The Skeletons of Princes St Gardens

Princes Street Gardens – once the notorious Nor’ Loch

In 1820, excavations by the Well House Tower at the base of Castle Rock uncovered a grisly find.

As Edinburgh lawyer, artist and friend of Sir Walter Scott, James Skene of Rubislaw put it, writing in Archeol. Scot in 1822:

When digging a trench a little way to the east of the (Wellhouse) Tower in Spring 1820, the workmen discovered a large coffin of thick fir deals, in which were three skeletons.”

Skene went on to state that the skeletons were of a tall male between two female remains, though other reports claim only two skeletons (one male, one female) were found.

Wellhouse Tower (currently inaccessible)
Wellhouse Tower (currently inaccessible)

In either case, what Skene and the workmen found in 1820 appears to have been the remains of one George Sinclair and at least one of his two sisters. All three of the Sinclair siblings were found guilty of incest in 1627 and sentenced to death (though some reports of the time claim the younger of Sinclair’s sisters was spared by the church).

In the early 17th century, Princes Street Gardens was far from the pleasant urban oasis it is now. A stinking cess pool of stagnant water at the base of Edinburgh Castle, it was used as a waste pit, a popular spot for the suicidal, and — as was the case with the Sinclairs — a place of execution.

Reports at the time state Sinclair and at least one of his sisters were placed in a wooden chest with holes drilled in the sides, and tossed in the Nor’ Loch. Though apparently not particularly deep, the murky waters of the Loch were still enough to claim their lives, and it would appear it was their remains found by Skene and others in 1820.

Little is reported of what happened to the skeletons once they had been unearthed, but it is likely they were reinterred near the spot, most likely before the railway tunnel that leads on to Haymarket station.

So pause for thought the next time you’re passing the Wellhouse Tower on the 1645 to Glasgow Queen Street: perhaps George Sinclair and at least one of his sisters are watching you …

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