‘Edinburgh is a blood-soaked place’: An alternative history of the Capital

An illustration of the first murder by Burke and Hare
An illustration of the first murder by Burke and Hare
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IF YOU asked most people about the historic events to have graced the Scottish Parliament, cannibalism probably wouldn’t come up.

But in January 1707, that is exactly what happened in Queensberry House, now the offices of presiding officer Tricia Marwick MSP, and also home to the Donald Dewar Reading Room.

Three hundred years ago, then master of the house Lord Queensberry was facing harsh criticism from his fellow Scots for his part in the Act of Union. All of his servants had come out into the streets of the city in a show of support and to protect their master – including one who would have better served him by keeping an eye on events at home.

Geoff Holder, author of new book Bloody Scottish History: Edinburgh, explains: “Lord Queensberry was a very powerful man, but he had a tragic secret. His eldest son, James Douglas, was born an ‘imbecile’, as it was termed at the time. It’s not known what exactly his condition was, but he was clearly mentally ill. He was also very large for a nine-year-old, very strong and of an uneven temper. For most of his life he was hidden in a dark room and most people, outside of a few trusted servants, didn’t even know he existed.

“On that particular day the valet who attended to his needs went out with the others, leaving only a teenage scullion to cook the meat for dinner while they were gone. After a successful day, everyone returned pleased to find the appetising smell of cooked meat filling the house. However, when they reached the kitchen they discovered it was the scullion turning on the spit. James had escaped, killed him and was in the process of eating him.”

The oven where the unfortunate boy was cooked still survives, and can be seen in the Parliament’s 
Allowances Office.

This macabre tale is just one of the fascinating stories contained in Holder’s alternative history of Scotland’s capital city.

He added: “Edinburgh is a blood-soaked place, for several reasons. It’s very old and the geography of Castle Hill makes it the perfect place for a fortress. It was also very enclosed and difficult to get out of, with many people having to live in a very cramped environment. When people are pushed together like that, things are all the more likely to kick off. And of course, it’s the capital, meaning that’s where the King and all the nasty politics surrounding him were. When it comes to historical violence, Edinburgh really has the edge, so to speak.”

While the book does cover more well-known tales such as the crimes of Deacon Brodie and body-snatchers Burke and Hair, Holder says his fascination lies in the less notorious stories.

“Most people have heard the tale of Half-Hangit Maggie, but there were several others who survived being hanged, though their stories were perhaps less palatable. Maggie was able to escape the sentence passed on her and went on to live her life, but others were not so lucky. In 1594, Hercules Stewart was one of those rounded up and hanged for his part in the crimes of the Earl of Bothwell, who had been accused of treason. After he had swung for a while he was cut down. However, he started to show all the signs of coming back to life. One of the guards immediately strangled him, to ensure he was definitely dead. This is a much more realistic outcome for those who somehow survived execution.”

And in those times, executions served a similar purpose to the big screen in Festival Square.

“Life was pretty grim and not 
expected to last very long,” said the author. “Any opportunity to find entertainment was welcomed. If that included horrifically violent public torture then so be it. Thousands would turn out for the punishment of notorious criminals. Plus, if you were walking through Edinburgh during any day of the 16th century you would certainly see a severed head on a spike, probably more than one.”

With all this going on, it’s perhaps unsurprising that while researching his next book “Poltergeist Over Scotland”, Holder uncovered another interesting fact about the Capital.

“The book is a history of Scottish poltergeists, looking at 134 cases over a 500 year period – the first of which was recorded in Edinburgh.”


• If you would like to hear more about the brutal side of the city’s past, including the full-scale sea battle that took place in Leith Harbour, the concentration camp situated in Greyfriars Graveyard, or how Edinburgh’s first tongue piercers would use a red-hot spike, Geoff Holder will be doing a free reading of “Bloody Scottish History: Edinburgh” at Blackwells book shop on South Bridge at 6.30pm on November 6.