Monday, November 19, 2018

Five Stories From Scotland

I recently took a weekend trip to Edinburgh and the Scottish highlands, an area with a rich and storied history. Here are five of my favorite tales that I learned about while exploring England’s northern neighbor.

George Heriot's School, where J.K. Rowling's
daughter studied—forgive the bad lighting!

1. How a 1600s royal goldsmith created Voldemort—in a roundabout way

George Heriot was a wealthy goldsmith who loved giving away vast swaths of his fortune. One of his favorite projects was George Heriot's School, which offered top-quality education to the poorest students of Edinburgh. 

By the late 1900s, the school had become one of the most expensive education institutions in Britain—but it did offer a few scholarships each year. One scholarship recipient? J.K. Rowling’s daughter, who studied there in the 90s.

As she worked on Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, Rowling spent time wandering through Greyfriars Kirkyard, a graveyard neighboring the school, seeking inspiration. Most famously, the name “Tom Riddle” was taken from a gravestone here. (I saw the gravestone during the day, then returned with some friends at 12:30 in the morning!)

The real Tom Riddle's gravestone
The school itself inspired a few facets of Hogwarts too—including the House system!

To see more Harry Potter headstones, visit Greyfriar's Kirkyard—but maybe during daylight hours! If you're interested in other Harry Potter-related sites in Edinburgh, check out this list.

2. How a 1735 witchcraft law was used to arrest a fraudulent medium in the 1940s

In the 1500s and 1600s, Scotland was obsessed with witchcraft. They conducted between 4,000 and 6,000 witch trials, significantly more per capita than in England at the same time. (In fact, to raise public enthusiasm for witch-catching, King James commissioned a new English translation of the Bible that viciously condemned witchcraft. That’s why we have the King James Bible today.)

Scotland loved witch trials so much that their outdated laws remained on the books until the 1940s, when a Scottish medium named Helen Duncan rose to popularity. Widely considered to be a fraud, she was hated by the spiritualist community and disgruntled customers. Government and fellow mediums alike wanted her off the streets—and section four of the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which covered fraudulent spiritual activity, provided the perfect loophole. Duncan was tried before a jury under this law and served a year in prison. 

Duncan was the last person to be imprisoned under this law, as it was repealed soon thereafter. The law was replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which saw five prosecutions before it was repealed and replaced by new EU consumer protection regulations. 

To learn more about the history of witchcraft, murder, torture, ghosts, and other such things in Edinburgh, catch one of these nightly ghost tours. They're free, but tips are encouraged!

3. The story of David Hume and his statue

Touch his toe for good luck!
Enlightenment-era philosopher David Hume was widely-hated in his time. As a secular thinker who promoted rationalism and ruthlessly questioned organized religion, he made his share of enemies.

But the group of people who hate him most of all? Philosophy students at the University of Edinburgh in 1997, when the statue was erected. The University decided to spotlight David Hume’s work all year long, and by the end, philosophy students were beyond tired of debating his ideas.

In an act of revenge, they started a rumor that touching the statue’s toe would bring good luck, and students fell into the habit of visiting the statue before an exam. Hume would have hated this tradition—he scorned all things superstitious—but it’s remained popular with students and tourists alike.

To learn more about monuments and statues on the streets of Edinburgh, check out Sandeman tours—my guide was wonderful!

An old shoe shop x-ray machine at the National
Museum of Scotland

4. The worrying way shoe shops gave workers radiation sickness

The National Museum of Scotland is one of the best museums I’ve visited in Europe. Their collection is impressive and engaging enough that you could spend a few hours there, but it's well-organized enough that a short visit can be satisfying too.

I came to see Dolly the sheep (the first animal to be cloned), but I was also fascinated by an unexpected fun fact: shoe shops used to own small x-ray machines that would scan your feet to check how your shoes fit. They were the norm from the 1920s to 1970s, until shops realized their sales associates were being exposed to unacceptable levels of radiation.

For more stories about scientific history, visit the National Museum of Scotland.

5. The unlikely life of Maggie Dickson

Maggie Dickson's pub, where I went for
dinner on my second night in Edinburgh
In 1723, an Edinburgh fish hawker named Maggie Dickson stayed at an inn south of the city whilst traveling. She lived there for a while, working in exchange for her lodgings, and during this time she became pregnant out of wedlock. Worried for her job and her future, she concealed her pregnancy, leading to a miscarriage. 

This was illegal at the time, and when she was discovered, she was arrested under the 1690 Concealment of Pregnancy Act. She was sentenced to hang from the gallows, a sentence she served on 2 September 1724 in the Grassmarket Edinburgh, a town square where public hangings often took place. 

She was pronounced dead, but as her body was being transported for burial, she jolted back to life—it turns out the rope was too short and had merely suffocated her until she lost consciousness. But since Edinburgh at the time believed in literally following the letter of the law, she had served her sentence—which was, after all, simply to “hang from the gallows.”

She was forgiven in the eyes of society and of God, and she lived the rest of her life in a flat overlooking the Grassmarket, from which she was known to shout encouragement at hanging victims. And from that time forward, Scottish courts always sentenced convicts to “hang from the gallows until death.” 

To learn more about this death-defying woman, visit Maggie Dickson’s Pub, located just underneath Maggie Dickson’s old home.


To learn more about the stories of Scotland, I highly recommend visiting yourself. For advice on how to do so cheaply, check out my friend’s post on how she spent a weekend in Edinburgh for less than $250! And if you have any favorite stories from Scotland, share them with us in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. You've been seeing such interesting things! The gallows story reminds me of a cemetery we just visited in Havana. Apparently a mother died in childbirth--the child dying also. They were buried side-by-side together. When the bodies were exhumed, the baby was lying across the mother's arms with the arm across the baby. This has become a shrine now where mothers come to ask for protection for their children.

    Oh, and by the way, there were x-ray machines in all the shoe stores in the US (or most at least) when I was a child. It was part of the shoe-buying experience to test whether the shoes fit before buying them.

    :) Glad you are having such a great time.


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