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Witches’ Well

Location: Edinburgh, Scotland.

Situated on the eastern corner of Edinburgh Castle Esplanade where it meets the Royal Mile, an inconspicuous drinking fountain is mounted on the wall. The location was once the reservoir that held the old town’s water supply. This fountain is known as the Witches’ Well.

In 1894, Sir Patrick Geddes, a philanthropist known for his innovative thinking in urban planning and sociology, commissioned his friend, John Duncan, to design a drinking fountain to be located on the west side of Castlehill Reservoir next to Ramsay Garden. Duncan was a famed artist who was influenced by Celtic myth and legend which is evident in the sculpture.

Mounted on a wall it consists of a rectangular protruding trough with a square back-plate. 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 rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, remains a symbol of medicine today. Hygeia as the personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation represents hygiene. The Foxglove plant used medicinally can also be poisonous depending on dosage; and the image of the serpent imbued with wisdom is also acknowledged as evil. The symbolism of all represents good and evil.

There is some dispute as to whether the well is cast iron or bronze. A hole beneath the snake’s head spouted water. The upper left corner contains Roman Numerals equivalent to 1479, and 1722 is depicted in the bottom right (the period of the most prevalent persecution of witches in Scotland.) The bottom left displays the year of the sculpture and the sculptor’s initials: 18 (JD) 94. Two bolts on the upper corners differ in design and are Wiccan symbols of air and water.

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 nose; the words ‘the evil eye’ are written below. The right side depicts a pair of hands holding a bowl with the words ‘hands of’ written above the bowl and ‘healing’ written below.

The plaque above the well was erected in 1912 and contains the inscription: This Fountain Designed By John Duncan RSA / 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.

A local woman has undertaken the task of caring for the well and places flowers on a regular basis. A card can be seen in one of the photos which is a message recently written to those who died.

Persecution of Witches

Scotland’s King James VI believed that witchcraft was a form of Satanism and that anyone who possessed those abilities was tainted by the devil. As a result, in the 17th and 18th centuries, over 4000 alleged witches (mostly female) were put to death.

Witch trials were nothing more than a ritual with little evidence other than having a mole on the body, having red hair, or a malevolent neighbour who made the accusation of witchcraft. A hearing took place at the local church to gather evidence which was then forwarded to the High Court.

Torture, used to extract the truth and a confession, varied from sleep deprivation to hacking off breasts. If a witch refused to confess, it was seen as evidence that the Devil had her under his control. To garner absolute proof the accused was thrown into the Nor Loch (now Princes Street Gardens) with her left hand or thumb tied to her right foot, and her right hand or thumb tied to the left foot, leaving little hope of floating or treading water. If the accused sank (proof of innocence) a rope tied around her middle prevented drowning.

If the accused floated, she was classed as a witch, strangled and hung at the stake (the common belief that witches were burned alive is generally a myth.) The witch was then burned at a public spectacle at Castlehill, just below the castle.

On 25 June 1591, one of the most severe punishments was directed on Dame Euphane MacCalzean, who was accused of using a spell to destroy the ship of King James VI as it entered North Berwick. She was condemned to be ‘bound to a stake and burned in ashes, quick to the death.’

Scotland was Europe’s biggest persecutor of witches. By the end of the 17th century, witches were routinely hanged instead of being burned. The last hanging took place in 1728.

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Fountain in National Museums, Scotland