One of the stories that many of the guides like to tell on the free walking tour is the story of Maggie Dickson. Now there are as many ways to tell Maggie’s story as there are tour guides telling the tale. This is because Maggie has reached an almost mythical status here in Edinburgh similar to other great Scottish heroes like William Wallace or Marry Queen of Scots but after running free walking tours across Edinburgh for over five years now this is the story of Maggie as I have come to know it.
Maggie was born in Musselburgh in the early eighteenth century. When exactly is hard to say, I have three different history books at home that all have different dates as to when she was born. She worked as a fishwife and would have led an entirely unremarkable life had it not been for her husband deserting her.
Musselburgh is a small community and many whispers and rumours began to spread across the town. Who was this strange woman Maggie Dickson that had driven her husband from her household? For surely it was Maggie’s fault that her husband had left and nothing to do with his own lust or shortcomings.
Maggie may not have been driven out of town by an angry mob with torches and pitchforks, but she was certainly made to feel uncomfortable at best so she packed what few possessions she had and made her way inland heading for the Scottish Borders.
Maggie eventually arrived in the town of Kelso where she got work as an inkeep in exchange for lodgings.
Soon after she started at the inn Maggie began to attract the attention of the innkeeper’s son and they began an affair, which led to Maggie falling pregnant. Not wanting the innkeeper to learn of the affair, as this would surely lead to her instant dismissal, Maggie tried to conceal her pregnancy. Maggie began to eat more food and wear loose clothing, concealing her bump. Tragically for Maggie, and her new partner, the baby was born prematurely and was stillborn. Maggie was understandably upset but still had to hide the baby’s existence, she planned to put the baby into the River Tweed.
Wrapping her first born in some muslin she made her way down towards the riverbank but could not bring herself to place the child into the fast flowing water. As she sat there sobbing she was spotted and people came over to comfort her but when they discovered the dead baby they were aghast and handed Maggie over to the authority’s thinking she had killed her own child.
Maggie was quickly taken to Edinburgh and brought to trial. The idea that Maggie had committed filicide was obviously ridiculous. The baby was tiny and obviously had not been brought to term, however Maggie had done something just as deplorable in the eyes of the law, she had the tenacity to conceal the fact that she was pregnant.
There was an old law in Scotland called the Concealment of Pregnancy Act. Why this law existed I don’t know, just another draconian way for men to try and exert their rule over the female form. Maggie had indeed concealed her pregnancy and for this and this alone she would be hung!
So Maggie was led down to the Grassmarket area of town where the gallows stood, she was marched up on top of the gallows where the noose was pulled tight around her neck. Maggie looked out across the crowds as they booed and jeered at this harlot, and with the crowd’s angry shouts wringing in her ears she dropped.
That day several executions had taken place, Maggie was the last and it was not long until all the bodies were cut down, placed into simple coffins and loaded onto the back of the cart to be driven out of town.
As the cart driver rode his cart out of town he heard what sounded like a banging noise come from the back of the cart. Somewhat perplexed he stopped the cart and went to investigate the noise. He cracked open one of the coffins and out popped Maggie Dickson still very much alive!
The whole idea of a hanging was to be a relatively quick painless death. The force of the fall should snap your neck. Maggie however was a very slight, small woman, and she had not fallen far enough to damage her neck. She was simply left dangling there and the lack of blood going up to her head had caused Maggie to fall unconscious and she was not quite dead when they cut her down.
The cart driver had never had to deal with a situation like this before so he panicked, shoved Maggie back down into the box, turned the cart around and made back towards the Grassmarket.
The dispersing crowds quickly flocked back for they could not believe their luck, they were going to get two for the price of one from Maggie Dickson. For a second time that day poor Maggie was taken to the top of the gallows, and for a second time that day the noose was placed over Maggie’s head, this was not a good day for Maggie Dickson.
But just before they could hang Maggie for a second time that day a lone voice rang out from the gathered crowds,
“Stop! Wait! You can not hang that woman!”
It was the Innkeeper’s son.
“But why not?” The crowed wanted to know.
“Because of double jeopardy.” He cried back.
With that Maggie was let back down and taken back to the head Judge and indeed the Innkeeper’s son was correct, they could not charge Maggie with the same crime twice, in fact it was “Gods will” that Maggie should live according to the Judge.
Now earlier in her life Maggie had taken her wedding vows and her wedding vows were “till death do us part” but that day Maggie had legally been declared dead, she had a copy of her own death certificate. This annulled Maggie from her old relationship allowing Maggie to marry the Innkeep’s son, with whom she previously had the affair.
So it was that the worst day in Maggie’s life quickly became the best day.
Maggie Dickson became something of a local celebrity picking up the nickname, Half Hangit’ Maggie and Maggie is remembered in Edinburgh to this day by a pub down in the Grassmarket bearing her name, close to the spot where she hung.
If the sun is out you can take a seat outside at the pub and enjoy a drink or two whilst listening to the many tour guides come past the pub with their tour groups and their take on this classic Edinburgh tale.