 70 years old, a mere common cold away from shuffling off this mortal coil. As Voltaire observed on his deathbed in 1778, when asked by a priest to renounce Satan, “Now is not the time for making new enemies”. Well, Scottish anti-royalist soldier and posthumously famed occultist Major Thomas Weir (1599-1670), who had handily avoided the Edinburgh authorities for many decades by the simple ruse of being considered “saintly” by and cozying up to local Calvinist zealots, decided in the twilight of his life to unrepentantly confess to a long history of collaboration with the Devil, for which he was tried and executed.
George Weir, descendant of the ancient Weir-de Veres family, hailed from Carluke, Lanarkshire and was the son of Thomas Weir, Laird of Kirkton, and his wife Lady Jean (sometimes Jane) Somerville. He served in the Scottish anti-Royalist army until 1649, a year later obtaining the tony appointment as commander of the fearsome Edinburgh Town Guard, the city’s first police force formed after the 1513 defeat of the Scottish by the English at Flodden Field. Weir might have gotten a head start on his magical education, as his mother, in the few historical references to her, is given the appellation, “the witch” Lady Jean Somerville, owing to her reputation for clairvoyance. This would be the first and only clear sign that Major Weir had more than a passing acquaintance with the Dark Arts until his confession decades later.
When he retired from the army, George Weir took lodging in Edinburgh at the home of a widow named Grissald Whitford. A fellow boarder was none other than the fanatic Presbyterian preacher, tobacconist, and attempted assassin John Mitchell. Both Mitchell and Weir were Covenanters (a hardcore movement among Scottish Presbyterians violently opposed to Roman Catholicism). In 1668, Mitchell would attempt to assassinate the Episcopalian Archbishop James Sharp, who he considered the anti-Christ in all but name, failed and escaped, but was later recognized in 1674 by Sharp in the Edinburgh streets, imprisoned for a number of years, and ultimately hanged in 1678.
When Weir took up the command of the Edinburgh Town Guard, it gave him the authority to maltreat Royalists, which he did with extraordinary zeal, spending a lot of time abusing, hunting down, and jailing Cavaliers. His behavior was seen as a mark of the fervency of his Covenanter beliefs among Edinburgh Presbyterians, considering him a “singular worthy whom God had raised up to support the cause”. After about two years of commanding the Town Guard, Weir resigned (some say he was dismissed, but the Guard’s records don’t go back that far), and he settled, along with his sister Jean Weir, in the West Bow of Edinburgh’s High Street.
Prominent in any plan of older Edinburgh is the crooked line of the West Bow, which ran abruptly down from the head of the High Street, whence it formed the main thoroughfare to the Grassmarket in the valley on the south. Of this curious zigzag descent, which is said to have been one of the most ancient and characteristic streets in the old town, naught but the name has escaped the “improving” mania of our fore fathers. The Bow was long the peculiar domain of the white or tinsmiths, and so godly was the repute of its indwellers at the time of which we write, that they had earned for themselves the title of the Bowhead Saints. The denizens of this favored quarter must have hailed with holy joy the arrival among them of Major Weir, when, on an unascertained date, he withdrew his patronage from the dubious widow of the Cowgate and pitched his tent within ” the sanctified bends of the Bow (Roughead, 1913, p45-46).
While he never endeavored to officially preach, no gathering of Bowhead Saints was considered complete without his presence. Folks would seek him out in order to have him pray with them and reverenced him as “Angelical Thomas”. He wandered about Edinburgh dressed in black clothes and a black cloak with his later infamous staff (the significance of which would only be appreciated after his confession). There were rumors that Weir indulged in unspecified vices, but these were never enumerated and largely ignored, since he was regarded as a holy man. In the early spring of 1670, as Weirs’ health was failing, he appeared before a Presbyterian congregation which included a conventicle-minister of Ormiston and brother of Scottish mathematician, engineer and demonologist George Sinclair, author of Satan’s Invisible World. He began unprompted his confession to a life of mortal sin, wizardry, and compacts with the Devil. And at first, nobody believed him and attributed his confessional ramblings to delirium induced by his failing health.
