Dark History at Holyrood Park in Edinburgh Scotland

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Holyrood Park, St. Margaret's Loch with a swan floating on the water, Arthur's Seat and the green Holyrood Park surrounds the loch.
Holyrood Park is filled with a dark history and swans!

Dark history is everywhere at Holyrood Park. If you’ve ever walked around Edinburgh, you’ll know that no matter where you go, you’re going to be walking through history. The Dark History at Holyrood Park in Edinburgh will be all around you.

With buildings that have survived the dreadful plague, horrendous wars and terrifying serial killers almost everywhere you look, you could easily walk past a seemingly irrelevant pile of rocks or quiet well without knowing it hides a terrible tale from the past.

Many people look at Holyrood Park and see happy couples enjoying leisurely walks, dog owners giving their pet some exercise and people getting back to nature by feeding the local wildlife.

Only a select few see the dark history which is prominent throughout. Next time you head to Arthur’s Seat for a hike in the warm sunshine, be sure to stop by these sites and discover the dark past which shrouds the area.

Muschat’s Cairn – Tragic History in Holyrood Park

Muschat's Cairn - a large pile of oddly shaped stones created as a memorial to the dark history at Holyrood Park in Edinburgh Scotland
Muschat’s Cairn in Holyrood Park has a dark history

In Holyrood Park, just past St. Margaret’s Loch, sits a cairn that could easily be mistaken for nothing more than a mismatched pile of rocks. Known as Muschat’s Cairn, the humble monument is dedicated to the memory of a woman who lost her life at the hands of her surgeon husband.

Mrs. Muschat was brutally murdered by Edinburgh surgeon Nichol Muschat who had grown weary of her presence. Nichol went to great lengths to end his wife’s life, including failed attempts to frame her for adultery, poison her and asking others to kill her on his behalf. When all his efforts failed, Nichol dragged his wife out to Holyrood Park and stabbed her to death.

Thankfully, Muschat paid for his crimes and, after confessing to her murder, was hanged in Grassmarket. His story was well known at the time and the townsfolk of Edinburgh built the cairn to memorialize and honour Mrs. Muschat and as a sign of repulsion for Nichol’s cruel act.

Muschat’s Cairn was originally located close to Saint Anthony’s Chapel where the murder took place. But it was removed in the late 1700s and a new one was built 1830s near Duke’s Walk.

The tragic tale behind Muschat’s Cairn touched many, including Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, whose life and the literary impact can be explored at the Scott Monument on Princes Street.

The author mentions Muschat’s Cairn in his novel, The Heart of Midlothian. Scott writes that the monument has a very gloomy atmosphere and reveals his feelings about the vicious act of murder through his characters’ words.

Witchcraft ties with Arthur’s Seat

St. Margaret's Well at the bottom of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh. A wall with a fountain like structure built into the wall underneath Arthur's Seat. The dark history at Holyrood Park in Edinburgh has ties with the well and witches.
St. Margaret’s Well and its healing waters at Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh Scotland

The iconic Edinburgh landmark, Arthur’s Seat provides visitors with a glimpse of the highlands without leaving the capital city. However, not many are aware that it’s also got its fair share of a dark history.

If you’re a dark tourist, perhaps you’re familiar with the story of the mysterious coffins found on the hilly crag possibly associated with serial killer duo Burke and Hare. But did you know it also has connections with the Great Scottish Witch Hunt and the monstrosities that took place during that horrendous time?

If you’ve ever climbed Arthur’s Seat or ventured close to the Salisbury Crags, you may have noticed a medieval well. Known as St. Margaret’s Well, the structure sits at the base of Arthur’s Seat across from Holyrood Park was once known to have powerful medicinal waters.

Previously a pilgrimage site for those seeking out the healing waters, St. Margaret’s Well became cloaked in rumours of witchcraft and magic. Before long, the stories completely took over and the spring waters became associated with pure evil.

Arthur’s Seat was regularly referred to as Hagg’s Knowe and considered a place where witches cast spells and summoned evil. Scottish herbalists who used the spring waters were accused as witches and underwent intense torture, ultimately followed by their deaths.

Murder at Holyrood Palace

The Dark History at the Holyrood Abbey Ruins next to Holyrood Palace

Not far from Arthur’s Seat is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which has a dark history all of its own. David Rizzio, secretary to Mary Queen of Scots, was murdered in front of her by her husband, Lord Darnley, and his associates when she was six months pregnant. If you visit the palace today, you can still see the blood-stained floor which serves as a reminder of the brutal murder.

So, what happened to Lord Darnley? He was desperate to be awarded the Crown Matrimonial and in an effort to gain the queen’s forgiveness in order to receive it, he assisted Mary, Queen of Scots escape to Dunbar Castle, gaining her forgiveness. Although Lord Darnley successfully got away with murder, he was then murdered himself shortly after his son, the future King James VI, was born.

Royal Burials at Holyrood Abbey – The Dark History behind the burials

The Royal Vault in the nearby Holyrood Abbey ruins is where the body of Lord Darnley was put to rest. As for David Rizzio, rumours say he’s buried in the Canongate Kirkyard. But no one knows for sure.

As part of the English invasion of the War of the Rough Wooing, Holyrood Abbey was attacked several times, during which the church was looted and almost entirely destroyed. The bells were removed, the lead in the roof was stripped and the altars were shattered.

Workers attempted to repair Holyrood Abbey but ultimately failed due to shoddy workmanship. The abbey was broken into for the final time during the Glorious Revolution when several tombs in the Chapel Royal were destroyed and desecrated. Lord Darnley’s grave was among them.

You can still visit the ruins today and stand inside the abbey with a clear, unobstructed view of the sky. While you’re there, be sure to stop by and see the graves of the royals of Edinburgh’s past.

Visit Holyrood Abbey and the Palace of Holyrood house: Book here: Palace of Holyroodhouse Ticket

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Comments 7

  1. Things were sure brutal a long time ago. So is Holyrood Park an actual park or a town?

    1. Post
      Author

      Yes, agreed. Holyrood Park is a park with a super large field right next to Holyrood Palace (where the Queen stays when she’s in Edinburgh)!

      1. Oh yes I was going to ask if thats where the queen stayed.

  2. I never knew about the meaning of the cairn or the well being associated with witches. Like you say most people walk past and don’t realise. Also back then i think Holyrood and Arthur’s seat were outside Edinburgh, not in the middle so it makes sense that murders and other dark/dangerous things would happen there.

    1. Post
      Author

      I assume they were in Canongate? I should look into it! I do wonder how quiet it was near the base of Arthur’s seat so many years ago! Would be easy to commit an act of crime for sure.

  3. This is why I love old cities – like Edinburgh and London – there’s just so much history woven into every aspect of it. And a lot of it is DARK.

    I’ve never heard of Muschat’s Cairn and while it’s horrible that her husband murdered her, it’s lovely that they memorialised her afterward.

    Also, I really need to read more about Mary Queen of Scots. I honestly don’t know all that much about her.

    1. Post
      Author

      Same! So much history to explore, so much of it is dark. I definitely enjoy exploring all of the dark histories that plague these older cities. I will be writing a post all about Mary Queen of Scots soon!

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