The Out About Scotland guide to gruesome tales of murders and executions in Edinburgh
One of the things I love about travelling around Scotland is discovering all the grim and gruesome bits of history that the tourist guides don’t bother telling you about. There’s a kind of macabre fascination in finding out how torture devices worked, or how witches were judged, and how mobs of ordinary people used to bay for blood during public executions. I guess it’s partly because we live in such a sanitized world today that we could never imagine ourselves getting up to the mischief that our ancestors got up to. Or could we?
Possibly my favourite place in all of Scotland to learn about the juicy and gruesome tales of yesteryear is my own city of Edinburgh, a city that has grown through years of plague outbreaks, mob riots, murders and executions. Just walking around the Old Town late at night will send shivers up your back as you explore the meandering closes and wynds that run off the Royal Mile like a spider’s web.
There’s enough vile goings-on in this city’s history to fill an entire book but I’ve included a few of my favourites in this post. Who knows? Maybe they’ll inspire you to come and check out Edinburgh’s gruesome history for yourself.
The story of Half-hangit Maggie
Maggie Dickson, or ‘half-hangit Maggie’ as she became known, was a fishwife who was tried and convicted for the murder of her new-born baby in 1724. Well-known at the time for being a promiscuous troublemaker, she was reputed to have engaged in a passionate affair with a much younger man in 1723.
Shortly afterwards an Edinburgh fisherman reported that he had found the drowned, naked body of a new-born baby, and fingers of suspicion were pointed at Maggie. It didn’t take long before the Edinburgh courts found her guilty and she was quickly sentenced to death in 1724, but by this time the story of the mother who had killed her new-born son had become big news in the city.
As was customary for the time huge crowds came out to witness her public execution, and the Grassmarket was thronged with angry citizens baying for justice. She was led crying and pleading in front of the angry crowd to the hangman’s noose but her desperate screams for mercy fell on deaf ears as she was dropped through the gallows floor, with the full weight of her body snapping her neck as she jerked and twisted uncontrollably (or ‘dancing the hangman’s jig’ as it was known in those times).
While many of the executed in Edinburgh had their tearful families pull down on their legs to make their death quicker, Maggie had no-one to help so she danced the jig for several minutes until her twitching body finally stopped moving.
After the required 30 minute wait her body was cut down and she was confirmed dead by the attending doctor, at which point she was unceremoniously thrown into a coffin and loaded onto a cart to be taken to the local graveyard.
As the cart trundled through the streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town two passing joiners heard frantic banging and screeching coming from inside the coffin so they immediately set to work to free the person trapped inside, but when they broke it open, to their astonishment, the gasping Maggie Dickson miraculously rose up and howled, terrifying all who saw her.
As the law at the time had already recorded that Maggie’s punishment had been carried out the Edinburgh officials had no choice but to let her go free with a full pardon. Whether her resurrection was a case of divine intervention or an incorrect medical diagnosis we shall never know. But we do know that she lived on for another 25 years after she was ‘executed’ on the gallows, and Half-hangit Maggie became the infamous owner of an ale-house until her final, non-reviving death in 1753.
Swift justice in the Old Town
Justice was swift and brutal in days gone by, as can be seen by the punishment inflicted on poor Robert Henderson in 1584. Young Robert was only in his early teens when he accidentally managed to set fire to his father’s house after lighting a candle one evening, with the flames burning the building to the ground in a raging inferno.
Luckily for the rest of the city, although most of the buildings nearby were of wooden construction no others caught fire. However, fearful of his father’s revenge Robert ran away from Edinburgh in an attempt to evade punishment, but the angry residents of the city were not in the mood to let him escape justice so easily.
A search party was quickly sent out which managed to capture Robert on the very same day, and before long he was back in the city ready for sentencing. With Edinburgh’s angry mob shouting outside the courtroom the final verdict didn’t take long at all and a brutal punishment was devised in double-quick time.
Poor Robert could barely have understood what was happening as he was thrown into prison and then brought out again shortly after to be executed by being burnt at the stake, as an example to the rest of the baying Edinburgh citizens. It would have been a terrifying and excruciating death for the teenager who had been unlucky enough to have merely had an accident with a candle.
