The Witches’ Well

If you take a day trip from Burntisland Studio to Edinburgh you could easily miss this one, nestled modestly among the towering buildings and rocky outcrops near the castle, but it represents a profound chapter in Scottish history.

The Witches Well can be found on the wall of the Tartan Weaving Mill, on the East approach to Edinburgh Castle – here it is on the map. It’s a rather beautiful cast iron Victorian fountain, commemorating over 4,000 people (mostly women) executed on this ground through the 1500s and 1600s. It might feel incongruous today among the whisky and cashmere shops, but during the witch trials, more women were murdered in this beautiful place than at any other location in Scotland.

Needless to say, those killed were not ‘real’ witches. Anyone could be accused and unfairly tried – not just those who experimented with herbal medicines, but often vulnerable individuals suffering mental or physical illness. Increasingly, just upsetting the wrong person was enough to get you killed. We’ve all heard the tales of women being submerged in water to test their innocence. If they drowned they were in the clear! Not much of a victory!

The fountain was commissioned by philanthropist Sir Patrick Geddes in 1894. His friend John Duncan, a famous artist known for his interest in Celtic mythology, designed the fountain. Here’s what Atlas Obscura has to say:

The small plaque, which features a bronze relief of witches’ heads entangled by a snake, uses dualism to highlight the balance between good and evil and to show that every story has two sides. The relief contains the image of a Foxglove plant, from the centre of which is a coiled snake intertwined around the head of Aesculapius, the god of medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the goddess of health. The Foxglove plant, though used medicinally, can also be poisonous depending on dosage, and the image of the serpent imbued with wisdom is also acknowledged as evil […] The trough is sculpted on three sides. The font displays flora with roots beneath the earth and branches above. The left panel depicts the Evil Eye with frowning eyes and a nose. The right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl, meant to represent healing hands.  

Atlas Obscura

Evil, certainly… but nothing supernatural about it.