There are precious few women celebrated in the popular stories and legends of Edinburgh (famously the city has more statues of dogs than it has of historical women...). But one name which is enduringly popular is that of Margaret Dickson, known as Maggie, who acquired a curious kind of celebrity in the eighteenth century.
There are many versions of her story that get told by guides on tours through the city, and the historical record makes it tricky to deduce a fair or factual account of her life (and, as we shall see, after-life) - even the century in which the incident occurred is incorrectly recorded - but this is the version that I share with groups.
Maggie Dickson had been born in or near Musselburgh, a fishing town to the east of Edinburgh, and became the wife of a local fisherman. In the 1720s, when she was still just in her early 20s, she was arrested on suspicion of murdering her newborn baby. She had been discovered in the act of trying to give the body a burial, and despite her protestations that the child had been stillborn - but without any solid medical evidence to the contrary - she was put on trial for causing its death, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged in punishment for her actions.
The Grassmarket area of the city was where Edinburgh's executions took place at that time, where crowds of up to 20,000 spectators would gather for the spectacle of justice in action.
On 2 September 1724, Maggie Dickson was duly brought to the Grassmarket, hanged, and her body was cut down from the gallows and placed in a coffin to be taken back to Musselburgh for burial.
About half-way between the city and Musselburgh was a small village called Duddingston, and in it a pub called the Sheep Heid - the pub still stands and has claims to being the oldest surviving pub in Scotland.
The driver of the cart bearing Maggie's corpse stopped at the Sheep Heid for his lunch, and when he resumed his journey he became aware of a strange noise coming from the back of his cart.
Upon investigation, the driver discovered the noise to be coming from inside Maggie's coffin, and when he prized the lid off the coffin he discovered, to his horror, that Maggie Dickson was still alive. She wasn't in great condition (she had been hanged, after all) but she was still living, breathing and (quite literally) kicking and screaming.
Suddenly the people of Edinburgh didn't know what to make of Maggie's miraculous survival. Some were outraged and immediately called for Maggie to be taken back to the Grassmarket and hanged, according to her sentence. Others, taking a more critical viewpoint, argued that she had already been hanged, and couldn't be hanged for a second time (she had only killed one baby, after all....).
The legal authorities were similarly perplexed by the state of affair, and the judges of the High Court gathered in conference to discuss what should happen to Ms Dickson. After much legal debate and scrutiny they came to the conclusion that she couldn't be hanged for a second time, as according to her sentence she had already been hanged - a second execution would be justice in bad faith, and so Margaret Dickson was allowed to live.
However, the judges amended the text of the law books that day, and from that point on the sentence was to be hanged until dead - meaning that Maggie Dickson became one of very few people to survive their execution and live to tell the tale.
Maggie Dickson lived (according to some versions of the historical record) for another sixty years, and raised another six children in the latter half of her life. She became known as 'Hauf hangit Maggie', or 'Half-hanged Maggie', and in more recent times has been accorded the greatest honour they can offer anyone in Scotland - they've named a bar after her...
On the Grassmarket today, near the site where she narrowly avoided meeting her death in the 1720s, stands Maggie Dickson's pub, a perennial favourite with drinkers and visitors to the city.
Explore more of the city's history on my private city walking tours!
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