Gadaichebairn, Knave of Edinburgh

Early 19th century illustration of the folkloric Gadaichebairn

In 1789, 9-year-old Benjamin MacMaster was tucked into bed by his mother. It had been a long day for them both. Young Ben sold cigarettes on the streets of Edinburgh while his mother, Sarah, worked as a washerwoman. As usual, Ben asked his mother to check under his bed for monsters. With a weary sigh, she complied. He then asked for her to latch the window even though it was an unusually stuffy night. Sarah did so, then sang softly to her imaginative young son. In minutes, Ben was breathing deeply, his eyes closed.

Ben was woken from his dreams by a tap-tapping on the window. Blinking sleep from his eyes, Ben looked and saw the silhouette of a man with a tall hat staring in at him through the window. The man’s face was completely hidden by shadows but his eyes shone with eerie, white light. The man was rapping on the glass with white fingers as thin as spindles. Ben lay under his blankets, frozen by fright. He was soon drenched in sweat. After struggling for several minutes, he found his voice again and screamed. At once, his mother came rushing into his room with a candle.

In tears, Ben told Sarah what he had seen. When Sarah looked out the window, she saw no one. It took her a long time to coax Ben back to sleep as he was beside himself with terror. And he only agreed to fall back asleep if she stayed with him and held his hand while she sang lullabies. When Ben was asleep again, Sarah left him. Though rattled, she wasn’t particularly disturbed, since Ben often had frightful and vivid dreams.

What did disturb her was when she was woken the second time by her son’s screams. Ben rarely had nightmares two times in a single night. Ben reported the same thing to his mother: a strange man with scary eyes that looked at him through the window. Ben had been woken up by the window coming unlatched. Indeed, when Sarah entered the room, the window was open, letting in a warm breeze

Truly disturbed now, she latched the window then roused her husband. Tobias MacMaster was sleeping off a large amount of gin. When he finally stirred and listened to his wife, he reluctantly agreed to check outside. Tobias walked around his family’s first-floor tenement but saw no sign of anyone having been there. Grumbling at his wife, he went back to sleep. So did Sarah, though she felt uneasy. Her son was truly terrified by something. However, Tobias told Ben to go back asleep and refused to let him sleep in their narrow cot, which was crowded enough with just Tobias and Sarah.

Sarah and Tobias were both woken in the gray hour before dawn by a piercing scream that struck both like ice water. They ran into Ben’s room to find the bed empty, the window open. A soft breeze passed over the rumpled sheets. Sarah ran outside, screaming her son’s name. But no matter how hard Sarah screamed or how many neighbors Tobias asked, no sign of their son was ever seen again.

This is the earliest story to involve Gadaichebairn, the terrifying child-snatcher of 19th century Scottish legends. Stories of the lanky, stove pipe hat-wearing kidnapper proliferated in the years after Benjamin MacMaster’s disappearance. No one could ever decide if the figure was a legend or in fact real. And if real, his exact nature was subject to debate.

Over the next ten years, as many as 100 children vanished from their homes in Edinburgh and its suburbs. In a city that was beginning to industrialize, its population swelling with each new year, people went missing daily. But these children were taken right out of their homes, the culprit never leaving a trace nor allowing himself to be seen, except in chance glimpses by bystanders.

Gadaichebairn could steal children from anywhere. Even through locked doors and windows. It didn’t even matter if the child’s room was at the top of a tenement building; Gadaichebairn could still reach them. Officially, all the cases involving Gadaichebairn were given various causes. Police said the children wandered off in their sleep; had been kidnapped earlier in the day; were simply out late and had gotten lost; or their own parents gotten rid of them and then blamed the fictional Gadaichebairn as a scapegoat.

In 1867, one family, having recently heard of someone being taken by Gadaichebairn, decided to have their daughter sleep in the bed with them. However, in the middle of the night, the girl was tormented by night terrors—as she had been for the past three, sleepless nights. Then long arms shot out of the darkness above her. The girl’s scream awoke her parents just in time to see Gadaichebairn, scuttling on all fours, their daughter tucked under one, long arm, disappear out the window. The parents rushed from their home, but saw no sign of Gadaichebairn or their daughter. They later learned that a steel worker, stumbling his way home after a long day of work, had thought he’d seen a tall man slip down into the sewers, a parcel of some kind clutched in his arm. The worker had thought it odd but was too exhausted to think about it until later.

