On Thursday 1st of February 1829, Andrew Longair was three days shy of his twenty second birthday and living in Scotland’s capital city. As he set about completing the last of his long list of daily duties there was little to indicate that today would prove to be the most important day of a long and interesting life. A day when he would finally conjure the courage to invite the love of his life out on their first day together; initially converse with his lifelong mentor and before sunset be invited to stare into the mind of the devil himself.
The city of Edinburgh had been described as the “Athens of the North”, a title that was as ill-deserved as it was false as the ancient capital of Greece had never been this cold nor ever smelled this abysmal. True, the Scottish city was recognised as a church of ‘Enlightenment thought’ and mecca of medical learning but for most of the cities dwellers this was only a pretentious veneer. Many of city’s inhabitants lived in desperate poverty and had to endure the type of squalid living conditions usually only suffered by livestock. The poorest of all were confined to the West Port and Cowgate areas just below castle, the bulk of those were Irish immigrants and exiled Highlanders. To further preserve the chasm between the classes the city authorities had recently implemented the construction of a New Town complete with beautiful new Georgian townhouses, ornate buildings and connecting cobbled roads. The affluent then abandoned the crammed Old Town areas, leaving the deprived to their tenement slums.
The gaze of the civilised world however was not trained upon Edinburgh for benign reasons on this winter’s day. The recent West Port murders had horrified the city’s many inhabitants and word of the heinous crimes had rapidly spread down to England then abroad. The city’s reputation was besmirched and tipped into the polluted river the city sat upon. And while the Irishmen that had slain sixteen souls then sold the bodies had been caught, the real scandal was that it was an educated man and member of the plutocracy that had rewarded the murderer’s acts. Unbeknownst to Andrew he was just about to be pulled into the very belly of all this horror.
It taken the Andrew near to a year to adjust to living in the city. The farm boy had tired of his rural surroundings and escaped down to Edinburgh just after his twenty first birthday. At first, he had gotten lost in the warrens and burrows of the city streets and the sheer scale of the city had terrified him to the bones forcing him to scurry back into his bedroom at night. However, he had gradually built up his courage through the hard work and routine of the local brewery. All day he swept floors, cleaned equipment, fed the horses, rolled barrels around the warehouse, loaded them into the waiting carriages then delivered the beer around the hostelries and bars of the Old Town. The work was arduous but provided him with an invaluable insight into a growing industry. His employer: Mr MacLaren, was a kind old industrialist who had recognised Andrew’s spirit of curiosity and encouraged him to he read and learn about the new ideas that had recently washed across Europe. His real education however came from his older co-workers who had adopted him as kin and provided him with the more important schooling he needed to survive in the city. They had advised him where to drink, where and how to dance, how to behave with women, who to trust, who to fear and which areas of the city to avoid. Every day he ate up all their guidance and heaped the wisdom in the back of his skull.
‘Aff to join the crowds in the New Toon are you Andrew? See if you can catch a glimpse of the West Port monster?’ asked Robert (the old barrel maker) while crossing his eyes and lolling his tongue from the side of his mouth.
‘Maybe so Robert, see whit all the fuss is about’ replied Andrew.
‘Nah, it’s no monster he’s planning to see this morning Robert. He’s aff to see his wee Irish sweetheart at the Atholl Arms’ teased Patrick the cart driver.
Andrew felt his cheeks flush but did not submit to his playful tormentors. He dove his hand into an open sack of oats and held a straight handful below the nose of the cart horse. The mare snuffled up the food while spraying cold, wet air from her snout.
‘Well Andrew, don’t being taking her anywhere near here if you aim to impress’ said Robert.
‘Aye, you should take her to the Meadows’ added Patrick.
‘Wheest Patrick, they’ll be chased from the Meadows. The rich don’t the likes of us in their parks. No son you should take her up to Arthur’s seat and take in the city view’ advised Robert.
‘Aye right enough, right enough, Arthur’s seat would be better, but mind take something to eat and a bottle o’ water, no’ beer, she has enough of that in her nostrils all week’ added Patrick.
‘As always gentlemen your advice is invaluable. I think I’ll do just that’ replied Andrew.
