Monday, 8 December 2014

Maggie Wall: Witch or Landmark?

 Journeying westward and about a half mile from Dunning, we see over the policy wall on a rising ground among the trees, a monument of a kind not to be met with at every town.”
Perthshire Advertiser for 20th September 1855

The monument in question is a fascinating sight indeed, and the source of much debate through the years. Constructed of stone and reaching twenty feet high, the structure is topped with a cross, whilst across the front for all to see is inscribed the intriguing declaration:

Maggie Wall burnt here 1657 as a witch.”

Popular legend  has several explanations for the identity of Maggie. Some say she was a parlourmaid, accused of witchcraft due to an ill-advised tryst with the son of a local laird. There is also speculation that Maggie had an affair with the lord himself, Lord Rollo, and that the monument was erected either by himself or his wife in pity and remorse after her execution. Others believe her to have been a local healer, persecuted for her work, or one of several women who protested against the treatment of a local minister and punished for her outspokenness. The Saracen's Head pub in Glasgow proudly displays what is purported to be the witch's skull, though how it came to rest there is a matter for speculation in itself. 

 The skull of Maggie Wall

Enduring as local ideas may be, looking closer at the stories surrounding Maggie Wall reveals that matters are not as they seem. Often cited as the last witch to be burnt in Scotland, (a dubious honour that actually belongs to Janet Horne in 1722) there is actually no surviving record of a Maggie Wall, or Walls as she is sometimes known, in any of the documents relating to witchcraft accusations or trials in the period. 

What then is this monument supposedly erected in her name, and did Maggie in fact ever exist at all?

The monument was clearly in evidence from at least 1855 as described in the Perthshire Advertiser, and is visible on the ordnance survey map for 1866. The wooded area that used to surround the monument had the name Maggie's Walls in 1829, but there is no mention or evidence of the monument before the middle of the 19th century.  

Perthsire historian Kenny Laing has put forward the theory that Lord Rollo ordered the monument to be erected after the witch was burnt on his land. He points out that as the local landowner he would have signed the papers sentencing her to death; one legend states that he had the monument erected when his wife was absent in order to repent of the shame he felt for sending Maggie to her fiery fate.

The Dundee Courier for 8th March 1878 references a local minister, Dr. Wilson, who was certain that the whole story of Maggie Wall and her tragic end was a complete fabrication, though for what end is not stated. The reporter however is quick to point out that he at least would argue in favour of Maggie's name simply having been left out of the records, rather than countenance that an entire village had deluded themselves into believing the story to the point of erecting a monument to a person who never existed. 

Geoff Holder believes the monument is actually an 18th century folly, and also that the name is an invention.  He points to the existence of a nearby field known as Maggie's or Muggie's Walls, suggesting this is the origin of the name painted on the monument.  He also maintains that the monument could not have been built earlier than the 18th century.  

Holder reveals that a local schoolmaster, David Balmain, was a tenant of Maggie's Walls – Holder speculates that he may have built the monument in memory of two family members that were accused of witchcraft but escaped being charged in 1662, or that the idea of "Maggie" may have been used as a figurehead to stand for the many accused of witchcraft during the 17th century in Scotland.  

Dr. Louise Yeoman also believes that the story was nothing but myth. She points out that not only does the memorial not fit with any others from the 17th century, but that there were also no other memorials to witches, executed or otherwise. She and archaeologist David Connolly believe that the structure actually originated as a clearance cairn – i.e. a pile of stones that have been removed from a field  to enable greater ease when ploughing or using other tools in pasture or arable land – and was then topped with a cross from a later date. They likewise date the monument to no earlier than the late 18th century.  

A Clearance Cairn

The question must also be asked why a monument was erected to Maggie and not one of the other women and men executed for witchcraft during the 17th century. In 1662, six Dunning witches were arrested and tried by the local gentry, that including Lord Rollo and his brother. Three of these were executed, strangled and the burned in nearby Kincladie wood. Yeoman suggests that by the 19th Century, the Rollo family, feeling somewhat shamed by the part their family played in the witch trials, may have been attempting to re-write history by putting up the monument.  