In 1670 the Major was between seventy and seventy six, and a few quiet and safe years seemed his certain portion before he went to his honoured rest. Presently Edinburgh was startled by the report that he had confessed himself guilty of horrible and loathsome crimes and had with terrible cryings and roarings demanded condign punishment. The affair seemed so incredible that he was judged out of his senses—a theory still in favour with sceptical inquirers of to-day. Sir James Ramsay, then provost, sent physicians to report. His own sect also visited him, and a horrid certainty gained ground that the confessions were substantially true (Watt, 1912, p180-181).
So reverently was Thomas Weir regarded, that he wasn’t even initially believed when he confessed, and more or less regarded as a lunatic. For several months his confession was hidden from the public at large, attributed to his broken spirit as he faced his own impending death by natural causes. And if it wasn’t for his meddling sister Jean Weir, he would have gotten away with it too. When physicians examined him and found him to be mentally sound, and his sister (whom he had implicated in his confession) then came forward and began to detail a litany of sorcerous activity and moral depravity on the part of her brother, both the temporal and ecclesiastical authorities took notice. The Edinburgh Lord Provost sent the City Guard to arrest Thomas and Jean Weir, locking them up in the Tolbooth Prison. At the time of their arrest, Jean beseeched the Guard to secure Weir’s staff, declaring it “magical”. Since his initial confession, Major Weir had become introverted, obdurate, and generally unrepentant. On Saturday, April 9th, 1670, the Weirs were brought before the Justice Court, and tried together on separate indictments including incest, bestiality, and witchcraft. Jean Weir had a lot to say.
She had inherited, she said, her witch craft from her mother, together with an unholy mark upon her brow, which she exhibited to the ministers then present. “She put back her head-dress, and seeming to frown, there was Been an exact Horse-shoe shaped for nails in her wrinkles” — “terrible enough, I assure you, to the stoutest beholder,” says an eye-witness. She added that her brother having on one occasion “desired her to claw his back,” she found upon his shoulder “that which they call the Devil’s Mark.” Sir Walter Scott, by the way, borrowed Jean Weir’s horse-shoe frown for Redgauntlet, and bestowed the major’s name upon Sir Robert’s “great, ill-favoured jackanape.” Jean admitted that she and her brother had made a compact with the devil, “and that on the 7th of September, 1648, they were both transported from Edinburgh to Musselburgh and back again in a Coach and six Horses, which seemed all of fire, and that the Devil then told the Major of the defeat of our army at Preston in England, which he confidently reported several days before the news had arrived here”— a prophecy the fulfilment of which much enhanced the major’s reputation with the godly. Other accounts refer the major’s special intelligence to the battle of Worcester, with which, however, Jean’s date does not agree. “She knew much of the enchanted Staff, for by it he was enabled to pray, to commit filthiness not to be named, yea even to reconcile Neighbors, Husband and Wife, when at variance.” This latter property must have proved a valuable antidote to the major’s personal influence in the marital affairs of his flock, which tended rather in the opposite direction. She further confessed “that when she kept a school at Dalkeith and taught children” — how Mr. Squeers would have appreciated such “an educator of youth”! — a tall woman came to her house when the children were there, with the request that she should ” speak for her to the Queen of Fairie, and strike and battle in her behalf with the said Queen. This royal lady “is that very Mab” who, under the style and title of Quene of Elphane, figures for the first time in our criminal records at the trial of Alison Pearson for witchcraft on 15th May 1588. Next day a little woman came, who gave the schoolmistress “a piece of a tree or root” — telling her that as long as she kept it “she would be able to do what she should desire.” After certain necromantic ceremonies, not the least important of which was the delivery to her visitant of “all the silver she had,” the woman departed, and Jean, sitting down to her spinning-wheel, “did find more yarn upon her spindle, and good yarn, nor than she thought could be spun in so short a time.” Yet, despite this miraculous gift, the devil cheated her after all, as he did the major, “for her weaver could not make cloth thereof, the yarn breaking or falling from the Loom” (Roughead, 1913, p54-56).
