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The Story of Edinburgh Castle
Chapter XII. The Castle Hill

THE Castle Hill, on which the Esplanade and parade-ground are formed, was the scene of many horrible executions of unfortunate persons found guilty, in the ignorant intolerance of the times, of witchcraft and heresy. On one occasion no fewer than five suffered together the agony of being burnt at the stake. They were: Thomas Forret, Vicar of Dollar, John Keillor and John Beveridge, both Black Friars, a priest of the name of Duncan Simpson} and Robert Forrester, a gentleman. It will be remembered that King James V journeyed from Linlithgow to witness this revolting spectacle, an act that could hardly have been expected from a monarch who had done so much for social reform.

Punishments for witchcraft were frequent. Great numbers of wretched, ignorant creatures of both sexes and of various conditions were accused of this imaginary crime and put to death with the most horrible tortures.

Sorcery was treated as a criminal offence as far back as the reign of James III, when his brother, the Earl of Mar, along with twelve women and three or four others who were supposed to be accomplices, was burnt to death for consulting with witches upon a plan to shorten the life of the King. It is not until the reign of Queen Mary that a proper trial for the crime aj pears on the records of the Justiciary Court. In Mary’s ninth Parliament we find an Act passed declaring that witches or consulters with witches should be punished with death, which Act became operative immediately. Persons of high rank maliciously accused others in society of this imaginary practice. The Countess of Atholl, Lady Buccleuch, and the wife of the Chancellor, among others, were openly charged with dealing in charms and protecting witches. Even John Knox, the great reformer, did not escape the accusation of having attempted to raise u some sanctes in the kirkyard of St. Andrew’s,” and it was said that whilst in the midst of his incantations he raised cold Nick’ himself, with a great pair of horns on his head, a sight so terrible that Knox’s secretary died from fright.


A terrible fate befell Dame Euphemia Macalzean, Lord Cliftonhall’s daughter. She seems to have been a lady of powerful intellect and licentious passions, and was not only accused of many acts of sorcery of a common kind, but was also charged with complicity in the making of a waxen figure of the King, and with conspiring to raise a storm to drown the Queen on her homeward voyage from Denmark. A great number of poisonings and attempts at poisoning were also included in her indictment, but the jury acquitted her in respect of several of these alleged crimes. She was found guilty, however, of destroying by witchcraft her husband’s nephew, Douglas of Pumfraston, and of attempting to destroy her father-in-law, as well as of participating in the practices against the King’s life. The unfortunate lady was an adherent of the Romish faith and a friend of the turbulent Earl of Bothwell, who also was alleged to have been implicated in the matter of the waxen figure and in other similar devices against the King. Her punishment was the severest the court could pronounce. She was condemned to be u bound to a stake, and burnt in assis, quick [alive] to the death,” and all her estates and property were forfeited to the Crown. She endured her horrible fate with the greatest firmness on the Castle Hill, June 25, 1591.

These trials produced a deep and permanent impression on the credulous and superstitious mind of the 'British Solomon,’ and they appear to have led to the composition of his noted work, the Demonologie.

