Edinburgh Castle is a hotbed of tourist activity. Over a million people mill about its esplanade each year while they push through the throngs of visitors edging toward the castle gates. Many are unaware they’re walking atop the same ground that once saw the terrible death of hundreds of accused witches.
The Witches’ Well, a cast iron fountain and plaque, honors the Scottish women who were burned at the stake between the 15th and 18th centuries. It’s an easy site to miss for people only focusing on the castle that looms ahead. During the 16th century, more women were murdered at this site than anywhere else in Scotland. Each victim was denied a proper trial.
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. 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.
During the satanic panic of the time, anyone could be accused of using dark magic. Those killed were often mere herbalists, the mentally ill, or those on the wrong end of someone else’s ill will. Suspected women were frequently bound and thrown in a lake to determine their innocence. Those who drowned were cleared, and those who had the audacity to survive were accused of witchcraft and sent to the stake.
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. It was erected in 1894 on the western wall of what is now the Tartan Weaving Mill. 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.
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.
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 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.
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.