Saturday, 21 December 2013

Marry in Haste, Repent (and murder) at Leisure

Muschat's Cairn looking towards St Margaret's Loch and St Anthony's Chapel

Marry in Haste, Repent (and Murder) at Leisure

At the foot of Edinburgh's famous Royal Mile stands the Queens' official home in Scotland, the palace of Holyrood House. To its rear and nestled below the tall cliffs and hills of Arthur's Seat is an oasis of calm and beauty; King's Park. Formerly a royal hunting ground it is now a great swathe of grass and shade giving trees popular with dog walkers and families seeking somewhere wide and safe to let their children run free in the heart of the city.

By this greensward runs a road known as Duke's Walk which replaces the original simple dirt track which once ran here. At the eastern extremity of this road stands, largely unnoticed by local and visitor alike, a simple pile of stone on the north side of the road. There is nothing to explain why these rocks are piled there or which reveals their grim history to the curious onlooker.
For explanation we need to travel back to 1695 and the birth of a boy to pious and God-fearing parents who will lavish their love and attention on the child. His name: Nicol Muschat. It is from his confession that the following is drawn.

With the early death of his father young Nicol becomes the centre of his mother's world and she wants only the best for him. Rather than have her boy engaged in trade she manages to have him placed in Edinburgh's famous Medical College where she hopes he will become a surgeon. To further this end she apprentice's Nicol at the age of 20 to a surgeon named Thomas Napier in Alloa. However Nicol, being constantly supplied with money by his doting mother, soon proves to be a poor student and Dr Napier releases him from his employ and the feckless youth eventually drifts back to Edinburgh with no clear idea of what he wants in life other than to be as indolent as possible. 

In Edinburgh he soon realises that even his mother's largesse has its limitations and from necessity he is forced to take work as a shop assistant near his lodgings in Anchor Close. It is while working there in 1719 he catches the eye of a young girl named Margaret Hall. Aged only 15, she is soon besotted with the handsome and rakish youth. Nicol is more than happy to allow young Margaret, the daughter of a wealthy wine merchant on Castle Hill, to spend time in his apartment at Anchor Close where he wastes no time in seducing her. In his confession he claims that the fact he could seduce her so easily was evidence of her 'whorish nature' and that he was repelled by her wanton behaviour.

Despite his professed dislike of Margaret, only three weeks after these young people first meet, they are married on September 5th and Nicol moves into the family home of his young wife. Later he will claim that he married the beautiful girl only on the urging of his friend, Archibald Ure, a Goldsmith, who persuaded him that the marriage was the ideal opportunity to raise his social standing. Muschat will deny that he was forced into the marriage by the irate father of Margaret who having discovered his daughter had been seduced, demanded that Muschat make good the damage done to the infatuated girl. 

Considering the nature of the reluctant groom it will come as no surprise to learn that the marriage was not a success. Muschat tired of Margaret almost as soon as he had seduced her while she, still infatuated with him, could only dream of sharing a happy and fruitful life with her soulmate. While she saw him through the prism of true love, he was already looking for a way out of the marriage and on the pretence of advancement he left Edinburgh seeking letters of introduction and recommendation to allow him to travel to Europe where he claimed he wished to perfect his 'skills' as a surgeon. As was typical of Muschat's great plans, this too failed and once again he was reduced to living with his despised wife and her parents until he finally rents an apartment for them both.
The King's Park from Salisbury Crags on Arthur's Seat.
photo by author.
It was about this time that a casual friend of his, named James Campbell, suggested that for a small fee, he would procure evidence of her adultery and give Muschat grounds to divorce her. Their scheme was simplicity itself. Campbell would invite Margaret to the home of a friend where her drink would be spiked with laudanum. Once insensible, Campbell promised that another man would ravish her and give sufficient proof of her infidelity. Their careful scheme collapsed when it was pointed out to them by another friend, a lawyer, that unless they could show Margaret had known the man who ravished her, their evidence would do them no good.

Nicol now turned to a cousin, James Muschat and his wife Grizzel, for assistance. In return for "a piece of money" they readily join the game of ridding Nicol of his devoted and besotted wife who remains blithely unaware of her husband's animosity and evil designs. Between them they decide that the best course of action is simply to poison the poor teenager and be done with her.

James and Grizzel happily set out to deliver the fatal potion and mixed a large measure of mercury to a drink of Brandy and hot water. Despite making the unfortunate girl dreadfully ill it does not kill her and she recovers. James, working on the principle that if at first you don't succeed, try, try again, does just that. Several more attempts are made to murder the girl but despite repeated doses her healthy young constitution shakes off their best efforts although the beautiful Margaret now looks pale and sickly. 

Facing the fact that poisoning her is never going to work, they turn their attentions towards other means to despatch her. Grizzel soon proposed taking her riding after heavy rain and to push her from her mount when fording a river in the hope that she is swept away and drowned. When it was felt that this was too chancy they next schemed to take young Margaret to Leith and to detain her there until late in the evening. When they made their way back towards the city they would seize her and drown her in a convenient ditch, the ever helpful Grizzel even suggested two suitable locations to commit the deed but her husband, James. refused to take any part in this scheme so it was dropped.

Things continued in this manner with the conspirators meeting almost daily to concoct fresh plans to rid Nicol of his still blissfully unaware and clingy wife. It wasn't until May 1720 that they finally settled on their next firm scheme which they were convinced would finally prove successful. Grizzel would invite young Margaret to dine with her and then detain her at the Muschat's apartment on St Mary's Wynd until late when James would offer to walk her home. When they passed through the darkness of Dickson's Close, James with a hammer would dash out her brains. In return for their part in this foul murder they expected to receive 20 guineas in payment. This scheme was put into motion at once but like their attempted poisoning of Margaret, it failed as there were always other people about in the streets and closes when James made ready to hit her over the head with the hammer.

