The Witches Well is an intricately crafted bronze fountain, decorated with fresh flowers and topped off by an informative plaque. As lovely as it appears to be, it marks a very dark period in Scottish history. More people were burned at the stake here at Castlehill than anywhere else in Scotland. The Witches Well fountain was installed near the place of these horrific executions in 1894, in memory of their lives and deaths.
We found the Witches Well quite by accident when we stepped to the side of the street to get a better look at the castle. As you walk the Royal Mile towards Edinburgh Castle pause a moment where the Castle Esplanade meets the end of the Royal Mile and look to the right. First, you’ll see Ramsay Gardens; a Scots Baronial style building with private flats behind a wrought iron fence. Look right again you’ll see the Witches Well on the wall of the adjacent building. Here’s a map link as well: The Witches Well, Royal Mile, Edinburgh
The plaque above the fountain was installed in 1912, and reads as follows:
This Fountain Designed by John Duncan, R.S.A.
Is Near The Site On Which Many Witches Were
Burned At The Stake. The Wicked Head And Serene
Head Signify That Some Used Their Exceptional
Knowledge For Evil Purposes While Others Were
Misunderstood And Wished Their Kind Nothing
But Good. The Serpent Has The Dual Significance
Of Evil And Of Wisdom. The Foxglove Spray Further
Emphasises The Dual Purpose Of Many Common Objects.
The Duncan Connection
When I saw the name John Duncan on the plaque, I remembered reading about a Geillis Duncan who was accused of witchcraft. A quick Google search turned up that information, as well as a third Scottish Duncan with a witchy story. I just love finding connections and coincidences like these!
Geillis (Gellie) Duncan (unknown-1591) was one of the first women accused of witchcraft in the now infamous North Berwick Witch Trials which were sanctioned by King James VI. Gellie was arrested in 1590 for suspected witchcraft after some of her healing cures were questioned and deemed to be the work of a witch. Her arrest and torture led to roughly 70 other people being named, accused, and charged with witchcraft. Gellie Duncan was ultimately burned at the stake in 1591 in Edinburgh.
Outlander fans may recognize the name, Geillis Duncan. It was a deliberate reference to this poor unfortunate soul.
John Duncan (1866-1945) was a popular, successful Scottish artist who was known for his Celtic and symbolic paintings. As part of the Celtic Revival movement, he painted murals in his friend Patrick Geddes’s residence, which coincidentally, were in Ramsay Gardens. Duncan created the Witches Well in 1894. His love of symbolism is very well represented on the fountain.
Victoria Helen McCrae Duncan (1897-1956) was a Scottish medium best known as the last woman in the UK to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, in 1944. During a seance in 1941, she allegedly revealed some information from a deceased sailor about the location of the vessel, HMS Barham. The ship had been sunk by a German U-boat, and that information had not been revealed by the War Office, who was trying to hush up the loss of 861 British seamen. This drew the attention of the authorities and led to her arrest. The story goes that officials in the government were afraid she might reveal details about the upcoming D-Day Normandy invasions.
Be in the Moment
Edinburgh is an old city with a rich and varied past. I truly believe a person could pick a spot at random anywhere along the Royal Mile and without moving, be within a stone’s throw of several fascinating bits of history. If only the stones in the street and buildings could talk! A plaque on a building, a decorative lintel above a close, and in this case, a lovely fountain tucked away on the side of a building all have intriguing tales to tell.
Our accidental discovery of the Witches Well serves as a reminder to take more time and not rush from one item on the bucket list to the next. Stop, look around, be in the moment, or imagine yourself in the past. Put your smartphone in your pocket and talk with people. You may be surprised at what you discover along the way.
The Witches Well Gallery
The Witches Well: Edinburgh’s witch trials memorial
Survey of Scottish Witchcraft
North Berwick Witch Trials
Helen Duncan, Scotland’s Last Witch