The thread about the half-forgotten pile of stones in Holyrood Park, the tragic tale that it commemorates and why it should be improved

It’s fairly well known just how few statues there are in Edinburgh of named women (2! Helen Crummy at Craigmillar and Queen Victoria in Leith). My attempt at an A-Z of city places named after women further highlighted to me just how few there are commemorated in street names – and of those few, many were done so by men of property for reasons of their own.

But there is a place that’s not that so well kenned about that has present-day relevance and is always worth thinking of when we consider how this city commemorates women. Attempts have been made to try and tell this back story and raise it’s profile, but statues and streetnames for sportsmen seem to capture the local attention much more readily. The place of which I write of is Muschet’s Cairn.

Muschat’s Cairn, Edinburgh
Muschet’s Cairn, photo embedded from the Flickr of David M. Gray
Muschat’s Cairn. “Spyglass” of 1945 OS Town Plan overlaid on modern aerial photography.

The cairn is unusual in that not only does it commemorate a woman, but it commemorates a woman who was the victim of male violence; Margaret Hall (also known as Ailie) was murdered by her husband – Nicol Muschet of Boghall – near this spot on the night of October 17th 1720.

n.b. What follows is a hard story to tell from the victim’s point of view. It was well covered in the sensationalist press at the time, but this was based on the letters and confessions of the perpetrators as they sought to absolve themselves and explain away their crimes. There was nobody to give a voice to the victim, there’s no victim impact statement from Margaret Hall’s family. Because of this, and because it was not the practice at the time for Scottish women to take the surnames names of their husbands; I will refer to the victim as Margaret Hall throughout this post and not of her as Mrs. Muschet. I have also sought to find out and share as much as I can about the short life of the victim, about whom very little is known beyond her husband’s attempts at character assasination.

Margaret Hall was born in Edinburgh on May 16th 1703 to Isobell Straitton and her husband Adam Hall, a burgess and spirit merchant. Her birth registration in the old parish register is the only official record of her I can find. She was married by an Epicscopal minister therefore may have been buried by the same, therefore would not have left a parish record.

Parish birth register entry for Margaret Hall.

Nicol Muschet was born around 1695 at Boghall in Kincardine Parish, near Menteith in Stirlingshire, to Jean or Janet Henderson and her husband Robert Muschet, a schoolmaster. His mother raised him “in the true Presbyterian Principles of Religion” which the young Nicol complied with but confessed to finding overbearing. His father died young and he took the Laird’s title “of Boghall” aged 15.

The entrance to Boghall farm as it is today
The entrance to Boghall farm as it is today

Sufficient money was left that after grammar school he went to study medicine in Edinburgh, far from his pious and strict mother’s watchful eye. Unleashed, he is described as being prodigal and consorting with company “without ever consulting God or eyeing his Glory.” Aged 21, he completed his studies in Edinburgh and was apprenticed to Thomas Napier, a surgeon in Alloa. Alloa however was not Edinburgh; with not much medical practice doing, few opportunities for advancement and only “walking, talking, idle discourse, reading…” to while away the hours, the profligate Muschet instead turned to drinking and abandoned his master and craft.

He returned to Boghall to live the life of a country squire with his mother. But Muschet found rural life equally boring and within a few weeks the draw of Edinburgh proved to much and upon reading of a notice of a public dissection in the city, he returned to it in August 1719, now aged 24.

On his first night back in the city, Muschet was promenading on the Castle Hill as was the fashion in Old Town Edinburgh, and came upon the house of Margaret Hall and her father Adam. Recognising one of the maids from when he had been a student he struck up a converstion. The two rekindled their acquaintance over “a chopin of ale” and when Margaret Hall had the misfortune to join them her servant retired, leaving her with Muschet. Margaret was 8 years Muschet’s junior, being just 16.

