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Edinburgh Virtual Crime Walk

Disclaimer: there are some triggering and potentially upsetting themes

Explore the map here

William Burke and William Hare The grave robbers

George Robertsonlast man hanged in Edinburgh

16th &17th Century Scottish Witch trials

Margaret Dickson Half Hangit Maggie

Jessie king The baby farmer

Calton Prison

William Broadie

The peaceful Saint Giles and the Edinburgh rioters

World’s End Murders 1970’s

Mary Stuart - Mary Queen of Scots



Edinburgh played host to two serial killers who were active from 1827 to 1828, William Burke and William Hare. Scottish law at the time allowed the bodies of those who died in prison or died by suicide to be legally used for dissection as part of anatomical research. The Judgement of Death Act 1823 meant that the number of crimes punishable by death within the UK dropped drastically. Whilst this was good news, for those who used the bodies for scientific research, this led to a supply shortage. Whilst the law stated that individuals needed to have died of natural or semi natural causes, Edinburgh started witnessing an increase in grave robbing. These robberies became so frequent that relatives felt the need to watch over the freshly dug graves of their loved ones whilst watch towers were erected in the cemeteries. This was due to increasing amounts of money being offered for a fresh body. Burke, of Irish descent, took up residence with his mistress Helen McDougal in Tanner’s close in the West Port area of Edinburgh whilst Hare moved in with Margaret Laird on the same street where they lived as husband and wife, although not legally married. Their first encounter with the influential lecturer Dr. Robert Knox and his colleagues from the anatomy department at the University of Edinburgh was following the death of a tenant who still owed them money and receiving seven pounds and ten shillings encouraged them to continue earning money this way. It is said the first victim was another tenant named Joseph who was ill and instead of waiting to see if he would die, they impatiently loaded him with whiskey then restrained and suffocated him.

William Burke and William Hare. The grave robbers

This was the distinct way in which Burke and Hare carried out their killings – complete intoxication followed by murder before the bodies were taken to Dr. Knox. It is said they were likely to have murdered at least 16 people although it is thought that the real figure is likely to be a lot higher. Their victims included prostitutes, the elderly, children and even the handicapped. An incident occurred whereby the relatives of one of the dead discovered the victim and instead of accepting Burke and Hare’s bribe, they reported the murder to the police. Following an investigation with conflicting accounts of what happened and blame towards each other, Burke was sentenced to be hung at Lawnmarket in front of 25,000 people whilst his mistress was set free as her role in the murders was not proven.Hare however, due to a detailed confession of the crimes committed, escaped the death penalty, and was initially sent to Dumfries. Owing to being recognised on the ride over, word spread, and a mob found him and attempt to take matters into their own hands. With police intervention, he was taken away, left on Annan Road and told to cross the border into England. There is no further record of him after this. Interesting facts surrounding this case include Burke’s body being dissected and students present at the time taking his skin as souvenirs, using it to bind books and cardholders. A new word was also coined in the aftermath of these murders – ‘burking’ which means to smother a victim or commit an anatomy murder.

It was only within the last century, in 1969 specifically, that the death penalty was abolished as a form of punishment within the UK. In 1954, the last execution took place in Edinburgh following a shocking murder committed by George Robertson. Elizabeth McGarry was a single Catholic mother to two teenagers, she had no job and her second marriage had ended after only a few months. Her first husband, George Robertson who was violent, abusive and highly jealous was back in their lives. His prolific domestic violence had not changed however, and she banished him out of the house for a second time. By Robertson’s own accounts, the only way he felt he could make his ex-wife see sense was to bind, gag and threaten her with a hatchet. Elizabeth and her two children, George Jr., 18 and Jean, 16, took extreme precautions when in their home by keeping doors constantly bolted, forcing chairs under doorknobs, and keeping a poker within reach. It is unclear what happened on February 28th, 1954, however, following a fun evening with neighbours that lasted well into the night, Robertson had made his way into the family home.

George Alexander Robertson

Robertson first attacked his son, stabbing him in the head and after he had fallen, turned his attention to Jean, pushing her onto a bed and stabbing her. Jean tried to escape to get help for her family however, she was too badly injured. George Jr. also made an attempt to escape whilst his father bound and gagged Jean and reached the neighbours kitchen window begging for help. Unfortunately, his father caught up with him and killed him in front of the neighbour’s house. Robertson brought his son’s body back to the family home before putting his head in the gas oven where the police subsequently found him.George Jr. had been stabbed 14 times and his mother Elizabeth 15. Robertson endured a two-day trial which concluded with the jury taking only an hour to find him guilty of murder and attempted murder. Within 15 weeks of this brutal incident on June 23rd, 1954, George Alexander Robertson was hanged at the hands of executioner Albert Pierrepoint.

