The Monsters in the Mortar


Posted by in November's Magazine

A few years ago I read James Robertson’s excellent book The Fanatic. It tells the story of an Edinburgh tour guide who becomes increasingly obsessed with the gruesome real life character he portrays on his nightly tours. One passage in the book has the guide mention an area that lay just alongside Leith Walk at Shrubhill called the Gallow Lee, where all manner of executions are known to have taken place. I recently came across some more information about this place and, remarkably, its real history was even more ghastly than the fictional account.

Leith Walk now, is a ribbon of shops, café’s, bars and restaurants, that runs from the east end of the city centre to the historical port of Leith. However the origin of this thoroughfare goes back to the time of Oliver Cromwell and in particular his attempt to capture the city
In order to repel the attacks the commander of the Scottish army Sir Alexander Leslie created a ‘breastwork’; a chest high defensive earthwork construction, as part of the city’s defences. This wall ran northwards from the city centre down to the shore. The fortifications were incredibly effective and Cromwell was held off, finally achieving victory at Dunbar.

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The rampart developed later into a footpath described by Daniel Defoe in 1706, as “a very handsome Gravel-walk, 20 Feet broad, continued to the Town of Leith, kept in good repair at the public Charge, and no Horse suffered to come upon it.” In time buildings began to spring up following the line of the defences, however by the 1760s coaches would ferry people to and from the port. Thus was Leith Walk’s 60-year stretch as, quite literally, ‘The Walk’ ended!

At around the halfway point, on the cusp of the traditional boundary where Edinburgh and Leith meet, is an area called Shrubhill. In those far off days this constituted a small sandy hill on the western side of the road. Being outside the city boundaries it soon became the place where the city of Edinburgh chose to dispose of some of its more troublesome problems.

In 17th century Edinburgh public executions were a common spectacle. But sometimes there was a problem. For instance a person sentenced to execution might be too high profile, too notorious or there would be well placed concern amongst the authorities that the execution may cause civil unrest – in some cases the manner of execution deemed to be too much even by 17th century standards. Edinburgh chose the Gallow Lee in Shrubhill to deal with its dirty business. A permanent ‘gibbet’ was set up on the mound and on most days a body would be seen swinging from it.

Witches were put to death; sometimes they were mercifully strangled before being burned. Indeed witch burning in Leith was so prevalent that it was the subject of a long ballad by Robert Buchanan, The Lights o’ Leith. Here is a flavour:

The lights o’ Leith! The lights o’ Leith!
The skipper cried aloud –
While the wintry gale with snow and hail
Blew snell thro’ sail and shroud.
High up on the quay blaze the balefires, and see!
Three stakes are deep set in the ground,
To each stake smear’d with pitch clings the corpse of a witch,
With the fire flaming redly around!

Of course, given the times, covenanter executions were a predictably frequent sight too, as were those of a few high profile scandalous murderers; as the years progressed the ashes of the dead became one with the sandy soil on the hill of the Gallow Lee.

Notable ‘customers” included the Reverent John Kelloe; a previously respectable minister from Dunbar who had murdered his wife and one Norman Ross – a footman who had slain his employer Lady Baillie, sister of the Laird of Wedderburn. For around two years his rotting corpse was left to swing on the gibbet being picked at by crows

This ghastly landmark stood on the route into Edinburgh until mid way into the 18th century. However the draining of the Nor Loch and the expansion of the city to the North led to a new period of development. Stone was quarried from nearby Craigleith quarry to build the soon to be fashionable New Town. The builders next looked for a source of sand to add to the lime mortar and hit upon the Gallow Lee.

The owner of the land charged the builders to cart away the sand containing (you guessed it) the ashes and other desiccated remains of thousands of victims. Legend would have it that every penny he earned went straight into the pockets of the local publicans. So much so that a new public house – The Halfway House – sprung up nearby!

Soon the sorry meniscus of the Gallow Lee was gone and all that remained was a hollow. As I write the site has returned to that state. Once more waste ground. Formerly occupied as a bus depot now preparing for redevelopment. I wonder how many of the residents living in the well-appointed apartments of Edinburgh’s New Town realise that the very fabric of their building is bound together with the remains of witches, covenanters and criminals?

Sleep tight Heriot Row…

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