The Castle Hill. A 1900 painting by artist unknown. © Edinburgh City Libraries
The Castle Hill. A 1900 painting by artist unknown. © Edinburgh City Libraries

The pair became acquainted that evening and she helped to arrange him lodgings in a good house with which she was on friendly terms. She said she would call on him once he was settled and was true to her word. Muschet – whom Walter Scott termed “a debauched and profligate wretch” would later claim that Margaret had made relentless designs on him and “to [his] sad and lamentable loss, she made me too many visites“. Other witnesses – including his own mother – countered this version of events and only 3 weeks later Muschet formally asked Adam Hall for her hand in marriage.

Adam Hall agreed, although noted his daughter was “not yet fully educate for marriage“. As far as Hall would have been concerned, Muschet had prospects to offer for his daughter; a small country estate, a modicum of independent wealth and he had settled down to work in the “shop” of the surgeon Mr Gibb. And so it was that on Saturday 5th September 1719, Nicol Muschet and Margaret Hall were married in the house of John Galloway, tailor, in Peebles Wynd by the Episcopal Reverend Robert Bowers – not according to the terms of the Presbyterian Church in which he was raised. Muschet would later repent that he had celebrated his marriage “in such a Manner as corroborated and approved of the sinful Superstitions of the Church of England, contrary to my Baptismal and National Vows and, I must acknowledge, to the Light of my Conscience also.”

The Black Turnpike at the head of Peebles Wynd in 1819 by James Skene, little changed since 100 years previously when Muschet and Hall married here. © Edinburgh City Libraries
The Black Turnpike at the head of Peebles Wynd in 1819 by James Skene, little changed since 100 years previously when Muschet and Hall married here. © Edinburgh City Libraries

After lodging with Adam Hall, the newly weds moved to their own lodgings in St. Mary’s Wynd. However Muschet soon “tired of her” and also of the goldsmith who was chasing payment for certain items of jewellery he had procured for Margaret. Muschet set upon a course to “improve himself abroad“; he intended to desert his wife and his creditors.

And that could have been that if the greedy and dishonest Muschet hadn’t decided to first “defraud his wife of her legal aliment from his estate”; he would first divorce her so she had no recourse to his inherited wealth. Muschet began to conspire with an acquaintance – James Campbell of Burnbank, the store keeper at Edinburgh Castle – over how he could achieve his ends. Burnbank was every bit the reprobate that Muschet was; “a noted gambler and libertine, [he] was well known to all the reprobates in Edinburgh by the familiar sobriquet of ‘Bankie’.”

There appears to have been some old family debt between Bankie and Muschet that the former used as leverage over the latter and Muschet arranged to pay Bankie £50 (900 Merks in old Scottish currency) if he would procure sufficient (fabricated) evidence against Margaret that he could arrange a divorce from her. The two men made and signed a formal deed for this.

Be it kend till all men by thir present letters, me, James Campbell, Ordnance Storekeeper at Edinburgh Castle : Forasmuch as Nicol Muschet of Boghall is debtor to me in three years rent of his lands, viz. cropt ninety-five, and precedings, and that I have transacted the same for nine hundred merks, Scots money, for which there is bill granted me. Therefore, I hereby declare I am not to demand payment of the said sum untill a legal offer be made him of my discharge of all I can claim of him, and give him up, oi’ offer so to do, all his papers on oath : As also, of two legal depositions, or affidavits of two witnesses, of the whorish practices of Margaret Hall, daughter to Adam Hall, merchant in Edinburgh, and three months thereafter. In witness whereof, I have written, with my own hand, on stamped paper, thir presents, at Edinburgh, the twenty-eighth day of November, one thousand seven hundred and nineteen years.

The signed bond between Muschet and Bankie.

The pair tried to trick Margaret into breaking her marriage bond by faking a letter from Muschet that he had ridden to London, never to return, and to improve the deception they had it posted to her from Newbattle in Midlothian, on the road to London. Muschet instead was lying low in the Debtors Sanctuary at Holyrood. The plan however backfired as Margaret resolved to visit her mother-in-law in the countryside at Boghall instead. It took all Bankie’s cunning and powers of deception to dissuade her form this course. He went as far as hiring a writer (Scots, a Lawyer) to draft a fake warrant for her arrest on charges of theft, to pursue her as far as Linlithgow and burst into her lodgings at night intent on arrest. At the perfect moment, Bankie conveniently appeared as her good Samaritan and arranged to bail her in Edinburgh. With this, they coerced Margaret back to Edinburgh and away from the safety of her Mother in Law.