We have already briefly explored this location in the case of Jessie King, known as the baby farmer, and the last woman to be executed in Edinburgh at Calton Jail. This jail was known as one of the most miserable prisons to be incarcerated in which conditions were unsightly even by that era's standards. One of the inmates, Willie Gallacher gave an account of what Calton Jail was like claiming it to be “the worst prison in Scotland; cold, silent and repellent”. He further claimed that the discipline was cruel, the diet was terrible and there was one hour's exercise in the morning and that was the sole opportunity to see other inmates. The first prisoners entered Calton Jail in 1817 replacing the dilapidated Old Tolbooth on Edinburgh’s high streets. It is thought that architect Archibald Elliot designed this building in a way that resembled battlements and in a square to give a castle perspective. At the time, it was the largest gaol in Scotland and built on a prominent site which led to Lord Henry Cockburn complaining that a prison had been given such distinction. Others disagreed, claiming the resemblance to a smaller version of a medieval town gave a good impression as per French novelist Jules Verne.As public executions ceased in Edinburgh in 1864, only those who were found guilty of heinous crimes were sent to Calton Jail for the ultimate penalty (capital punishment).

Calton Prison

This entailed prisoners being fastened by chains on a long iron bar fixed to a wall, whilst waiting for their last living day. Many prisoners were hung over the years in full view of the public from the slopes of Calton Hill. In the latter years of the jail, as the executions were no longer public, in order to show that an executiFlag would be flown to the general public. It is said there are the bodies of 10 souls who were executed here laying under the modern-day car park at St. Andrew’s house. The last man to be sentenced to death on October 30th, 1923, was Philip Murray as he threw a man out of a window having discovered him in bed with his wife. He is said to be one of the 10 under the car park. Moving into the 20th century, Calton Jail did not meet the standards required and after the closure in 1925, the remaining inmates were moved to the newly built Saughton Prison located on the outskirts of the city. All that remains of Calton Jail is the southern wall and the Governor's house. In 1947, Labour's Secretary of State for Scotland and former inmate Arthur Woodburn are said to have salvaged some of the stones of the jail to build a garden path for his home. This may be reminder for him of where he was before to where he was in that moment – a successful and free man.

Do you know what was the supposed cause for Robert Louis Stevenson’s infamous character Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? William Brodie, was a respected member of the community being a cabinet-maker by trade whilst also being a very talented locksmith, he worked his way up to becoming a member of Edinburgh’s town council as well as Deacon (head) of the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons. As we can see, William Brodie was a respected citizen by day, however, by night, he was a gambler, thief and exploited his knowledge of security mechanisms to fund his gambling habit. Brodie worked hard and earned good money being the best cabinetmaker and locksmith in Edinburgh and was employed by some of the wealthiest members of the city. Until the day he was arrested, he maintained the status of a respectable Craftsman to whom individuals would look up to. Whilst he was bestowed with the title of Deacon, this was not of the religious connotation, it was due to his position in one of Edinburgh’s trades. Brodie’s grandfathers were renowned Edinburgh lawyers, and his father was a successful businessman, therefore he also had the family name to live up to. Brodie however, had at least two mistresses and five illegitimate children to support and whilst earning good money, due to his gambling addiction, he needed further access to more money to fund and support. He realised with his profession as a locksmith and the trust the public had in him, he could gain money sneaking into houses, businesses and even banks at night, others, suspecting petty criminals over such a prominent figure.Brodie’s father died in 1782 leaving his son £10,000 in cash as well as at least four houses and his business. As we know, Brodie’s lifestyle was expensive, and he ended up accumulating a small gang of which he was ringleader. However, it could be said that with more hands in the pie, stakes increased. With one of his accomplices, George Smith, they had already targeted tobacconists and Goldsmiths by the end of 1786.