The 1650s were a time on general unrest in Dunning. Riots broke out in the defence of the Reverend Muschet, and the officials arriving to hold a synod with the intention of disciplining the minister were driven off by a mob of angry women. Some have speculated that Maggie Wall may have been involved in this dramatic event and made to pay the price for her part in the disturbance.

Archie McKerracher in Perthshire in History and Legend wonders if the events that led to her execution were so shameful that local officials and clergy determined to forget it, hence the lack of mention in records. This is unlikely however due to the plentiful records elsewhere. He also posts that perhaps Maggie fell victim to “unofficial” justice by her neighbours, a more plausible explanation for the absence of Maggie's name in the documents. 

Writing in 1988 he remarks that the words are given a fresh coat of paint every year and that a wreath appears on the monument, with the words “In Memory of Maggie Wall, Burnt by the Church in the Name of Christianity.”  

Perhaps Maggie existed and indeed met the fate legend has ascribed to her, the Perthshire monument the only evidence left with official records long since lost.  It may also be that the legend grew up instead from the name of the local field and woodland, stories created and shared until they became established fact. It would not have taken much for someone to paint the words on one day, confirming what had already passed into local legend and serving to keep the story alive into the following generations. 

Whatever the case, one thing is for certain - Maggie Wall is a prominent and enduring part of Perthshire history, inviting speculation, no doubt, for many years to come. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Read it in the Papers: The Persecution of Susannah Sellick

Old newspapers are one of my favourite places to find stories, and a recent dip into the archives didn't fail to disappoint. Under the tantalising headline of Witchcraft, the following appeared in the Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser, 18th July, 1860.  

At the Woodbury Petty Sessions on Monday, the 9th int, Susanah Sellick, a respectable dressed woman, and healthy, complained that Virginia Ebdon, a lace-maker, had maliciously assaulted her at Colaton Raleigh on the 8th June.

Map showing location of Colaton Raleigh

Sellick complained that, whilst tending her cow one day, Virginia Ebdon accosted and threatened her, during which the following exchange took place:

Sellick: “How you frightened me!”

Ebdon: “You wanted to be frightened for what you ha' done to me.”

Sellick: “I have'nt a doo'd nothing to you.”

With that, Virginia Ebdon attacked Selleck, scratching her face and hands with a sharp object. Blood was drawn multiple times, and Sellick professed a fear that the younger woman intended to kill her. 

A Mr Toby, acting for the Ebdons, told a different story. Virginia Ebdon had been looking after her grandfather's donkey; Sellick called her names and chased her with a stick until they reached where her grandfather was waiting, a version of events supported by Ebdon and the grandfather himself. 

At this, Sellick denied holding a stick over the younger woman, although she admitted to having a small umbrella stick with her that she used to drive the cow with. Despite the protestations of Ebdon and her grandfather, the court declared in favour of Sellick, and Virginia Ebdon was fined fourteen shillings to cover costs. The newspaper account ends with a lamentation that witchcraft is very prevalent amongst the illiterate in the "neighborough" of Colyton, Satterton and Woodbury.

Church of St John the Baptist, Colaton Raleigh 
where Susannah Bolt married Henry Sellick in 1808

The original reporting of the case in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette on 14th July has the intriguing additional postscript, revealing that Sellick had been assaulted in a similar fashion a few years previous. Indeed in The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette for 24th April 1852, we learn that a Mary Pile and Walter Gooding were brought before the Magistrates for assaulting Susannah Sellick, a poor widow woman then aged seventy. Sellick stated that she was walking when she saw the defendants walking towards her, Mary Pile demanding:

Why have you hurted my daughter?”

