Document 587

The Fanatic (extract 2)

Author(s): James Robertson

Copyright holder(s): Fourth Estate Publishers: With thanks to HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. © James Robertson 2000, James Robertson


Bass Rock, June 1677/Edinburgh, April 1670

Mitchel said, ‘Why are ye here?’

‘Tae see you,’ said Lauder.

He felt slightly sick from the crossing. It was only a short trip from North Berwick, a couple of miles at most, but the sea was choppy and Lauder hated being in boats. He still minded the journey from Dover to France when he was a student: he and a fellow passenger had fought over a bucket all night, filling it with their combined vomitings, and with every retch and boak the other man had groaned for God’s mercy as if he was on the point of expiring, which had only made Lauder feel worse.

Mitchel shook his head. ‘That’s no guid enough, John Lauder. Yer guidfaither’s Ramsay, the Provost o Edinburgh. Ye’re no here tae ease ma sufferin.’

‘He was Lord Provost,’ Lauder said. Sir Andrew had written a recommendation, which the captain of the garrison had read with disdain before grudgingly allowing Lauder access to his prize prisoner. Now, left alone with him, Lauder found Mitchel equally suspicious of his family connections.

‘He’s a Privy Cooncillor and aw. Is it by him that ye come here? They dinna let folk see me.’

‘He had a word for me, I confess. But I’m no here on his behaw nor onybody’s but ma ain.’

Mitchel did not look convinced. His eyes were unblinking in the half-light.

The cell stank of dampness and squalor, and every draught of wind brought with it eye-watering wafts from the guano of thousands of seabirds. It was now the height of the solans’ nesting season. It sounded like all the witches that had ever been were gathered together there in bird disguise.

Lauder tried to take shallow breaths. ‘I would like tae hear somethin frae ye,’ he said.

Mitchel laughed scornfully.

‘Aye, awbody would like that. The Privy Cooncil would like me tae confess tae a crime so they can hing me. Is that whit ye would hear, Maister Lauder? Are ye come as a lawyer tae bargain wi me?’

‘No. It’s naethin o that kind. Naethin tae dae wi yer case at aw.’

‘Then why else would I speak wi a lawyer?’

‘I would like tae find oot… tae hear aboot somebody.’ Lauder cleared his throat. ‘I would like tae hear aboot Major Weir.’

Mitchel’s brow furrowed. ‘Whit’s tae tell? The man was burnt for his crimes seiven year syne.’

‘Ye kent him.’

‘Aye. Sae did yer guidfaither. Sae did aw Edinburgh. Ye’ll hae seen him aboot yersel nae doot.’

‘I didna ken him tae speak tae, as you did,’ said Lauder.

‘Whit’s this tae be, guilt by association? If ye gang doon that road, ye’ll find some kenspeckle bodies claucht up in the net. It’s ten year or mair since I spak wi Weir.’

‘No as lang as that, James,’ said Lauder carefully.

There was a long silence. Finally, Mitchel said, ‘Whit dae ye mean?’

‘Ye saw him in the Tolbooth, afore his execution. I ken ye did.’

‘I wasna even in Scotland. I was a rebel, if ye mind, wi a price on ma heid for the attack on Sharp and Honyman.’

‘Ye were in Scotland. Ye cam tae him in prison. I ken it.’

‘Whit maks ye think that? Did ye see him in prison yersel? Did he tell ye?’

‘I did see him. The mornin o his death. But it wasna him that tellt me. He was ayont speakin by then. It was his sister, Jean. She said ye’d been in tae see him, in secret.’

‘Haivers,’ said Mitchel. ‘Weir was ayont speakin, ye say? Jean was awa daft lang afore then. If she tellt ye I was there, she was haein a fit. How would I get intae the Tolbooth o Edinburgh in secret? Dae ye think a man wantit for a capital crime against a Croun servant would o his ain volition enter that place tae collogue wi a convicted felon in his cell? I’d as weill hae pit ma heid in a noose.’

‘Jean wasna as daft as some folk think,’ said Lauder. ‘I believe she tellt the truth.’

Mitchel was silent. He lay back on his bed and stared at the roof. The movement, in the gloomy atmosphere of the cell, instantly provoked a memory in Lauder’s mind. He was transported back seven years, to the visit he had made on Major Weir. Just fifteen months married, with a four-month-old son, he had been in the company of his wife’s father, then Lord Provost of Edinburgh.

Wt my goodfather Sir Andrew I was at the Tolbooth Monday 11th day of April 1670, to see the monster Major Weir. We ware admitted in the fornoon, a cold day wt winter’s grip not yet lowst, but the sun was shyning, which made the prison house yet mair mirk and grim when we ware within. The provest had seen him when first he confest. Believing him insane he got his ain doctors to him, but they said his faculties ware lucid and thereafter witnesses ware found that seemd to prove his crymes. I wished to see this phenomenon of wickednes, and went wt the provest and divers others, ministers &c. The crymes of his flesh ware revolting, but it was his spirituall backslyding and consorting wt the Devil (though this was not in the indytment but only drawen from his sister’s testimonies) that fascinated the ministers mair. As Sir Andrew said its seldom you get a chance to look depravitie full in the face. But there was mockerie in his tone which I perceived was directed at the godlie amang us, for they ware some of them of Weir’s inclinatioun, in religion at least. See the Devil ance and ye’ll not misken him next tyme, says Sir Andrew, bowing at them wt a false respect, which I doubt did not fool them for an instant.