William Broadie

By the summer of 1787, they had met John Brown and Andrew Ainslie and from there, the plan to rob the Excise Office in Chessel’s Court at the bottom of the Royal Mile, formulated. This was possibly the first time the gang were armed with pistols and instead of using Brodie’s locksmith knowledge, they broke in.This was the raid where Brodie and his gang met their downfall as they were interrupted making off with only £16. Ainslie and Brown were caught and gave evidence against the rest of the gang in exchange for a lesser sentence. Brodie escaped to the Netherlands but on trying to leave for America from there, was arrested and returned to Edinburgh for his trial. During the trial, there was little evidence to find him guilty until his house was searched and tools of his were implicated in helping with the criminal activity. Brodie was hanged at Tolbooth along with his accomplice George Smith – known as the demon grocer. However, this story does not end here. Legend dictates Brodie had created a metal collar to try and cheat to death in the execution and had bribed the hangman to ignore it. There was a plan to have his body quickly removed following the execution for him to be revived and be able to go on the run again. It is said there is a body buried in his unmarked grave, but rumours circulated that he was living the ‘high life’ in Paris. Ironically, he was hanged from a gibbet which he had recently redesigned and boasted to the crowd that he was about to die by the most efficient structure in existence. Whilst not nearly as shocking as some of the cases in the recent history, due to the status Brodie had acquired and his involvement in politics, this would have not only been unheard of for this time, but in today's terms, would be known as a celebrity trial. Deacon Brodie's pub today stands at the top of the Royal Mile as a memory to the man who possibly inspired Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

St Giles is the patron saint of Edinburgh and was a well-respected man of his time. It is alleged that he spent a lot of time in the wild with animals and was accidently shot by one of the king’s hunters while they were hunting animals, leaving him seriously injured. He did not complain or ask for compensation, this amazed the king so much that he went on to build him a monastery. Unfortunately, St Giles Cathedral has not always been a place of happiness, seeing many riots over the years. Two stand out in particular as still being talked about to this day. In 1637, The English King, Charles, decreed that all of his people should be united under one religion and bible. As soon as the first words were read from his new bible, a riot broke out. It is believed that the riot began when a woman named Jenny Geddes who was so outraged, she picked up a stool and threw it at the Dean of Edinburgh’s head. The rest of the congregation began to violently assault the officials inside the cathedral, they then merged out on to the streets. As the riots continued, more and more people joined, this then made it impossible to be controlled by policing powers and they had to wait for it to eventually finish. When the riots eventually ended, both England and Ireland continued it in their own countries, and it was then named The Bishop Wars.

The peaceful Saint Giles and the Edinburgh rioters

Following the Edinburgh riots, a committee was appointed known as The Tables, to negotiate with the council.This was not the only riot to happen as in 1792, on the Kings birthday, riots broke out again. The public were already unhappy at the time with politicians and current laws. In preparation for the Kings birthday, soldiers were ordered to patrol the streets and keep the peace. This however had the opposite affects and angered the locals, even more so when the soldiers were drinking alcohol and firing their guns in the air after every toast. On the evening the riots began, locals gathered outside the cathedral and began to throw stones. On the second evening, a group gathered outside the home of Robert Dundas, the lord justice clerk. They then proceeded to burn a straw model that resembled Robert before eventually smashing the windows to his home. The group were dispersed by the soldiers and the next day several bodies were found nearby. For several more nights, groups formed in protest, but each time were dispersed by the soldiers.

The story of Margaret Dickson is one that will forever astonish those of Edinburgh. There are many variations of the story, but the specifics stay the same throughout. Maggie was married but separated from her husband, she needed employment so moved home and took work at a local inn, working as a domestic. While working here she became pregnant, rumoured to be with one of the inn keeper’s sons, but the true identity of her baby’s father remained unknown. It was frowned upon to have a child out of wedlock during this era and the children would not receive full legal status. Maggie was likely to have been frightened of losing her job and having the community turn against her. In 1724 Maggie gave birth to a baby boy. As Harrower-Gray (2014, p.45) says, it is impossible to say if the baby was still born or as rumoured to be argued by the coroner, drowned by Maggie. Shortly after his birth Maggie placed him in the river tweed, where he would later be found by fisherman.

Margaret Dickson, The Half Hangit Maggie

Some say Maggie was charged with concealing her pregnancy, a crime at the time, while others say she was charged with the death of her infant. On September 2nd Maggie was hung at Grassmarket in Edinburgh, she was then pronounced dead and placed inside a coffin to be transported back home to Musselburgh at the wishes of her family.While enroute to Musselburgh, banging and knocking was heard from inside her coffin, upon opening the coffin lid it was very clear that Maggie was in fact still alive. Following her miraculous resurrection she received a full pardon, as her sentence had already technically been carried out and she was free. It is believed that her husband renewed his love and took her back home, where she lived for many more years, having several legitimate children. Her legacy lives on in the form of a pub in Grassmarket, named Maggie Dickson’s.