With that, she attacked Sellick, scratching her face badly. Gooding, meanwhile, was kneeling on the ground, in, it transpired, an attempt to drive a nail into the ground on which Sellick stood in the belief that this would break her power.  

Sellick was rescued by the arrival of William Shute, upon which Pile and Gooding quickly left, leaving Shute to help the poor woman. Shute also gave evidence, describing Sellick's bloodied state and distress at the unprovoked attack. Sellick insisted to the courts that she did not know Pile's daughter, and had most certainly never done her any harm.

In her defence, Mary Pile, aged forty-five, insisted that she was fully justified in attacking Sellick and that it was necessary for her to draw blood from the older woman because she had bewitched her daughter. Gooding, the husband of Pile's twenty year old daughter Amy, was also convinced that he had only done what was needed to help his ailing wife.  

Iron nail such as that used by Walter Gooding

The young woman herself was present in the courtroom and had, by her own account, been very ill throughout the last two years, a time through which she insisted that Sellick was often in the house. A fortnight prior to the attack, Amy Gooding told the Magistrates, she had been wearing a string around her neck, only to find it vanished one night when she was in bed. As midnight approached, suddenly a loud knock sounded at the door, then at the foot of the bed and, finally, against the foot-board itself. The young woman however could not move, a heavy weight against her chest keeping her from doing so. What transpired next is unrecorded, but when she awoke in the morning, the string was once more around her neck. After this incident, Amy Gooding insisted that “Susan Sellick was continually with her” and from that point on they could not keep a candle lighted in the house, as they were constantly extinguished by the apparent presence of the witch.  

The Magistrates' attempts to make the defendants see reason went in vain, and they ended with suggesting that they should visit the local clergyman to ask his opinion on the matter, no doubt in the hope that he would be able to talk more sense into them. Mary Pile was fined one pound and thirteen shillings, whilst Walter Gooding was fined one pound and three shillings, both including costs. The fines were paid on the spot, proving that the families involved were not without money. The Magistrates informed Sellick herself that if she had further trouble she should not hesitate to return, adding that this was the third case within as many months regarding assault on old women suspected of witchcraft.  

That Susannah Sellick was considered a witch by at least some in her home village of Colaton Raleigh and beyond, is clear, though what started this reputation cannot be more than guessed at. The small village is eleven miles from Exeter and only a couple of miles from East Budleigh, where Mary Pile and the Goodings lived. Colaton Raleigh had a population of 841 in 1850, while East Budleigh was decidedly larger, the three-part village totalling around 2,000 inhabitants. It is possible that Susannah Sellick spoke the truth when she said she had no knowledge of Amy Gooding, although there is much evidence that the families of the local area were closely intertwined; Virginia Ebdon's daughter Elizabeth married a Frederick Pile, and intermarriage between Ebdons, Sellicks, Bolts and Goodings can be seen throughout the period in question and beyond. 

East Budleigh, Devon

Susannah Sellick nee Bolt was born in 1783, making her seventy-seven at the time of the second attack by those suspecting she was a witch. Henry Sellick was a farmer, with five acres to his name, a not insubstantial property for the couple. That she is mentioned as being well-dressed indicates that she was not in greatly reduced circumstaces, and there is no evidence that she was guilty of begging or otherwise bothering her neighbours, complaints that commonly accompany accusations of witchcraft.

As with many cases however the accused was a widow, Henry Sellick having died not long before the first incident. It is interesting to note that Mary Pile's husband had also died shortly prior to her attack on Sellick, the removal of the menfolk perhaps serving to reduce protection and also providing the freedom to act on long-held dislikes and suspicions. 

Whether Susannah Sellick had any further trouble from her neighbours is unknown, although one cannot help but hope that two court appearances and the injuries that led there saw an end to the persecution of the old woman.  She was buried at the age of ninety-six on 23rd March, 1879 at Colaton Raleigh. Her sister-in-law and house-mate during her later years, Caroline Bolt, was buried a week later at the age of ninety.