Muschet’s Cairn: Remembering and forgetting the victims of domestic abuse

Cairn with crow

Image: Mushet’s Cairn 

We have so few memorials that tell the story of women’s lives, it is a tragedy that one of the few that does exist has been neglected and forgotten. Novelist and feminist campaigner Sara Sheridan today tells the story of an anonymous tumble of stones in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park that is perhaps the earliest commemoration of a victim of domestic abuse and femicide.

Sara Sheridan

History is famously written by the winners but I’d go further than that. The stories we tell about our past are built into the fabric of our towns and cities and the winners who tell those stories are overwhelmingly white, male, upper class, conservative and heterosexual. In Edinburgh, we have only three statues to named women: two Queen Victorias, and a statue to the achievements of activist Helen Crummy. Of the few other public monuments, one is a tumbledown cairn in Holyrood park. I want to tell you the story of the cairn

It’s an anonymous pile of rocks, really, which marks the site where a victim of domestic violence, Margaret Hall, was murdered by her husband, Nicol Muschet on 17th October 1720. Margaret (also known as Ailie) was 17 years old when she died and had been married for little over a year. Muschet was eight years her senior and proposed within 3 weeks of meeting her. He tired of Ailie quickly and initially intended to desert her by going abroad to avoid his creditors. However, he quickly decided it was in his best interest to defraud his wife of her legal dues under his estate by divorcing her.

What follows would give a modern criminal psychologist a fair run of research material. Muschet recruited a gambling pal of his, James Campbell of Burnbank, and paid him 900 Merks in old Scottish money to procure evidence of his wife’s ‘whorish practices’. The pair first tried to trick Ailie into breaking her marriage vows by sending her a letter saying Muschet had left Scotland never to return. When Ailie resolved to visit Muschet’s mother to find out the truth, Campbell had a fake arrest warrant served to her and then offered to bail her out under condition she stayed in his house. Ailie was rightly suspicious and managed to escape by horse, though Campbell ultimately coerced her back to Edinburgh. At this point Muschet realised his initial plan was not going to work and that if Ailie was to be painted a ‘huur’ he would have to arrange for her to be raped.

He and Campbell plied her with alcohol and laudanum and arranged for an acquaintance to take advantage, only calling off the rape when they discovered it would not be sufficient grounds for divorce. Nicol then conscripted the help of his cousin, James Muschet and his wife Grizel Bell, by bribing them but after repeated attempts to take Ailie by force failed, he changed his plans to murder.

They tried four times to poison her using Mercury Dichloride, which was a treatment for syphilis in the era. Ailie was extremely ill but survived. Muschet then moved on to various more violent schemes including drowning her in a quarryhole between Edinburgh and Leith, pushing her from her horse into the river near Kirkliston and attacking her with a hammer on her way home from dinner. None were viable. On 17th October 1720 however, he stole a knife from his landlady and invited Ailie to walk with him, at night, to Duddingston Kirk. On the way, he murdered her. When her body was discovered Ailie Hall had her throat cut but also suffered a great many defensive wounds. She had fought back.

Muschet tried to flee and spent a few days hiding in Leith but was arrested after his cousin’s wife tipped off the authorities to his whereabouts. At first he denied everything but the evidence was overwhelming. He declared that his wife had hounded him into the murder, but eventually confessed. Edinburgh was shocked. Sir Walter Scott termed Muschet ‘a debauched and profligate wretch’ and scandal sheets circulated the city as investigations uncovered more details of Muschet’s murderous plans. On 8th December 1720, he was sentenced to death and on 6 January was hung in the Grassmarket.

We don’t know where Ailie was buried, but there was a public outpouring of grief in the city and an Elegy was published in her memory.

Elegy to Margaret Hall

Image: Elegy to Margaret Hall

The original cairn was raised by the people of Edinburgh to mark their horror at her murder. Today’s tumbledown pile of rocks on the edge of Holyrood Park is not the original, which was removed in 1789 and restored in 1823. If you’re passing please pause and think of Ailie though unjustly, the cairn is marked with the name, Muschet, the man who killed her. It is a name that Ailie never used. We have so few memorials that tell the story of women’s lives and it is a tragedy that this one has been neglected and forgotten. Much has changed since 1720 but domestic violence remains on our social agenda and it is heart-breaking that this memorial has been allowed to decay and that it bears the name of a perpetrator of violence rather than the 17 year old woman whom he killed.

Sara Sheridan is a novelist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her 2019 work highlighted the way in our city and townscapes are dominated by memorials of men. Where are the Women? reimagines a different Scotland where women are commemorated in statues, streets and buildings – and even through the naming of hills and valleys.
Twitter @sarasheridan

Original research: Andy Arthur

Image of Mushet’s Cairn: Reproduced by kind permission of Ben Reynolds

Image of Elegy to Margaret Hall: National Library of Scotland reproduced under Creative Commons 4.0