For a monster Weir was a sorry object, auld and slumpt on his bed agaynst the wall, much changed from the muckle figure of controversie I mynd as a bairn. There was no fire left in his eyn. The ministers presst him to acknowlege his sin and pray for God’s mercy, but he only shook his head and moand. When by progging and shaking him as if he ware a carnival brute that would not do its tricks, they finally rowsed him to sit, he stared at them blearily with a dead look and said, Wherefor do ye trouble me wt your cruelty? They said wee do not trouble ye, Thomas, it is your soull that troubles ye. Pray with us for your soull.

He answered, What for should I pray wt ye? I care not for your prayers and I doe not hear them.

One said, Sir, I will pray for ye in spite of yr teeth and the deevil yr master too.

He said to him, Doe it at your perill.

They said, Even now, Thomas, in the day of your death, seek out the mercy of God.

He lauched and said, God, where is God? I see him not. They ware affronted and asked, Think ye there is a God? He said I know not. Then one said O man, the argument that moves me to think there is a God is thy self. For what else moved thee to informe the world of thy wicked life? He said, Then pray to him if ye will, I’ll not pray wt you. All the prayers that men and angels can offer will not make a better man of me. Pray that to yr God.

They conjured him as ane brother even now to repent and ask God for his mercy.

Repent, he says, repent, whats to repent? Will repentence alter one jot of his law? Will repentence weigh in the scayles of justice? Think ye that the grovelings of one human ant will alter the plan and purpos of Gods universe? What papisticall trash is this? Get back to your bible, brothers, says he, before ye try to sell me ane indulgence.

Then when they said again,Thomas Weir we beseek ye he says, Trouble me no more wt your beseeking. My sentence is sealed on earth as it is in heaven. I am hardend within like a stone, brother. If I could win God’s pardon and all the glory of Heaven wt a single wish – that I had not sinned as I have sinned, yet I could not prevail wt my self to make that wish.

Then when they said he does not ken what he is saying, and asked him did his heart not shrink at thoucht of God’s eternal ire he interrupted them impatientlie, Tell me no more, torment me no more. You are not in my place and your soull is not in my soull’s place. Gin ye ware, ye would see the waste and delusion of your exhortatiouns, for there is no thing within me but blacknes and darknes, brimstone and burning to the bottom of hell. Now let me alone, ye have deaved me ouer long, I’ll hear no more.

He fell in a kind of stupor and though they spake at him some tyme more, there was no rousing him. Bailie Oliphant that was there began to leave the room, saying, I have had my fill of beseeking, the man is to die and we should leave him to redd up his soull gin he wish. Soe led by Patrik Vanse the keeper of the prison we went back out into the licht.

The provest said to the companie, There goeth corruptioun incarnat. I am glad he’s to burn outwith the citie’s walls. I would na like to see his foul ashes settle on the heads of the good burgesses.

But, said the bailie, some will take a dander furth to the Gallowlee to see him consumed.

They had better wear ther hats then, said Sir Andrew, and clapt his wig wt much ostentatioun. Pollution the like of that will be a task to clean from the hair. Then to the ministers, that ware still rid and peching from their exertiouns wt the Beast, he said, Do ye think a man that was sa sure of his ain electioun as he can be sa mistaken? Is there nae possibility of him winning to heaven despite of all his wickednes? They ware very crosse at this, which was aimed at their ain holinesse, and raged at him to suggest a man can transgress God’s law sae foully and yet be of the elect. It was a heresy, an antinomian heresy, and an English ane forby. Weir, they said, would be brunt on earth by four of the clock that efternoon and by five he would be burning in hell. My lord was not perturbed by them, but congratulated them on ther impressive certainty. I’ll not be at the Gallowlee my self, he says, but mynd and do not forget your hats.

From his bed Mitchel asked, ‘Whit did Jean say tae ye? When did ye speak wi her?’

‘Eftir her brither was burnt. I gaed back tae the Tolbooth alane, the next mornin. She was tae hing that day. I felt unhappy aboot her death – I felt she was mair victim o his crimes than conspirator in them.’

‘She was a witch or else she was made mad by Satan,’ Mitchel said flatly.

‘The jurors had rejectit the chairge o sorcery against her. If she was mad was it the madness that had made her lie wi her brither, or the incest that made her mad? If the former, she shouldna burn.’

‘And if she was a witch?’

‘If she was a witch… I felt pity for her. I was only twenty-three – I was grieved for her.’

‘She’d hae easy led you intae soukin sand then. Pity is their weapon.’

Lauder did not respond. He could almost feel Mitchel struggling to resist asking the next question.

‘Whit did she say – aboot me?’

