A few years ago I visited Salem in Massachusetts to learn about witch trials. I’ll never forget the advice I was given at the end of my visit, “There’s one place in the world that executed more suspected witches than anywhere else in the world – Edinburgh, Scotland.”
I’d always know we’d a history of witch trials, just not how we compared to other countries. In Scotland it’s thought between 4,000 and 6,000 people were tried under the Witchcraft Act between 1563 and 1736. That’s three times as many as England and four times as many as the European average.
If you were suspected of being a witch, the sure-fire way to find out was to tie your arms and legs together and throw you into the Nor Loch (where Princes Street Gardens and Waverley Station are today). If you drowned you were innocent. If you survived it proved you were a witch. The sentence was then either hanging or burning at the stake. In Scotland around 1,500 people were executed. The largest group, over 300 people, were strangled or burnt on the Castle Esplanade at the site of the Witches’ Well.
The Well is easily missed. It’s just inside the Esplanade, on the right-hand side if you are looking at the Castle.
In 1894, urban planner Patrick Geddes, commissioned the Well as a memorial to those that had died this horrible death. The Well is dry now but the carvings illustrate the duality between good and evil with the serpent representing both wisdom and evil.