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Witches Well (Edinburgh)

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The Witches Well, or Witches Fountain, is located near the entrance to Edinburgh Castle's esplande, on the west wall of The Tartan Weaving Mill.

It marks the place where more than 300 people were burned at the stake after being accused of being witches. Many more were drowned by being douked in the nearby Nor’ Loch, where Princes Street Gardens now lie.

The Witches Well was erected in 1894 and features a bronze relief of witches’ heads entwined by a snake.

A plaque mounted above the well reads:

This Fountain, designed by John Duncan, R.S.A. 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 wisdom. The foxglove spray further emphasises the dual purpose of many common objects.

Despite its small population, Scotland's reputation is one of having been Europe’s biggest persecutor of witches. Across the 17th and 18th centuries, it is known more than 3,800 suspected witches were strangled, hanged, drowned, or burned at the stake.

One of the victims was Dame Euphane MacCalzean, accused of witchcraft for using a spell to sink a vessel out of Leith, and attempting to destroy King James VI's ship as it entered North Berwick.

The first major Scottish witch trials took place in 1590, presided over by King James VI.

Researchers at Edinburgh University used historical records to put together The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft and witch huntings in Scotland. The survey revealed the names of almost all the 3,837 people they know were killed after being accused of being a witch between 1563 and 1736.

It also gives details of all that is known about the crimes and the sentences handed out, from being burned alive to being beheaded. While many people may have been accused of witchcraft before 1590, the first major trials of those suspected of being a witch began in Scotland after King James began to believe he and and his future bride had been cursed by a coven of witches.

The process was barbaric with victims being tied up thumb-to-toe, dragged down the muddy slope towards the loch and thrown into the water like rats. If they sank and perished then they were declared free of evil spirits, but if they dared to survive the ordeal, then a swift burning at the stake, designed to emancipate their souls from the clutches of the devil, soon followed.

More people were burned at the stake at Castlehill than anywhere else in Scotland.

Despite this obvious cruelty, it seems that the victims were spared the pain of death by burning. In most cases of treason and witchcraft the prisoner was strangled first, before the fire was lit. In Scotland the strangling formed part of the sentence for convicted witches.[1]

The last Scottish woman to face trial for witchcraft was jailed for her crime as recently as 1944. It may be hard to believe, but a Perthshire woman, born in Callander, was convicted under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, and spent nine months in Holloway prison.

Helen Duncan's 'crime' was to have spoken of the sinking of the battleship HMS Barnham during a seance held in Portsmouth in December 1941, which she said had been revealed to her by the spirit of dead sailor who had been part of the crew, most of which was lost with the ship. At the time, the authorities kept news of the sinking secret until January 1942, in order to maintain morale.


1 Burning at the stake Retrieved 29 January 2017.

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