‘As muckle as John Vanse, the keeper’s son – as muckle and mair, and less. Atween the pair o them I worked it oot. That twa days precedin, on the Sabbath, a young man that cried himsel Alexander Weir, the Major’s son, had come tae the Tolbooth. That he begged John Vanse, that had chairge o the place that day, if he had ony compassion for yin that fund himsel wi sae miserable a creature for a faither, tae let him see him afore he was sent tae Hell. That John Vanse alloued him in and he sat wi his faither for an oor. And Vanse cam tae Jean and said he was there, and she speired at him tae hae her nephew Sandy stop and gie her his blessin afore he pairtit, and he cam by her cell and looked in but wouldna stop, and she kent it wasna Sandy but anither man aboot the same age. It was him that had sailed awa tae Holland eftir Pentland. James Mitchel.’

Mitchel did not speak. Lauder strained even to hear his breathing. After a minute he said, ‘She didna misken ye, did she?’

Mitchel sat up. ‘Ye are an advocate, sir. Ye hae a cousin John Eleis?’


‘I hear he pleads for aw kinds – witches, rebels, thieves, murderers. Am I richt?’

‘He defends ony person he is cawed tae defend.’

‘I hear he is amang the best o yer breed. Him and Sir George Lockhart. They are thorns in the flesh o the Privy Cooncil.’

‘They only dae their duty as advocates. But ye’re richt, they are baith excellent lawyers.’

‘I want them for ma case, Maister Lauder.’

‘Yer case is done, Maister Mitchel. Whit for dae ye think ye’re cast on this Rock these last months? Whit for did they crush yer leg in the boot? They canna prove onythin against ye.’

‘They will try, though. Sharp wants me deid. And when ma case comes again, I want thae twa men as ma coonsel. Dae this for me, siccar me their services, and I’ll tell ye aboot Major Weir.’

‘I canna mak such a pledge. An advocate canna jist pick and choose, nor can a panel wi nae siller elect his ain coonsel.’

‘But,’ said Mitchel, ‘choice willna be in it on this occasion. When they bring me back – which they will, hae nae doot – nae lawyer in his senses will dare plead on ma behaw – it’s an offence in itsel tae argue for a traitor. I ken ma law and ma rights – I will demand a defence. The Privy Cooncil will hae tae appoint me lawyers. Sir George and Maister John can let the Cooncil ken they’ll compear for me if alloued and commanded by His Majesty’s government. Sir George is Dean o the Faculty, is he no? Naebody else will contest him for the honour.’

‘Ye ken yer law, indeed,’ said Lauder.

‘I hae plenty time tae think on it,’ said Mitchel dryly. ‘But ye must instruct yer cousin anent this maitter – it maunna be left tae chance. It’ll be a kittle enough business, athout findin masel in the hauns o Prestoun or some such kiss-ma-erse.’

‘Prestoun? John Prestoun o Haltree?’

‘Aye, him. Mention o Weir pit me in mind o him.’

It was Prestoun, the hunter of witches, who had been appointed a temporary judge for commission to try the Weirs, none of the bench being available. Lauder recalled that Prestoun had been disappointed that he had had to throw out the evidence of sorcery against Jean Weir.

‘He’s ower pernicketie tae pit up a fecht for a scuggie fellow like masel,’ Mitchel said. ‘Ma case will be won on principles, no ten-year-auld evidence, and Sir George and John Eleis are the best for statin a principle.’

‘And if it’s lost, in spite o them?’

‘Then the testimony o ma bluid will hae mair weicht and credit. A man like me disna win tae God like a lawyer, sir, wi wishin and wordspeakin, but by the skailin o his bluid. There’s nae safter place tae lie than on the altar for Christ.’

Mitchel, Lauder observed, seemed to swing violently between a worldly humanity, tinged with regret, that was almost touching, and a kind of inflamed righteousness which rose like a barrier between him and everything else. It was like watching someone half-drowning, then swimming with extraordinary power in heavy waters, then beginning to slide under again.

‘Ye unnerstaun,’ said Mitchel, ‘I hae nae fear o death. Ma soul is in Christ whether I live or die. Death will be welcome eftir this. It will be a new and better life, an eternal life. Did ye ken, sir, they kept me in chains in the Tolbooth mair than a twalmonth? Can ye think whit like that is? The iron bands skive the skin aff ye till ye’re raw tae the banes. Ye wouldna see a dug treatit sae ill. But that’s by wi – they can dae naethin tae ma flesh noo that I canna thole. Aw the legal pliskies that we’ll see in coort are meaningless tae me, but for ae thing – I would see James Sharp and his pack damned and defeated in this life as they surely will be hereineftir. So will ye dae it for me?’

What he was asking would not be difficult to arrange. It was merely organising the most likely chain of events should the case ever come back to trial. But why would that ever happen? Why would Sharp and Lauderdale and Rothes stir up an ancient episode by bringing Mitchel into the public eye again, for a prosecution that carried such risks. Even if Sharp was obsessed with the case, the others would have nothing to do with it. They were better off with Mitchel where he was, mouldering away in the Bass, forgotten. It would come to nothing.

‘Aye,’ Lauder said, ‘I will – if ye tell me noo that ye saw Major Weir in the Tolbooth.’

Mitchel nodded. ‘I confess it.’ And for the first time Lauder saw him smile. ‘Oh, Maister Lauder, ye dinna ken the tears James Sharp would greet tae hear me say thae three words.’

