Burke & Hare
- Kirsty Gibbins
- 1 June 2009
Murder Most Horrid
You wouldn’t want to bump into Burke and Hare on a dark night, but we still want to know all the gory details about their crimes. Kirsty Gibbins meets the man behind a brand new tour
Infamous serial killers Burke and Hare may not have been very nice people, but I'm sure even Sir Alan Sugar would be hard pushed to fault their business sense. Satisfying a demand for fresh bodies at Edinburgh's medical college during the early 19th century, the Irish immigrants murdered 17 people - and one horse! - over the course of a year, exchanging their victims' corpses for cash.
Their macabre money-making ventures occurred at a time when surviving the neglected squalor of Edinburgh's Old Town was a tough challenge, as city officials turned their attention, and budget, to nurturing the blossoming suburbs of the New Town. Maybe those of us struggling to make ends meet in the present-day economic crisis can relate. Erm, or perhaps not? Either way, the gruesome reality of Burke and Hare's crimes has been the inspiration for Edinburgh's newest tour company, West Port Tours (WPT).
Stuart Nicoll and John Baxter launched WPT this spring after having devoted more than a year to researching the story and perfecting a script that would bring to life the cold, calculating precision with which Burke and Hare selected then snuffed out their victims. ‘We felt that most of the tours on offer, although they did a good job, were missing out on one of the most significant stories in Edinburgh's dark history,’ says Nicoll. ‘So from the beginning our vision was to create a tour that enabled us to tell a very specific story, in great detail.’
A trained actor who has prior experience of spooking tourists as an Edinburgh Dungeons' employee, Nicoll saw the tour as a chance to merge live theatre with a passion for history. His telling of the Burke and Hare story grants the audience a detailed insight into the lives and crimes of the notorious killers, visiting the sombre surroundings of Greyfriar's churchyard, the old tanneries district near the Grassmarket (where the murderous duo shared a home) and the Lawnmarket, in the shadow of St Gile's Cathedral, where William Burke - sold out by his partner-in-crime - was hanged in front of a crowd of 25,000 outraged citizens.
It is a gory story that needs little gilding: ‘There was no need to sensationalise what took place, all the material was there to be plundered as it were!,’ says Nicoll. ‘And you only have to look at people's reactions during the tours to know that most are fascinated by murder and what drives people to take another life.’ Oh, we are a gruesome bunch.
For more information about booking times and availability, visit www.westporttours.com