Walk down most of Edinburgh’s city streets and you’ll pass a myriad of different historical buildings. From the quaint Old Town with its tall tenements to the elegant New Town and beyond, it’s easy to simply admire the different architectural facades as you pass by. But Edinburgh is also about the people who lived inside these buildings and called them home. Even behind the most unassuming exteriors, there are surprising stories connected with their past inhabitants. Scratch the surface and you’ll soon discover what lurks beneath!
So in the first of this series of ‘Inside Stories’ we’ll look beyond the front door to find out some unexpected hidden tales.
Dalry House and the Chiesley Family
Orwell Place is a street just off Dalry Road near Haymarket not far from the city centre. Here you’ll find Dalry House almost hidden behind beautiful cherry trees. However when Dalry House was built in 1661, this area lay outside the city of Edinburgh in green countryside and formed part of a private estate. Walter Chiesley, a wealthy merchant had the house built for himself and his family. Spelling was fairly fluid in those days so Walter’s surname comes in a variety of forms – Chieslie, Chiesly, Chislie are just three of them. Walter and his house were important enough to even be honoured with a royal visit by King Charles II, which was celebrated with the royal initials appearing in a special plasterwork ceiling.
John Chiesley of Dalry
However it’s not the story of Walter which catapulted the Chiesley name into the public eye. It was his son John who would become infamous. In fact John was later viewed as someone who was “not quite sane”. He certainly had a reputation for “violent and ungovernable passions”. Nevertheless all seemed well at first, as John followed in his father’s footsteps and became a prosperous merchant. He married Margaret Nicholson and over the years they had a family of 10 children.
Perhaps as a result of his volatile temper, their marriage was not a happy one and eventually John and Margaret separated. But even after the separation the problems didn’t end. John was either providing very little financial support for his family, or none at all. Margaret must have been in dire straits to decide to take him to court for maintenance. Some said that she and the children were starving as a result of lack of money.
Lord President Sir George Lockhart of Carnwath
The court hearing was in front of the judge Sir George Lockhart. He was a well-known and highly regarded member of the legal profession. He’d been knighted in 1663, was a member of the Privy Council and, apart from one serious glitch, had enjoyed an unblemished career. With the support and respect of his colleagues, he rose to become Lord President of the Court of Session in 1685. This position made him the senior judge in Scotland and head of the Scottish judiciary.
Sir George Lockhart ruled that John Chiesley should pay 1,700 merks, almost £94 a year in alimony to Margaret to support his family. This is the equivalent of around £11,300 in today’s money. To say that John was angry about the decision is an understatement. He was completely incandescent with rage. He accused Sir George of taking the governance of his family from him and threatened he would attack Sir George “either in kirk or mercat.” In fact when he was in London, Chiesley later confessed to walking up and down Pall-Mall with a pistol beneath his coat, lying in wait for the Lord President.
Vengeance on a Sunday
So it turned out to be a grave mistake that Lockhart didn’t take Chiesley’s threat more seriously. Instead he continued about his daily business as usual.
John Chiesley had vowed vengeance and he proved to be a man of his word. Witnesses saw him following George Lockhart on Saturday 30th March as he came from the Duke of Hamilton’s apartments at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The next day on Easter Sunday 1689, Chiesley went to St Giles Cathedral secretly armed with a pistol. On arrival, he tried to pay to sit in the pew directly behind Lockhart. Clearly his plan was to shoot the Lord President at point blank range. Luckily for Sir George the seat wasn’t available and Chiesley refused any other seat when offered. Throughout the church service he was noticeably agitated and paced up and down. Leaving St Giles at the end of the sermon before Sir George, Chiesley positioned himself at the entrance to Hope’s Close.
Murder in broad daylight
George Lockhart, like many other wealthy Edinburgh citizens, chose to live off the noisy thoroughfare of the High Street. For this reason, his substantial townhouse home was located quietly at the end of Hope’s Close. This close later became known as Old Bank Close. Originally the house had been built for Robert Gourlay, a 16th century merchant. Nowadays the house and close no longer exist. They were both demolished to make way for George IV Bridge in the 19th century. However in those days, it was only a couple of minutes’ walk up the High Street from St Giles.
Sir George arrived accompanied by his 2 brothers, Lord Castlehill and Daniel Lockhart. He recognised John Chiesley standing in the close, but remained unconcerned. After replying to Chiesley’s greeting politely, he continued walking towards his home. Inside his wife lay ill in bed and he was keen to see her, but he never made it home. Suddenly Chiesley caught up with the Lord President and shot him in the back with his pistol. Sir George spun round, fell against the wall, and crumpled to the ground. He was rushed inside, but died almost immediately.