Margaret however was obviously concerned that not all was what it seemed with her erstwhile saviour and managed to escape the virtual house arrest that Bankie had placed her under. She stole away to Boghall by horse a few days later. Again he used letters of coercion and false promises to draw her back to Edinburgh.

It was clear to Muschet and Bankie that their first plan to gain a divorce was never going to work. So the two of the upped the stakes and determined that they should instead embark on a course that we would now call “date rape” against the hapless Margaret to forcibly break her marriage vows.

The Canongate looking towards the Abbey Sanctuary, by James Skene 1820. © Edinburgh City Libraries
The Canongate looking towards the Abbey Sanctuary, by James Skene 1820. © Edinburgh City Libraries

They arranged that Margaret lodged in the Abbey Sanctuary when she returned from Boghall and “on a Monday night in December” they compelled her to drink a punch of Brandy and sugar that was laced with Laudanum, which rendered her unconscious. An acquaintance of Bankie – John MacGregory – was procured to take advantage of Margaret. However this scheme collapsed at the last minute when they found out from their dishonourable Writer that it would not be sufficient grounds for divorce “unless we could Evidence a Tract of Conversation betwixt MacGregory and her either before or after the fact“.

Muschet and Bankie now altered this plan. They acquainted Margaret with James Muschet, probbly a cousin of Nicol, and his wife Grizel Bell. James and Grizel were in “reduced circumstances” and in return for money from Muschet they agreed to a schemer where they would get Margaret drunk when MacGregory was in the house and force a seduction upon her. However despite repeated attempts, Margaret kept her virtue and Muschet, tiring of the constant demand for expenses from James and Grizel gave up on this plan too.

Muschet – claiming he was led to it by Bankie – now set upon the ultimate course of action and resolve to have his wife murdered. But they had to get away with it, so decided to pay James and Grizel to poison Margaret. They settled on “Corrosive sublimate” – Mercury Dichloride, a highly poisonous substance used in the 18th century as an insecticide and treatment for syphilis. The first attempt was administered to Margaret in a dram mixed with sugar, it made her violently ill “so that life was not expected for her” but she survived.

They tried again, again she was ill, but again she was not killed. They next tried the same mixed with nutmeg in a punch but still Margaret clung to life. Grizel now tried, mixing the poison with warm ale and giving it to Margaret. Again she was sick, yet again she refused to die. They even poisoned the cordials administered to her in her sick bed, this time Muschet himself administering them to his poor wife, but despite causing Margaret immense torment and sickness, they were unable to kill her.

Giving up, the plotters allowed Margaret to recover sufficiently that they could try to kill her again. The next scheme was that James and Grizel would take Margaret to Leith for a day of drinking, and on their way home she would be drowned in a pond, quite probably one of the Quarryholes on the road between Edinburgh and Leith. James however refused to go along with this scheme. Various other schemes were discussed; she would be pushed from her horse when fording a river near Kirkliston; she would be hit across the head and her body dumped in one of the Quarryholes outside the Town. Nothing came of these and it seems that Muschet and Bankie now fell out with each other.

In the New Year of 1720, the plotters finally agreed on the scheme of a fatal head injury, and it was agreed that James and Grizel would be paid 20 Guineas to undertake it in Dickson’s Close were Muschet and Margaret were by now lodging. Grizel’s part was to invite Margaret to their house and entertain her with “meat and drink” until the late hours before sending her home on a final journey where James would attack her within site of her own door. A hammer was procured for the deed and James made for it a wooden handle; the head could be thrown into the Nor’ Loch and the handle burned to destroy the evidence after the fact.

Dickson's Close, an 1879 sketch, but hardly changed from 150 years previous. James Drummond. © Edinburgh City Libraries
Dickson’s Close, an 1879 sketch, but hardly changed from 150 years previous. James Drummond. © Edinburgh City Libraries

However, Old Town Edinburgh was a busy place and despite multiple attempts, they were never able to complete the scheme as Dickson’s Close was always too busy with witnesses to attack Margaret. The year wore on without the incompetent assassins being able to kill Margaret. Eventually, Muschet resolved to bring matters to a fatal conclusion by himself.

