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What a varied start to the season! Another September fieldwalk at Ian Philip's Leadketty holding turned up another two mesolithic flints. (You remember how exciting it was when just one such flint was found the previous year!). Two days earlier the first gathering held in St. Serf's in over two decades brought some of us our first real look at the building in use, and challenged us all to think of ways to make appropriate public use of St. Serf's in the future. Then in November the Society held its annual coffee morning. Each year we've tried to find a different theme and this year's 'Village Weddings' motif came from ideas-rich Albie Sinclair who also organized the many exhibits. It proved a highly popular event, and stayed open until late afternoon to accommodate villagers and visitors. The £200 raised by the event has been donated to two Scottish cancer charities, in memory of our late honorary vice-president, Dr. Malcolm Graeme. Then in November, the first talk of our winter series was given by Lady Jean Wemyss of nearby Invermay, with superb slides of their estate taken by Captain David Wemyss. A charming, informative talk, it added to the variety of events starting our fourth season as a Society. Our thanks to all the members and the others who helped and who attended these activities, which give us all a real sense of community!


This speculative piece about Dunning's most famous monument was written by freelance writer Steve McGrail and originally appeared in 'The Highlander' magazine, U.S.A., August, 1995

The old stone cross rises up, almost twenty feet high. It stands beside the road, the land behind it slipping sharply down to rolling fields. Looking at it from a distance, a visitor stranger used to Scotland might guess that it is some sort of battle memorial. Right enough, Sheriffmuir is not too far away, the nearby village of Dunning was burned by the Jacobites in 1716 and the ancient battlefield of Duncrub is close by. But the cross marks none of those.Something to do with the Covenanters, then? Again no, even though this part of Perthshire was once a hotbed of religious fervour. What, then? Seen close up, the monument quickly tells its story. Roughly painted on the stones are the chilling words 'Maggie Wall burnt here 1657 as a Witch' There is no official plaque from Historic Scotland or the National Trust. Somehow, they make it all the more moving for this is a place of sadness where a dreadful thing happened hundreds of years ago. In the name of....well, in the name of what? A woman was burned at the stake here. If she were lucky she was strangled first. If not, then she died in agony on a pyre of heat and coal doused with tar, perhaps still crying her innocence as the flames around her roared and spat. People who see the cross shudder. Some have felt the tears coming. It is a sad place indeed.

But it is a place of many mysteries too. For a start who was Maggie Wall? And when over 4,000 women were executed in Scotland for witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, why commemorate her alone? It is not because, as the Perthshire tourist map says, she was the last to be burned at the stake. She was not. There were many more.

Line drawing 9.6kb The questions come thick and fast, but not the answers. Maybe this is inevitable when so little is known about her. There are local stories, of course. It is said that the site of her cottage has even been found. Was she old, was she young? Was she an outsider, perhaps? 'Wall' is a name from Orkney, a corruption of Wallace, or from the Borders. It is common in Ireland too. But her name does not appear in the records at all, which is odd. Witch trials were often carefully recorded. Diligent clerks even put down grim details such as the cost of the peat used for the fire and the rope needed by the executioner. But there is nothing mentioned about poor Maggie. A hundred years ago, Dunning's minister actually claimed that the story was a hoax, why build a monument using such huge boulders and square cut stones? Perhaps Dr. Wilson was just plain embarrassed about what one of his predecessors must have been involved in so he decided Maggie was a myth. Someone still seems to think that the Church had blood on its hands, however. Historican Archie McKerracher in his book on Perthshire says that a wreath is left at the cairn each year, with a card saying 'In memory of Maggie Wall, Burnt by the Church in the Name of Christianity'.
Sketch by Kenny Laing

Nobody knows what her 'crime' was. Perhaps somebody's cow took sick and died and Maggie got the blame. Maybe she just knew too much for her own good about the special properties of herbs and flowers. There again, perhaps the 'Witch Pricker' was called in to look for the 'Devil's Mark' on her body, and found it. This was a patch of skin stained red, brown or blue where his three-inch blade gave no pain when he pushed it in.

