Edinburgh’s weird sisters

Witches Well Edinburgh

But in a sieve I’ll thither sail,
And, like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do.

I’ll give thee a wind.

Th’ art kind.

And I another.

(The Tragedie of Macbeth – William Shakespeare)

In a corner of Edinburgh Castle’s grand esplanade, there’s a small memorial that’s easy to miss unless you’re looking out for it. This drinking fountain with its bronze relief is a modest thing compared to the military monuments that line the rest of the esplanade. It was the brainchild of Sir Patrick Geddes, a man of many parts, who distinguished himself in the fields of sociology and town planning. Geddes employed his friend, the symbolist painter John Duncan, to design the memorial, called the Witches’s Well, and it was completed in 1894.

John Duncan
John Duncan © estate of John Duncan

Both men were at the centre of the Celtic Revival movement and the memorial embodies a romantic conception of witchcraft and magic, in which occult powers can used for good as well as evil. The relief depicts the heads of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, and his daughter, Hygeia, the goddess of health and cleanliness, a vision of witchcraft as a combined form of natural and supernatural healing. The serpent that curls around their heads, and from which the well’’s water once flowed (sadly dry now), ‘has the dual significance of evil and wisdom’ (according to the plaque, added in 1912).

The siting of the memorial here was not random. The castle’s esplanade is where several hundred supposed witches, mostly women but some men, were strangled and then burnt at the stake during the Scottish witch-hunting craze (roughly from 1590 to 1670). Scotland was not exceptional in this holy war. But its pursuit of these devil’s helpers was more wide-ranging and severe than that carried out in England

Witches Well Edinburgh

If there was something different about witch-hunting in Scotland, there was different too about Scottish witches. Shakespeare knew this when he created the Weird Sisters in Macbeth. They embody an Englishman’s idea of Scotland’s particular occult otherness. The Scottish historian John Hill Burton wrote in 1852:

Our Scottish witch is a far more frightful being than her coadjutor on the south side of the Tweed. In a people so far behind their neighbours in domestic organization, poor and hardy, inhabiting a country of mountains, torrents, and rocks where cultivation was scanty, accustomed to gloomy mists and wild storms, every impression must necessarily assume a corresponding character. Superstitions, like funguses and vermin, are existences peculiar to the spot where they appear, and are governed by its physical accidents.

Later historians dismiss this notion that Scottish witchcraft springs from a distinctive landscape and climate. They point instead to differences in social structures, religion, and legal systems to account for this contrast between Scotland and England.

Something else that was different about Scotland was that one of its kings took a very personal interest in the identification and prosecution of witches. James VI (who became James I of England when the crowns were united in 1603) had not evidenced much interest in witchcraft in the early years of his reign. But in 1590, when James and his bride Anne of Denmark, were returning to Scotland form Scandinavia, their ship was battered with such terrible storms that James, Anne, and their advisors came to believe that the cause was witchcraft. The Danish authorities launched an immediate investigation and six witches were tried and executed in Copenhagen within months.

James VI church-ship model
James VI church-ship model © National Museums Scotland

Once he was safely home, James adopted a Danish practice to signify his gratitude for his safe homecoming. The Danes would make ship-models as offerings to God when they were delivered from tempests at sea. James adopted this custom and had such a model made. It was originally displayed in a church in the port of Leith, where he and Anne disembarked. It can now be seen in the National Museum of Scotland.

Later that year a coven of sixty witches, mostly women and from a range of social classes, was discovered operating in the county of Haddingtonshire. They became known as the North Berwick witches. Agnes Sampson, a midwife and natural healer, was identified as the ring-leader and confessed under torture that she and the other witches had caused the storm that assailed James’ ship as it approached Scotland.

It was revealed that some 200 witches, including many from Denmark, had sailed in sieves to the church in the coastal town of North Berwick on Halloween night in 1590. They had met with the devil there, who told them to plot the king’s destruction. This enmity was personal. James, according to the devil himself, was his greatest enemy on earth.

James VI and Anne of Denmark
James VI and I, and Anne of Denmark, with family tree in centre with portrait of Prince Henry © Trustees of the British Museum

Following her confession, Agnes was brought before the king at Holyrood Palace. It seems that James was in a sceptical frame of mind when he began questioning Agnes. If the reports are to be believed, this scepticism only made her indignant. Determined to prove her powers to James, she took him to one side and told him some details of his wedding night conversation with Anne in Oslo. Whatever it was that she told James, it shook him. His scepticism was replaced by fear and a determination to root out witchcraft in Scotland.

Agnes and many of her co-conspirators were strangled and then burnt on the castle esplanade. The rest suffered a similar fate in Haddingtonshire. The witch hunts were to continue in earnest for another eighty years or so. His experiences had turned James into something of an authority on the nature and uses of witchcraft. In 1597, he published a scholarly work on the subject, Daemonologie.

According to the book, the devil was the leader of fallen angels, who had become demons. It was these demons who granted the witches their powers and so enabled them to practice black magic. This occult conspiracy could only be opposed by faith in God and the God-given powers of monarchs — like James. This image of James as a man committed to combating the devil bolstered to his campaign to inherit the English throne when Elizabeth died.

I said earlier that witch-hunting in this period was a craze. There’s some truth in that and yet looking at what happened in Scotland, I’m also struck by how methodical the Edinburgh authorities were in their investigations. Accusations of witchcraft were taken very seriously and investigated very thoroughly. And these were no kangaroo courts: the historian, Christina Larner, a pioneer in the study of European witchcraft, estimated that about half the 600 people who were tried for witchcraft in the High Court at Edinburgh were acquitted.

But local justice seems to have been much rougher than that practiced in the courts of Edinburgh. In 1727, the last person to be executed for witchcraft in Scotland, Janet Horne, was judged guilty by the local sheriff and then stripped, smeared with tar, paraded through the town on a barrel, and burned alive by her neighbours.