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  • Maggie Walls and Witch Cobblers October 10, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    A historian is someone who spoils a good story with the truth. Bear this in mind as you read of the final extinction of the celebrated witch Maggie Walls, whose monument stands at Dunning in Perthshire.

    Maggie, legend tells, was burnt at the stake on this spot in 1657, though there is much doubt as to her guilt. Some whisper that a local lord or his son had got her pregnant and that her death as a witch was convenient. While a local pub, the Saracen’s Head boasts that it has her skull on display.

    But was all really as it seems? For a start the dates themselves do not add up. The monument went up at the very end of the eighteenth century. Maggie herself though was killed in the middle of the seventeenth century – in the years when the Scots were going witch-mad – and no records recall her death.

    Beachcombing is also struck by the strange painted words on the cross, words that are allegedly already there on a photograph from the cross from a century ago: a photograph that Beachcombing has been unable to track down. Are there any carved words or has the paint just been overlaid time and time again? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    The story really starts to unravel though when you look at an eighteenth-century map of the area. A local historian Geoff Holder made the breakthrough, finding that the field in which the cross stands today was then named: Maggies’ or Muggies’ Walls.

    There are two ways to explain this peculiar coincidence. The first that a memory of Maggie’s death led to the name. Or second, and far more convincingly, that the local placename had led to a legend and that Maggie/Muggie was nothing more than a local landowner.

    What is unclear to Beachcombing is how the cross fits in. Is there any proof that the inscription/painting is contemporary with the building of the monument? Isn’t it possible that it had quite another purpose and then got taken over by the witch legend? Or was the cross, in fact, built as a tribute to the witch legend?

    In either case we have here a lovely example of a historian (namely Geoff Holder) doing his job so well that we end up with less knowledge about the past than before we started. And the consolation? As so often in these instances, the perversity of memory and local folklore are in themselves both sobering and entertaining.


    Geoff Holder has very kindly been in touch on this to fill in some of the gaps. ‘The full story of ‘Maggie Wall the witch who wasn’t’ is told in my book Paranormal Perthshire . The book also contains the photograph you allude to, taken around 1910, with the words clearly visible. There is no carving on the monument. The words have been repainted at regular intervals by local people. I know the names of both the previous and current painters, although I have undertaken not to reveal the identity of the currently living painter. The earliest record of the monument, in the Ordnance Survey Name Book of the 1850s, also records the words. The painted words presumably precede the 1850s but there is no evidence of this. There’s more at www.geoffholder.com’ There is also an email from KMH who is getting lyrical: ‘This posting brings to mind thoughts not visited for decades. But first, we need to know how common it is for witch burnings to be commemorated with a monument. The monument must be at least somewhat unusual because this is the first one I have heard of.  Perhaps the monument was built for something else, but since the witch may have been killed somewhere in the general vicinity (if she actually existed)  the words don’t really apply to the exact spot of the monument. Generally speaking I feel that permanent structures marking episodes of human tragedy, stupidity, or egotism do not actually serve their purpose of telling us what to avoid in the future. Instead they tend to prolong  the problem and ingrain it permanently into the human psyche. For example, instead of preserving the remains of Hitler’s concentration camps (and other Nazi structures), they should have been completely destroyed and the land turned over to farming. Today the public is still  fascinated by the Nazis, and neo-Nazis continue to flourish, perhaps because there is so much left over to see, study and contemplate. The Romans knew what to do with Carthage. They would have succeeded with Jerusalem also if it had been just another city. A land or country can physically contain only so many monuments to its history. Like Egypt, once there is no more room for monuments, the country is effectively over with and it can only serve some other, foreign, purpose. So we need to be careful with monuments – each one can represent another nail in the coffin of the country. It is better to choose the nails quite carefully and exclude those of a negative nature.’ Thanks KMH and Geoff for taking the time!