The older men mocked Andrew’s polite tone and bade him cheery farewell. He wrapped his thick, woollen scarf around his face and neck twice before tucking it into the front of his tatty waistcoat. He had initially abandoned this scarf, being embarrassed by his mother’s knitting, but as the temperature plummeted it had become invaluable protecting him from the bracing gales and shielding his nose from the Cowgate’s dreadful smells. He pushed open the thick wooden doors of the warehouse and marched into the bracing wind of early afternoon. The frozen soil of the thorough fare crunched below his boots as he crossed the streets and weaved through the lanes of the Old Town. Horse drawn wagons trundled up through the middle of the streets rutting the mud into lines while a constant flow of hawkers, shoppers, maids and delivery boys zipped down the frozen pavements. Everyone seemed determined to make their frostbitten commute as brief as possible.
Andrew saw Bridget on the door step of the Pub long before she recognised him. He watched her screw up her face and turn from the smell of a bucket of slops that she was emptying into the street. Even during this moment of horridness, he thought her more beautiful than Helen of Troy. The effluent from the bucket spilled onto the cobbles then oozed into the stinking mess that always collected outside the local hostelries. The brown mess seemed to creep up the walls like a gangrenous stain, living but rotting everything in its path. Bridget’s expression lightened upon recognizing Andrew slip, stumble and scramble up the rutted road.
‘Coming to see me, are ye? Asked Bridget in her mellifluous Irish brogue.
‘Just passing by’ replied Andrew with a smile.
‘Jest passing by he says, passing by to where exactly?’
‘Ahh you’ve got me Biddy. I’ve come to try and convince you to come out with me tomorrow’
Andrew adored the rhythmic poetry of Bridget’s speech, as if each word that flowed effortlessly from her rosy red lips were tied together in some sort of predetermined sonnet. She was twenty-one and like Andrew only recently moved to Edinburgh, only she had escaped from the confines of Strabane on the North West coast of Ireland. Her long black curly was collected in a bun under a white, maid’s hat but one wisp always seemed to escape down across her forehead. Andrew gazed into her blue eyes and marvelled at her little bunny teeth which crossed her bottom lip when she smiled.
‘Where would you be taking me tomorrow then Andrew?’ asked Bridget.
‘I can’t tell you, it’s a surprise’
‘A surprise he says… Well Then, I’ll make you a deal, I’ll accept your invitation but only if ye do me a little favour in return’
‘Anything for you Biddy’
Bridget slipped through the doorway of the pub and returned with a bundle of three books tied together with twine.
‘One of the doctors from up at South Bridge left these in the pub last night, in a right old state he was, I’ll agree to accompany you tomorrow if you deliver these to their owner’ said Bridget.
She held the books out towards Andrew chest. He unfastened the string’s bow and opened the first book and read out the hand written first page.
‘Doctor Lizar, Surgeon’s Hall, South Bridge, Edinburgh’
‘You never know he might know one of those Frenchmen you’re always rabbiting on about’ teased Bridget.
Andrew drew the twine from under the books and looped it around Bridget’s neck, tied it at her chest then pulled Bridget close and kissed on her on the forehead. She giggled at his little, romantic gesture and pushed the books into his chest. He put the books into the pockets of his jacket and stepped back from the doorway and back into the frozen mud of the road.
‘I’ll see you on the way back Biddy’ said Andrew before turning towards the New Town.
‘I hope so Andrew’ called Bridget before disappearing back through the door.
To reach Surgeon’s Square Andrew had to traverse some of the most treacherous parts of the city where even during daytime there were still enough shadowed closes and darkened lanes for predators to hide in. As a result, he kept to the safety of the middle of street also avoiding the frosty pavements and chamber pots that were always being tipped from above. Hunkered up in one of the doorways a Policeman was waiting for victims like a large dark jungle cat. His long black jacket was held together with a line of brass buttons reaching from neck to groin and his velvet top hat sat askew upon on his mammoth cranium. The officer spotted Andrew and crossed the road to block his path by placing his wooden baton upon Andrew’s chest.
‘Where do you think you’re going Paddy’ asked the officer in a distinctive Highland drawl.
‘My name’s not Paddy’ replied Andrew. ‘And I have an important delivery for Doctor Lizars at Surgeon’s Square’ answered Andrew while showing the Policeman the books in his pockets.
The Policeman chuckled at the young man’s quick temper also noting his shared accent.