Mitchel had come back to Scotland when he had been a year in the continent, working for his cousin John the merchant. He came home on a ship from Amsterdam, that let him ashore at Limekilns in Fife. He flitted around in Fife a while, where he had contacts, and then returned to Edinburgh. Aye, he was there when that thing happened, the stramash when the bishops were shot at. His name was associated with the deed and he had to flee again. He was in Ulster, among the Presbyterian planters. He went to London, that stinking bog of tolerance and vice. By now he was a travelled man, hard-footed and lean, winnowed by the weather. About the end of March, in the year 1670, he was in Lanarkshire, with old friends.

They heard a rumour from the capital that Major Weir, that used to bide in those parts, was sick or mad, or both. The story came from a Strathaven man, an honest fellow who had attended a prayer-meeting in a house in the West Bow. Weir had opened his mouth and a stream of black filth had poured out upon the lugs of the worshippers. They had tried to hush him but the flow would not be stopped. Then Jean, that was already wandered, had lowped in and what she had had to say seemed to confirm that some at least of it was true.

Mitchel was a two-day walk from Edinburgh. Weir had helped him in his youth – he felt he should go, to find out the truth of the stories. Forby he owed him money – a debt he had not repayed when he was there in ’68, what with all his jouking and hiding from the authorities.

He slipped in through the west of the city one evening, a few hours too late. The Weirs had been taken by the bailies that day and were locked in the Tolbooth. He could do nothing but wait. There were places he could stay if he kept his head low.

The whole town was claiking about the Weirs – they had knocked all other news off the street. Mitchel waited, and he listened. He was appalled. He could hardly recognise, in the snatches of scandal and gossip he heard, the man he had so respected, the woman he had so pitied. The dripping tongues of Edinburgh had transformed them into grotesques.

Oh, he was aye a fearsome man, and she’s a shilpit, peuchlin body.—He’s no been seen sae muckle lately.—Weill, he’s gettin auld.—He uised tae gang aboot the toun wi that stick o his, wi the carvit heid at its tap like the heid o a bogle.—Aye, and they say noo that he couldna pray at aw if he didna hae it in his nieve. Did ye niver see the wee deevilock face in the wuid o’t, that would change frae a grin tae a girn frae ae minute tae the nixt?—Ye would hear him chappin through the toun at nicht, ye could niver misken the soun o him, and when ye saw him, there was the stick oot in front, wi a lantren hingin frae it, guidin his wey.—Aye, the stick uised tae gang his messages for him, I ken a man that’s seen it himsel.—He couldna pray athoot it, that’s a fact. He’d bring the words doon oot o the air wi it, the Bowheid saints thocht they were haly words but they werena, they were Satan’s.

That stick has a life o its ain, they hae tae keep it apairt frae him or the Tolbooth’ll no haud him.—It’s a force for his sinfu desires. When he striddles it it can tak him through lockit doors and sneckit windaes. It got him intae the chaumers o mairrit weemun and daicent widdaes, and they’d be bumbazed at his appearin.—Och, but they were that uised wi him preachin and prayin in their hooses, he would owercome them wi his subtleties and explanations. They trustit him on accoont o he could reconcile a man and his wife that were cauld tae each ither – juist by touchin.—But that worked anither wey, for there wasna a wumman that he’d touch, puir or gentle, that could be mistress o hersel, but would yield tae act the harlot wi him.—He liked tae see them in their nicht claes or hauf-nakit, hard and lang was his stick in the munelicht. He would touch them in their privates and when they cried oot, they’d turn aroon and there’d be nae man there, they could niver prove he’d been in tae insult them at aw.—Ken whit it was, it was like a dream tae them, a foul and shamin dream, but it wasna a dream tae him.

And when he couldna get at them, there was his sister Jean. She’s the Deil’s ain though ye would niver ken it tae look at her, she’s rade the winds hersel but the Deil gied her up tae him and she’d tae dae his biddin.—He’s uised her maist foully for fifty year wi the pouer o his stick. He’s confessed it, she’s confessed it. Ye hinna heard a hundredth pairt o whit I hae done, that’s whit he tellt the bailies when they cam for him.—Aye, mebbe, but she’s nae innocent, she didna resist him, she’s as deep in the fulyie as himsel. The ither sister Margaret fund them raw nakit thegither in their faither’s hoose at Carluke, and Jean was the tapmaist, and the bed was shakin wi their sin.—And syne she sellt hersel tae a witch wumman that cam tae her when she had the schuil at Dalkeith. The wumman was frae the fairies and Jean gied her aw her siller and bocht hersel an unco skeel at spinnin. She’d spin mair in an oor than ony ither wife could spin in a day. Whiles she’d gang oot and when she cam hame there was the spinnin-wheel, birlin awa like a mad thing its lane.—But the skeel didna profit her: the yarn was ower brittle, it aye broke when ye tried tae work wi it. It was deil’s yarn, it had a curse on it.

