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‘Bits of Burke’: A Gruesome Historic Walking Tour of Old Edinburgh

Burke confession

As I mentioned in my first blog for this site,  the history and literature of Romantic-era Scotland is littered with grisly deaths and disturbed graves.  Today I’m focusing in on a particularly infamous moment in Edinburgh’s bloody history.

One of the most sensational events in the history of anatomy took place in the city in 1828 when it was discovered that two men had been taking advantage of the high prices surgeons would pay for cadavers at the time and murdering their fellow citizens for profit. The murderers, William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants who had come to Edinburgh to work as labourers during the construction of the Union Canal. The men stumbled upon a new income source when a tenant of Hare’s wife’s lodging house died without settling his debts and they sold his body to the assistant at an anatomy school. Now aware of the profits to be made from flesh, Burke and Hare proceeded to prey on the most vulnerable citizens of Edinburgh, the elderly, the destitute, prostitutes and drunks, people who had little value in contemporary society. They would tempt their victims into the Hare’s lodging house and ply them with drugged drink before suffocating them by covering their mouths and nostrils and compressing their chests. The bodies were then sold to the assistant at Dr Knox’s anatomy school and dissected. The crimes were only detected when lodgers in the boarding house found the body of the elderly victim Mary Docherty under a bed.

At trial, William Hare turned Kings evidence and indicted William Burke for the murders. Burke was publicly hung and then his body was dissected. The West Port murders shocked and but also fascinated the public, generating responses in the press, periodicals and popular fiction. Songs were written about the crimes of Burke and Hare, their exploits provoked anatomy riots not only in Edinburgh but across Britain, and a new word was added to the lexicon ‘Burking’.

On 31 January 1829 Walter Scott records in his journal that

The corpse of the Murderer Burke is now lying in state at the College, in the anatomical class, and all the world flock to see him. Who is he that says that we are not ill to please in our objects of curiosity? The strange means by which the wretch made money are scarce more disgusting than the eager curiosity with which the public have licked up all carrion details of this business.

The public fascination with the case and Burke’s dissected body, which so disgusted Scott in 1829, has survived into the twenty-first century. Portions of the murderer’s cadaver including his skeleton and a purse believed to be made of his tanned skin can still be viewed in various museums throughout Edinburgh and are extremely popular exhibits.  Today’s blog is a rather light-hearted ramble around the wonderful museums and galleries which now host the ‘Bits of Burke’, but it shouldn’t blind us to the symbolic resonance of these objects. In transforming a man into a thing, the citizens of Edinburgh perhaps turned the tables on a killer who had practised a similar transformation on his victims. The anatomy murderer was himself killed, dissected and sold.

If you want to follow in the footsteps of Scott’s carrion hungry public by visiting the infamous Burke in some of his many resting places, I’ve collected information on some of the different William Burke artefacts available to view across the city and arranged them into a hypothetical short walking tour. Please note that not all of the stops on the tour are open every day and it’s important to plan your trip in advance.  Coffee stops are, of course, highly recommended, as are stops for something a wee bit stronger if you’re so inclined, although if two shifty looking fellows invite you to their boarding house for a wee dram I’d recommend a firm no!

The Walk

Our journey starts at the Surgeon’s Hall Museum on Nicolson Street:

Surgeon’s Hall Museum: Burke Skin Purse and Burke’s Death Mask

Surgeons’ Hall Museum
The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
Nicolson Street

Admission : £5 / £3 concession.

Opening Days/Times
Currently the Museum is open from 12 – 4pm, Monday – Friday.
From 31st March – 17th May the Museum will be open from 10am – 5pm, 7 days a week. Last Entry is 30 minutes before closing

Please note the museum will be closing for redevelopment from 18th May 2014 – c.July 2015.


