Edinburgh, Scotland is a place steeped in wonderful, rich history. Unfortunately, like most cities that have been prominent for hundreds of years this means Edinburgh is also steeped in blood. Seriously, they even preserved a blood stain (David Rizzio, a personal secretary of Mary Queen of Scots, was stabbed 56 times in front of her…and Holyroodhouse, where it happened, displays it). Anyway, back to this story. Today, I want to talk about the Witches’ Well. The Witches’ Well is a cast iron, small fountain and plaque that honors the Scottish women burned at the stake between the 15th and 18th centuries.
So many “witches” were burned that there is a plaque apologizing for the horrific events. It isn’t a huge plaque, most people’s eyes usually go right to the castle, but it is an important one. Actually, it didn't begin as a plaque...it used to be a drinking fountain!
But why is it there? In the 16th century more women were murdered at this exact spot than anywhere else in Scotland. Like many witch trials, these people were denied a proper trial or any escape from a fate that had been decided for them long before they had a chance to defend themselves.
Why were so many witches murdered here, at this specific spot during the 16th century? Well, we can partly thank King James VI for that. James really liked being right in a fashionable way. Some sources credit his desire to become an expert in any topical issue of the time – including witchcraft. In fact, before 1590 he barely mentions witchcraft. But, in 1590 specifically…something happened. 300 witches were accused of gathering together to plan the murder of James. James was known to have the specific fear of a violent orhorrible death so, when news of witches acting against him made its way to the castle James, for lack of a more precise term, freaked out. He even wrote an entire book about the subject, called “Daemononlogie”. The purpose of this short book was to express his views on the subject and engage with the witchcraft going on in Europe in an intellectual manner.
Thanks to James, the promise of political gain, and a touch of hysteria between 1603 and 1625, there were about twenty witch trials a year in Scotland, and 450 in total. At least half of these trials ended in a guilty verdict and the defendants were executed.
The small plaque, usually filled with flowers, features an image of witches’ heads entangled by a snake. It also includes a lot of interesting symbolism, such asthe Goddess Hygeia, Foxglove plant, an image of the head of Aesculapius (the God of Medicine), It was erected in 1894, after witchcraft trials finally waned. There are also the Roman numerals equivalent to 1479 and 1722, which represent the height of witch hysteria in Scotland. There is also an accompanying trough, which displays flora roots, the left pnae has an evil eye accompanied by frowning eyes and nose, and the right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl with the ‘hands of’ written above the bowl and ‘healing’ written below.
The plaque was added to in 1912 to include the following inscription:
This Fountain Designed By John Duncan RSA
Is Near The Site On Which Many Witches Were
Burned At The Stake. The Wicked Head And Serene
Head Signify That Some Used Their Exceptional
Knowledge For Evil Purposes While Others Were
Misunderstood And Wished Their Kind Nothing
But Good. The Serpent Has The Dual Significance
Of Evil And Of Wisdom. The Foxglove Spray Further
Emphasises The Dual Purpose Of Many Common Objects.
For hundreds of years Scotland fell to its own pandemic of witch-hunting that was, at one point, supported by their king. Neighbor turned against neighbor. People began to mistrust because of their fear of witches and their fear of being accused. Husbands lost wives, parents lost children, children lost mothers, friends lost friends. Although small, this monument to the horrific history commemorates decades and decades of terror.
Suspected witches kneeling before King James VI; Daemonologie (1597). It is liscensed under public domain.