‘A beheading machine’ is an accurate definition of the Maiden, Scotland’s own guillotine. Introduced in 1564, it was similar to devices used elsewhere in Europe. Guillotining was more efficient, and more humane, than the previous Scottish practice of removing heads with a sword, which could and often did go grotesquely wrong if the victim moved, or if the executioner’s aim was off or his sword blunt. The beauty of the Maiden was that it left no room for human error. The operator struck the trigger of the machine, releasing the rope securing the blade, and the blade, loaded with 34 kilos of lead and guided by copper-lined grooves down the uprights of the structure, did the rest. I cannot imagine what awful noise that descent made, but it would be the last thing the victim heard. Even if the blade wasn’t that sharp his or her neck would be broken. The National Museum’s information rather brutally explains the enormous lead weight as being ‘the key to punching head from body’. Public execution is, of course, a brutal business.
Before I went to see the Maiden, which stands in the ‘Law and Order’ section of the ‘Kingdom of the Scots’ display, I had a wander round some of the other galleries. In the ‘Scotland Transformed’ exhibition a couple of floors up I found what at first glance looks like an enormously expanded version of the Maiden, built perhaps to decapitate ogres. This is Thomas Newcomen’s 1712 steam engine, actually used to pump water from coalmines in Ayrshire. It therefore represents progress of a kind; but the Maiden was still at work, and was not retired until 1720. By that time it (or ‘she’, as we might refer to her in deference to her name) had removed the heads of more than 120 people. Hanging became the modern way of carrying out capital punishment. As late as 1820, though, the leaders of the Radical Rising had their heads chopped off in Stirling (with an axe) as a warning to other would-be rebels against the state. They, however, were already dead, having been hanged first.
The Maiden was a big-boned lass, ten feet tall and with a heavy oak frame, but she was also portable. When not in use she was dismantled and packed away in storage, then reassembled to perform her grisly task at various locations in Edinburgh, including the Grassmarket, Castlehill and the Mercat Cross. It’s said that she acquired her virginal name because she wasn’t used for a number of years after being built. Maybe this is true, but the French called their beheading machine Madame Guillotine so it could be more about the macabre allure of femmes fatales in popular culture. Women who kill are much rarer than men who kill, and are therefore often regarded with greater horror and hatred.
The man believed to have introduced her to Scotland, James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, also became one of her victims. In 1581 he was found guilty of involvement in the murder of Queen Mary’s husband Darnley back in 1567. Morton was condemned to be hanged but Mary’s son King James VI ordered that the instrument of death should be the Maiden. ‘The King shall lose a guid servant this day,’ Morton said, but if James heard about this it didn’t change his mind.
When I discovered that I was to write 62 words about the Maiden, I thought they should tell something of her side of the story. How might she have reacted on learning that Morton, who had originally commissioned her, was to put his head in her lap? What cruel, kind or ironic words might she have uttered as he was brought before her? She was no longer a maiden by then, of course, but in all her trysts it was never her blood that was shed. Possible words of welcome – of soothing calm, of sexual invitation? – sprang into my mind. The Maiden spoke with a Scots tongue. These words became the first line of a poem. Eleven short lines later, Morton was dead.