Can ye credit such wickedness? But he’s the worse. Major Weir the great sodger o Christ, that’d dip his whang intae ony flesh he could get in his hauns. His sister wasna spared, his stepdochter Meg Burdoun wasna spared, his servant Bessie Weems wasna spared.—Faith, he didna even spare the kye. A yaudswyver he is, a mutton-driver and a duglowper.—But his dippin days are ower nou; he’ll get his reward in Hell. The reid-hornit deils will prick him wi their lang pikes and sodomise him for eternity.

On Saturday 9th April the Weirs were brought before Mr William Murray and Mr John Prestoun, depute justices, and fifteen jurors, and the charges against them read out. The court was packed with the prurient and gleeful. Mitchel, stern-faced, was among the crowd. Other stunned and mortified Christians, who until lately had counted the accused among their most devout and worthy friends, were noticeably absent.

This was the indictment against Thomas: that he did commit numerous incests, adulteries, fornications and bestialities as specified in the dittay, all over a period of more than fifty years, in Lanarkshire and Edinburgh and elsewhere; and that he was conscious to himself of these abominations, yet he had the confidence or rather impudence to pretend to fear God in an eminent way and did make profession of strictness, piety and purity beyond others, and did affect and had the reputation of a pious and good man, thereby endeavouring to conceal and palliate his villainies and to amuse and impose upon the world and to mock God himself, as if the Lord’s all-seeing eye could not see through the slender veil of his hypocrisy and formality.

And Jean was indicted for incest with her brother and diverse sorceries committed when she lived and kept a school at Dalkeith, and that she did take employment from a woman to speak in her behalf to the queen of fairy, meaning the Devil, and was guilty of consulting, communing or seeking and taking advice and help from the Devil or from witches and sorcerers, as well as of the said crime of incest.

The dittays having been read and found relevant, Major Weir was questioned anent his guilt. ‘I think I may be guilty of these crimes. I cannot deny them,’ was all he said. The court took note that this was not a positive declaration of guilt. Then for the prosecution the King’s advocate Sir John Nisbet brought forth his witnesses. Four bailies of the town who were sent to bring the Major out of his own house, deponed that they heard him confess frequent incest with his sister Jean, and many other immoral acts, including carnal dealings with a mare and a cow. And Mr John Sinclair, minister of Ormiston, deponed that being called to the Tolbooth he heard the Major confess his sins to him – incest with his sister, adulteries and bestialities and that he had converse with the Devil in the night-time. And Margaret Weir, sister to the panel, deponed that she discovered Thomas and Jean in the act of incest when she was fourteen, when they all lived at their father’s house at Wicketshaw by Carluke in Lanarkshire, and she found them in the byre, and heard Jean say to him that she thought she was with child. And other witnesses deponed that they heard him confess on Monday last and again that morning that he was guilty of incest with Jean, and with his stepdaughter Margaret, and of carnal dealings with a mare, and also with his servant Bessie Weems these last twenty-two years.

Sir John Nisbet then produced the Major’s own confession, taken in the presence of himself and Mr John Prestoun, depute justice, and the bailies of Edinburgh, that he did ride his mare into the west country, and near Newmilns he did pollute himself with her, and a woman seeing him delated him to Mr John Nevay, minister at Newmilns, who had him brought to Newmilns by some soldiers but then dismissed the charge, there being no proof but the woman’s word. And the woman, who was from near Lanark, was whipped through the streets of that town for raising such a calumny against so holy a man. And Mr Nevay, being in exile, could not be brought as a witness. And this was all the business against Major Weir.

Then as against Jean Weir, since she made no admission of guilt, the advocate prosecuting produced her own declaration, made at the time of arrest, whereby she acknowledged her own incest with her brother; that she knew Margaret Burdoun, her brother’s stepdaughter, was with child in his house and that all believed it was the Major’s; that Margaret did not deny it when she asked her; and she confessed all the sorceries in the libel; and that her brother had a mark like the Devil’s mark upon his shoulder.

Then the assize bent their heads together, and soon they with one voice found the panel Major Weir to be guilty of the said horrid crimes of bestiality with a mare and cow, and of the crime of incest with his sister Jean, and by a plurality of votes of fornication and adultery. They found the panel Jean guilty of the incest also libelled against her, but they took no notice of any other points in the libels notwithstanding of the Major’s confession before the court because it was not positive, and notwithstanding of the extra-judicial confessions of the two, which they chose to pass by.

This was the sentence of the court: the said Major Weir to be taken on Monday the 11th inst. to the Gallowlee betwixt Leith and Edinburgh and there betwixt two and four hours in the afternoon to be strangled at a stake till he be dead, and his body to be burnt to ashes. And his sister Jean to be hanged at the Grassmarket of Edinburgh on Tuesday, being the day thereafter.

‘Aw this I ken,’ said Lauder. ‘I was here as weill, mind. Ye are tellin me naethin I dinna ken.’

Mitchel sneered. ‘Whit is it ye would ken? How we fanatics are aw hypocrites under the skin?’

‘If it was that easy, I wouldna be here. It’s less trouble tae think Jean Weir mad than no. If ye believed her brither was juist a base hypocrite ye wouldna hae risked gaun in tae him.’

‘I believe he was guilty o thae crimes. I believed it then. There was nae dootin it.’

