Mystery of Edinburgh’s ‘heave awa’ lad’ who survived High Street tenement collapse is solved

In the first of a three part series, Jan Bondeson reveals what happened to Edinburgh's 'heave awa' lad' after he survived one of the Capital’s greatest tragedies.

Saturday, 12th December 2020, 7:00 am
The site of the Heave Awa house after the collapse
The site of the Heave Awa house after the collapse

“Heave awa’, lads, I’m no deid yet!”Wee Jamie cheepit wi’ a’ his micht,An’ the wark was lang, an’ the wark was het,But they brocht wee Jamie back into the licht…

There today stands, in the High Street near Bailie Fyfe’s Close, an attractive Victorian four-story townhouse, with a whisky shop and a shop for Caledonian effects on the ground floor; between these shops, Paisley Close leads to the rear of the house. Adorning the entry to this close is a memorial stone so truly bizarre that its like cannot be produced, in Edinburgh or elsewhere. It is the effigy of a boy with the text ‘Heave awa, chaps; I am not dead yet!’

The story is that on November 24 1861, the old six-story Land [high tenement] that stood where the Heave Awa’ Hoose is today suddenly collapsed with disastrous loss of life. One of the injured buried in the rubble was a young boy, who made use of the cry “Heave awa', lads, I'm no deid yet,” to encourage the firemen trying to free him. He was eventually rescued and survived the incident, only to be immortalised on the new house built on the site.

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Heave Awa House at 97 High Street, Edinburgh, today

As for the history and later adventures of this extraordinary Edinburgh lad, a dark and well-nigh impenetrable mystery looms in the middle of the Old Town, concerning the house, which until the arrival of Covid restrictions was passed by many thousands every day, all unaware of its extraordinary story. Let us investigate.Back in 1861, the ground floor of the old six-story Land at 97-103 High Street contained the shops of Mr A Cairns, grocer and wine merchant, at No 99, and Messrs Brown & Co, victual-dealers, at No 103, the business premises of Mr Moir, ironmonger, and Mr M’Luskie, shoe merchant, were on the first floor.

Bailie Fyfe’s Close was to the west of the old building, which dated back to the late 1600s, and Paisley Close to the east. The latter close had this name at least by 1679, from a certain Henry Paisley who owned property here. The old Land, which had been indifferently maintained as the centuries went by, also contained about 25 flats, all of them crammed full of poor slum dwellers.

In 1861, one tenement flat at 4 Paisley Close was home to the 47-year-old Irish shoemaker William M’Luskie, his wife Hannah and mother Mary, two boarders and a young domestic servant. One of these boarders was the 12-year-old Joseph McIvor, born in Edinburgh in 1849 and listed in the 1861 Census as a ‘scholar’. He may well have been an illegitimate child; at least his parents appear to have played little part in his upbringing; at the time of the 1851 Census, he had been ‘boarded out’ to a family living in Leven, Fife.

A few minutes past 1am on November 24 1861, Sergeant Rennie, of the night police, was passing down the High Street. He had come as far as the front of Cairns’ shop when he heard a scuffle and a cry of ‘Murder!’ from Skinner’s Close on the southern side of the High Street. The sergeant ran across the street to investigate, followed by a number of bystanders: the disturbance turned out to be a drunken quarrel between a man and his wife.

Dr Jan Bondeson

When Sergeant Rennie was returning up the close, along with Constable Douglas, they heard a loud noise and beheld the entire Land of houses in the High Street, where one of them had been just a few minutes earlier, fall with a tremendous crash, in a cloud of dust and rubbish.

As the dust settled, they could see a yawning chasm where the tall house had once stood, the whole of the floors from top to bottom having given way and fallen down; the front wall had fallen outwards, but the back wall and the two gables still stood.Sergeant Rennie and Constable Douglas ran to the Police Office to report the collapsed in the High Street. Apparently there were still many firemen on duty at this ungodly hour on a dark November night and they swiftly proceeded to the site of the catastrophe, which was a fearful sight when they illuminated it with their torches – the still-glowing fireplaces and some of the presses recessed in the walls remained, some of them with ornaments on the mantelpiece and crockery in the shelves. The muffled groans from the wounded could be clearly heard, and a number of little children buried in the masses of rubbish and debris were calling out ‘Mother! Mother!’

The brave and resourceful Edinburgh firemen got to work rescuing a number of children and adults; there were tragic scenes when a little boy brought out alive saw both his parents carried away dead and crushed. A large crowd assembled in the High Street, according to some modern sources including Charles Dickens who was in town for a lecture tour, but they were held back by a detachment of the 26th Cameronians commanded by Lieutenant Storey, with other soldiers from the Castle coming to replace them on crowd control duties later on.

The firemen worked all night, telling a Scotsman journalist that seven children, aged between 7 and 11, had been rescued uninjured and taken to relatives or to children’s homes. Fifteen people had been taken to the Royal Infirmary, one of them dying there from multiple rib fractures shortly after admission. Twenty-one people had been killed outright.

Tomorrow: The death toll rises

Jan Bondeson is the author of Murder Houses of Edinburgh, published by Troubador, priced £12.99, from https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/history-politics-society/murder-houses-of-edinburgh/

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