The Gallow Lee; The Monsters in the Mortar!

gallowsA few years ago I read James Robertson’s excellent book; ‘The Fanatic’. The book tells the story of an Edinburgh tour guide and how he becomes obsessed with the gruesome character he portrays. In one passage of the book the character mentions a place called the ‘Gallow Lee’ an area just beside Leith Walk in Edinburgh where all manner of executions were carried out. I recently came across some more information about this place and its real history was even more ghastly than the fictional account.

Leith Walk is a ribbon of Shops Café’s and bars that runs from the east end of the city centre to the historical port of Leith. The origin of this thoroughfare goes back to the time of Oliver Cromwell and his attempts to capture the city. In order to repel his attacks Sir Alexander Leslie in command of the Scottish Army created a ‘breastwork’; a chest high defensive earthwork wall as part of the city defences. This wall ran northwards from the city centre down to the shore. The defences were incredibly effective and Cromwell was held off till after his victory at Dunbar.

In time buildings began to spring up along the line of these defences, a gravel path was laid down and coaches would ferry people to and from the port. Leith Walk was born!

At around the halfway point, just where the traditional boundary where Edinburgh and Leith meet is an area called Shrubhill. This was a sandy hill on the western side of the road. Being outside the city boundaries this was where the city of Edinburgh disposed of its more troublesome problems!

In 17th century Edinburgh public executions were a common spectacle. But sometimes there was a problem where a person sentenced to execution was either too high profile or for one reason or another there was concern that the execution may cause unrest.In some cases the manner of execution was 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 hill and on most days a body would be seen swinging from it. Witches were put to death, sometimes mercifully strangled before being burned and as the years progressed the ashes of the dead added to the sandy mound.

Covenanter executions were a frequent site too and there were a few high profile scandalous murderers who were put to death on the Gallow Lee: There was the ReverentJohn Kelloe for example; a respectable minister from Dunbar who had murdered his wife. Another very notable ‘customer’ was Norman Ross, a footman who had murdered 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.

leith_walkUntil halfway into the 18th century this ghastly landmark stood on the route into Edinburgh. 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 fashionable ‘New town’ The builders 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 the ashes and other remainsof thousands of victims. It is said that every penny he earned went straight to the local publicans – so much so that a public house (the halfway house) sprung up nearby!

Soon the sandy mound of the Gallow Lee was gone and all that remained was a hollow. As I write this the site of the Gallow Lee is once more waste ground, formerly occupied as a bus depot now awaiting redevelopment. But how many of those living in the trendy apartments in 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!


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