The truth is blacker. Probably it has more to do with politics than spells, for Maggie Wall lived and died in troubled times. She also had the bad luck to live in an area with a terrible reputation for persecuting witches. Six more were executed in Dunning in 1663, in a wood on the other side of the village. That number is terrifying for a village of perhaps a few hundred souls. Fear and hysteria were in the air and no woman was safe.

Oliver Cromwell who was governing the country when she died had actually tried to rein back the burnings. For some reason, however, there was an outbreak in 1657 and 1658. Things calmed down but flared up again when Charles II took over in 1660. The persecution was savage. It began to seem as if certain people were making up for lost time. Maggie Wall was one more victim. But why her? It could be that her death had something to do with an event that had happened in Dunning just five years before.

Scotland was torn apart by religious passions, fiery and furious debates. People came to blows and often died for their beliefs. Some preachers were treated like stars, the crowds hanging on their every word as they called down hellfire on their rivals, or cast out devils, or denounced adulterers and lechers. It seems that Dunning had one of these, the Rev.George Muschet.

Local people might have admired their minister's preaching, but the Church authorities in Perth did not. He was upsetting their ideas of God's truth and they tried to stop him. They argued with him, they threatened him, but he ignored them. So, in 1652, a group from the Presbytery of Perth set out for Dunning to hold a Synod to discipline him. The Reverend was going to be sorted out once and for all.

They never made it. A crowd of 120 women led by the wife of the minister of Auchterarder (who was also in trouble) met the group as they tried to get into the Dunning church, St. Serf's. They set on them and attacked them with sticks. To the women, George Muschet was their pastor and that was how it was going to stay! In the riot, the brethren lost their horses, their cloaks were ripped off their backs, the Synod Clerk was held hostage and beaten 'until he foreswore his office'. Bruised and battered, they fled in disarray. Four miles outside the village they regrouped, seething with rage. There they made solemn pronouncement that 'this village should never more have a Synod kept in it but be accursed; and that although in the years 1638 and 1639 the godly women were called up for stoning the bishops, yet now the whole sex should be esteemed wicked'.

Was it this pronouncement that sealed Maggie Wall's fate? had she herself been involved in the disturbances as a leader? But now, the village was 'accursed', her sex 'wicked'. Did she become a scapegoat for what had happened, was her death someone's frightful revenge for the humiliation that was suffered? Did someone plot and brood, was a neighbour's chance remark or spiteful accusation the spark needed to light the final ghastly inferno? It is very tempting to think so.

But the trail quickly goes cold. Nothing in writing links the riot to the burning. Reverend Muschet was finally deposed and replaced by the third son of Lord Andrew Rollo, the local landowner. If that were just a coincidence, it must surely have suited somebody nicely. The former minister carried on preaching, however. When he died in 1663, his will described him very firmly as 'Preacher of God's Word'. He must still have had influence locally, at least. As he lay dying, did he think about Maggie Wall, did he see himself as at all responsible? We will never know the answer.

There is another puzzle. In the same year that Maggie died, a warlock lived in Dunning. He was described as 'Johnnie Gothrie, charmer'. As with the Reverend Muschet, the Presbytery of Perth came to try his case. He was banned from taking the Sacrament and local people were warned not to talk to him. He survived, while Maggie Wall died. Why? True enough, not many warlocks were killed as compared with witches. Even so, he was lucky. Perhaps he had influential supporters. A local story hints that she might have had one friend or at least someone who had once been an enemy but who had changed his mind, too late to save her.