Numerous other trials for witchcraft took place during the reign of James. The unhappy victims of ignorance and credulity were usually charged with removing or laying diseases on men or cattle, with destroying crops, sinking ships and drowning mariners, holding meetings with the devil, raising and dismembering dead bodies for the purpose of obtaining charms, and other offences of a similar kind. After the death of James the epidemic seems to have abated somewhat in virulence, for from 1623 to 1640 there are only eight trials for witchcraft entered on the records of the Justiciary Court, and, strange to say, in one case the alleged criminal was acquitted. Counsel for the accused, too, ventured to impeach the credibility of confessions made by alleged witches on the ground that “ all lawyers agree that they are not really transported, but only in their fancies while asleep, in which they sometimes dream they see others” at their orgies. During the Civil War and the Commonwealth, however, the crime of witchcraft seems to have been greatly on the increase, although the judges appointed by Cromwell discountenanced proceedings against reputed witches. Between 1640 and the Restoration no fewer than thirty trials appear on the records, while an immensely larger number of accused persons were handed over to commissions, composed of‘ understanding gentlemen’ and ministers, appointed by the Privy Council to examine and try those accused of witchcraft in their respective localities. No fewer than fourteen of these commissions were appointed in one day in 1661, and many hundreds of persons, principally aged females, were put to death about this period for the imaginary crime. The calendar became even more bloody for some time after the Restoration, when the restrictions imposed by the Republican justiciaries were removed, and during the year 1661 twenty persons were condemned for witchcraft. In 1662 occurred the famous case of the Auldearn Witches, whose confessions are unrivalled in interest. Dr. Taylor says that one of these beldames, named Isabel Gowdie, who must have been crazed, gave a most minute and quite unique account of the proceedings of the ‘covin’ (company) of witches to which she belonged. She was examined at four different times, between April 13 and May 27, 1662, before a tribunal composed of the sheriff of the county, the parish minister, seven country gentlemen, and two townsmen $ and though her conceptions are almost inconceivably absurd and monstrous, her narrative is quite consistent throughout. She was devoted, she said, to the service of the devil in the kirk of Auldearn, where she renounced her Christian baptism and was baptized by the devil in his own name with blood which he sucked from her shoulder and sprinkled on her head. The witch covin to which she belonged consisted of the usual number of thirteen females, one of whom, called the Maiden of the Covin, was always placed close beside Satan, and was treated with particular attention, as he had a preference for young women, which greatly provoked the spite of the old hags. Each of the covin had a nickname, as ‘Pickle,’ ‘Nearest-the-wind,’ ‘Through-the-cornyard,’ ‘Able-and-stout,’ ‘Over-the-dike-with-it,’ &c., and each had an attendant spirit, distinguished by some such name as ‘Red Reiver,’ ‘Roaring Lion,’ ‘Thief of Hell,’ and so forth. These imps were clothed some in saddum, some in g rass-green, some in sea-green, some in yellow, some m black. Satan himself had several spirits to wait on him. He is described as “a very mickle, black, rough man.” Sometimes he had boots and sometimes shoes on his feet, but still his feet appeared forked and cloven. A great meeting of the covin took place quarterly, when a feast was held. The devil took the head of the table, and all the covin sat around. One of the witches said grace as follows:

We eat this meat in the Devil's name,
With sorrows and sichs [sighs] and mickle shame.
We shall destroy house and hald,
Both sheep and nolt intil the fauld.
Little good shall come to the fore
Of all the rest of the little store.

When the meal was ended the company looked steadfastly at their president and said, “We thank thee, our Lord, for this.”

The witches, it appears, sometimes took considerable liberties with their master’s character, and called him ‘Black John ’ and the like, and he would say, “I ken weel eneuch what ye are saying of me,” and then he would beat and buffet them very sore. They were beaten, too, if they were absent from meetings or neglected any of their master’s injunctions. He found, however, the wizards much more easily intimidated than his adherents of the other sex. “Alexander Elder,” says Isabel Gowdie, “was soft and could never defend himself in the least, but would greet and cry when Satan would be scourging him. But Margaret Wilson would defend herself fiercely, and cast up her hands to keep the strokes off her ; and Bessie Wilson would speak crusty, and be belling again to him stoutly. He would be beating and scourging us all up and dow n with cords and other sharp scourges, like naked ghaists and we would still be crying 'Pity, Pity' Mercy, Mercy; Our Lord.’ But he would have neither pity nor mercy.”

When the married witches went out to their nocturnal conventions they left behind them in bed a besom or three-legged stool, which would assume their similitude till their return and prevent their husbands from missing them. When they wished to ride, a corn straw between their legs served as a horse, and on their crying “Horse and hattock, in the devil’s name!” or pronouncing thrice the following charm:

Horse and hattock, horse and go,
Horse and pell at, ho, ho, hoI

they were borne through the air to their destination, even as straws would fly upon a highway. If any seeing these straws in motion did not sanctify themselves the witches might shoot them dead. On one such nocturnal excursion the party feasted in Darnaway Castle, the seat of the Earl of Moray. On another occasion they went to the Downy Hills} a hill opened, and all went into a well-lighted room, where they were entertained by the Queen of the Fairies.

The covin frequently assumed the shapes of crows, hares, cats, and other animals, by the use of some such charm as the following:

I shall go intill a hare,
With sorrow, sich, and mickle care.
And I shall go in the Devil's name,
Aye, till I come hame again.

