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Witches Well Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s weird sisters

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.

Ann Crotchley memorial

Remembering a fallen woman

I was in Oxford just before Christmas when I saw this sign and these ribbons on the railings at the side of the Town Hall on Blue Boar Street. I wondered who Ann Crotchley was and why her death, almost two hundred years ago, was being marked now, in this way.

The story begins close to midnight on Thursday 6th December 1827, with an encounter between Town and Gown, the two worlds of Oxford. A group of undergraduates is carousing in lodgings on either Brasenose Lane or Radcliffe Square. A couple of young women, Ann Crotchley and Harriet Mitchell, pass by a window of the room. Who first calls out to whom first is not known, but Ann asks the young men for some wine. One of them, Houstonne John Radcliffe, tells her that they only have brandy, and passes a teapot filled with it out to her. Ann and Harriet drain the teapot between them and go off into the night.

The two women have a drunken parting later that night. Harriet ends up collapsing in New Inn Hall Street. Ann makes it across the High Street to Blue Boar Lane where she too passes out. She is spotted lying there by a watchman and when he returns later he finds she is badly bleeding. Ann is taken to her lodgings and a doctor is called, but she dies from her wounds the next morning.

So who was Ann Crotchley? On 17th December 1827 the Times reprinted a report from the Oxford Herald, under the heading ‘THE MURDER AT OXFORD’, which began:

We have given the particulars of the evidence respecting the murder of a female in one of the streets of this city. On Wednesday last we saw her mother, a woman of decent appearance, who resides in Hereford, where, for several years, she has worked as glove-maker, in the service of Mr Benbow, of that city. She stated, that in August last her daughter, whose real name is Ann Priest, left her house with a man of the name of Crotchley. They came to Oxford, and took lodgings in St Thomas’s parish, where they lived as man and wife. It appears that he was of a very bad character, and that he is now in Reading gaol. It has been reported that Crotchley was her seducer: on inquiry, however, we find that she had previously been the same at Hereford.

By now, the more sensationalist of the London papers had got hold of the story and were giving it a certain spin. The Oxford Herald report goes on to criticize a certain ‘London newspaper’ (presumably not the Times) for its ‘exaggerated account of the unfortunate deceased’:

The girl was not seduced from her friends and brought to Oxford by a young gentleman. Crotchley, who brought her to Oxford, is a notorious pickpocket, and had once been transported. The deceased had lived for some time at Hereford as a prostitute, and was discharged from the Magdalen about nine months since… the deceased was not “remarkable for her amiable qualities” as stated. On the contrary, she was particularly distinguished for her habitual intoxication. We must also state, in contradiction of the London papers, that she was not made to drink at one of the colleges; it was at her request that liquor was given to her.

Contrary to the present-day conventional wisdom that prostitutes in the nineteenth century were regarded as worthless and expendable, the death of Ann Crotchley provoked outrage in Oxford and further afield. After hearing evidence from Mr Paxton, the local doctor who examined Ann’s body, the Oxford coroner concluded that Ann was murdered. The City Council and the University offered £100 each as rewards for information that would enable the authorities to identify and prosecute the murderer. It should be noted that at this time, the University had far more power over the running of Oxford than the municipal authorities did.

On 24th December 1827, the Times reprinted the latest report from the Oxford Herald, which began:

The minds of the inhabitants of the university and city, and we may say the public in general, have been kept in a constant state of excitement ever since the inquest on Ann Crotchley. The Vice-Chancellor, the Mayor, the coroner, and the surgeons who inspected the body, have received various letters (most of them anonymous) on the subject of the murder, some persons scarcely giving credit to the report of so monstrous an outrage. On Thursday, Mr Wingfield presented himself before the magistrates, and represented the propriety of exhumation, not from his doubting the accuracity [sic] or veracity of the evidence, or the details of the report made by Mr. Paxton to the Mayor, but from a desire to gain, if possible, further information as to the nature of the injuries.

The Mr Wingfield referred to in the report was a prominent medical man within the city, holding the post of surgeon to the Radcliffe Infirmary, and his request was approved, Ann’s body was exhumed and a further examination carried out. The subsequent report confirmed Mr Paxton’s original findings. The Times quoted from the report:

Within the passage called the vagina, leading to the mouth of the womb, there were most evident marks of two wounds — one on the left, the other on the right side; which wounds appear to have been made either by a blunt and powerful instrument or by a sharp instrument, which had been forcibly moved in different directions after the wounds had been inflicted.