‘An educated man, I’m guessing you’re not from Inverness then?’ asked the Policeman.
‘No, Nairn’ replied Andrew.
‘Close enough … Surgeon’s square? Off to join the crowds, are you?’ pried the Policeman.
‘No Sir, I had enough of all that on Wednesday at the hanging’
‘Aye well, I wouldn’t be lingering around the square today, there’s a fair-sized mob gathering, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be leaving until they see yon dead Irishman from the Mill Port’
‘I don’t intend to stay there any longer than necessary’ said Andrew.
The Policeman motioned to Andrew to carry on and slunk back into the cover of the doorway.
At the top of the steep hill that plateaued onto the South Bridge Andrew climbed upon a wall to get a better view of the mass of people that had gathered. He had never seen so many souls gather in one place. The horde was massed around the newly built Surgeon’s Hall; a massive building that dominated the line of newly erected libraries, University buildings and legal offices of Edinburgh’s New Town. Several sets of large stone stairs led to the Grecian pillars at the entrance, its ostentatious design designed to reflect the institutions stature and self-reverence. A phalanx of uniformed Policemen stood between the throng of protestors and the dark suited students and doctors, sporadically the uniformed men beat the throng back, cracking skulls and whacking limbs with swings of their heavy batons. Andrew stepped down from the wall, eased into the crowd and sidled into earshot of the nattering demonstrators. Each man- and the occasional woman- were trading gossip and rumour like currency and there were various thoughtless ideas being passed around. Many thought the body had disappeared or risen from the grave. Some that the private dissection had revealed some hideous fact; that the murderer had the innards of a demon, dragon or worse. A few that the corpse had turned to stone after being pulled down from the gallows. Regardless, everyone was demanding for some sort of viewing of the murderer’s corpse to prove otherwise.
A couple of zealots were standing upon wooden boxes each espousing their beliefs and damning all with contrary opinions, a small group of sycophants surrounded each nodding and parroting their guru’s bile. Andrew crept up to beside one gang that encircled a dog collared minister whose fat seemed to squeeze out of every vent of his ill-fitting tunic. Andrew inhaled deeply in full expectation of the religious nonsense that would follow.
‘And what are we to expect of the increasing hordes of Hibernians that have washed upon our shores. These heathens have no respect for humankind and answer only to their Pope in Rome’ bellowed the bloated holy man.
The gang murmured their approval and encouraged the minister further.
‘And it was written that it is sacrilege to deface a human body. We demand to see the body of the heathen resurrectionist and that his humanly remains be interred on holy ground’. cried the minister while holding a small bible high above his head.
The hypocrisy burned within Andrew like the core of a bonfire. How could these religious fools have so much sway with the masses?
Before realising, he blurted out the words of Voltaire, a philosopher his employer instructed him to read.
‘Are we not all children of the same father and creatures of the same god?’ cried Andrew.
Andrew’s voice cut through the religious fervour like soldier’s bugle horn. The minister’s bootlickers immediately about turned to face him and the minister ceased his sermon to scowl down at Andrew from his makeshift pulpit.
‘And Lo, we have a non-believer in our midst, come to tell us how to behave’ said the minister.
The preacher’s sycophants began to circle Andrew like jackals stalking an antelope. The swollen hypocrite seized his chance to exact divine retribution directing his flock to attack.
‘Smite the heathen with all the fury of the lord’ cried the preacher.
The mob responded and began to jostle and hassle Andrew. Before he could muster any type of response he was rabbit punched in the back of the head sending him sprawling to the ground. A torrent of catcalls and abuse poured upon him together with a hail of kicks and punches. He tried to cover himself from the assaults but felt himself slide into unconsciousness. Above all the din a clipped tone ordered ‘Grab him, grab him, before they do him a serious injury’. Then he felt himself being lifted high into the air and planted on his backside onto the cold, sandstone stairway.
‘I’m not sure if your mad or stupid but that was no place to advocate your enlightened beliefs young Sir’ said a voice.
A young man barely older than himself was studying Andrew’s injuries from above. He pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and held it to Andrew’s bleeding nose. One of the Policemen dropped his cap on his knee.
‘Come with me’ ordered the young man.