‘Why gang in then?’

‘You hae come here. You tell me.’

‘If it was me, it would be because ma ain faith had taen a dunt. Ye’d been sure o Weir, as ye were sure o yersel. He had been sure o himsel. Whit happens when such a man shatters in front o ye? Tae him, tae you? That’s whit I would want tae ken.’

‘I hadna seen him in three year. It’s true whit ye say, I niver saw a dooncome sae sair. But ma ain faith was siccar.’ He glared at Lauder. ‘It aye is. It’s taen waur dunts nor that.’

He clapped his ruined leg, and Lauder acknowledged the gesture with a nod. But he didn’t want to get diverted.

‘Ye kent Alexander Weir wasna in Edinburgh, and that even if he was he wouldna gang near his faither. Sae ye gaed in his place, and young John Vanse let ye in.’

‘Aye, on the Sabbath. John didna look ower hard at me. Mebbe he kent I wasna Sandy. Mebbe he didna want tae ken.’

‘He left ye alane wi the Major?’


‘Whit like was he?’

Mitchel shook his head. ‘Like naethin I iver want tae see again.’

A broken dishevelled wreck, was how Thomas Weir had appeared to Mitchel. His hair white, and matted with grease and dirt. A week’s white stubble over his lined face. Several teeth lost. The bones of his chest and shoulders projecting through a filthy thin shirt. He looked like what he was: an old man of seventy who had been condemned to death the next day.

Mitchel took his hand and sat beside him on the bed. In a low voice he told him who he was. Weir stared ahead in a dwam. Mitchel told him again. ‘I am James Mitchel, that ye helped in the past, that fled oot o Scotland wi yer assistance. D’ye no mind me?’

Nothing. Weir seemed unaware that there was someone in the cell with him.

‘I am James Mitchel, him they say that shot at the apostate James Sharp.’

Weir turned his head, peered at him, nodded slowly. When his mouth opened it cracked with dried slavers.
There was a pitcher of water by the door. Mitchel fetched it and, pouring some into his hand, wetted the old man’s mouth and lips with it. A foul stench came from Weir’s mouth. His whole body reeked. He tried to speak.


His voice was barely audible. Mitchel waited.

‘Hae ye brocht me ma siller?’

‘Ye are past wantin siller. Whit use is siller tae ye nou?’

‘Tae buy a passage. Get me tae Leith and I’ll gang wi Forrester tae Holland.’

‘He’s gane. There is nae ship for ye. Ye hae further tae gang the morn than tae Holland.’

Weir groaned. His eyes dimmed and brightened like failing candles. He took more water.

‘James Mitchel,’ he said contemplatively. ‘Ye crossed the sea as a rebel. How can I no cross the sea as a rebel?’

‘I am nae rebel. The rebels are them that has broken the Covenant. But you are a rebel against God, and there’s nae sea sae braid it’ll keep ye frae his vengeance.’

Weir nodded. ‘I ken it, I ken it. It’s a dark, seik sea that’s in front o me.’ Then, with a hint of his former English-touched voice, he said, ‘Are you come to preach at me like the others, James? I am weary of preaching and praying.’

‘Na,’ said Mitchel. ‘I believe ye are ayont thae things.’

Weir’s face lit up. ‘Ay. I am ayont hope and ayont mercy. I’m glad that ye understand that, James. Ye were aye a good student.’

Nobody had ever said that to Mitchel before. It reminded him of where he was, who he was with. It was the sabbath. He should be in a kirk, or at prayer in his own company. He should be in hiding. He moved himself a foot or so away from the other man.

‘Whit has happened tae ye?’

Weir drank from the pitcher again. He began to mumble, staring at nothing.

‘I fell,’ he said. ‘I had grace and I fell. And when I looked back I saw that I had never had grace at all.’

Mitchel shivered. The shadows in the room felt heavy, like damp earth. Weir’s voice, stronger now but with a resigned flatness to it, droned on.

‘We were blessed. We were blessed and chosen. I felt God in me. I was seventeen. That was when I felt the assurance that I was saved. I felt it like a wind rushing through me, a light exploding in me. God had saved me for himself. What he had done no man could undo. I was part of God. I was Christ-like. This is how it was.’

The words were right. They described what you were supposed to experience. If you were of the elect it was revealed to you in such a way. Then you moved ever closer to Christ’s perfection in thought and deed and understanding. Your goodness did not save you because it could not, you were not good, you were human and sinful: only God could save you. But the knowledge of assurance filled you with righteousness. The elect were not saved by their own works, but you could tell the elect because they walked in the way of God, with a spiritual lustre and beauty that strangers to Christ did not have. All this Mitchel knew and believed. But to hear it from Weir in this place, in his condition – it was as if as the words were uttered something in his own mouth turned to dung. Weir made words hateful that should have been full of hope.

And yet, even here, Mitchel felt his feelings divide. He thought back to that conversation they had had on the High Street, outside, looking up at the wall of this very building and seeing the head of James Graham. The moment of rebirth, of revelation, that Weir spoke of, it had evaded Mitchel then and he still found himself desperate for such a memory. When Weir spoke of it, Mitchel hated him for having betrayed its beauty, and yet he envied him for having experienced it. He believed, he was sure, that he was chosen. But when he heard other men talk of their assurance, it made him uneasy. Why did he not have the same sense of it as they did? And now, to hear a man confess – this man who had been so important to him in his youth – that he had been mistaken after all, after so many years… Mitchel felt as if darkness were closing in upon his own mind.

