The enduring mystery of Scottish '˜witch' Maggie Wall
• READ MORE: Scotland’s most infamous witch trials
The haphazard pile of large stones with a crude stone cross perched on top bears the hand-painted inscription ‘Maggie Wall burnt here 1657 as a Witch’, and has been baffling both locals and academics for generations. The words are regularly repainted, and a wreath is often laid at the spot, but no one knows who is taking care of the monument.
Investigations into the structure’s background and purpose have created more questions than answers, and over 350 years later Maggie Wall’s identity still remains a mystery.
Scottish witch hunting
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, a huge wave of witchcraft hysteria swept across Scotland. Despite having a population approximately a quarter of the size of England’s, three times as many Scots were accused of witchcraft compared to their English neighbours.
This was four times the European average, and a total of around 4,000 people (86 per cent of whom were women) were prosecuted during Scotland’s witch trials.
Despite the widespread nature of the hysteria, it is rare for the witch trials to be memorialised.
Maggie Wall’s memorial (also sometimes known as ‘The Witch’s Grave’) is the only structure of its kind in Scotland, dedicated to the memory of one particular witch.
Who is Maggie Wall?
We know for certain that Maggie Wall was neither the first nor the last woman to be executed as a witch in Scotland, as cases happened between the 1560s and 1727. As the witch trials were legal proceedings, led by both the church and state, they were very well recorded.
But there is no evidence of Maggie Wall ever existing – either in witch trial records or more general documentation from the parish. There is no evidence of her crimes, and nothing to indicate what she did to warrant the label of ‘witch’.
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Often crimes were as insignificant as being in the vicinity of neighbours’ livestock when they were struck with disease, or having a good knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants and herbs.
There are several theories about who Maggie Wall was and why her monument exists. Some have suggested that Lord Andrew Rollo (the landowner of the area at the time) was having an affair with Maggie, and built the monument after she was executed out of guilt.
Others theorise that it was in fact Lady Rollo who erected the monument, feeling a sense of sympathy towards Maggie and women like her.
In 1663, six women from Dunning were accused of witchcraft (and three were executed), which is an alarmingly high number considering the village only had a couple of hundred residents.
The 1650s and 1660s were turbulent times in this Perthshire parish, with the witch trials coinciding with religious and political tensions.
The local minister, Revered George Muschet, was deemed unfit by church officials, but he was well liked within the village. When officials attempted to discipline the minister in 1652, they were attacked by an angry mob of local women who wanted to keep him in the church.
Some have suggested that Maggie Wall was part of this group, and that may be why she came under the wrath of the church and burned as a witch a few years later.
A likely explanation
None of these theories, however, seem to be based on any solid evidence. More recently, scholars have suggested that Maggie Wall is a complete myth – she never existed and was never executed as a witch.
It is unlikely that the monument was erected by Lord or Lady Rollo in the mid-17th century as it does not appear on an Ordnance Survey map until almost 100 years later, in 1866.
The surrounding area, which used to be woodland, was first identified as Maggie Walls Wood on a map from 1829, and it is possible that the place name provided the inspiration for a later memorial.
Experts believe that (due to the tool marks and type of stonework) the Witch’s Grave cannot have been built any earlier than the late 18th to mid 19th century. By this time, the gentry and elites were distancing themselves from the witch trials, and were perhaps trying to rewrite history to make amends for their part in this dark and shameful period of Scottish history.
Historians now believe that Maggie Wall’s grave is in fact a memorial to honour the memory of all the women executed, using Maggie as a mythical figure to represent those who were accused of witchcraft.
The mystery of the Witch’s Grave
Whatever the truth behind the memorial, it remains a haunting and mysterious tribute to the witches of Perthshire. It is not known whether the repainting of the inscription is done by a local with connections to the story, or by visitors who are captivated by the tale of Maggie Wall.
The Witch’s Grave has attracted many visitors over the years, including the fittingly macabre ‘Moors Murderers’, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, who photographed themselves by the monument during a trip to Scotland.
Although visitors are able to catch a glimpse of Scotland’s dark history at this spot, the story of what really happened there in 1657 remains a secret.
This article first appeared on our sister site, iNews.