Witches are sometimes recalled in local memory through the names of wells or caves where they reputedly practised their arts. Uniquely, Maggie Wall has a monument located beside the B8062 close to Dunning in Perthshire. The monument carries the daubed inscription ‘Maggie Wall burnt here 1657 as a Witch’. Some people clearly come here in the knowledge of what the memorial represents – there are many small tokens left as offerings on the cairn below the cross. Reputedly, a wreath is left here to Maggie on occasion. Someone certainly repaints the inscription regularly. Unlike these ‘pilgrims’ I just stumbled upon the site on my way past and in the assumption that it marked a battle from Scotland’s history came back to take a look. What I found was a mystery!
In 17th century Scotland and England, not to mention much of Europe, fear of witchcraft combined with religious fervour and resulted in the deaths of many women. It was the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 that made witchcraft, or consulting with witches, capital crimes in Scotland though the peak period of burnings appears to have been 1658 and 1662. In general these were faithfully recorded by clerks of the law courts or the church’s own court. Historians can read about the witch burnings of 16th and 17th century Scotland for they were very well chronicled by the courts of the time – Some of the records are even available online. Six witches were tried in Dunning in 1662, an event which is faithfully recorded. However, there is no record of a witch trial in 1657 nor any reference to a witch called Maggie Wall. The Scotsman newspaper has a number of interesting articles about this mystery and a good starting point for any of my readers wishing to learn a bit more would be their article here. Another source to visit is the Dunning Parish Historical Society website where you can read more about the local events of the period. There appears to have been a lot of local unrest in the area around the time and the local laird, Lord Rollo, would seem to be implicated along with the priest of St. Serf’s church.
One thing that does seem clear is that the monument itself is much more recent. Like the professional historians I’ve done a bit of checking on old maps in the National Library of Scotland’s archive. The earliest map that I have found a reference to the monument on it is the 1862 25 inch to the mile Ordnance Survey map which was surveyed in 1859. The monument sits beside the road as it does today but it is in the edge of a plantation of trees called Maggie Walls Wood. The wood appears on the John Stobie map of 1783 but is not named and the scale is too small to categorically state that the wood was named or had a monument. So the earliest date we have for the monument is 1859. A theory put forward on the Dunning Parish website suggests that the monument may have been constructed by Lord Rollo. This carries the assumption that there was some historical family guilt in the matter. Was Maggie Wall murdered without trial on suspicion of witchcraft by an earlier Laird? Or perhaps she was a servant girl on the estate who died at the hands of one of the Laird’s sons? A story of burning a witch would have been a good way to cover up the crime and that would explain why there is no recorded trial! Another thought that occurs to me is the nature of the monument. Was it really erected to the memory of a witch? The scrawled text is hardly in keeping with the quality of the stonework. Perhaps it was intended to mark the Battle of Dorsum Crup in 965AD which may have been fought in the valley below (appearing on maps now as Duncrub) – historians are still debating where this battle actually took place! So perhaps it was never inscribed and its purpose was then suborned by some Victorian graffiti artist?
All this is just supposition. The truth seems destined to remain hidden in the ashes of long dead pyres. Today the monument stands stark against the sky for even the wood is just a memory – cleared and the land given over to grazing sheep. You can see the view from the memorial in the last picture of my Ochil Hills post – the sheep are walking in Maggie Walls Wood.