But in some ways Robert Henderson could count himself lucky that he wasn’t subjected to another form of execution that the law-makers of Edinburgh had conjured up. Perhaps even worse than being burnt at the stake was the form of punishment known as the Breaking Wheel, a punishment that was recorded as being used at Edinburgh’s Mercat Cross in 1591.
The wheel was a particularly cruel device which consisted of a simple wagon wheel that had lots of wooden spokes inside it. The condemned were lashed to the wheel and beaten to death with cudgels, with the gaps between the spokes allowing the unfortunate victim’s bones to give way and break in multiple places. Death with the wheel was slow and uncommonly cruel even for those times, but thankfully it was rarely used in Scotland as hanging and drowning were the preferred methods of enacting justice.
Drowning was predominantly used on women who were accused of being witches, with the accused being tied to a chair and lowered into the Nor Loch, the loch that at one time existed under Edinburgh Castle before it was drained and turned into Princes Street gardens.
The ‘witches’ in this punishment would do one of two things, float or drown. If she floated she was confirmed as a witch, at which point she would be tied to a stake and burnt alive. If she sank and drowned she was confirmed to be pure, although that wouldn’t have been much consolation to her grieving family. Either way the women of Old Edinburgh would have been permanently fearful of having the witchcraft finger of suspicion pointed at them.
The gruesome grave robbers of Edinburgh
This story is arguably the most famous tale of murders and executions in Edinburgh and it’s been retold countless times in newspaper articles, and even had a Holywood movie made about it a few years ago. The gruesome tale revolves around Edinburgh’s body snatchers in the 19th-century, and it’s a story that still fascinates visitors to Edinburgh to this day.
In 1828 the infamous William Burke and William Hare carried out a series of grisly murders in an attempt to make some easy money in a crime spree that shocked the nation. At the time Edinburgh was becoming the foremost centre of medicine in Europe, with educated men coming from far and wide to pay large sums of money to receive the medical training that would one day turn them into fully qualified doctors.
Unfortunately for the universities, the only way they could teach the inner workings of the human body was to dissect the corpses of the recently deceased, and with such a large demand these corpses were becoming hard to find.
It was at this time that Burke and Hare came up with their devious scheme. If they could sell newly deceased bodies to the medical universities in the city they could make a quick profit, and with Edinburgh’s already notoriously high crime rate they’d be able to get away with killing a few people without having to worry about getting caught.
William Burke was known to be a giant of a man with massively powerful arms and unusually large hands which enabled him to commit his murders using a method now known as ‘burking’. In order to commit murder without leaving any trace of injury, Burke would simultaneously cover the nose and mouth of his victim with one giant hand until they suffocated to death, while Hare kept a lookout. The pair would then present the body to the city’s medical universities for dissection, at a considerable price and with offers of ‘plenty more where that one came from…’.
The duo successfully managed to sell the bodies of several victims during the following months but when their murderous spree came under the scrutiny of an ambitious police inspector, Burke and Hare resorted to digging up graves and stealing the decaying bodies instead.
The number of graves they dug up became such a problem that grieving families had to resort to barricading their loved ones behind iron bars to prevent them being exhumed, which is the last thing anyone would want to be worrying about at a funeral.
You can see evidence of the precautions Edinburgh took to protect its dead at the graveyard at Canongate Kirk – which became one of Burke and Hare’s favoured grave-robbing sites – and you can still see the security bars on the tombs if you visit it today.
Their murderous spree didn’t last for long though and they were eventually caught, convicted, and found guilty of murder, for which only Burke was executed. While Hare was released from custody in 1829, Burke was publicly hanged the same year in Edinburgh and his body was donated to medical science so that his skeleton could be publicly displayed in remembrance for his atrocious crimes. Hare meanwhile, fled to England, where he died in poverty and anonymity without anyone else knowing about the crimes he’d committed in Edinburgh.
The peaceful Saint Giles and the Edinburgh rioters
You might not have heard of Saint Giles other than a reference to him when you visit St. Giles Cathedral on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, but he’s actually the patron saint of the city. Legend has it that St. Giles was a 7th-century Greek hermit who made his home in the vast forests of France where he befriended many wild animals while living a simple life in devotion to god.