Jessie King, also known as the baby farmer, was only 27 years old when she was charged with the crimes that saw multiple children dead or neglected. In 1889 Jessie was the last women to be executed in Edinburgh, she was hung at what was formerly known as Calton Jail. The Jury took only four minutes to decide that she was guilty of the murders of three innocent children, who had been placed in her care. On 10th of March she parted with her baby for the last time before being hung on the 11th of March. Jessie lived in Stockbridge with her partner Thomas, who was of an older age and considered to have an alcohol problem. When Jessie met Thomas, she was pregnant to another man, she left this man for Thomas, and they moved in together to start a life. It is rumoured that the baby she had mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again. Pearson’s business was failing and the only real income they had was from taking in children and receiving a payment from their mothers. In this era, it was common for women who were domestic servants or factory workers out of wedlock, to send their children to live with others. The mothers would pay a fee to the family in exchange for their children being cared for and allegedly given a ‘better life’. At this time abortions were illegal, and adoption wasn’t common, therefore this left mothers feeling like they had little other choice.

Jessie king, The baby farmer

Jessie Kings heinous crimes were discovered when a young group of friends found the body of an infant which led the police to search Jessie and Thomas’ home, where they found further bodies. At the time of the trial only Jessie was convicted, after giving a statement taking full responsibility and stating that her partner Thomas Pearson had no knowledge of her crimes. Pearson gave evidence at the trial against Jessie in return for immunity, he was not charged with any crimes despite evidence suggesting he knew about them.As stated by Brocklehurst (2015), one of the bodies of the deceased children was found inside his coat, with another being found on a shelf that was too high up for Jessie to have reached. It is believed that he had an alcohol problem and was domineering, potentially committing, or at least influencing Jessie into the crimes. Jessie is now believed to have been vulnerable and to have potentially of had a cognitive disability. Before the execution was carried out, Jessie made several attempts to take her own life and was described as being ‘remorseful’. Attempts were made to retract her statement of full blame, but these were dismissed. Pearson later had to move from Edinburgh as the locals believed he had ‘got away with murder’, a year later he was found dead in his home with a head wound, it was classed as an accidental death as he was an alcoholic and it was believed he had likely fallen, the questions remains though, did he fall or was he murdered?

The year is 1977, October 15th and two 17-year-old females enter the World's End pub ready to celebrate their new jobs, however, less than 24 hours later, their night had ended in a double murder that shocked the city of Edinburgh. This crime was not only at the forefront of people's minds in the days, weeks, and months to follow, it took nearly 40 years for the man responsible to be brought to justice for the rape and murder of Christine Eadie and Helen Scott. After a night with two other friends who decided to attend a house party, due to Helen's curfew at 11:30pm, both she and Christine called it a night and headed home. A policeman who helped the girls on route later commented to colleagues how they carried on their journey home with what appeared to be two shadowy strangers. Both sets of parents waited for their daughters to come home and by the following day, after the tragic discovery made by a couple taking a Sunday walk, the gruesome details of how they met their end were revealed. Christine Eadie was found on Gosford beach, around half an hour away from where she was last seen, with her underwear stuffed in her mouth and had been strangled by her own clothing. Helen Scott, similarly, was found around half an hour away in a place near Haddington and, similar to Christine, had been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled. Whilst enquiries were made to track down the girls’ movements of that night, all led to dead ends. Those who were in the pub with the girls that night were interviewed as well as people in the area. Unfortunately, at this time, DNA profiling and forensic testing were not advanced enough to play a part in this case until years later in 1997 when scientists found the DNA of two men on Helen's raincoat.

The World’s End Murders in the 1970’s

Even though this was an advancement in the case, there were no matches in the police database.Seven years later, as a result of further DNA database advances, Angus Sinclair was identified as the man behind the mystery DNA sample taken. Sinclair was a well-known figure to the police force, having been in trouble for this kind of behaviour since he was a teenager and had been convicted of killing a seven-year-old girl. His conviction list ranged from theft to murder and dated back to 1959. The police were able to track down Sinclair’s Toyota which he drove at the time of the murders and matched fibres from the upholstery to those found on the girls’ bodies. The second DNA profile was matched to Sinclair’s brother-in-law, Gordon Hamilton, who had died of liver failure in 1996 and was not brought to justice for these murders. In 2007, due to the prosecution failing to provide vital forensic evidence to the jury when Sinclair was brought to trial for the murders of Helen and Christine, the ruling by the judge was that there was no case to answer and was acquitted. The centuries-old double jeopardy rule prohibited a person being brought to court for the second time for the same charge having previously been acquitted. Sinclair, as stated, was acquitted in 2007 but due to the change in laws, was able to be charged and tried again in 2014 where he was given 37 years in prison and at 69 years old would not have been eligible for parole until he was 106. He died in 2019 aged 73. He could be Scotland’s worst serial killer.

