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Carole Owens
Deacon Brodie's Tavern in Edinburgh, Scotland.

CONNECTIONS: Tall tales from afar

By Tuesday, Jun 11, 2019 Viewpoints

There are stories from foreign lands and, much like our own, some are true, some are wildly and obviously untrue, and others apocryphal.


Why was Iceland called Iceland? Although Iceland is green and Greenland is built on a glacier, early inhabitants called it Iceland to discourage settlers. They called Greenland “green” to hurry potential settlers on their way.


Magic in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Carole Owens

The untrue but very entertaining stories of ghosts, ghouls, goblins, witches and warlocks seem more common to the United Kingdom than Scandinavia. Mixed in are great stories indigenous to Scotland and unrelated to magic that may be true. One goes like this:

At the top of Royal Mile in Edinburgh, the mile walk between Edinburgh palace and the Queen’s summer palace, is the Deacon Brodies Tavern. It commemorates the outrageous life and rollicking times of a man hanged in 1788. Moreover, it is built on the spot.

On Oct. 1, 1788, William Brodie strode in his finery—powdered wig and silks—to the gallows and there died.

Brodie was 47 years old when he was hanged. For the entirety of his life, he was respected. He was granted the title Deacon as a worthy craftsman and head of a guild. He was a cabinetmaker. In addition, he was a locksmith. As a town elder, he was respected and liked so much, he was made a member of the town council.

His father left him a small fortune. No piece of good fortune was denied Deacon Brodie. Both his father and grandfather were highly regarded as businessman and lawyer respectively. Brodie possessed every element of a good life and he lived well—by day.

In 1768, he made a key for the local bank vault. The temptation was too much. By night, Brodie became an accomplished thief. His career as a thief thrived, as did his career as a respectable citizen. However, by 1786, he had turned his attention to less reputable pursuits: gambling, drinking and fornicating. He lost money and replenished supplies by ever increasingly dangerous heists. By that time he had, after all, two mistresses and five illegitimate children.

By day, Brodie was a man universally trusted, destined to contribute to his community, live his life honorably and be buried with honors. By night, his sins were multiplying and his control diminishing. He climbed the gallows a gentleman and died a thief.

One hundred years later, Robert Louis Stevenson, it is conjectured, used Brodie as the model for “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

The interior of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Carole Owens

John Knox (1513–72), founder of the Church of Scotland (the Presbyterian Church in America), wished to be buried within sight of St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh. He was. Now you have your choice of explanations for what happened next.

Several centuries later, the graveyard was relocated. The bodies were moved and the ground used for another purpose. Here is the choice: Either they knew they were leaving John Knox behind out of regard for his wishes, or they did not. How not? Well, one story goes: Knox did not want a grave marker. As a humble man, he wanted to discourage any from praying at his gravesite or unduly honoring it. Unmarked, it was unremarked when the bodies were moved. On the other hand, they knew they were leaving Knox behind and did so out of respect for his initial wish. Either way, Knox was not moved.

The alternate use for the ground? A parking lot. Knox. The upshot? Knox is buried under slot No. 23. Equally odd, regardless of what Knox wished, the location is now marked. If a car is parked there, you can still duck down and see the marker under slot No. 23 in the parking lot behind St. Giles Cathedral.

You may think it odd that there is a body in a parking lot, but recall that they found the remains of King Richard III in a parking park in Leicester. It is, perhaps, very British?


A replica of a Viking ship at a museum in Iceland. Photo: Carole Owens

It is important to note that there is a solution to the endless argument about whether the Vikings were Swedes, Norwegians, Normans, Norsemen, Icelandic, etc.—they were all of these.

They were more village people than nation builders. However, those among them who could build coalitions were the highest regarded. The first of these was Rollo in the ninth century.

Rollo had the two characteristics most lauded among the North people: He could build coalitions and he could conquer lands.

Some called him Rollo the Walker, meant to imply that he was so tall and so broad that he was forced to walk as no horse could carry him. Hopefully he sailed to France—it would have been quite the walk. There he conquered the country and the Norse-controlled French became the Normans who rode roughshod over the land for an appreciable time.

I like the story of the tall Norseman named Rollo, and I credit it as true because my grandfather was 6’4” and named Rollo.

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