This story concerns the cairn itself. There is no other memorial like it in Scotland to a witch. Only a very powerful person could have risked building it, while putting a Christian symbol on top of it was like defying the Church. Ordinary folk would not usually dare to show sympathy to a witch, dead or alive. Who knew where the accusing finger would point next? Local historian Kenny Laing thinks that it was Lord Rollo himself who ordered the monument to be built, on his estate where the burning took place. As a landowner he would have sat in judgment over Maggie. Along with others he would have signed the documents and he would have heard the minister, his own son Andrew, utter the fatal words sentencing her to death. In his bitter shame, thinks Kenny, Lord Andrew had the memorial built soon after the execution. A local legend says it was done when Lady Rollo was away, as she disapproved of the scheme. Again, there is the whiff of local politics and hints of strife among the aristocracy themselves over the affair.

Whatever the truth of this, there stands Maggie Wall's memorial to this day. But it does not give up its secrets easily. It has another. Who paints the inscription on the stones?

People in the area say they genuinely do not know, but they have their suspicions. Whoever does it, does it regularly. The tradition seems to go back a long way. A photograph taken perhaps a hundred years ago shows the lettering already there, just as it is now. The modern artist simply follows the original outlines. But why? Is the task handed down in some local family? Is it done by the same person who lays the wreath? And above all, why does a poor woman who died so long ago matter so much to someone today?

Because matter she surely does, and to many people. Perhaps more come to her grave than come to see Dunning's other well-known monument, the 12th century church of St. Serf's. Among visitors in the past have been the infamous 'Moors Murderers' Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. A photograph of their holiday in Scotland clearly shows them at the cairn. As visitors, they are fortunately an exception, although of course a few people bring ghoulish fantasies. Locals are pretty matter of fact about the whole business of the grave. Says Kenny Laing 'We used to play near the cairn when I was a youngster; it never bothered us. There were trees around it then, Maggie Wall's Wood it was called. We weren't scared or anything like that. Ghost stories? No, I've never heard any about Maggie Wall'.

People visit the site for all sorts of reasons. Scotland's dark and bloody history fascinates some. Perhaps others come to pity, bringing flowers bought from a shop, or taken from the hedgerows. Some try to understand the superstitiions of the past. Many simply wonder at human cruelty. But whatever they think about what happened here, the witch's grave keeps its mysteries.

Steve McGrail, Dunblane, 1995

Line Drawing
Sketch by Albie Sinclair


After the brilliance of August, the third of September 1995 turned out to be a disappointingly wet grey Sunday. Then in mid-afternoon the rain slackened just as Dunning Parish Church began to fill up with a well-dressed crowd, some of them locals with well-kent faces, some strangers, and some people with faces somehow familiar but hard to put a name to.

It was the second service of the day at the church and an unusual one: a joint service of this Church of Scotland parish with Dunning's Congregational Church. And sitting there at the front, beside ministers Allan Roy and Morgan Phillips, was a layman who had worked more than anyone to make this day's events a reality, former evacuee George Boardman.

George with Lily King and Les McColl and their spouses had been on a subcommittee which in 1994 helped organize an Evacuees' Reunion weekend, an event sponsored by the Dunning Parish Historical Society and considered even by the media to be a unique and successful celebration. Now another one-off occasion was underway, in which a group of evacuees was formally thanking the village which had taken them in as children 56 years before.

Whoever it was who originally suggested the idea of a plaque from the evacuees to the village, it was certainly George Boardman and wife Helen who made several trips from their home in East Kilbride to Dunning, Perth and Edinburgh to find an appropriate spot for a plaque (they settled on St. Serf's kirkyard wall in Tron Square), who got the several necessary official permissions, who found a firm to make the plaque and arranged the words to put on it. And it was George together with Lily King who contacted the evacuees who had attended the '94 Reunion to ask if they would like to contribute to a commemorative plaque. The response was immediate and generous. Quickly £500 was raised to pay for the plaque and other expenses.

George wanted things done in style. He had approached the two churches and got approval for a joint service. He envisaged following up the service with a piper-led procession to Tron Square, a brief ceremony of unveiling the plaque, and an informal reception afterwards in the Village Hall at which evacuee visitors and villagers could mingle. In his preparations for the day he had received help from a lot of people, many of them local, including Alyce Thomson, at whose home George and Helen had been billeted during the 1994 Reunion. She offered to help organize the reception (which in the event was extremely well-attended and enthusiastically received).