Disappearances linked to Gadaicheairn ebbed and flowed in number during the rest of the 19th century. The 1800s and 1810s had the most number of reported unexplained kidnappings. The annual reports decreased until the 1850s and 60s, where there is another upsurge in missing children: as many 80 from 1858 to 1862. Gadaichebairn became something of a joke to the Edinburgh police, who took to naming him chief suspect of every crime. There was a city-wide investigation headed by Chief Constable Ernest G. Hardwick in 1864 to catch Gadaichebairn (or whoever was causing such a ruckus in the city) but apparently nothing came of it.

Like the boogeyman before him, the mere mention of Gadaichebairn’s name snapped most children into obedience. “If you stay out late, Gadaichebairn will snatch you away”. “If you’re lazy and don’t do all your chores, Gadaichebairn will come and get you while you sleep”. A popular—if morbid—rhyme from the 1830s shows how widespread the tales of the Edinburgh child-snatcher had become:

One, two, three!

Be sure to say your prayers ‘fore you sleep

Else the child-stealer will take you away

Four, five, six!

Do all ‘o your chores ‘fore you rest

Else the glow-y man will carry you away

Seven, eight, nine!

He’ll beat the naughty girls ‘till they weep

And work the lazy boys ‘till they protest

If you say his name, he’ll visit you soon

Gadaichebairn! Gadaichebairn!

Now everybody: run away!

In retrospect, Gadaichebairn seemed to have been in it for sport. There was no discernible pattern to his kidnappings. He stole boys and girls, those belonging to families and orphans. There was no way to know if your child was next. Only the vivid night terrors heralded Gadaichebairn’s visit within the coming nights. Few accounts of what was contained in these nightmares survives to the modern day. Presumably, the children saw Gadaichebairn in their room or climbing through their window. It has been noted by experts that, according to all accounts, Gadaichebairn’s victims were all healthy children with no physical or mental handicaps. He is never known to have taken cripples, invalids, or sick children.

Theories of the fate of Gadaichebairn’s victims ranged widely. Some said he took them to the vaults to murder them; others said he was a predator and abused his victims; some more patriotic Scots said he was working for the English and sold the children to slavers. A theory that grew in popularity because of its outlandish nature was the one that said he spirited the children away to a nightmare world where they served Gadaichebairn until they were old and worn out, at which time Gadaichebairn cast them out onto the street to be beggars.

Inside the Edinburgh Vaults

No one could ever agree if Gadaichebairn was a highly-skilled kidnapper or something else, something non-human. The idea that he came from an otherworld developed early on. Stories circulated of a barren estate, eternally bound in night, dominated by a Gothic manor house that Gadaichebairn called home. As you can see, Gadaichebairn had many of the qualities of older, Celtic fairy creatures. Some have pointed out the similarities between Gadaichebairn and a bodach, a boogeyman-like creature of earlier Scottish folklore that kidnapped misbehaving children.

Many people noticed Gadaichebairn’s appearance happened shortly after the completion of the Southgate Bridge in 1788. Many thought the infamous Edinburgh Vaults—the 19 arches of the bridge—were used by Gadaichebairn to store the bodies of his victims. Others thought the gateway to his home was in one of the bridge’s arches. In the immediate years following the completion of the Southgate Bridge, it turns out that all of Gadaichebairn’s early victims were children of the bridge’s workmen; Tobias MacMaster, father of poor Benjamin, was one such workman.

Gadaichebairn was never caught. Most of the disappearances liked to him are officially, unsolved. An amusing story from 1905 has a drunken maintenance worker, Woodrow Stork, shooting a man he took to be a mugger in the vaults. The man was never identified and the story says he sported a top hat. Many want to believe this story is true and that the man shot was Gadaichebairn. If so, then his long reign had a rather abrupt end. If not, then for all we know, Gadaichebairn is still out there to this day, slumbering in darkness. Perhaps he sated his desire to cause misery or perhaps his unearthly estate is full of weary slaves, their childhoods and lives stolen from them by a a cruel, tall man with glowing eyes and a stove pipe hat.

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