Obviously, both were found guilty and sentenced to death. Major Weir was ordered to Gallow Lee between Leith and Edinburgh, and there, “betwixt two and four hours in the afternoon,” to be strangled at a stake till he was dead and his body to be burnt to ashes. Jean Weir was hanged at the Grassmarket of Edinburgh. The Major’s staff, upon closer examination was adorned with carvings of Centaurs, and it was noted that even during his life, he lost his usual articulate style of oratory when he was not holding it. The staff was summarily burnt along with the Major, and was said to exhibit some strange movements in the fire.
What’s confusing about Thomas Weir is not just did he openly confess to being a warlock, but he remained unrepentant about it even to the very end, so it wasn’t a very instrumental convention unless the object was to be strangled and burned, which seems a poor choice when compared with dying in bed. The question is, why did he bother at all, then? Maybe when you’ve been working with the Devil for decades, you figure on an honored seat with the Big Boys in Hell. Brand loyalty is surprisingly important to Satan. Perhaps it was a poke in the eye of the Presbyterians that previously revered him. Maybe he just wanted a little recognition for his sorcerous chops at the end of his life. He could have gone to his grave as a saintly religious figure. I see this as more of a warning about being prepared for your saint to be a sinner, for as George Orwell said, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent”. And for god’s sake, don’t tell your sister.
Ferguson, John, 1837-1916. Bibliographical Notes on the Witchcraft Literature of Scotland. Edinburgh, 1897.
Law, Robert, -1690, and Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe. Memorials: Or, The Memorable Things That Fell Out Within This Island of Britain From 1638 to 1684. Edinburgh: A. Constable, 1819.
Linton, E. Lynn (Elizabeth Lynn), 1822-1898. Witch Stories. London: Chapman and Hall, 1861.
Murray, Margaret Alice. The Witch-cult In Western Europe: a Study in Anthropology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921.
Roughead, William, 1870-1952. Twelve Scots Trials. Edinburgh: W. Green & Sons, 1913.
Scott, Walter, Sir, 1771-1832, W. H. (William Home) Lizars, James Skene, and George Cruikshank. Letters On Demonology And Witchcraft: Addressed to J.G. Lockhart, Esq. London: John Murray, 1830.
Sinclair, George, d. 1696. Satan’s Invisible World Discovered. Edinburgh: T.G. Stevenson, 1871.
Watt, Francis, 1849-1927, and Walter Dexter. Edinburgh and the Lothians. London: Methuen & co., ltd, 1912.
Wood, J. Maxwell (John Maxwell), -1925, and Book Traces Project. Witchcraft And Superstitious Record in the South-western District of Scotland. Dumfries: J. Maxwell & Son, 1911.
Wright, Thomas, 1810-1877. Narratives of Sorcery and Magic; From the Most Authentic Sources. London: R. Bentley, 1851.
“The first rule was don’t talk about being a warlock. The second rule was don’t talk about being a warlock” 😂😂 Thank you for another enlightening, captivating and chuckle worthy article ☺️☺️
There is more than purposeless confession in this account that puzzles the bejesus out of me. For instance, Jean Weir’s “unholy mark” is a horseshoe-shaped wrinkle that forms when she frowns which reportedly terrified the ministers who viewed it. This utterly demolishes the stereotype of the Scots as a formidable kick-ass people. The outcome of the Battle of Stirling Bridge might have been different had the English forces simply sported horseshoe-shaped frowns. This is ludicrous and leads to an alternate interpretation, to wit, the examiners were bewitched by an unnamed party into believing the confessions.
Then there is the absence of any request for empirical evidence of magical power. If someone claims to be a practitioner of the dark arts shouldn’t they be required to demonstrate it (and not just some card tricks either) before society incurs the expense of trial, imprisonment, and execution. Such things cost money.
Note the similarity to the most notable feature of Redgauntlet?