The Cost of Witchcraft
At the bottom of the Esplanade, in front of Edinburgh Castle, you will find a small monument known as the Witches' Well. No longer a functioning well, it was constructed as a small memorial fountain to commemorate the women (and men) burned as witches, a spectacle which traditionally took place here at the top of Castlehill.
The process of trying, torturing and executing people accused as witches is an unpleasant one, but according to the official Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh show it could also be a pretty costly one, too. The following details are taken from a report into the death of John Fian, a schoolteacher from Prestonpans outside of Edinburgh, executed along with "a number of others" on the 16th December 1590.
In order to be executed at the stake (after having been first strangled into unconsciousness, if a degree of clemency had been allowed), a carpenter would have dug a hole and erected the wooden post into the ground, "for which he was paid ten shillings". This sum is equivalent to just over £100 in today's money - a small fortune in 1590.
Then there is the material required for the actual burning. We're told that "ten cart-loads of coal" were heaped around the post, at a cost of 64 shillings (nearly £700 today), over which two bundles of heather (not so lucky for those accused of witchcraft...) and two bundles of yellow broom were spread. As if this material weren't flammable enough, "six barrels of tar" were poured on top.
But most expensive of all was the cost of the executioner himself. According to a dictionary of the Scots language dating from 1818, a public executioner was called "the lokman" (also known as the 'doomster'), and for the execution of John Fian (and others) in 1590 he was paid £5, 18s and 2d - or a whopping £1,250 in modern money!
Not bad for a day's work. It's true what they say - there's a good living to be made from death, especially in the sixteenth century!
Check out the Witches' Well as you approach Edinburgh Castle. It's on the end wall of the last building on the right hand side as you head up Castlehill, and it is engraved with a brief history explaining its commemoration of those executed at this site.
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