Arrest, Trial and Torture
Making no attempt to escape, John Chiesley even boasted about his action when seized. “I am not wont to do things by halves“. He then added “I have done the deed and would not fly. That was to learn the President to do justice.”
Justice in 17th century Edinburgh was swift. Chiesley appeared in court the very next day on 1st April 1689, after his arrest. The Lord Provost, Sir Magnus Prince presided over the trail, since the murder had taken place within the city. With him sat the city bailies, and a jury of ten landed gentlemen and five merchants. Although Chiesley readily admitted shooting Sir George Lockhart himself, the question was did he have an accomplice. The court decided Chiesley should be tortured to find out if he had acted alone. Despite horrible torture with the ‘boot’ and thumbscrews, Chiesley refused to implicate anyone else. That was good news for a lawyer, William Calderwood, as he may have been involved and was definitely under suspicion.
There was never any doubt having confessed to murder, that John Chiesley would be found anything other than guilty. His execution came just two days later on 3rd April 1689. From the Tolbooth prison by St Giles Cathedral, Chiesley was dragged on a hurdle the short distance to the Mercat Cross. There he suffered one last grim addition to his punishment before being hanged on the gibbet.
As he had been caught ‘red-handed’ with the pistol that fired the fatal shot, Chiesley had his right hand cut off before his execution. The pistol was then placed on a chain around his neck and he was hanged. As part of his sentence his right hand was nailed to the West Port, one of the gates into the city. His body was due to be displayed publicly in chains between Edinburgh and Leith. However it seems his friends managed to cut his body down from the gibbet and spirit his body away before this happened.
On the same day as John Chiesley’s execution, Sir George Lockhart’s burial took place within Greyfriars Kirk. Unfortunately in 1845 a fire broke out in the church, and destroyed Sir George’s impressive memorial.
If you’d like to see some of the Old Town locations mentioned in this story and the imposing Chiesley family burial memorial in Greyfriars Kirkyard, why not take an Old Town & Royal Mile Tour to find out more.
Hauntings and a one-handed ghost
Almost immediately after Chiesley’s execution, rumours started of hauntings and sightings of a ghostly apparition with either one arm or one hand at Dalry House. Locally the ghost was known as ‘Johnny One-Arm’ and nobody doubted that it was John Chiesley.
Perhaps they were right. More than a hundred years later, Sir Walter Scott, the famous Scottish writer talked to James Walker. At the time Walker was the owner of Dalry House. He explained to Scott that during improvement work to the house, a skeleton had been uncovered, together with some fragments of iron. It seems John Chiesley had been brought back to the family home and buried secretly. However if you think that was the last to be heard of the infamous Chiesley family, you’d be wrong. Rachel, John Chiesley’s daughter was only 10 years old when he was executed. However, as an adult she ended up having an incredible story of her own to rival any work of fiction. But her tale will be for a future blog!
Bankruptcy and Insanity
Despite the notoriety of John Chiesley, his brothers Robert and James seem to have weathered the bad publicity and family association with a murderer. Robert was a successful merchant himself, who served as an MP from 1692 and was Lord Provost in 1694 (local mayor). Unfortunately for Robert in the late 1690s he invested in the greatest financial scheme of the time in Scotland – the Darien Scheme.
His brother James, as well as a huge swathe of other wealthy Scots poured money into the scheme. The venture planned to establish a new strategic Scottish trading post in Panama. Investors thought they’d make a fortune as they envisioned international trade flourishing. However, the scheme failed spectacularly. As a result, Robert along with many other Scots, including his brother James, ended up totally bankrupt. As a consequence, the shock of it sent him insane and he ended his days in the local Edinburgh asylum.
An Actor and another Royal Visitor
Over the course of the last few hundred years Dalry house has changed hands and had different purposes. From 1870 it was a teacher training college for the Scottish Episcopal Church. In fact the wonderful Scottish actor Alastair Sim, taught at Dalry House in the early 1920s. Later he found fame in films as a great character actor. Perhaps it was here he found the inspiration for his role as Miss Millicent Fritton, headmistress of St Trinian’s in the British classic comedy ‘The Belles of St Trinian’s’!
In the early 1960s Edinburgh and Leith Old People’s Welfare Council received Dalry House as a gift. They then had it refurbished and subsequently Queen Elizabeth II opened it officially. In her honour, plasterers added her Royal coat of arms to the ornate plasterwork on the ceiling.
Finally in 2006 Dalry House was converted to provide several private apartments, which is how it remains today. They’ve kept many of the house’s historic features inside, but hopefully not John Chiesley’s ghost!