As the outrage over the murder continued to build, the authorities came under immense pressure to find the culprit. A local man named John Williams was arrested and brought before the magistrates. On 26th December, the Times reported that:

The prisoner is a young man, about 30 years of age, of rather a prepossessing and genteel appearance, decently clothed. He is a native of Oxford and worked for himself as a picture-frame-maker. He was, it is hinted, of rather indiscreet conduct, and partook of the usual follies incident to his time of life…Throughout the examination…he appeared to possess all the confidence of innocence, and the testimony, as delivered by the witnesses, produced no visible effect on his countenance.

Blue Boar Street

One of the watchmen who was on duty on the evening of the murder testified that Williams was on Blue Boar Street when it was discovered that Ann had been attacked. He said that Williams had offered him a shilling to carry her back to her lodgings, and had stayed by her side while he went off to get help.

One key witness was a man named Henry Bell, who had been on the jury at the inquest and also happened to be the son of the woman who did Williams’ laundry. Bell took it on himself to examine the clothes that Williams had left with his mother soon after the murder. He testified that there were blood-like stains on the right sleeve of one of the shirts. By his own account, Bell discussed the matter with his father and then took the shirt to the mayor. It was shown to the magistrates during his testimony.

It seems there was some suspicion about Bell’s motives. One of the magistrates, Mr Robinson, questioned him:

What was your motive for showing it to your father?_I did not wish to hurt the feelings of Mr. Williams’s family.
Had you no other motive?_Not as I know of.
What! did not you, then, hear of the reward?_Yes, I did (in a tone of displeasure).
And that had no effect on you?_No answer.

Mary Bell, the mother of Henry, testified next and told the magistrates she had disagreed with her son about the nature of the shirt stains and that she had seen similar stains on Williams’ clothing in the past: ’I said I thought it was colouring that he used in his business, which stained it.’

Ann Barton of the City Arms, a pub Williams had been drinking in on the night of the murder, testified that the next day she had overheard him talking to another man:

As he was going home last he was upset or interrupted by two gentlemen, and he drawed the claret of one, at the same time he turned up the cuff of his coat; it was his right-hand sleeve. At the time that he did it I saw something on his wrist; I was not near enough to discern what it was; it had the appearance of blood at the distance it was. From his having said he had drawn claret, I thought it was blood.

But Sarah Parsons, who also worked at the City Arms, told the magistrates that Williams ‘bared his wrist and showed something red, but it was piece of riband tied around his wrist. I did not see his shirt, but I am quite sure it was not blood; I was nearer to him than any body else.’

Though the evidence against Williams was extremely weak, there was nobody else in the frame for Ann Crotchley’s murder. On 31st December 1827 the Times commented:

Williams, indeed, will probably be committed to trial, but apparently not because there is sufficient ground for the charge against him, but because the magistrates feel under the necessity of doing some thing, and there is a nearer approach to a suspicion of him than of any other individual.

But Williams when came before the Grand Jury on 14th January 1828, they were clearly unimpressed with the case against him and made short work of deciding that he should not be indicted. But it seems that there was still some suspicion attached to the undergraduate of Brasenose College who’d given the brandy to Ann Crotchley and Harriet Mitchell.

What the Times didn’t report, though perhaps some of the other London newspapers did, was that one or two days after Ann’s murder, Houstonne John Radcliffe left Oxford for London and did not return at the start of the next term. The minutes of a college meeting held on 31st January 1828 recorded that:

HJ Radcliffe, having admitted that he gave to Ann Crutchley [sic] on the evening of the 5th of December last intoxicating liquor from one of the Windows of this College; Resolved that being now absent he be not allowed to return till after the Long Vacation.

Was there more to Radcliffe’s flight to London than simple guilt about the liquor he had given the women and the severe disapproval of the college authorities about his irresponsibility? Could Radcliffe, as seems to have been rumoured at the time, have been the murderer? Despite the support given to the investigation, including a generous reward, was the University protecting one of their own all the while? But what would Radcliffe’s motive have been? Besides, undergraduates at this time were subject to a night-time curfew and the gates of the college would have been locked at the time Ann was murdered. Of course, a sufficiently determined man could have climbed out of a window or over a wall, but it still seems improbable.

No-one was ever prosecuted for the murder of Ann Crotchley and the affair was gradually forgotten. Radcliffe was never seen at Brasenose College or in Oxford again. On 19th October 1829, the college was notified that he had died.

