During the Salem witch trials in the late 17th century, over 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft. Nineteen were found guilty and executed. Scotland killed between 3,000 and 4,000, who were accused in a period of about 150 years beginning in the mid 16th century. I heard these contrasting facts repeated more than once while touring Scotland’s capital city.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible could certainly bear some responsibility for the popularity of Salem’s story, but Edinburgh has plenty of ways to remind visitors of its own dark history. History buffs and modern practitioners alike can create their own witch-centric visit to Edinburgh. Local guides offer walking tours that range from the macabre to Harry Potter (which J.K. Rowling first wrote in Edinburgh).
Several shops offer bits of bell, book, and candle for souvenir or...something more serious. And, of course, there are even Edinburgh Festival Fringe shows that share in the occult.
One of our first stops was The Witchery, a boutique hotel and restaurant at the top of the Royal Mile just outside of the Edinburgh Castle gates. Nestled in a row of buildings that date back to 1595, The Witchery is named so because of its proximity to the castle’s esplanade where over 300 accused witches were strangled then burned at the stake—more there than anywhere else in Scotland. Other than a giant wooden bust of a demon standing in a window and a portrait of Anne Boleyn, the restaurant doesn’t really hit you over the head with witch stuff. But the dimly-lit room, with all its dark wood, deep reds and leather, and iron details certainly makes for a gothic and somber atmosphere.
We enjoyed an excellent 2-course lunch that was both luxury and local. We started with ham hock terrine and smoked salmon, followed by main courses of fish pie and chargrilled beef rump. Perfect hearty fare for a cool, rainy day. And, of course, there were whiskey cocktails. (Scotland’s whiskey heritage goes well with its witch heritage. More on that later.)
After coffee, we peeked at The Witchery’s second dining room, The Secret Garden, which, with its courtyard glass enclosure and draping florals, did not seem nearly as spooky as the main dining room.
Leaving the restaurant, we crossed the cobblestone street to pay a visit to the Witches’ Well, a drinking fountain (which no longer works) commissioned in 1894 by Sir Patrick Geddes, a biologist, urban planner, and philanthropist who wanted to pay homage to the many women killed at Edinburgh Castle.
The bronze relief was designed by artist John Duncan and features a Foxglove plant and the head of a serpent intertwined with the heads of Aesculapius, the god of medicine, and his daughter Hygeia, the goddess of health. The inscription reads: “This fountain, designed by John Duncan, R.S.A. is near the site on which many witches were burned at the stake. The wicked head and serene head signify that some used their exceptional knowledge for evil purposes while others were misunderstood and wished their kind nothing but good. The serpent has the dual significance of evil and wisdom. The foxglove spray further emphasises the dual purpose of many common objects.”
After lunch, I continued walking on my own and found myself, accidentally, on Victoria Street. Although it’s never been officially stated by author J.K. Rowling, this gently curving street lined with colorful shops is said to have inspired Diagon Alley, the wizard market street in the Harry Potter series. Victoria Street even has a retailer of officially licensed Harry Potter merch, called Museum Context. It’s in a shop that used to be a brush shop and supposes that the shelves of boxed brushes might have inspired the stacks of boxed wands in Ollivander’s.
Right across the street from Museum Context is The Cadies and Witchery Tours, which has sundry witchy items for sale, but also runs several ghost and graveyard walking tours. It’s main claim to fame, however, is the William Burke Museum. The museum is really just a glass showcase sitting atop the counter that houses a small card wallet…made from the skin of 19th century serial killer William Burke. Creepy.
Not far from Victoria Street is Greyfriars Kirkyard. A stroll through this famous cemetery (read about Greyfriars Bobby here) will cross paths with several walking tours. I overheard several stories of ghost in the crypts, as well as more Harry Potter lore, including a peek at the school beyond the gates that may have inspired the Hogwarts dorms and the gravestones that may have lent names to its teachers.
Having spent one of my first days in Edinburgh roaming the streets and getting just a taste of the witchery in its past, we thought it might be worth checking if Fringe (that’s why we’re here, after all!) had any witch content on offer.
A simple search of the word “witch” returns 26 shows. A couple of Playbill staffers decided to see Tim Murray Is Witches, a tribute to the pop-culture witches from Wicked, Hocus Pocus, and more that aided his self-discovery. Our editor in chief chose to take The Terror Tour, a walking tour through Old Town that explores the underground vaults where you will even see the pagan stone circle from a witch’s coven.
For reasons I believe many people would understand, I chose Whisky & Witches Presents Mythical Beasts: An Immersive, Mystical, Musical Whisky Tasting. That’s right. Whiskey, witches, and music.
Conceived by whiskey aficionado Jane Ross and composer, singer, and musicologist Christine Kammerer, Whisky & Witches is part concert, part whiskey tasting, with lots of fun facts tossed about. The show is performed by the two women at Ross’s bar on Leith Walk, The Mother Superior. Ross has organized several whiskey tastings in her career, some paired with cigars, others paired with food. But it was when she and Kammerer were accused of “cackling like witches” one night at the bar that turned on the lightbulb to devise this particular show.
There have been a few iterations of Whisky & Witches, but for this Fringe series, Ross is walking audiences through Spiritfilled’s Mythical Beasts line of whiskeys. Spiritfilled is an independent bottler—they don’t actually distill whiskeys, but rather purchases casks from other makers then bottle and package the whiskeys themselves, resulting in an incredibly unique and rare offering. For this tasting, Ross introduced five different whiskeys, only one of which is even still available for sale. It really added to the experience, knowing that as soon as the dram was gone, you could probably never have another sip. How remarkably exclusive.
Each bottle is introduced by the mythical beast on its packaging (Nyami Nyami, Dryad, Qilin, and The Water Horse) and the region and distillery the cask came from. Kammerer and Ross go back and forth sharing mythologies and whiskey facts, creating an interesting program of storytelling and education.
Then to the actual tasting. Ross describes her whiskeys with imagery instead of tasting notes. Where someone else might ask you to notice hints of berries on the back palate, Ross instead might ask you to imagine you are have walked into a leather shop so thick with the smell of hide that you can taste it. And just as you settle into a chair by a smoky fire, you unwrap a Werther’s Original and pop it into your mouth. “That’s what that whiskey tastes like,” she says after each description. She was right.
After each first sip of each whiskey, the show is turned over to Kammerer, who then performs a song or two inspired by the mythical beast on each of the bottle’s packaging. An engaging storyteller, it’s really the rich tones of Kammerer’s singing voice that steal the show. Ross teases that the composer will often send her messages while “sitting under a tree” and it’s very easy to imagine her singing in an ancient wood, her voice drifting far into the past. We are treated to both original compositions and folksongs in six languages: English, Gaelic, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, and one she made up.
Though I learned a lot of mythology and a lot about Scottish whiskeys, my favorite facts actually had to do with show’s title. Ross and Kammerer share the fascinating history of women brewmasters and the male brewers who accused them of witchcraft to drive them out of the market. (Read more here.)
All in all, Whisky & Witches was a delightful two hours spent with Ross and Kammerer, discussing powerful women and their connections to spirits, both ethereal and alcoholic. Get tickets here.
Between the tours and tastings, one thing's for sure, Edinburgh weaves a fascinating spell.