Maiden (beheading)

The Scottish Maiden


TOWARDS  the middle of the sixteenth century, the Earl of Morton, Regent of Scotland, during a visit to England, witnessed an execution by the Halifax gibbet. He appears to have been impressed in a favourable manner with the ingenuity of the machine, and gave directions for a model of it to be made, and on his return home, in the year 1565, he had a similar gibbet constructed. On account of remaining so long before it was used, so runs the popular story, it was known as "The Maiden." Dr. Charles Rogers says that its appellation is from the Celtic mod-dun, originally signifying the place where justice was administered.[26] It is generally believed that the first victim beheaded at the Maiden was the Earl of Morton himself, but such was not the case, for he did not suffer death by it until June 2nd, 1581. He ruled Scotland for ten years, winning the approbation of Queen Elizabeth, but finally he fell a victim to the court faction. It has been said that probably it could not have availedagainst him but for his own greed and cruelty. In trying to picture the scene of Morton's execution, says a painstaking author, it must have been a striking sight when the proud, stern, resolute face, which had frowned so many better men down, came to speak from the scaffold, protesting his innocence of the crime for which he had been condemned, but owning sins enough to justify God for his fate.[27]He died by the side of the City Cross, in the High Street, Edinburgh, and for the next twelve months his head garnished a pinnacle on the neighbouring Tolbooth.


It is agreed by authorities that the first time the Maiden was used was at the execution of the inferior agents in the assassination of Rizzio, whichoccurred at Holyrood Palace, on the 9th of March, 1566.

The list of those who have suffered death at the Maiden extends to at least one hundred and twenty names, not a few of whom Scotland delights to honour, including Sir John Gordon, of Haddo; President Spottiswood, the Marquis and the Earl of Argyle.

The unfortunate Earl of Argyle met his doom with firmness; when laying his head on the grim instrument of death, he said it was "a sweet Maiden, whose embrace would waft his soul into heaven." The tragic story of the Earl of Argyle has been ably told by Mr. David Maxwell, c.e., and his iniquitous death is one of many dark passages in the life of James II.[28]

In 1710, the use of the Maiden was discontinued. It now finds a place and attracts much attention in the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, at Edinburgh.



[26]Rogers's "Social Life in Scotland," 1884.

[27]Chambers's "Book of Days," Vol. I., page 728.

[28]David Maxwell's "Bygone Scotland," 1894.