Surgeon’s Hall Museum is a particularly good place to start an investigation into all things Burke and Hare. The infamous Dr Knox was the collection’s first conservator and the museum holds the Doctor’s surgical diploma along with specimens he prepared and lots of information on his career. But, of course, we’re collecting ‘Bits of Burke’- amongst the other West Port artefacts held here are a wallet made of Burke’s tanned skin, and a death cast taken of the murderer’s head after his execution. The museum also holds the death cast and skull of John Brogan, an accomplice of Burke and Hare.

Coming out of the museum again onto Nicolson Street, walk north past Old College and turn off onto Chambers Street before you reach South Bridge. Walk past the National Museum of Scotland and turn right when you reach the statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby. Proceed along George IV Bridge and when you come to the National Library of Scotland turn down Victoria Street. Our next stop is on the way down this picturesque street:

Cadies and Witchery Tours: Burke Skin Calling Card Case

Cadies and Witchery Tours
84 West Bow (Victoria Street)

0131 225 6745

Opening times: 10.30am – roughly 9pm daily.

Cadies and Witcheries Tours currently have a calling-card case made from the skin of William Burke on display in their shop. The skin is believed to have been taken from the back of Burke’s left hand and the case was purchased at auction from the family of Piercy Hughes, a descendant of one of the surgeons present at the murderer’s dissection. The shop also sells replica copies of the Edinburgh Evening Courant from 25 December 1829 (which describe the trial of Burke & Hare) if you’re tempted to grab a particularly macabre souvenir while you’re here.

On leaving the shop continue down Victoria Street into the Grassmarket where you’ll have an excellent view of the Castle. Proceed along the Grassmarket towards the castle until you reach the West Port: the street where Burke and Hare’s crimes took place. Retrace your steps towards the Grassmarket and then turn right and climb the steep Heriot Place until you reach Lauriston Place. Turn left and walk along Lauriston Place until you reach the Old Medical School quadrangle which will be on your right hand side:

Anatomy Museum, University of Edinburgh: Burke’s Skeleton

Anatomy Museum
University of Edinburgh,
Doorway 3, Medical School, Teviot Place
Edinburgh – EH8 9AG
The museum is only open to the public on the last Saturday of the month, 10am – 4pm (last entry 3:30pm)


You might have to plan ahead to visit the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomy Museum, which is open to the public only on the last Saturday of the month, but for collectors of ‘Bits of Burke’ it’s definitely worth the effort. The museum holds the complete skeleton of the unfortunate William Burke along with life and death masks of Burke and a life mask of Hare.

Still feeling energetic?  Take a detour over to the New Town and visit the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Walk along to Forest Road then follow George IV Bridge to the Royal Mile. Looking right you’ll be able to see the site of the infamous Lawnmarket Gallows marked on the pavement, the spot where Burke met his end.  Cross the Royal Mile and proceed down the Mound onto Princes Street. Walk right along Princes Street then turn up St David’s Street past St Andrew’s Square and onto Queen Street. The final stop in our journey is on your right:

Scottish National Portrait Gallery: Burke’s Death Mask

Scottish National Portrait Gallery
1 Queen Street,

Open daily 10am-5pm (6pm for August only). Thursdays until 7pm. Closed 25 and 26 December. Open on 1 January from 12 noon. Open on 2 January until 5pm.


A death mask of William Burke is on loan to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from the University of Edinburgh Collections and is currently on display in the beautiful library on the first floor of the gallery.

All information on venues, opening times and admission correct at time of publication. For more information on any of the museums and galleries please visit their websites.

Sarah Sharp is a second year PhD candidate in the English Literature Department at the University of Edinburgh. She is a current member of SWINC (Scottish Writing in the Nineteenth Century) and is a research assistant on the new Edinburgh edition of the collected works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Sarah’s thesis looks at the representation of burial in early nineteenth century Scottish writing, focusing particularly on instances where burials depicted don’t follow the standard conventions of a ‘good death’.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar deborah symonds says:

    Their wives, their wives…

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