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Edinburgh's Scariest History

Edinburgh has a dark and mysterious history, from which has emerged many stories and legends about spooky goings-on. We've been sharing some of the creepiest tales in our Camera Obscura show during this spooky season, but here are a few of our favourties for you to read... if you dare.


Captain John Porteouse

Captain Porteouse was the captain of the city guard and had been disliked by the residents of Edinburgh for years, being seen as an oppressor of the people. During the removal of a recently executed body, the crowd became aggressive and Captain Porteouse ordered his men to shoot a warning shot to disperse them. Unfortunately there were many people up in the windows of the building above the crowd who were killed and injured.  He was quickly found guilty of their deaths and sentenced to hang but was saved by a last-minute reprieve. So angered were the people of Edinburgh by this that they stormed the prison throwing stones at the city guard and hitting them with rifle butts. They broke in and dragged Captain Porteouse towards the noose he’d nearly avoided earlier and lynched him, delivering the justice they believed he deserved.


Major Thomas Weir

Major Weir was a veteran of the British army and a well-respected member of the Presbyterian movement in Edinburgh. Being a tall and imposing figure that always carried a large black wooden staff he was well recognised by most locals of West Bow where he lived with his unmarried sister Grizel. It came as a shock to everyone when in 1670 during a prayer meeting, he suddenly stood up and confessed that him and his sister where in league with the devil and did their bidding. Many people tried to dissuade him from such confessions, but when his sister also began to confess and claim that she had slept with her own brother, the local authorities had to act. Rather than prosecute the pair, the city turned the matter over to the church who to save face eventually chose to hang both Weirs not for satanic practices but for inappropriate relations with a relative.


Deacon Brodie

Deacon was a well renowned and skilled cabinet maker in Edinburgh; he was even the president of cabinet makers in the city and as such he held a seat on the Edinburgh council. Brodie had a second side however, and when he was not working or attending meetings he was tending to his five children, mistresses, or gambling what little money he had. When his debts and responsibilities began to catch up with him, Brodie cashed in on his good reputation and the trust people had in him by making copies of keys, then using them to break in and burgal businesses. He furthered his gains by teaming up with an English locksmith named George Smith and the two began a crime spree which became more about the thrill than the profit. At one point they even managed to steal the silver mace of Edinburgh University and to this day it has never been recovered. Though Brodie managed to escape the law for some time, he eventually slipped up and fell asleep whilst on look out for his crew, which lead to two members being captured. Though none of them turned Brodie in, he was convinced they would so he fled to the Netherlands, making it obvious that he’d been involved. Brodie’s plan was to flee to the USA but he was captured and deported back to Edinburgh where he was hung alongside Smith. Many think this is the end of his story, but some say that Brodie wore a collar to save his neck from snapping and that he escaped to Paris, where several people over the years claimed to have spotted or even met up with him.


Burke & Hare

Burke and Hare both came from Ireland to work as labourers on the Union Canal, but neither met the other until years later when they were both working at a harvest in Penicuik. After getting to know him, Burke convinced Hare to come back with him to Edinburgh to work at his Lodging House. At this time in Edinburgh there was a large demand for fresh bodies as the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh became ever popular. The anatomy lecturer John Knox increased his demonstrative autopsies to twice monthly, offering up to £10 per fresh body (£876 in today’s money). Very persistent grave robbers began to plague Edinburgh, which led to precautions like cages surrounding coffins and walls around graveyards. In November of 1827 the pair began their journey into infamy by selling their first body to John Knox, a man listed as Donald who died of natural causes. He was also a tenant of Burke at the time and owed him money. Burke was worried about his loss of income and consulted with Hare, who made him aware of the steep price a body could be sold for. The promise of this large amount of money overcame any qualms Burke had on taking such action. This could have been the end of it, but the two now had knowledge of an easy way to make money and when no other bodies fell into their laps, they began to make them. The first person they actually murdered to sell is debated even to this day but most believe it was a miller called Joseph in January of 1828 who was suffocated by a pillow. After that the pair is believed to of murdered 16 people in total but where eventually caught in a twist of fate on Halloween 1828 and officially accused of their crimes on 2nd November. 


John Macmorran

John Macmorran was one of Edinburgh’s richest merchants in the late 1500s. Though he was well respected at the time, nowadays he is most remembered for his death. On 15th September 1595, after months of what they perceived as neglect, the pupils of the Old High School finally took action after being denied a week’s holiday. They barricaded the entrance to the school and armed themselves with pistols and swords swearing a pact of vengeance to anyone who would try to be master of them. The Town council very quickly lost patience so asked John to enlist some men to remove the students. John gathered a small group of armed men and marched up to the barricaded door, thumped it and demanded access. The boys jeered at them, so John and his men took a long beam of wood and used it as a battering ram to force the doors. When the doors finally seemed to be giving way, John called up to the boys one more time to surrender. William Sinclair, one of the ringleaders of the students, stepped forward and levelled their pistol at John and shot him in the head, causing him to fall backwards. The rest of the men tended to him but to no avail, and concluded he was dead before he’d hit the ground. On seeing this sudden brutality, most of the students put down their weapons, unbarricaded the door and surrendered. Sinclair and his close friends were captured and detained in prison, although they were all eventually released with no punishment, for fear of what their rich and influential families may do.


To hear even more spooky tales, come along to Camera Obscura & World of Illusions and explore our world of wonder, featuring a Camera Obscura show using 169 year old Victorian technology. We've dressed up our historic building for this scary season, and need your help finding 5 ghosts that have escaped from our basement. Find out more on our website or keep up with our socials to stay updated on our latests events and news!


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