Isabel herself had an adventure while in the shape of a hare, she said. She was going one morning about daybreak to Auldearn in that disguise, but had the misfortune to meet Peter Papley of Killhill’s servant going to work, having his hounds with him. The dogs immediately gave chase. "I,” says Isabel, "I ran very long, but was forced, being weary at last, to take to mine own house. The door being left open, I ran in behind a chest, and the hounds followed in } but they went to the other side of the chest and I was forced to run forth again, and ran into another house, and there took leisure to say :

"Hare, hare, God send thee care.
I am in a hare’s likeness now,
But I shall be a woman even now.
Hare, hare, God send thee care.'

And so I returned to mine own shape again.” The dogs, she added, "will sometimes get bits of us, but will not get us killed. When we return to our own shape, we will have the bits and rives and scarts on our bodies.”

One common mode of detecting witches was that of running pins into their bodies, on pretence of discovering the devil’s mark, which was alleged to be set on a spot insensible of pain. The persons who acted as 'prickers’ of witches were allowed to torture those suspected of witchcraft at their pleasure, as if they were following a lawful and useful occupation. At length this brutal practice drew down the reprobation of the Privy Council, and the prickers were punished as common cheats.

Tortures of a much severer kind were often employed to extort from the reputed witches an acknowledgment of their guilt. Sometimes they were hung up by the thumbs, till, nature being exhausted, they were fain to confess whatever was laid to their charge. At other times they were subjected to cold and hunger till their lives became a burden. In many cases the thumbikins and other similar instruments of torture were employed to extort a confession.

A dreadful execution for sorcery was that of Lady Jane Douglas, a young and very beautiful woman. This lady, according to a writer in Miscellanea Scotica, was the most renowned beauty in Britain at that time. “She was of ordinary stature, but her mien was majestic, her eyes full, her face oval, her complexion delicate and extremely fair; heaven designed that her mind should want none of those perfections possible to a mortal creature; her modesty was admirable, her courage above what could be expected from her sex, her judgment solid, and her carriage winning and affable to her inferiors.” She was accused by a disappointed lover, William Lyon, of sorcery, and was committed to the prison in David’s Tower along with her second husband, Archibald Campbell, her little son, Lord Glammis, and an old priest. The unfortunate lady was first subjected to dreadful torture on the rack ; then she was led through the Castle gates on to the Hill, where she was chained to a stake round which had been piled tar-barrels and faggots, and within full view of her son and husband was burnt to death. Amongst others who suffered the same fate was Bessie Dunlop, in 1570, who practised as a ‘ wise woman ’ in the cure of some diseases, for which she ‘was worried’ at the stake. Thirty years after Isabel Young was treated in the same barbarous fashion for the crime of u laying sickness on various persons.” In 1608 a wizard was convicted of healing by sorcery, and suffered like the rest at the stake on Castle Hill. “He learned frae the Devil, his master, in Binnie Craigs and Corstorphine, where he met with him and consulted with him divers tymes, whiles in the likeness of a man, whiles in the likeness of an horse.” He also, it was alleged, had attempted to destroy the crops of a farmer of the name of David Liberton by placing a piece of enchanted flesh under the door of his mill, and had, in addition, been guilty of making an image in wax and thereafter melting it in the fire, which process was a method of taking David’s life.

But besides these revolting memories there are other associations not quite so dreadful that make the old approach to the fortress interesting. Grant tells us that on the north side of the Hill there was an ancient church, some remnant of which was visible in Maitland’s time in 1753. It is supposed to have been dedicated to St. Andrew, the patron of Scotland, and is referred to in a deed of gift of twenty merkes yearly, Scottish money, to the Trinity altar therein, by Alexander Curor, Vicar of Livingstone, December 20, 1488. In June 1754, when some workmen were levelling this portion of the Castle Hill, they discovered a subterranean chamber, fourteen feet square, wherein lay a crowned image of the Virgin, hewn of very white stone, two brass altar candlesticks, some trinkets, and a few ancient Scottish and French coins. Remains of burnt matter and two large cannon-balls were also found there. This edifice was supposed to have been demolished during one of the sieges suffered by the Castle after the invention of artillery. In December 1849, when the Castle Hill was being excavated for a new reservoir, several finely carved stones were found among what were understood to be the foundations of this chapel or of Christ Church. The latter building was commenced in 1637, and had actually proceeded so far that Gordon of Rothiemay shows it in his map with a high pointed spire. It was abandoned, however, and its materials used in the erection of the present church at the Tron. This was also the site of the ancient waterhouse.