    31 Oct 2011 [Halloween!!!]: Now Louise Yeoman writes in to add a few more thoughts, and they are, for the most part, skeptical ones. Louise has a strong background in early modern manuscripts and witchcraft research. ‘Geoff the local historian may well have found an earlier mention on a map for which I applaud him! But the monument’s story was first publicly debunked in 2004, and it’s worth telling for some extra info for you. Myself and archaeologist David Connolly examined this as a query sent to us for BBC Radio Scotland’s Past Lives programme and broadcast our findings. The monument is apparently a clearance cairn topped by a late 18th century lintel and the cross is likely to be a later date than that. The inscription is not in 17th century Scots or a script it would be written in… I can say with a fair degree of certainty that there are no 17th century witch memorials, and if you look at other sorts of 17th century memorial, it’s easy to see this doesn’t fit. I ended up pointing the finger indirectly at Walter Scott, as you’ll see below and more directly at the 19th century Rollo of Duncrub family. At the time I did a bit more research into the local history, and looked at estate plans from the Rollo papers in National Archives of Scotland which led me to the same conclusion that the placename pre-dated any monument.(BTW  Last year I was contacted about this by a journalist Heidi Soholt for Scotland magazine and she published a story based on this research then for their winter 2010 number. It was the local historical society who asked us about it in 2004, so I think this is known locally!) Anyway for the sake of completeness here’s what we came up with in 2004 and sent to Heidi last year. Maggie Walls brief. The contemporary evidence – There is nothing in the records to indicate that Maggie Walls ever existed but record survival is not good for the protectorate in Scotland. There was some witch-hunting in that period, but no major panic – so to begin with, we can’t rule anything in and we can’t rule anything out. It could be there was such a case and that the records were lost or it could be that it never existed [If there was, she would be in the era of Sir Andrew Rollo d.1659] What do we know? There was a serious witch panic in Perthshire in 1662. There was sporadic witch-hunting in Perthshire up to then but in 1662, it goes through the roof (probably insecurity and settling of scores after the Restoration of Charles II and end of the civil war period). Six witches are accused in the parish of Dunning: Isobel Goold, Agnes Hutsone, Anna Law, Isobel McKendlay (executed), Elspeth Reid (executed), Janet Toyes (executed). They are tried by a commission of the local gentry: including two Rollos: James Lord Rollo and his brother Laurence. The Rollos also sit on other local commissions trying a total of 17 women. This doesn’t make them extraordinary witch-hunters – it’s just their job as local lairds and they believe in it the way anyone else does. Do the 17th century Rollos repent of trying witches? There is no evidence that they do – it would be surprising and remarkable if they did, but highly unlikely. The first person to really denounce witch-hunting in Scotland was George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh – who publishes in 1673. He’s a lawyer who’s seen a lot of abuses – and who’s warning against abuse in witch cases – but he’s in a tiny minority. It’s only in the 1700s that the legal elite start rejecting witch cases – eg Pittenweem 1704-5 and that leads to a local lynching of the accused women. So at this point the elite are beginning to get out of step with the people who are still strong believers that witches are nasty harmful beings who deserved all they got. Hence I agree that the most likely person to put up the monument is a Rollo – but not a 17th century Rollo. Changes in witch belief – attitude towards witches probably continues to change over the 18th century. By the 19th century we get some interesting indications of how far things have moved: Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology published 1830 were very influential, many witch trials are reprinted in Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials which is very popular, and it’s at this time that other Perthshire legends surface like the Grahame of Inchbraikie tale about Kate NicNiven (who’s a completely mythical character!). They and the Oliphants of Gask talk about witch-hunting as a superstition carried out by an ignorant Presbyterian Church of Scotland– and like the Rollos they are Episcopalians. If you read the Graham of Inchbraikie tale, it gives the laird a (false) heroic role in trying to rescue the witch. So I think that by the 19th century – if not slightly before –  the local gentry are trying to rewrite history. They’re aware of witch-hunting and perhaps a bit ashamed. They may be trying to re-write their part in it. They may also be buying into the glamorous world of Walter Scott and his tales, especially Ivanhoe (1819) where the hero rescues the beautiful Rebecca (accused as a witch) from the dastardly Templar, Brian de Bois-Guilbert – lo and behold, that’s exactly the era in which the monument most likely emerges. Documentary evidence the monument is definitely there in 1866 – it’s on the ordnance survey map.The dyke is there by 1859. The placename ‘Maggie wall’s wood’ is there by 1829 ( Rollo of Duncrub papers). The wood is there by 1783 but is not on Roy’s Military Survey (1747-55) No evidence for the monument before the 19th century. Even the feature the name attaches to (the wood) isn’t there before the late 18th century. Physical evidence – David Connolly, the archaeologist examined it and (if I recall correctly) reckoned the monument was a clearance cairn with an 18th century lintel on it (making the shaft). The lintel would only have been re-used for the monument after the building it was in was torn down – so that points to at least the later 18th century for its re-use. The cross on the top seemed even later to him – 19th century. I looked at the language and form of the inscription and monument and they were definitely not 17th century. We came to the conclusion it was 19th century. Conclusion – The monument can’t be earlier than the late 18th century, and everything points to it being early-mid 19th century. It’s a symbol: perhaps of lairdly regret for what their ancestors did, perhaps a fashion statement, maybe both, but real accused witches, innocent people, were executed in the parish, so it’s quite a nice symbol. It would be nice if they had the names of the real documented witches commemorated there too! The mythical Maggie is doing duty for them – but it’s still a shame that their names are so often forgotten.’ Louise, thanks, you are a star!