The thread about the Eight Day of Christmas; who were the Maids of the Maiden Castle?

This thread was originally written and published in December 2019. It has been edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

This part in the Edinburgh and Leith themed Twelve Days of Christmas thread is preceded by a post about Swanston.

On the eight day of Christmas, my true love gave to me; the Maiden. This, perhaps surprisingly, is the first documented name applied to Edinburgh Castle, in a Charter of King David I in 1142; Castellum Puellarum – the Castle of Maidens. It was not until a century later in the time of King Alexander III, 1265, that it is referred to as Castrum de Edynburgh or Castle of Edinburgh. The oldest remaining structure in the castle, St. Margaret’s Chapel, was built in David I’s time in the middle of the 12th century.

St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest structure in Edinburgh Castle and the city itself. 1890 photograph by Alexander Adam Inglis. © Edinburgh City Libraries

No clear explanation exists for the Maiden reference. There are a number of Maiden Castles in England, all except one of which are Iron Age hill forts. This might be a descriptive tame for a “fortification that looks impregnable” or a euphemism implying that it has never been taken in battle. It may also be the evolution of a Brythyonic language term Mai Dun, meaning a “great hill”. Stuart Harris, the man who wrote the book on Edinburgh place names, discounts this theory for Edinburgh; “there is nothing whatsoever to suggests that this was a translation of some[thing] earlier“. He points out that the original references is the Latin – Puellarum – which was translated in the 13th century to its English and French equivalents – Maidens and Pucelles.

Some of the more improbable tales include an early 14th century reference in the Chronicles of Lanercost to a community of nuns who lived here in the 6th century under the Irish Saint Moninne or Modwenna, before being ejected, or to it being a safekeeping place for Pictish princesses. More likely is that it was a romantic term taken from Arthurian legend, one that may have been applied by David I himself. In Arthurian lore, the Land, Island or Castle of Maidens, is a place visited by a man in his dreams where only women live.

“Galahad at the Castle of Maidens”, by Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911)

In the 12th century, the Welsh chronicler Geoffrey de Monmouth – who was one of the prominent figures in popularising the Cult of Arthur at the time – wrote in his History of the the Kings of Britain of the Castellum Puellarum as “facing Albany” i.e. looking towards the Lands of the Picts and Scots. At this time, these would have been north across the Forth from Edinburgh. He is also credited with the invention of the Duke of Loth – husband to a sister of Arthur – and from where Lothian takes its name. Geoffrey de Monmouth’s chief patron was a nephew of David I and it is probable that David had met him. The sixteenth century Scottish historian and intellectual George Buchanan and the 20th century Arthurian scholar Roger Sherman Loomis both lend credence to this theory.

In Edinburgh lore, the term Maiden also has a much more grisly connotation; it was an early modern device of public execution, a form of guillotine.

The Maiden, 1823 sketch by James Skene. © Edinburgh City Libraries
The Maiden, 1823 sketch by James Skene. © Edinburgh City Libraries

The Maiden was introduced to Edinburgh in 1564 to replace the town’s sword, which was worn out and needed replaced. The Provost and Magistrates of Edinburgh ordered its construction by the carpenters Adam and Patrick Schang and George Tod. The whole contraption could be disassembled for storage, only being moved to the point of execution and erected as required. It was returned afterwards, and this is referred to in the town records as “careying of the Maiden ther and hame agin”.

The Scottish machine is made of oak and consists of a sole beam 5 feet in length into which are fixed two upright posts 10 feet in height, 4 inches broad and 12 inches apart from each other, and 3½ inches in thickness, with bevelled corners. These posts are kept steady by a brace at each side which springs from the end of the sole and is fastened to the uprights 4 feet from the bottom. The tops of the posts are fixed into a cross rail 2 feet in length. The block is a transverse bar 3¼ feet from the bottom, 8 inches in breadth and 4½ inches in thickness, and a hollow on the upper edge of this bar is filled with lead…

The axe consists of a plate of iron faced with steel; it measures 13 inches in length and 10½ inches in breadth. On the upper edge of the plate was fixed a mass of lead 75 lbs in weight. This blade works in grooves cut on the inner edges of the uprights, which are lined with copper…

Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland, Vol.III, 1886-8

Notable victims of the Maiden include James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, one time Regent of Scotland and the man reputed to have introduced its concept to the country, Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquess of Argyll and his son Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll. The Maiden was last used in 1716 to execute John Hamilton at the Mercat Cross for the murder of the landlord of a tavern during a brawl. It was again taken down and carried hame agin but was thereafter forgotten about. The original was rediscovered over a century later and is now on display in the National Museum of Scotland.

The Maiden on display at the National Museum of Scotland. CC-by-SA 3.0 Kim Traynor
The Maiden on display at the National Museum of Scotland. CC-by-SA 3.0 Kim Traynor

The Edinburgh and Leith-themed twelve days of Christmas thread continues with a post about Lady Fife, her house, well and “brae”

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur


  1. In the final stages of Cornish as a community language, “d” sounds started intruding into a number of words, that weren’t there in Welsh or Breton. Revived Cornish has removed this phenomenon. Manx underwent a similar phenomenon when it came under heavy pressure from English, even though it isn’t even Brythonic.

    I suspect something similar may have occurred during the final stages of Brythonic in these parts. “Maiden” is probably a corruption of “maen” (a stone), and “puellarum” is probably a calque of “maidens”. There are a number of rocks around the Scottish and English coasts which have the name “Maiden”, including a reef just off the Isle of May. Folk etymology has probably associated them with mermaids.


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