On the morning of October 17th 1720, Nicol Muschet stole a knife from is landlady. After a day of wining and dining with James and Grizel, they sent for Margaret to summon her to to join them. Margaret duly arrived and Muschet implored her to ask no questions and instead join him on a night time walk to Duddingston Kirk. They walked- reportedly in silence – down the Canongate, past the Palace of Holyrood House and its ghostly Abbey and into the King’s Park.

Holyrood Abbey at night by Alexander Campbell. Late 18th Century, CC-By-NC National Galleries Scotland
Holyrood Abbey at night in the moonlight by Alexander Campbell. Late 18th Century, CC-By-NC National Galleries Scotland

On that fateful evening and on a spot near the cairn, Nicol Muschet murdered his innocent wife, who he had tormented for the entirety of their short marriage. By his own confession, after having fatally attacked her and left her for dead, he returned with the knife to make sure of it. The next morning, Margaret was found with her throat cut and “many other wounds received in her dying struggle“. There were signs that she had fought to defend herself, from her wounds, from the hair of a man in her hands and from Muschet’s own confession. At the scene, a man’s silk sleeve was found ripped off, embroidered on it the letter “N”.

Muschet had fled first to consult with Grizel and then on to Leith where he reportedly spent the next day with a sailor, one can assume he was making arrangements for flight. He returned to the city by arrangement to consult with Grizel, but found the noose was tightening around him, despite Grizel’s assurances he found that his own landlady had been taken to the city guardhouse for questioning. Over the next 3 days he stayed in Leith but made repeated low-key visits to the city to consult with lawyers and acquaintances about his best course of action to try and avoid justice for his crimes.

The Old Guard House of Edinburgh, what amounted to a police station in the 18th century city. By James Skene, 1827. © Edinburgh City Libraries
The Old Guard House of Edinburgh, what amounted to a police station in the 18th century city. By James Skene, 1827. © Edinburgh City Libraries

Grizel tired of Muschet however, she was not now going to get her 20 guineas and perhaps fearing for her own neck decided to tip off the authorities about the whereabouts of Muschet and assisted in his capture by setting up a social occasion where he would feel safe and could be apprehended. He was immediately arrested and taken to the Tolbooth – the civic building that functioned as a court and jailhouse – for questioning.

Hall of the Old Tolbooth, c. 1795 by William Clark. © Edinburgh City Libraries
“Hall of the Old Tolbooth”, c. 1795 by William Clark. © Edinburgh City Libraries

Muschet at first denied everything, but when presented with the full facts of his crimes and the detail of his gruesome assault on his wife and her injuries, he confessed his guilt “and signed a deceleration to that effect”. He also did not give up his accomplices at this point.

Confined within the Tolbooth, the cowardly Muschet wrote to his mother for her forgiveness and support. Lady Boghall was having none of it and urged him to confess and repent, coneming any attempt that would be made in his defence. She left Muschet to his fate and upon God’s Mercy, urging him to seek divine forgiveness. The details of her reply are well known as they were reprinted in a sensationalist broadside.

Broadside showing a letter from Lady Boghall to Nicol Mushe Printed 1720. See the full letter at The Word on the Street

Abandone by his mother to God, he went to trial on 28th November.

The judges present were Lords Royston, Polton, Pencaitland, Dun and Newhall; the Solicitor-General (Walter Stewart) and John Sinclair, advocate-depute, with Duncan Forbes and Andrew Lauder, appeared for the Crown. The libel having been read, the pannel craved the Court to appoint counsel for his defence, and John Horn, John Elphinston, and Charles Erskine were accordingly empowered to plead for him.

“Nicol Muschet: His Crime and Cairn, from “The Riddle of the Ruthvens”

Having signed his own confession, and entering no defence, he was found on December 5th and sentenced to death on the 8th. The cheap press had a sensational time, and various letters, broadsides and confessions were printed. I will not reproduce them here as they lend a voice to the murderer and tormentor of Margaret Hall, something he took from her the ability to do.

