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.

The mysterious dolls of Arthur’s Seat

The Harbour and Arthur’s Seat from the Studio window.

Another creepy story for you today as Halloween looms.

Have you heard the tale of the Arthur’s Seat dolls? Arthur’s Seat, for those who don’t know, is the angular hill that rises up out of Edinburgh – you can clearly see it over the water from the Studio window!

Back in 1836, five boys out hunting for rabbits stumbled across some spooky treasure in a cave on Arthur’s Seat: 17 tiny coffins containing little wooden dolls. They are now on display in Edinburgh’s Royal Museum.

The origins of the dolls remains a mystery. At the time of their discovery it was thought they were something to do with witchcraft, but the list of theories is long, and getting longer all the time.

Some believe they were placed there as surrogate burials for the 17 victims of Burke and Hare, others think sailors placed them there as protective charms. At recently as 2018 new theories have emerged about the figures being created by the workers who built the ‘Radical Road’ around Arthur’s Seat, to keep the flames of the rebellion alive and honour those who had lost their lives in an uprising in 1820.

What do you think?

The Wizard of Kirkcaldy

Pic from the Fife Walking website

Halloween season continues with more local magic and mystery!

Our neighbouring town up the coast is famous for producing two financial wizards, Adam Smith and Gordon Brown, but a less well-known son of Kirkcaldy is the extraordinary character of Michael Scott. Shrouded in myth, he was known as ‘The Wizard of Fife’.

Head up into the woods of the stunning Beveridge Park, and you’ll find a fanciful wooden sculpture of Scott en route along the ‘Wizard’s Walk‘ which, if you want, can take you all the way to the ruins of Balwearie Castle.

There are lots of exciting legends about Michael Scott. He zipped around on a flying horse, ‘cleft the Eildon hills in three and bridled the river Tweed with a curb of stone’, and turned the devil to twine in the sands of Kirkcaldy beach.

None of the stories are quite as remarkable as the truth though. Scott is generally accepted to be Scotland’s first scientist, alchemist and astronomer. He wrote books, worked for Kings, and generally led an incredible life.

In 1210, Scott left Scotland for Toledo, where he learned Arabic, studied Jewish literature and ancient philosophy, and became so famous he was head-hunted by King Frederick II – the Holy Roman Emperor! He helped Frederick out with philosophical enquiries (“Where do rainbows come from?”; “What causes God?” etc) and became his Royal astronomer. There was a darker side, too. Stories swirled about him drowning people in an attempt to weigh their souls, and conducting cruel sleep deprivation experiments.

Scott was hugely famous within his own lifetime, and he turns up in literature for centuries – usually as a master of the dark arts. He’s even mentioned in Dante’s Inferno!

In later years he was a member of the group of nobles who travelled to Norway to bring Princess Margaret, the Maid of Norway, back to Scotland as Queen after the death of King Alexander III in 1296. Margaret’s death precipitated Scotland into the Wars of Independence against England. Read more about him here.

Main photo here is Kirkcaldy beach by Gilbert Townsend, a photographer who stayed at the Studio over the summer.

A haunting tale for Halloween

Have you unsettling origins of the Scottish flag?

It’s connected to the history of St Andrew’s Castle, and another spooky tale in the run-up to All Hallow’s Eve!

St Andrews Castle was originally the grand residence of the Archbishops of St Andrews, dating back to the 13th Century. It enjoys a stunning location on the coast, as you can see, and at just an hour’s drive from Burntisland Studio is a no-brainer for a day trip. Don’t stick around after dark unless you have nerves as strong as the Forth Bridge, though – a few unhappy ghosts have been seen in the shadows!

Cardinal Beaton, the Archbishop of St. Andrews in the 1540s, was known to have imprisoned Protestants in the dungeon under the castle until they went insane in the darkness, at which point he has them killed. Karma’s a bummer, as we know, and he met a grisly end himself; Protestants broke in and served their justice…

Beaton’s body was suspended over the castle walls by an arm and leg, a popular crucifixion shape at the time that formed what’s now the famous cross of St. Andrews, the saltire, the Scotland flag! You know: this one! 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

Beaton still roams the castle, albeit perhaps lopsidedly, while a white lady has also been spotted – often during the early evening in autumn. Clearly this is the best season for ghost spotting, get over there and see if you can see her before it gets too…. cold? dark? for ghosts!

Mr Allan: sun, sea and a very nice shower

A fine review from Mr Allan, who checked out yesterday. They had great luck with the weather and obviously packed in some trips around Fife – as well as spending quality time in the immediate area, going by these stunning photos of Burntisland.

We had a great 3-day holiday in Burntisland. The flat was awesome in terms of location and amenities. All you need is provided by the owner/host.

This is a compact studio suitable for a couple. The kitchen was stocked with everything (tea, coffee, etc). The bathroom has a powerful electric shower which was absolutely fabulous! The studio has a very fast internet which was a bonus for us. The main room is decorated well and the bed is really comfortable.

I didn’t meet Leila personally, however, she has been great, communicating with us promptly by email. The flat is within a few feet away from the train station and it is facing the harbour/port of Burntisland. The town centre and beach front is a few minutes away from the studio and is packed full of shops, cafes and restaurants. Edinburgh was only 30 mins away from Burntisland and small towns like Kinghorn, Aberdour, Kirkaldy were very accessible via train, bus and car from the studio. We even went further to Leven and Falkland and climbed Lomond Hills, fantastic views from the top.

Overall, I highly recommend this studio flat. It is great value for your money. Another bonus is having a very welcoming neighbour who chatted with us as soon as we arrived and on the day we left.

Thank you Leila for accommodating us. It has been a pleasure staying in your studio flat.

Mr Allan