The church service showed the signs of careful preparation. There were Bible readings by Lily King representing the evacuees, and Christine Dickson for the village. Last issue we printed part of Mr. Roy's prayer; here are extracts from the presentations by other speakers:

The Rev. Morgan Phillips, Congregational Church: It is a sobering thought, and may come as a shock to some, but since the Second World War there has been less than two years of peace in the world. Conflict has been the order of the day and is still being experienced in many parts of the world. We see the truth of that in the country that was Yugoslavia and in the inhumanity we witness in Angola and Rwanda.

Generations have been born whose experience through television has been of nothing but war. As a result we can tend as human beings to become rather indifferent to the needs of others. As long as things do not affect us directly then all is well.

It is surely time that we should pause and ask the question: Where does God fit into all of this? We find our answer in part in the Book of Ecclesiastes, where we are reminded that 'there is a time for everything'. A great list of opposites is concluded with the words 'there is a time for war and a time for peace'. Everything in the list in in parallel.

There is also a firm reminder 'we should do the best we can, while we are still alive'. or as the New Testament says, 'love your neighbour as yourself'.

That is exactly what we are doing this afternoon. We are remembering, in a spirit of thanksgiving, the way in which young people came from Glasgow to Dunning as evacuees. They made friendships that have spanned the years and they experienced the reality of 'a neighbour's love'. Whether they realized it or not, the villagers of Dunning were showing what it meant to be a neighbour and also in a very real way were serving God.

Today we celebrate the humanity of ordinary people, people welcoming strangers into their midst and caring for them.

Ron Freeland, Culloden: I consider it an honour to have been asked to speak on behalf of the evacuees to Dunning, to paint a word-picture of that first day from an evacuee's point of view.

Our parents had agreed to the government's plan to evacuate as many children of school age as possible out into the country away from cities and towns, which were expected to become targets for enemy bombers.

That fateful Sunday, September 3, might well have been termed 'a time to weep', as hundreds of tearful youngsters lined up in the school playground with their gas-masks over their shoulders, name-tags attached to lapels and carrying little suitcases or haversacks containing a change of underclothing. As a boy of 12 accompanied by my two younger sisters aged 5 and 9, we listened as our teacher announced that the Prime Minister had just broadcast the news that war had been declared.

We then marched off to a nearby railway station where, after many sad farewells to parents left behind we set off on a journey which seemed to last for ages. No one knew for certain our destination (rumour had it that it was somewhere away up in the Highlands) and after disembarking schools of children at various stations en route we eventually reached Dunning Station. There a fleet of waiting buses transported us to the village school, where we were received and welcomed by the headmaster, Mr. Benzies, his teachers and a host of volunteers who, after roll-call was completed, helped to ease the pangs of hunger by supplying tea and buns. Lining up in the school-hall, the next hour or two was taken up by the village folk 'choosing' their evacuees.

My own little family was very fortunate in being accepted by Mr. and Mrs. Hurry, whose grocer's shop was opposite St. Serf's Church gate. We were treated with extreme kindness and lived there for a few months until moving to rooms in Perth Road. We were lucky in that our own mother had followed us up to Dunning as a voluntary helper, joining with others in assisting with the upkeep of evacuees living in the various billets around the village and neighbouring farms. Little did I imagine, on arriving that first day, that Dunning would remain our home for the whole six years of the war.

At 1995's Reunion it was suggested that some tangible expression of our appreciation to the people of Dunning might be appropriate, for example the placing of a commemorative plaque in the village. It is perhaps sad we have waited so long before coming up with this idea, as so many villagers of that period and a number of the evacuees too are no longer with us. Nevertheless their memories will remain forever in our hearts, as will the village itself.

Jim Smith, Dunning: It is quite appropriate for me to deliver this address today because, as a consequence of the evacuees coming to the village on that September Sunday in 1939, I formed a warm and close friendship with John, Bunty and Billy Laird lasting some 55 years.

