Updated: Jun 5, 2021
I’ve recently read Daemonologie, written by King James VI and I (son of Mary, Queen of Scots and successor of Queen Elizabeth I) and it brings to mind a place I encountered a couple years ago on a wander in Perthshire.
On a small country road stands this unique memorial bearing the painted words, “Maggie Wall, burnt here 1657 as a witch.” It's a very intriguing, and rather haunting structure, between the uneven angles and painted message. Research reveals…...well, a mystery. There is no record of a Maggie Wall. Based on gunpowder found on the stones, and the techniques with which it was built, it is believed that the memorial was most likely built in the 1790’s. It is the only memorial of its kind in Scotland - to a single witch erected so long ago.
Scotland has a long, dark history tied to witch hunting hysteria. In a 200 year window beginning in the 1500’s, somewhere around 3800 people were tried for witchcraft, with estimates ranging from 1500 - 2500 people put to death. Nearby Kincladie Wood, also near Dunning, has a well established story of 3 witches and a wizard being burned beneath an oak tree. (I stopped to take a walk through the wood as well.) In 1662 Dunning had its own witch trials, but there is no record of Maggie Wall. The absence of a written record certainly doesn’t mean she didn’t exist. But it leaves the story open for speculation.
Many believe that Maggie Wall never existed, that the memorial is in honor of all people who were tortured and killed in the witch hunts. An 1829 OS Map showed that a forest stood where the monument now stands, and it was called “Maggie Walls Wood” or “Muggie Walls Wood.” One widely accepted theory is that the builder of the monument knew Maggie Wall didn’t exist but chose the name as a symbolic representation of all victims. But there are plenty of other stories claiming that she did exist, and theorizing the circumstances that could have led to her death.
What we do know is that the monument has been cared for over the centuries. Someone touches up the paint. And I’ve read stories that every year someone lays a fresh wreath with the words “In memory of Maggie Wall, Burnt by the Church in the Name of Christianity.”
As I continued to dig for clues, things got even stranger. I found a pub in Glasgow called the Saracen Head (or the Sarry Heid) which claims to have her skull. The skull is in a glass case behind the bar. However, they call it the skull of Maggie Wall, “the last witch to be burned at the stake.” This doesn’t hold up very well under historical evidence, based on the dates. There are historical records of women who hold that title, including Janet Horne of Dornoch, who was burned in 1727 (I have visited the stone marking the spot, and it says 1722.)
Maggie Wall seems destined to be one of those mysteries for which we will never find an answer. But maybe that's not such a bad thing. For me, it isn’t important to prove or disprove her existence. If there was a Maggie Wall, she is immortalized. If there wasn’t, we still have a memorial to the victims of extremism and a reminder that the nature of a witch hunt is not a thing of the past. They have just taken on different targets, and become more veiled.
People are prone to romanticize the history of witch hunts. I used to live just a few minutes away from where the victims of the infamous Salem Witch Trials were put to death in Salem, Massachusetts, which is now a tourist hotspot. As someone with an interest in true crime and history, I’m not here to judge about wanting to learn more about the topic. But we have to remember that there is nothing romantic about it. It’s not juicy gossip or fun campfire stories. Its raw, brutal, cruel and a terrifying display of what people are capable of.
If you are interested in learning more about the topic, I wanted to call attention to the mission of Witches of Scotland, who have a very informative podcast series. In their own words, “Witches of Scotland is a campaign for justice; for a legal pardon, an apology and national monument for the thousands of people – mostly women - that were convicted of witchcraft and executed between 1563 and 1736 in Scotland.” You can visit their website here: www.witchesofscotland.com
I also recommend Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb’s “Witch Hunt: A Century of Murder” which is on Netflix, Prime and YouTube (these platforms vary by country.) The first episode is about Scotland specifically.
Thanks as always for reading. This is heavy stuff. But it’s so important we learn from history and keep the conversation going. Too often people get swept up in the lore and forget that these were innocent people, murdered by their neighbors. People caught up in mob mentality. Some were scared of things they didn't understand, others were capitalizing on an easy way to get someone in trouble. Its heartbreaking and terrifying, and still happening. Its not so far removed from modern human nature as many like to believe. Scan the headlines, and most importantly your hearts - make sure that there is never a Maggie Wall that you have any part in burning. Be kind, don’t hurt people, love everyone. The world is desperate for it.