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Issue 53 - The mystery of Maggie Wall

Scotland Magazine Issue 53
October 2010


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The mystery of Maggie Wall

Heidi Soholt investigates the tales behind a curious monument to an alleged witch.

On a lonely country road outside the small Perthshire village of Dunning stands a monument to a witch. This haunting memorial to Maggie Wall has long been regarded as an enigma, a 17th century puzzle which many have tried to solve. The landmark, which stands on the former parklands of Duncrub Castle, once the seat of the Rollo family, is a sad reminder of the horrific persecution that took place in one of Scotland’s darkest periods of history.

The crude 20 foot high structure, daubed with the words – Maggie Wall burnt here 1657 as a witch – bears a Christian cross at the top.

No other such monument exists in Scotland.

Added to this mystery is the fact that no records of Maggie Wall, or her trial, have ever been found. Maggie has nevertheless become a kind of folk-hero, and visitors regularly stop to pay their respects. The stones are littered with all manner of ‘offerings’ including pennies, tea lights, feathers and shells. These are regularly collected by locals who would rather that people resisted the urge to leave behind ‘gifts’. Local residents, whose identity has always been a closely guarded secret, also refresh the white painted inscription to Maggie. There are also claims of a mysterious wreath being laid there from time to time, with a card declaring that Maggie was burned by the Church.

The subject captivated me and I could not wait to try my luck at solving the riddle.

What I discovered was unexpected, casting a completely new light on the age-old tale.

On visiting Dunning, a village at the foot of the Ochils with about 1,000 residents, I was presented with several theories about the monument’s origins. Most of the speculation seemed to involve the Rollos, who have resided in Dunning since 1300 and retain a presence today. Their ancestor Lord Andrew Rollo was landowner during Maggie’s time, and therefore would have been instrumental in any local executions. His son was Dunning’s minister, another key player in such serious matters.

It had been rumoured that Lord Rollo had an affair with Maggie and later built a monument out of guilt. Another theory involved the then Lady Rollo building the landmark out of pity. The 1650s were turbulent times in Dunning, with locals taking the side of a minister deemed unfit by the Church. When officials arrived to hold a Synod to discipline Reverend Muschet they were met by a crowd of women who attacked them, forcing them to flee. Perhaps Maggie was involved in this dispute, and condemned for being outspoken.

Maggie, I was told, was probably a ‘healer’, using herbs and other means to cure common ails, and this too could have led to accusations of witchcraft. The 1600s were not a good time to display unusual powers of any sort. I was shown ruined remains in a wood believed to have been her house.

By this time I was starting to form my own ideas. Convinced that I was getting closer to the truth, I contacted one of the leading experts on witchcraft, historian and broadcaster Dr Louise Yeoman. What she told me was surprising. Maggie, she said, was far from a mistreated folk-hero – she was, in fact, a complete myth.

Dr Yeoman co-authored The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, an online resource that details every recorded trial between 1563 and 1736. A few years ago she also produced an item on Maggie Wall (or Walls, as she believes the correct name to be) for Past Lives, a BBC Radio Scotland series. During her research, Dr Yeoman became convinced that Maggie, if she existed, was never persecuted as a witch.

“There is nothing in the records to indicate that Maggie Walls ever existed,” says Dr Yeoman. “There was some witch hunting in that period (1657) 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.

“There was a serious witch panic in Perthshire in 1662. There was sporadic witchhunting in Perth up to then, but it goes through the roof. This was probably insecurity and settling of scores after the Restoration of Charles II and end of the civil war period. Six witches were accused in the parish of Dunning; Issobell Goold, Agnes Hutsone, Anna Law, Issobell McKendley, Elspeth Reid and Jonet Toyes. They are tried by the local gentry, including Lord James Rollo and his brother Laurence.” Continues Dr Yeoman: “It would have been remarkable if the 17th century Rollos repented of trying witches. It’s only in the 1700s that the legal elite start rejecting witch cases. 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.

“Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology published 1830 were very influential, many with trials are reprinted in Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials, and it’s at this time that other Perthshire legends surface, like Kate McNiven, a legendary witch who is 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 – like the Rollos they are Episcopalians. So I think that by the 19th century 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, where the hero rescues the beautiful Rebecca after she is accused as a witch – lo and behold, that’s exactly the era in which ‘Maggie Walls’ emerges.” The monument itself, claims Dr Yeoman, is unlikely to have existed before the 1800s, as it doesn’t appear on an ordnance survey map until 1866. The place name, Maggie Walls Wood, referring to the wooded area that once surrounded the monument, exists by 1829, perhaps providing a name for the memorial.

Freelance archaeologist David Connolly believes it to have been a clearance cairn with an 18th century lintel. As the lintel would only have been re-used after the building was torn down, it points to at least the later 18th century for its reuse. “The stonework has holes from quarry work which didn’t exist in the 17th century. There are also tooling marks which are distinctly 19th century,” says Connolly.

“As soon as I saw the monument I knew that the writing on it could not have been from the 17th century,” says Dr Yeoman.

“The monument can’t be earlier than the late 18th century, and everything points to it being early-mid 19th.” She believes that the memorial could be a symbol for those persecuted there. Details of the 1662 trial involving the six Dunning women can be found on the Witches Survey database. As was usual in Scotland, the three condemned to death were strangled then burned, their execution taking place in Kincladie Wood. Considering the small population of the village, this was a significant episode in its history.

The witch hunting period saw around 3,837 Scots accused of witchcraft, 86 per cent being female. Witch hunts involved both the church and state, who presided over trials.

Witches were regarded as anti-Christians who had made a pact with the devil.

Initially, accused were tried under the Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563 which made it a capital offence to use witchcraft, sorcery and necromancy. This was replaced by the 1735 Witchcraft Act which outlawed the persecution of people for being witches. This long-lasting act made it an offence to pretend to have supernatural powers.

King James VI, later James I of England, held strong beliefs in the existence of witches.

His work, Daemenologie, published in 1597, spelled out his thoughts on the subject. James believed himself to have been the victim of witchcraft while sailing home from Denmark with his new bride, Princess Anne. This led to the notorious 1590 North Berwick witch trials, which ran for two years and implicated 70 people.

Witch hunts were not confined to Scottish shores and Germany is frequently cited as particularly zealous. Here, the work of two scholars, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, was to have a huge influence. Their treatise, the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) was published in 1487 and revolutionised witch hunting practices.

The work, thus called because the hammer was seen as the perfect way of dealing with witches, instructed on how to identify, interrogate and convict.

So, perhaps the answer to the Maggie mystery is that she stood for all those who perished. If that is the case, then Dunning is a fitting location as the area saw many trials.

The present Lord Rollo thinks the theory is unlikely, but possible.

Dr Yeoman thinks that the names of all who perished in Dunning should be on the monument. “The mythical Maggie is doing duty for them – but it’s still a shame their names are so often forgotten.”