How did the village families feel about this invasion of a large number of children, separated at short notice from their homes and environment possibly for the first time in their lives?

How would these children, brought up to the noise and bustle of town, tenement and tramcar, take to a quiet rural community where there was no electricity; lighting and cooking were by gas from a far from reliable gasworks or by paraffin lamp and stove; the streets were unlit at night; horses were still common; the scaffy's cart went around collecting all manner of rubbish and waste; and remember, dry closets still existed then.

If the villagers had such worries and anxieties then, they were well-concealed, for on that September day the children were greeted with great caring and warm-heartedness. There was a steady procession of village mums and dads down to the school to accept the new additions to their families.

Almost every home in the village plus the manse, farms and Kippen House extended a welcome to the children, many of whom must have been homesick, but all were caringly fed and bedded down that night.

On the day of arrival the children weren't a problem (they were probably all a bit mesmerised) but some of the teachers were. One, remarking on the quality of the village tap water, said she would think twice about washing her feet in it, far less drinking it. She returned to Glasgow.

And of the children themselves: were they tough little terrors from the city? How would they respond to discipline from persons other than their own parents, and at school? As it turned out, the evacuees were no different from the village children and soon settled into their homes. The weekend visits of buses bringing parents was understandable, but disruptive, and over the first few months, as bombing scares diminished, a number of children went home. Those who remained joined organizations such as the Boys Brigade and were accepted and integrated into everyday village life. As I said, some friendships formed then have lasted many years and one or two married and settled locally. The children's evacuation of September 1939 could have been a traumatic disaster for everyone. Instead it turned out an experience of friendship, goodwill and bonding which has lasted over all these years.

Later, George Boardman, speaking in Tron Square It is a great honour that I, an evacuee, should unveil this plaque today, the third of September, 1995, as it is exactly 56 years to the day that we arrived here as children. This is a gift from donations received from the evacuees of World War Two, who came to Dunning, mostly from Glasgow, and it is to thank the village and villagers, past and present, for all their kindness.



Thurs., Jan. 18/96 7:30 pm, Village Hall. 'Perthshire Secrets'. Ann Mitchell of Dunkeld is the dynamic author of several books and articles describing hidden corners of Scotland. As a former journalist she has an eye for the unusual and an ear for the untold. Tonight she uses slides to illustrate her stories of remarkable places not far away from us.

Tues, Feb. 20 7:30 pm, Village Hall. 'Digging up the Past'. As a member of the Scottish Urban Archaeological Trust, Derek Hall has been involved with many discoveries in Perthshire of archaeological interest, often dug up just in advance of the construction. He'll brings us up to date with pictures and words on the most interesting recent discoveries in our area. Note this is a Tuesday evening, a change from the usual.

Thurs., Mar. 21 7:30 pm, Village Hall. 'Members' Night'. Several of our members, David and Kirsty Doig, Peter Duncan and Grace and Alan McFarlane are scheduled to entertain us. David and Kirsty will present slides of the Scottish islands they have been visiting, Peter will illustrate his research into the most unusual of St. Serf gravestones, and the talented vocal/piano team of Alan and Grace will perform some traditional songs of this area.

Sat., April 20 10 am. Coach trip to Culross and Dunfermline: at Culross to see the recently restored Castle and medieval gardens and the old town itself, and at Dunfermline to visit the grave of Robert the Bruce and other sights. More details in March newsletter, but you can register now by calling Shona Sinclair at 684 566.

Thurs., May 16 7:30 pm, Village Hall. Our annual general meeting with guest speaker Steve Connelly, Perth archivist, giving expert tips on using the archives to dig out family, house or village history.

HOT OFF THE PRESS!: 'The Ochils: Placenames, History, Tradition' by Angus Watson, with drawings by Kenny Laing, published by Perth & Kinross District Libraries, £10.95. ISBN 0 905452 16 X

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