On the Castle Hill lay the great and famous Blew Stone, and it was eventually buried there. A curious set of doggerel lines appears in Archxologia Scotica on this landmark, which possibly took the form of a great boulder.

Our old Blew Stone, that's dead and gone,
His marrow may not be
War: e, twenty feet in length he was,
His bulk none e'er did ken;
Dour and dief and run with grief
When he preserved men.
Behind his back a batterie was,
Contrived with packs of woo.
Wefs now think on, since he is gone,
We're in the Castle's view.

The 'packs of woo’ are the woolpacks that were used as cover for the troops of William when besieging the Castle. On the north side of the Esplanade is the quaint little house (the Goose Pie) of Allan Ramsay, the famous author of the Gentle Shepherd\ who in 1725 opened a circulating library of fiction for the benefit of the citizens of Edinburgh. The magistrates looked on this fiction with some distrust, fearful that it would contaminate the youth of the city, and made an attempt to prevent Ramsay from pursuing the business, but without success. It was Allan Ramsay who built one of the first theatres in Edinburgh, which stood in Carrubber’s Close. A little higher up, and facing on the Castle Hill, is the fine block built by Professor Geddes as a students’ settlement. Here also the Professor himself resides, and his house is the resort of many men of letters and art in Edinburgh. Close by is the Outlook Tower, containing a fine collection of old Edinburgh prints, besides a camera obscura.

There are many old houses on the Hill that bring back memories of the days when the aristocracy of the city lived in state within the shadow of the Castle’s battlements. In the wall of one directly facing the Esplanade we find the cannon-ball which a fanciful but impossible tradition says was fired from the Castle guns during the blockade of the ‘’45.’ Close by stood the mansion of the Dukes of Gordon; nothing but the old lintel over the modern doorway remains, carved with the Gordon arms. The United Free Assembly Hall stands on the site of the residence of Mary of Guise, and almost next door lived the famous Dr. Alexander Webster. Hard by stood the house of the great Duke of Argyll, for many years rented by a tailor at /'12 per annum. On the north side the famous Laird of Cockpen had his town residence, and near it was the mansion of the Earl of Leven, who succeeded the Duke of Gordon as governor of the Castle in 1689. He did no credit to his family by his behaviour, for, according to the {Miscellanea Scotica, “if her Majesty Queen Anne had been rightly informed of his care of the castle, where there were not ten barrels of gunpowder when the Pretender was on the coast of Scotland, and of his discourteous behaviour to ladies—particularly how he horsewhipped the Lady Mortonhall—she would not have made him a general for life.”

The Butter Tron, or weigh-house, which was held by the Highlanders during the blockade of the Castle bv Prince Charlie, stood at the bottom of the Hill, near the Lawnmarket. It was the scene of a quarrel between Major Somerville and a Captain Crawford, which is related in detail in The Memories of the Sometvilles. It appears that when Major Somerville commanded the garrison of the Covenanters in the Castle, Captain Crawford, who was not in command of any of the troops lying there, demanded admission to the fortress from the sentry on duty \ whereupon the sentry inquired his name, that he might take it to his commanding officer before admitting him. At this the Captain lost his temper and replied, “Your major is neither a soldier nor a gentleman, and if he were without this gate, and at a distance from his guards, I would tell him that he was a pitiful scullion to boot.” Turning on his heel, he tramped down the Castle Hill in a rage, but was overtaken by the Major, who had by this time received his message. “ Sir,” said the Major, “ you must permit me to accompany you a little way, and then you shall know more of my mind.” 'I" Captain replied, “I will wait on you where you please.” When they reached the foot of the Hill the Major, drawing his sword, said, "Now I am without the Castle gates and at a distance from my guards, draw, and make good your threat.” Crawford evidently thought better of it, and, taking off his hat, begged his senior officer’s pardon, whereupon Major Somerville, after thrusting his sword back into its scabbard, remarked, “You have neither the discretion of a gentleman nor the courage of a soldier. Begone, for a coward and fool fit only for Bedlam,” and retraced his way to the Castle. In revenge for the accusation of cowardice, Crawford later made an attack upon Somerville, and for this he was sentenced to imprisonment for a year.

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