Weir was still speaking, the words muttered and indistinct.

‘Our nation was chosen. We were the bride of Christ. We felt this. We both felt this. We became as one with him. When we thought, when we prayed, when we felt, our thoughts and our prayers and our feelings were God’s.’

Mitchel tried to speak. In the cell’s gloom, his voice sounded as if it came from somewhere else.

‘You and Jean?’

‘It was his impulse that moved in us. It could not be denied. It could not be temptation because we were moved by him.’

‘It was sin.’

‘It wasna sin. It couldna be sin. It was God.’

Mitchel thought of what it was like. Sin. How it had felt with the gardener’s wife. That had been sin – he thanked God now for showing him what sin was. How it would feel each time. How beautiful it would be if it were not sin. He was listening to his own body. That was the flesh in conflict with the soul. The body said, why would God implant these feelings, if they were not to be acted upon?

‘I was of God and God was of me,’ said Weir. ‘He gave me power over all things.’

Mitchel struggled to overpower his body’s arguments. ‘It was sin,’ he said again.

‘When you are of God you are beyond sin. There is nothing but the urges he puts in ye. All your urges are prayers and praises to him.’

‘No,’ said Mitchel.

‘All of them,’ Weir insisted. ‘There’s nae line to draw. We are damned or we are saved. What difference does our feeble conscience make to that?’

He turned suddenly and seemed surprised to see Mitchel there. He seized him by the shoulders. The foul breath poured onto Mitchel’s face.

‘We are all instruments in God’s hands. Ye canna deny it.’

Mitchel pushed him away. He stood and took a few steps in the gloom. It was as if there was something rotting in a corner of the room, growing and shifting as it decayed.

‘Your desires were unnatural!’ He heard the horror in his own voice. ‘How could ye think thae things were frae God? How could ye?’

‘Then from where?’’ said Weir. A terrible groan rose from his throat. ‘Ye needna answer. I ken. I felt the change.’

Mitchel was silent, appalled. There was nothing he could think of to say.

‘It was forty years coming. I didna ken it at first. I thought it was still him. God. But God had tricked me forty years. He betrayed me. I had a feeling of him in the dark and it wasna him. Not him at all. It was a woman.’

‘Jean was your sister,’ said Mitchel.

Weir cackled. The sound turned Mitchel’s stomach.

‘No that auld hag, I’d nae use for her. She was a done creature. Ha! She still thinks she’s going to Heaven. This, no, this was bonnie. A beautiful woman in the night. She used to come to me alone. The lips like a thread of scarlet. The breasts like young roes.’

‘Dinna speak thae words,’ said Mitchel. ‘These are God’s holy words.’

‘It was God that came, d’ye not see? I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem. Every night. And I felt her beside me. Every part of her.’

‘Sweet Jesus,’ said Mitchel. He was choking on something. He wanted to leave. He wanted to call out for Vanse to let him out of the cell.

‘Every night I felt down her body. Her arms, her breasts, her belly. I put my hand in by the hole of the door. Then her legs. Then, one night, she guided my hands with hers. She took my hands and put them to her feet.’

He drank more water. Mitchel did not call out.

‘They were hairy. Coarse, short, thick hair. Covered wi it. I shrunk away, but I couldna. She had a grip of me. And then I felt the change. She was laughing. I kent who it was, who it had been all along. He stood up before me laughing. Huge, like a giant. I saw that I was destroyed.’

Mitchel could take no more. He went to the door and started banging on it. Weir’s breath was filling the whole room with a cloud of poison. He began to shout as the old man’s voice rose.

‘He is with me always,’ Weir said. ‘I am his, not God’s. I was always his. I was always chosen, but not for grace. I never had grace. I am damned.’

The door was unlocked. It was Vanse. Mitchel had paid him to be on hand. ‘Let me oot,’ he said. ‘I canna breathe.’

Vanse nodded. ‘He fouls himsel,’ he said. Mitchel lurched outside and Vanse closed the door. Behind it they could still hear Weir ranting.

Mitchel sucked in great gasps of air. He thought he had seen something, a dark figure, looming up behind Weir.

‘On yer wey oot,’ said Vanse calmly, ‘ye hae tae see Jean.’

‘I canna.’

‘Jist a prayer,’ said Vanse. ‘Ye can spare that for her surely.’

Mitchel held a coin out for Vanse. Weir’s laugh still cackled in his head.

‘Please,’ he said, ‘I canna.’

Vanse plucked the coin and took him by the arm. ‘She is sweet compared wi him, Maister.’

There was something about his voice. Maybe he intended to betray him, not let him go. Mitchel realised he was entirely at his mercy.

They went down a passage barely wide enough for the two of them. Doors, each one with a nightmare behind it. There was a small room at one end of the passage. Vanse pushed him forward into it.