One of the stories about the saint says that one day the king’s hunters accidentally shot an arrow into him as they were searching for wild deer, and although not killed, St. Giles was seriously injured, although he didn’t once complain or ask for compensation. The king was so impressed by St. Giles humility that he built a monastery for him to preach in, and due to his injuries he eventually became a patron saint to all disabled people.
The history of St. Giles Cathedral is in complete opposition to the gentleness of its patron saint and throughout the years that it’s stood on the Royal Mile it’s has been the focal point for many of Edinburgh’s terrible riots. Perhaps the most famous uprising that centred around the cathedral was the religious conflict that spread out from the capital city and all across Scotland in 1637.
At this time the English King Charles I had decreed that his people should all be united under one religion and one Bible, and without any consultation with the people of Scotland, Charles introduced his new Book of Prayer on the 23rd July of that year. However, the people of Edinburgh were not going to be so quick to obey the commands of the English king and as soon as the first words from the book were spoken a riot broke out amongst the congregation.
Legend has it that the riot started when a marketplace seller became so enraged with the kings new Book of Prayer that she picked up a stool and hurled it at the Dean of Edinburgh’s head. This was a signal for the rest of the congregation to rise up against the city councillors and they quickly turned into a frenzied mob. After violently beating the officials inside the cathedral the rioters then spilled out onto the streets of Edinburgh where it became impossible to police them, and hundreds of rioters joined together to tear the city’s Old Town apart.
What’s surprising is that while most mob riots in those times ended quickly, this one continued for several days and eventually spread outside of Edinburgh and escalated into what became known as the Bishops Wars, which in turn contributed to the civil wars that eventually tore through all three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Quite an escalation from one angry woman with a wooden stool!
The murder of the Covenanters at Rullion Green
It’s almost impossible to believe that the peaceful Pentland Hills just outside of Edinburgh were once the site of one of the most influential battles in Scotland’s religious history. This conflict became known as the Pentland Uprising of 1666, and it’s important because it was the first time the Covenanters were able to bring together a force that could rise against the laws that were unfairly imposed on them by King Charles II.
The Covenanters were a Scottish religious movement that fiercely maintained their Presbyterian beliefs as the one true religion in Scotland, and they defiantly objected to the new liturgy that was being imposed on them by the king.
At the time over 400 Covenanter ministers had been ejected from their churches, and further laws were being created to stamp out any further Presbyterian ministries from being formed. This led to a great deal of unrest with the Covenanter faithful which culminated in a battle on the 28th November 1666 when a band of 900 Covenanter rebels formed on Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills to attack over 3000 British government soldiers.
The sheer size of the numbers on the government side coupled with the fact that many rebels were non-military farmers led to a crushing defeat for the Covenanters, who desperately fled across the boggy Pentland marshes. Those who escaped the massacre on the battlefield subsequently found themselves trapped in freezing-wet conditions and either died drowning in the frozen marshland or were captured and subjected to torture and execution by the chasing government soldiers.
In total over 50 Covenanters were killed by the troops of General Tam Dalziel, and 15 of them were hung, drawn, and quartered in the most brutal executions that the city had ever witnessed. As a method of execution it was cruel even for those times, with the victim being hung by their neck almost to the point of death before being cut open from the chest to the belly and having their insides ripped out. The body would then have its arms and legs cut off and would be beheaded before being publicly displayed as a warning to others.
And as a cruel warning to other rebels, two of the young Covenanter men were subjected to the boot, a torture device that was strapped onto their legs with wooden boards that were tightened so hard that the bones snapped. The pain these men must have gone through is difficult to imagine, but thankfully such torture devices were phased out over the course of the next century. Today, a single headstone memorializes the fate of the failed uprising at the edge of a small wood on Rullion Green.
There are many more gruesome tales of murders and executions in Edinburgh that you might be interested to hear about, as well as lots of other horrible stories from Scotland’s history, so keep checking the website for new articles as well as my guides which will tell you where you need to go to discover Scotland’s rich history for yourself.