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By Geoffrey Abbott, G. (Geoffrey) Abbott, Jeremy Beadle

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Despite its name it showed no favours to females, its blade descending on Isabell and Ann Erskine in 1614 for poisoning their two nephews; Marion Astein for adultery in 1631; and Janet Embrie, found guilty in 1643 of committing incest with two of her brothers. All executions took place in public, the machine usually being positioned near the City Cross in Edinburgh’s High Street, although it could be transported by cart to other cities as required, and many Scottish heads fell beneath its blade between 1564 and 1710, when its use was discontinued.

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots Executioner Simon Bull was definitely not looking forward to his next assignment, the execution of Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots who was accused of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth. Hanging was his usual line of work, but this was to be with the axe, with which he hadn’t had a great deal of practice. indd 50 12/04/2006 14:48:30 AXE in Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, one of the few times such an event had taken place indoors, but this was considered necessary by the Queen’s Commissioners, the Earls of Kent and Shrewsbury, in order to avoid any public unrest should it have occurred in the open.

Whether an execution was actually taking place at the time is not known, but suffice it to say that so impressed was the Earl that on arriving in Edinburgh he ordered a similar machine to be constructed. It became known as the Scottish Maiden (Madin or Maydin), a name perhaps derived from the Celtic mod-dun, the place where justice was administered. The axe blade, an iron plate faced with steel, thirteen inches in length and ten and a half inches in breadth, its upper side weighted with a seventy-five-pound block of lead, travelled in the copper-lined grooves cut in the inner surfaces of two oak posts and was retained at the top by a peg attached to a long cord which, when pulled by means of a lever, allowed the blade to descend at ever-increasing speed.

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