On 8th December 1542 Mary Stuart was born, at only six days old she inherited the throne upon the passing of her father. A war broke out between England and Scotland so until Mary became of age, she was sent to France to grow up alongside her betrothed future husband Francis. Following his death, Mary returned home to Scotland in 1561 to live at Edinburgh Castle, now a widower. Mary went on to marry her cousin Henry, who it is said that Mary was in love but it was later found that Henry was not all he had first seemed. Less than a year after their wedding, unhinged in jealousy over the relationship Mary had with her secretary, Henry and accomplices stabbed him 56 times leading to his blood drenched death, right in front of her while she was pregnant with Henry’s child. Mary and Henry later had a son who they named James, he was Mary's only son. James was born inside Edinburgh castle on 19th June 1566, with his legitimacy being questioned by Henry. In 1567, Mary's husband Henry and his servant were found murdered, rumoured to be by James Hepburn, who later married Mary.

Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots

It is alleged that Henry’s body was found undressed and strangled. Questions arose if the murders had been orchestrated by Mary to silence Henry before he destroyed baby James’s title to the throne.The marriage of Mary and James caused an uprising which saw Mary imprisoned inside Lochleven Castle and Mary abdicated the throne, which saw her son James named the new King of Scotland. Mary then fled to England in the hopes that her cousin Elizabeth would provide sanctuary. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was concerned over Mary who also had a rightful claim to the English throne and kept her locked in different castles throughout the years. Mary was later found guilty of conspiring against Elizabeth and was beheaded in 1587 at Fortheringhay Castle. It was believed by the people of Scotland that Mary conspired with James to have her husband murdered, she was accused of adultery and conspiracy to murder. There may not be any evidence to prove Mary had a direct hand in any murders, but it is safe to say that her life was a whirlwind surrounded by death and tragedy, with the likelihood that she played some parts in it. Mary’s life has and forever will hold a memorable part in Scottish history.

The 1500s in Scotland saw the start of a national obsession with witchcraft and the hunt to eradicate every aspect of it which resulted in the killing of thousands of people. Scotland was not the only country witch-hunting, other places across Europe including Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Scandinavia were all in the thick of witch panics. Scotland however, experienced 5 panics over the course of 71 years. Around 2500 people, 85% of which were females, were executed as accused witches, with between 3000 and 5000 thousand publicly accused. This was around five times the average European execution rate and these high numbers can be traced back to the role of King James VI of Scotland who later become King James I of England. His fear of witchcraft arguably instigated these panics however, Scottish Parliament had outlawed witchcraft in 1563 three years before he was born. In 1590 when the first panic arose, it was King James who thought that he and his wife were personal targets of witches by conjuring dangerous storms when the royals were due to go on a voyage. Some of the more famous executions include individuals such as Agnes Finnie, Bessie Dunlop, Isobel Gowdie, Margaret Barclay, Dame Eufemia Macalzean and Agnes Sampson. These are just some of the names of individuals who were executed or killed for their part in witchcraft practise and devil interactions. Witches were not only burned at the stake but also strangled, tortured in unspeakable ways and killed in various other manners including being dragged to the beach,

The 16th and 17th Century Scottish Witch trials

a door being placed on the individual and piling stones onto the door until dead which is the fate Janet Cornfoot met. Confessions were usually obtained by suspects enduring sleep deprivation and various methods of torture as previously indicated. Many would go up three days without sleep, leading to the inability to resist questions as well as starting to hallucinate and from those hallucinations, confessions, whilst real in accordance with the hallucinations, were not truthful.The southern part of Scotland near Edinburgh, was the most affected area by these witch panics. In a place pertinent to Edinburgh, North Berwick saw as many as 200 individuals put on trial, tortured and executed and whilst the exact number is not known, the reason for this large number was due to King James. As previously acknowledged, he accused which is of producing storms when crossing the seas with his wife but further still, deduced they came from North Berwick. Interestingly, Shakespeare's play Macbeth written during King James’ reign, was no coincidence. At the time there was talk of a witch from North Berwick sailing into the Firth of Forth on a sieve to gather the storm which is why in the opening scene one of the witches says “But in a sieve, I’ll thither sail And, like a rat without a tail, I’ll so, I’ll do, I’ll do”. To this day, there are statues and memorials dedicated to the individuals who died due to the witchcraft act and furthermore, three centuries later apologies and pardons were handed to those tortured and executed.

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