Jean Weir was sitting on a bench. The door was not locked because her foot was chained to a ring set in the floor. She looked up placidly.


Mitchel looked behind him. He shrugged at Vanse, pleaded again. ‘I hae nae prayers left,’ he said. ‘Let me awa. I beg ye.’

Lauder waited for Mitchel to go on. But he seemed drained by the memories. A minute passed.

‘He thocht he could dae nae wrang,’ said Lauder at last.

‘Aye, that was the worst thing, there was nae hypocrisy in it. His haill life he thocht he could dae nae wrang, then it was borne in upon him that he could dae naethin but wrang.’

Lauder shuddered. ‘And aw ye can see in front o ye is eternal punishment.’

‘He niver lost his faith in that sense. He niver stopped believin in the life tae come.’

‘It’d been better for him if he had,’ said Lauder.

‘It wouldna hae saved him. He’d hae burnt in ony case. At least he walked through this world wi a kennin o the next.’

‘Did ye gang tae the Gallowlee?’

‘Aye. It’s a solemn thing, tae see a man sent on his wey, whether it’s tae Heaven or tae Hell.’

‘I heard he wasna deid when they burnt him.’

Mitchel shook his head. ‘Mebbe no. It was the hangman’s job tae thrapple him but he couldna get the breath oot o him. It was strange – he was that seik and feeble they’d tae harl him on a sledge aw the wey frae the Tolbooth, yet when they had him bound tae the stake there seemed a byordnar strenth tae his struggles. Ye’d think the life was thrawn oot o him and then he’d lift his heid and this roarin noise would come oot. The hangman cam back wi the tow tae try again and Weir’s heid would start tae batter itsel aff the stake. They couldna get the tow on him. They said tae him tae speir for the Lord’s mercy but he wouldna. He was shoutin, I hae lived as a beast, let me die as a beast! Sae the hangman gied up and they pit the lunt tae the fire.’

‘And his staff?’

‘That was flung in tae, yince the flames had gotten haud. The people wouldna let them pit it in afore for fear he would use it tae escape.’

‘Aye,’ said Lauder. ‘I heard that. I heard folk say they thocht it was alive.’

‘Mebbe it was.’

Lauder did not rise to the challenge in Mitchel’s voice. There was another story he’d heard, that Weir and Satan his master had concocted a plan to foil the executioners. A mysterious man that had visited him in prison had been bewitched and substituted for the Major, who had taken on the other man’s appearance. While the innocent double was being throttled and incinerated, Weir was stepping past on his way to Leith to catch a boat for Holland. It was a ludicrous idea, probably put about by the bishops, who thought all Scotsmen residing in Holland were no better than devils, but folk would believe anything if they wanted to. Lauder was thinking of this as he asked his next question.

‘Vanse let ye oot, when ye’d finished in the Tolbooth?’

‘Aye. He was juist a lad. I think, eftir aw, that he didna ken me.’

‘Where did ye gang?’

‘That’s for me tae mind and you tae guess. I said I’d tell ye aboot Weir, no aboot folk that helped and bieldit me. But I didna stey lang in Edinburgh, I’ll say that. It wasna safe. Ma face was ower weill-kent.’

‘Ye were safe wi some. Jean didna betray ye.’

‘She hardly saw me. Ye ken the licht in there.’

‘She kent ye werena Sandy, though. When I visited her. I tellt ye that.’

‘She was a witch and a hure. And dementit tae. I wouldna credit muckle o whit she had tae say.’

‘Aye, mebbe,’ said Lauder. ‘Ye’re mebbe richt.’

He was suddenly tired. He wondered what time it was. Even though the thought made him queasy, he was looking forward to being summoned for the boat back to Scotland.

He looked up at the narrow slit of the window, trying to judge the hour from the dirty light that pushed feebly in there. A smear of something colourful caught his eye. It seemed so out of place that he stood up to see what it was. He picked it off the stone ledge with his finger: cherry blossom, blown from one of the wizened trees further up the rock. Away from the outside light, against his flesh, it lost its pinkness and didn’t look remarkable at all. He sniffed at it, but it had no scent. All he could smell was Mitchel’s body, the dankness of the cell, and the salt of the sea all around them.

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Information about Document 587

The Fanatic (extract 2)


Text audience

Adults (18+)
General public
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 1999
Word count 8234

Text medium


Text publication details

Publisher Fourth Estate
Publication year 2000
Place of publication London
ISBN/ISSN 1-84115-189-0
Edition First
Part of larger text
Contained in The Fanatic, by James Robertson - Extract
Page numbers 174-194

Text setting


Text type



Author details

Author id 105
Forenames James
Surname Robertson
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1950
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation Writer
Place of birth Sevenoaks
Region of birth Kent
Country of birth England
Place of residence Newtyle
Region of residence W Angus
Residence CSD dialect area Ags
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Sales Director
Father's place of birth London
Father's country of birth England
Mother's occupation Primary Teacher
Mother's place of birth Leatherhead
Mother's region of birth Surrey
Mother's country of birth England


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes General use, work and home
French Yes Yes No Yes Occasional use, work and leisure (holidays)
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic No Yes No No Academic, creative
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes General use, work and home