Nicol Muschat had ran out of ideas and energy by this point. He was seemingly resigned to making the best of a bad situation with his wife who through it all remained devoted to him, but Grizzel had other plans altogether! She was loud and prolonged in scolding Nicol, pointing out "is it reasonable, think you, when my husband and I have spent so much time and pain to accomplish their design, and expectation of reward, now to give it up?". Nicol relented, and the planning to murder Margaret continued.

On the evening of the 7th of October 1720, Nicol and James made their way home after spending the afternoon drinking but as the clock approached seven o'clock they headed towards St Mary's Wynd where their wives awaited them. The intention was to make one more attempt to lure Margaret towards Dickson's Close where James would wait for her with his hammer. For some reason that evening Nicol decided to take matters into his own hands thinking that it was "but a light thing who was the executioner!".  In his own words from his confession - “I desired her to go down the Canongate with me and when she asked on what account, I bade her ask no questions, but go along with me ; and when we went the length of the Abbey, she asked, whither I was going? I said she was not concerned to know, but only she behoved to go with me. And when we were going through St Anne's Yards, she wept (Oh, how does my heart bleed to think on it) and prayed, that heaven might forgive me, if I was taking her to any mischief; and she desired to return, then I said if she would return I was not to stop her, but I was going to Duddingstoun, and if she would not go with me, she needed never expect to exchange one word with me after" With the thought of losing the man she loved most in the world the poor teenager relented and followed dutifully at her husband's side.

He had about his person a knife he had borrowed earlier that day and once he had fetched Margaret he led her, not homewards, down the slope of the Cannongate towards Holyrood and then onwards below the towering, dark mass of Arthur's Seat along the silent and frightening Duke's Walk. At the far end and distant from habitation and interruption he drew forth his knife before the now weeping girl's eye while she made the final, despairing cry of “My love! my love! do not murder me!". Her words were in vain and near the spot marked by the cairn, her life was cruelly ended. She was only 16.

With the deed done Nicol Muschat returned to rejoin James and Grizzel who along with James Campbell they celebrated the foul murder with happy toasts and laughter. Grizzel, ever looking for the main chance, pointed out that the murderer would have their full assistance, and all for but a small remembrance! Their silence could be bought by regular payments! An immediate payment was demanded, and given, before Nicol left to go home to his bed. Whether he thought about the empty space beside him as he lay there we can only guess.

Margaret's mutilated body was discovered at about ten o'clock the following morning with her throat cut to the bone. Her identity was soon revealed and the city was in an uproar that such a lovely young woman could be so violently, and heartlessly slain. While the Town Guard set out in search of her absent husband, Nicol took himself off to Leith to hide out until the furore died down. He returned to Edinburgh that evening to visit Grizzel who assured him that all was well and that if needs be, she would gladly perjure herself for him. Cash would be expected for this service obviously. Nicol made his way homewards but learning that the Town Guard were waiting there he fled back to Leith and began to make enquiries for taking ship to Europe to escape justice.

Grizzel starting to suspect that her own involvement with all that had went before may reflect badly on her and her husband decided the best course of action was to approach the Guard herself. She happily claimed a reward for identifying where Nicol could be found and personally led them to Leith and watched as he was taken into custody.

At first he denied any responsibility but soon admitted his guilt and made a full confession. He was sent for trial and it could not have been any great hardship for the jury to find him guilty. 

Nicol Muschat was hanged in the Grassmarket on the 6th of January 1721. Hopefully his hanging was slow and his suffering long. 

Of his co-conspirators in murder only James Campbell faced any charges. Two months after the hanging of Nicol, he was sent for trial for being "art and part" (aiding and abetting) in the numerous attempts to murder Margaret Hall. Unsurprisingly Grizzel and James were to the fore once again offering Kings Evidence against Campbell. He was sentenced to transportation to the West Indies for life.

Grizzel and her husband now vanish from history. It can be but hoped that their sins haunted them, but it seems they were not the type to loose any sleep for their part in the crime.

Margaret Hall is remembered by the afore mentioned cairn which was raised almost as soon as her poor body had been removed for burial. Horrified locals placed stones on the spot in remembrance of the unfortunate girl and while it has been relocated slightly over the centuries, it is still close to the fateful spot. The cairn also features heavily in Sir Walter Scott's novel The Heart of Mid-Lothian.

The stones are named Muschat's Cairn, although it may have been more fitting to have called them Margaret's Cairn.

To comment on this page on the Review's facebook page click HERE

For book give-away's and more general chat please visit us at

Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries
 His blog can be followed at 


  1. What a slice of Scottish history. Absolute amazing. Yet another place to visit on my trip to Edinburgh next spring.

  2. It's just a pleasant stroll after visiting the Palace of Holyrood and you can enjoy the view and the swans on St Margaret's Loch as you go along. It's not even a ten minute walk from the palace either.

    1. I've been to visit Holyrood I wish I had known about the Cairn then. Great post Stuart, I love this special feature of your on the history of Edinburgh. I look forward to it every fortnight!

    2. Thank you Paula. I enjoy sharing these wee snippets of Edinburgh's history. I'll try and find something a bit more cheerful for the next one though after the tragedy of this weeks' post.

  3. Another excellent snippet of Edinburgh's past - thanks, Stuart!

  4. A gripping, if tragic, story. Thank you, Stuart. I wonder if her ghost walks...

  5. Madge Wildfire, in Walter Scott's book, claims to have spoken with her many a time. But, poor Madge was insane so she may not be a reliable witness!

  6. Now that would make an excellent Ghost story!