Andrew rose from his seated position feeling the effects of the many strikes on his body. The young man pulled Andrew’s arm around his neck and lifted him through the main doors of the hall and onto a chair in the building’s hallway.
‘Thank you, Sir, I thought I was a goner’ squeaked Andrew.
‘I noticed your books and together with your opinions I thought you a fellow student, but you hardly seemed dressed as such’ replied the student.
‘No Sir, I’m not a student, I’ve only come to deliver these books to a Dr Lizars’
‘Lizars eh? Left them in the Pub again did he?’ asked the young man with a chuckle.
The young student checked over his new patient before delivering a consultation: ‘No broken bones but you’ll have a few minor war wounds and bruises to impress the ladies with tonight. Now then, let’s see if we can find you Old Lizars’
Andrew was led down a long, carpeted hallway past sniggering students and curious Doctors. All the students sported the same uniform of black tunic and white shirt with collars that reached up to the lobes of their ears while the doctors wore tight fitting suits with black stockings. The student knocked three times on a large, wooden door prompting an officious ‘Enter’ from beyond. He pushed open the door and stepped into a brightly lit study.
‘Well Robertson, as if I don’t have to tolerate your appearance all morning, why are you bothering me this afternoon?’ spat an older man from behind a heavy, wooden desk.
‘Sir, I have a young man with a delivery for you’ piped the student.
‘It’d better not be another corpse Robertson’ replied the older man.
The young man smirked at the dry wit of the older man before beckoning Andrew forward.
The doctor was an older gentleman of around sixty and had a worn, crumpled face with large front teeth giving him the uncanniness of an old mountain hare. His white mane was slicked back like a horse and his piercing blue eyes sat behind a pair of bone, rimmed spectacles. He was on sitting a wooden throne like chair in front of a wide wooden desk that had open books, diagrams of animals and what looked like ledgers of names scattered upon it.
‘Well, what is it laddie?’ asked the older man.
‘I brought you your books Sir, they were found in a carriage at the bottom of South Bridge’ replied Andrew.
‘Fine, Robertson, you can leave us now’, ordered the old man to his student.
Andrew shook the student by the hand and thanked him for his help. The student then slipped through the door and pulled it shut with a clack.
‘Carriage you say? That’s queer, I can’t remember leaving these books in a carriage. I’d swear blind I left them in the Atholl Arms near Cowgate’ said the doctor.
Andrew squirmed under the glare of the older man but did not respond.
‘Well, how should I address you? What’s your name laddie?’ ask the doctor before rising from the desk and stepping forward towards Andrew.
‘My name’s Andrew Longair Sir, once of Nairn but now a trainee at MacLaren’s Brewery on Candlemakers Row’.
‘Pleasure to meet you’ said the Doctor while exchanging a handshake. ‘My name is Doctor John Lizars, Professor of Surgery and Senior Operating Surgeon of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary’.
‘Pleasure to meet you Sir’ replied Andrew.
‘Well, young Longair it seems we share a taste for fine ale and a raucous atmosphere, and there’s little wrong with that, but I appreciate your discretion in front of my students. It would not do for a Doctor to be rumoured to frequent the hostelries of the Cowgate’.
‘Your secret’s safe with me Sir’
‘Glad to hear it’, said the Doctor with a smile.
The Doctor studied Andrew like he was some sort of strange animal in a zoo.
‘Now… let me see if I can repay your favour and in a small way apologise for your troubles outside… Follow me’.
The Doctor took his books, opened the door and led Andrew into a long, carpeted hallway that’s walls were covered with large portraits of Lairds and Dukes with ornate furniture and glass cabinets containing skulls and bones lying beneath. The Doctor paused at a door signed ‘Operating Theatre’ then turned to address Andrew.
‘As you would have noticed outside, we are very popular these days what with our important guest. We’ve just finished with him. Unfortunately, most of the medical students demanded an audience and now half of the damned city are demanding a viewing too’
The Doctor then pushed open the door and ushered Andrew into a huge round room of wood which on first impression looked like a courtroom. There were around one hundred stalls banked in circled levels like inside a small coliseum. At the bottom a table was covered by a white blanket until the doctor pulled the blanket away to reveal a dead male body below.