Muschet was hung from the scaffold in the Grassmarket on the afternoon of 6th January 1721, between the house of 2 and 4 O’ Clock in the afternoon.

The gibbet in the Grassmarket, James Skene, 1827. © Edinburgh City Libraries
The gibbet in the Grassmarket, James Skene, 1827. © Edinburgh City Libraries

His body was then taken down, the hand with which he murdered his wife was cut off and his corpse hung from the gibbet at the Gallowlee (near to present day Shrubhill on Leith Walk).

The Gibbet, Sir John Gilbert. 1878 Philip V. Allingham.

That was not quite the final end for Muschet’s body however; a Grassmarket butcher called Nicol Brown gained notoriety for reputedly eating a pound of flesh cut from the rotting corpse of Muschet on the gibbet in a drunken bet. In 1753 Nicol Brown was tried and convicted for the muder of his wife and was hung from the same scaffold until dead and his body hung from the same gibbet afterwards. His trade incorporation, shamed by his actions, but his body down and tossed it into the Quarryholes.

Grizel and James escaped justice by turning King’s Evidence against Bankie, who was tried for the Scots crime of “art and part” (aiding and abetting), found guilty and transported for life to the West Indies as a plantation slave, although not before spending at least 5 years in captivity in Edinburgh Castle. He would later write an “Elegy on the Mounful Banishment of James Campbell of Burnbank to the West Indies” by way of an explanation and to deflect blame from himself; I will not repeat it here as it gives a defending voice to his crimes which his victim would never get.

Margaret’s body was carried to the Abbey Sanctuary after it was discovered, but after that we do not know where she was buried, but there was a public outpouring of grief for her fate. An anonymous Elegy was puplished and circulated to her in the City.

An Elegy on the deplorable Death of Margaret Hall, barbarously murdered by her Husband.

The people of Edinburgh “to mark their horror of the event, in the old Scottish fashion raised a cairn on the spot where the murder was perpetrated” .

A cairn remains to this day near the spot, although it is not the original. The cairn was initially removed in 1789 when the Duke’s Walk footpath was widened on the instructions of Lord Adam Gordon, the Governor of Edinburgh Castle and Commander-in-Chief Scotland and primary resident of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It was restored in 1823 using stones from an old wall which was moved ahead of the visit of George IV in 1822 to again widen the road.

Muschet's Cairn. CC-Ajsinclair
Muschet’s Cairn. CC-Alsinclair

The reason it was restored is probably the romantic influence of Walter Scott – all pervading in Scotland at the time – who wrote of the cairn as a moonlit meeting place in his Heart of Midlothian novel; the Deans family cottage being on the other side of the park at St. Leonards.

So if you are passing, it’s worth taking a moment to pause, to consider the otherwise anonymous pile of stones, marked only with the family name of the victim’s murderous husband. Perhaps the cairn needs something by way of a board or plaque to better explain what it is and why it was there, and who it commemorates. It is named Muschet’s Cairn, but it commemorates Margaret Hall and not her murderer, should it not be Margaret’s Cairn?

This country is very good at dignified public memorials. But a rather forgotten about and anonymous pile of rocks in the corner of a park is not one of them. This was 1720 and even though so much has changed since then, in many ways not a lot has.

If you have found this useful, informative or amusing and would like to help contribute towards the running costs of this site (including keeping it ad-free) or to the book-buying budget, why not consider supporting me on ko-fi.


These threads © 2017-2022, Andy Arthur

4 comments

  1. I don’t know if I’m alone in shuddering at the letter from his mother. May I just say how much I have enjoyed reading this website recently. It’s a valuable resource and it’s hugely generous to put it all online. It’s rather inexplicable, in fact, why it isn’t woven into a published book.

    Best wishes to you, Tychy.

    Like

    • Thank you, I’m really glad to find it is a useful and interesting resource – and part of my effort in converting everything from long lost threads of tweets to proper posts is to help assemble everything I’ve written into what might one day be the draft of a book.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s