This thread was originally written and published in May 2022. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
A tweet that had me stumped (ho! ho! ho!) for a bit as it’s not in the books – why does an old mirror now residing in London have a small plaque stating that it was “Made from the timber of the witches tree, which grew on the bank of the Nor’ Loch, Edinburgh“. Some digging around in other places has thrown up a few answers!
The “Witches Tree” was an ancient plane tree that grew on the south shore of the city’s stinking swamp that was called the Nor’ Loch, “in the shadow of the Castle Rock“.
We best be clear here that in Scotland a “Plane tree” is usually a Sycamore, and not a London Plane (which is a Sycamore hybrid). Alexander Nasmyth’s beautifully romantic painting of the loch and castle in 1824 is drowning in artistic licence, but shows us where the Witches Tree was, somewhere on the back there beyond the figures in the foreground.
There’s a good chance this is the Witches Tree, shown in an 1820 engraving “General view of the old town from Princes Street” by an unknown artist in the collection of Edinburgh City Libraries.
We can work this out as it is described as having been cut down at some point in the 1880s to make way for the gardens greenhouses – themselves cleared in the 1890s to double the width of the railway. This puts the tree in the then Ramsay Gardens
Ramsay Gardens were the gardens on the slope below the “Goose Pie House” built by poet Allan Ramsay in around 1740., the name came as a result of the buildings tall, pie-like octagonal main block.
Sycamore trees can live a few hundred years, the oldest are thought to be about 400 years. So in the 1880s when it was cut down, the Witches Tree could possibly date back to the 16th century, and witches were still being tried and executed in Scotland into the 18th century. John Slezer’s sketch of 1673 does indeed show a few mature trees growing down the boundary wall towards the loch.
There’s an 1884 photo by Alexander Inglis that happens to be taken in exactly the right position, looking exactly the right way – the flat ground behind the railway signal pole is where the greenhouses were built. Lo and behold! There’s a big old tree there. Is that the Witches Tree?
Of the tree itself, an 1898 article in The Scotsman describes it.
The Witches Tree it came to be named, for to it were bound the poor doomed crones who had to undergo their cruel ordeal by water, which if they survived, ended in their death by fire. So that plane must have seen many a helpless, aged woman persecuted to death by a dastardly mob. To the Witches Tree were also nailed proclamations and some say prisoners awaiting execution of sentence were fastened to the sycamore by a nail through the earDescription of the Witches Tree
When the tree was cut down, the huge trunk was left near where it fell for a number of years before it was bought by William S. Brown, a local cabinetmaker “unwilling to let this landmark… pass out of recollection“. Brown used the wood to make a variety of furniture which he gave to friends, with each having a little plaque explaining the heritage. Many of the items were “cutty stools” (short stool) – a traditional 3-legged stool often used for milking, or women to sit in church.
In popular lore, a Cutty Stool thrown by Jenny Geddes in 1637 at the minister trying to preach from the book of Common Prayer started a riot in St. Giles cathedral which would eventually lead to the Bishop’s War and the “English” Civil War. She is alleged to have yelled “De’il gie you colic, the wame o’ ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in my lug?” during this act.
Brown’s workmen allegedly pulled lots of ancient nails from the tree and after blunting a number of saws, found a set of Branks within it – also known as a Scold’s Bridle. The branks were a common form of kirk punishment meted out to unfortunate women in the 16th and 17th century.
It was supposed that the branks were the long lost property of St. Cuthbert’s or the West Kirk, in whose demise the tree once stood.
The Scotsman further records the donation of one of the stools in 1913 to the Edinburgh Corporation Museum by a Mrs Stirton of Braidburn Terrace and in 1914 a section of the tree itself by W. S. Brown, by then Sir William. Brown himself was recorded as a cabinet maker at 28 Howe Street and Broughton Market in 1877, when he supplied all the furniture under contract to the Craiglockhart Hydropathic Establishment. He participated in the 1884 Forestry International Exhibition in Edinburgh, his display including a a dining suite made from ancient Caledonian oak tree.
In 1885 Brown won the contract to supply all of the furniture to the extension of the City Fever Hospital at Greenbank and relocated to Hanover Street the same year. By 1899 the business was at 65 George Street, and remained there until at least 1911.
The whole Witches Tree story may however have a revealing clue that casts doubt on its authenticity – that is that the most recent opinion is that witches in Scotland were neither drowned as execution or “swimmed” to determine their guilt. Drowning and “dooking” were used for civil capital and corporate punishment, but not for witchcraft. The whole thing may be an ancient local legend or something that was made up by Victorian romanticists to publicise a furniture manufacturer…
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