The cadaver lay back at an angle and was naked save a cloth to hide preserve the man’s decency. The skin was the pallor of grim grey and appeared to Andrew like the meat of some great fish. His eyes were closed as if in deep prayer and without prior knowledge you would have thought he was dozing or drunk. The skull was shaved bald and there was a deep red cut that ringed the forehead like he had just removed an extremely tight top hat. It looked like the cadaver had begun to harden as the skin was pulled taught over the bones and face. Most unsettling to Andrew was the man’s lips that had begun to curl creating a hideous grimace.
‘Is this I the West Port murderer Sir?’ asked Andrew.
‘No Andrew, this is Rob Roy’ answered the Doctor with a shake of his head.
Andrew edged towards the corpse feeling a rivulet of seat drip down his spine and muscles of his legs begin to twitch.
“He’ll do you no harm now young Longair’ said the Doctor.
Andrew walked forward until he saw the stubble on the corpses chin. The blood had drained from the face, but a dark blue bruised crease had collected around the neck. There was a deep, chemical smell emanating from the body both unnatural and unnerving. Without warning the Doctor laid his hand upon the corpse’s head then pulled the scalp clean away like it was the top of a turnip. Andrew’s eyes widened in fascination propelling him further forward for a better view.
‘And behold, Master Longair, look upon the mind of murderer’ exclaimed the Doctor.
Andrew inched forward and peered down into the skull. Crimson, dark blood and bone were ringed around the skull like a cross section of a tree’s trunk. In the middle was the veiny sliced cauliflower of the brain.
‘So Longair, on first impressions what can you deduce about this man?’ asked the Doctor.
Andrew took a moment to contemplate his answer.
‘Well, the marks around the neck were probably caused by the hangman’s noose’
‘Correct, well done, and what else can you tell me?’
‘Well by the calluses on his hand and the condition of his fingers he was a physical worker probably a navvy’
‘Excellent, Longair, you have an investigative eye’
The doctor replaced the top of the skull and stepped back from the corpse.
’They’ll sew the head back on for the public to view tomorrow. We are expecting thousands of the great unwashed to pass through the theatre, I suppose this is what passes for entertainment in these bleak times’ said the Doctor with a snort of laughter.
The Doctor reached into his waistcoat pocket and produced a small note which he passed to Andrew.
‘I confiscated this from a student not two hours ago’.
Andrew unfolded the note and involuntarily read out the words that were written in a dark red ink.
“This is written in the blood of William Burke, who was hanged at Edinburgh on 28 Jan 1829 for the murder of Mrs Campbell or Docherty. The blood was taken from his head on the 1 Feb 1829.”
Andrew was horrified at the callousness of the note. He turned to the Doctor and handed it back.
‘Hardly the behaviour of a civilised professional Sir’ said Andrew.
The Doctor bellowed a large laugh at Andrew’s disgust then answered: ‘No, it is not Master Longair but in these dark times blood calls for blood. And the criminal that you look upon now did not afford the same respect to his victims that you do to him’
Andrew took a second to deconstruct the full import of the Doctor’s words before finally appreciating their wisdom. The doctor re-covered the body with its sheet and turned back to Andrew.
‘Well Longair, I’m afraid I have work to do and can’t stand about all day talking to you, I trust you can see yourself out’
‘Yes Sir. Thank you for the lecture’
‘And thank you for the return of my books. In fact, take these and come back to me in a month and tell me your opinion’ said the Professor while passing the books to Andrew.
‘Thank you, Sir, although I’ll sooner read these in a week’ replied Andrew.
‘Maybe so, but you’ll not understand them in a week, so reread and reread again then report back’ said the Professor before exiting the theatre with a parting ‘Until next month’.
The abrupt exit left Andrew standing as stiff and awkward as Burke’s corpse below the sheet. He twisted around one last time to appreciate the theatre before climbing the wooden stairs, walking through the hallways and emerging back outside to where the mob was still spoiling for trouble. As he descended the sandstone steps he was spotted by the bloated minister that had directed his mob to attack fifteen minutes before.
‘Well boy, did you see the body of the Irish Devil?’ spat the fat fool.
Andrew nodded, not wanting to engage conversation with the brute.
‘And what did he look like? Did he have horns and hooves or red wings like a demon?’ asked the zealot while simultaneously addressing his congregation.
‘He looked very much the same as you.’ replied Andrew before merging back into the crowd and off to see Bridget.