Ann Crotchley memorial

There is another mystery, of more recent origin, attached to the death of Ann Crotchley. Which is, what prompted the ribbons on the railings on Blue Boar Street and the apparently sudden public remembrance of Ann Crotchley, almost two hundred years after her murder? The ribbons were the idea of the woman behind the Twitter account, @rememberingac, who attended a Women’s Institute lecture on the story of Ann Crotchley. As she puts it on a Twitter thread:

Whatever the biography, a part of Ann’s story is simple, universally and tragically familiar. She was a woman alone at night in the street, someone stronger than she and with evil intent attacked her and injured her so terribly that she died. In 1827 the night streets could be unsafe for women. In 1969, as I know only too well, the night streets were not safe for women. In 2021 the night streets remain unsafe. I have daughters and granddaughters, in remembering Ann and others I hope that things will change.

The risk, of course, is that Ann Crotchley ceases to be a person and becomes a symbol for the concerns of the present age. Still, a simple act of remembrance like this can remind us of not only the violence committed against women but also the social ties that bind us to the dead as well as the living.

[The factual information in this post was gleaned from the Times archive and from the article ‘A Brasenose scandal’ on the Brasenose College website.]

The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Churchyard

The Scottish Covenanters vs a Skye terrier: who would win?

Anybody on the Edinburgh tourist trail will eventually end up in Greyfriars Kirkyard. The kirk itself was founded on the site of a Franciscan monastery in the early years of the seventeenth century. But it is the kirkyard that was the site of a critical episode in Scottish history later in that same century. The visitor arriving through the main gate from Candlemaker Row will see a board stating that here, among the graves of the illustrious dead, ‘THE NATIONAL COVENANT WAS ADOPTED AND SIGNED 28TH FEBRUARY 1638’. The key couldn’t be much lower but it was this event that made Greyfriars Kirkyard a sacred site of Scottish religious politics.

Covenanters memorial

The National Covenant was created to oppose the reforms of the Church of Scotland proposed by King Charles I. It was intended to safeguard the Protestant Reformation in Scotland and to repudiate any form of royal control over the nation’s church. It is one of the foundational documents of modern Scottish nationalism. Some of those present on that February day even signed in blood. Other copies were signed by thousands of people all over Scotland. Some of those did so, it has to said, under duress and there were many who refused. None of that detracts from the Covenant’s significance.

Greyfriars Bobby

So there it is, the special meaning of Greyfriars Kirkyard in Scottish history. And that, you might think, is why the tourists flock here. But you would be wrong, reader. For close by that modest statement on a modest board, on the ground in front of the Kirk’s east end, is a small statue of a small dog and a red granite headstone inscribed with his name. These are the grave and memorial of the Skye terrier known to history as Greyfriars Bobby.

Bobby, so the traditional story goes, watched over the grave of his master John Gray for fourteen years until his death, after which he was interred close by Gray. Though there have been many doubts about the veracity of the story over the years, it has now passed into legend. As an index of his potency, Greyfriars Bobby has two statues. As well as the one in the kirkyard there is another out on the George IV bridge. So in answer to the question at the head of this post, when it comes to fame, esteem, and global bragging rights, the Skye terrier has wiped the floor with the Covenanters.

Greyfriars Bobby

Is this another example of the Disneyfication of the past? Certainly. But even without the benign phantom of Greyfriars Bobby hovering over the kirkyard, how many visitors, be they natives of Edinburgh or tourists, would know why the Covenanters made their stand and what was at stake? Actual history, as opposed to the Braveheart version of it, is mostly absent from nationalist discourse and the officially-santioned Scottish self-image.

It’s worth noting that the threat to Greyfriars Bobby’s eminence is now coming from another direction altogether. The kirkyard is a popular stop on the city’s Harry Potter tours. Apparently, JK Rowling got some of her character names from the gravestones. Greyfriars Bobby faced down those tough Covenanters. Can he do the same against a boy wizard?

[Image of William Brassey Hole’s painting The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Churchyard courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

From a Leith bus stop

The execution is poor, I grant you, but I was intrigued by these graffiti bookending a Leith bus stop. Don Juan, the Libertine of Sorts, at one end and Barnet Boy, a martyr of unrequited love at the other. The two extremes, the libertine and the romantic. Are there two persons recorded here, or two facets of the same person? They have similar hats, after all. And the libertine and the romantic cohabit within many of us. Though the relationship between the personas may be more asynchronous. Barnet Boy became Don Juan in reaction to the disappointments of love. Or the Libertine of Sorts fell in love with one he couldn’t have. Such drama at a bus stop.