Ayr’s Mystery Witch: the legend of Maggie Osborne

At Halloween, ‘witches’ make their annual appearance in our streets as door-to-door guisers or as party-goers.  However, to be accused of witchcraft was of course a very serious matter indeed throughout Britain and Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Ayrshire has its share of recorded trials and executions.

Robert Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter was inspired by the tales of Ayrshire witches and warlocks which had been part of his childhood.
Robert Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter was inspired by the tales of Ayrshire witches and warlocks which had been part of his childhood.

Many tales concerning one particular practitioner of the black arts, Maggie Osborne, were in circulation in Ayr in the early part of the nineteenth century. In due course they came to be set down in print, both in poetry and prose. No woman of this name can be found in the surviving records dealing with prosecutions for witchcraft, although there are large gaps in these records for the period in which she is said to have lived.

The building at 76-78 High Street, Ayr (on the site now occupied by Marks & Spencer), which was popularly known as ‘Maggie Osborne’s House’. She was said to have erected it in one night with the devil’s assistance. The photograph was taken around 1880, and soon afterwards the building was demolished and replaced by a much grander edifice named the Osborne Hotel.
The building at 76-78 High Street, Ayr (on the site now occupied by Marks & Spencer), which was popularly known as ‘Maggie Osborne’s House’. She was said to have erected it in one night with the devil’s assistance. The photograph was taken around 1880, and soon afterwards the building was demolished and replaced by a much grander edifice named the Osborne Hotel.

The legends tell how Maggie came to bear a grudge against a particular family, and caused their house to be engulfed by snow. The only survivor was a sailor who happened to be away at sea, so a storm was conjured up which sank his ship with all hands. Maggie soon began to suspect that her maid had discovered her secret. One night, while the maid was brewing beer (Maggie kept an inn) a gang of ferocious cats invaded the outhouse and threw themselves at her, trying to tumble her into the boiling vat. Grabbing a ladle, the girl splashed the steaming liquid over her assailants, giving special attention to their leader. Next day, Maggie (who was an adept shape-shifter) stayed in her bed, and it turned out that she had been badly scalded. The maid told all she knew to the town’s minister, William Adair, and Maggie was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be burned at the Malt Cross.

In the roadway at the junction of High Street and New Bridge Street, a cross of paving stones marks the site of the Malt Cross, traditionally the site of Maggie’s execution. (The Malt Cross itself will be the subject of a future post.)
In the roadway at the junction of High Street and New Bridge Street, a cross of paving stones marks the site of the Malt Cross, traditionally the site of Maggie’s execution. (The Malt Cross itself will be the subject of a future post.)

Maggie’s peculiar last request was for two pewter plates from her house. The devil had promised her that if she placed these on her shoulders they would, provided they had been kept dry, serve her as wings. With the plates in position, Maggie triumphantly achieved lift-off in front of the astonished crowd. However one of the plates, having been dropped in a puddle while being brought to her, and having only received a quick wipe, failed to perform as well as intended. This enabled a quick-witted town officer to hook Maggie’s skirt with his halberd and haul her back to earth, and so the crowd was not cheated of the spectacle of her immolation.

In the 1856 First Edition of the Ordnance Survey, the site of the Malt Cross is noted as the place of Maggie’s execution, dated to around the end of the sixteenth century.
In the 1856 First Edition of the Ordnance Survey, the site of the Malt Cross is noted as the place of Maggie’s execution, dated to around the end of the sixteenth century.

To turn to recorded fact, the Reverend William Adair was Ayr’s minister from 1639 until 1682, during which time many alleged witches were brought to trial.  The Osbornes were one of Ayr’s most prosperous merchant families during the seventeenth century, three of them attaining the office of provost, although how a lady of this name came to be the subject of so many folk-tales cannot now be known.

A drawing of the monument to Maggie Osborne’s nemesis, the Reverend William Adair, in Ayr Auld Kirk churchyard.
A drawing of the monument to Maggie Osborne’s nemesis, the Reverend William Adair, in Ayr Auld Kirk churchyard.
Time and the weather have taken their toll on William Adair’s monument.
Time and the weather have taken their toll on William Adair’s monument.

The legends claim that Maggie was the daughter of the laird of Fail. If this was so, her family name should have been Wallace, and a Margaret Wallace is on record as having been burned for witchcraft at Ayr in 1629. It has been suggested that this lady might have been married to an Osborne, although prosecuted under her maiden name. On the other hand, the laird of Fail was also celebrated in local legend as a notorious warlock, and it is likely that story-tellers simply added him to their tales of Maggie Osborne to provide her with a suitably diabolical upbringing.

16 thoughts on “Ayr’s Mystery Witch: the legend of Maggie Osborne

  1. Still excited to learn more about the site of The Malt Cross, as promised by this article.

    1. Hi Stuart,

      We apologise for taking so long to post about the site of The Malt Cross, our Local History Librarian has not forgotten and is putting a post together which we should hopefully have up on our blog in the next few weeks.

  2. At Margaret Wallaces trial in joul 30th 1629 there were other Witches with her accused….Helen Mc Fersane,Janet Thompsoun, Margaret Kennedy,….Margaret Wallace was lister as coming from “MyIneholm”……a further trial in November brought Agness Campbell on Witchcraft charges

  3. There is a Maggie Osbourne in Ayr on charges of Witchcraft in 1650…..seemingly a letter states she spat out holy water and it became a toad”..she is on record of being burnt for witchcraft

  4. Hello,

    I am an adjunct instructor at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. I’m currently doing some work on witches and in early modern age. I’m keenly interested in Maggie Osbourne, or perhaps as you have said Maggie Wallace. The only information I’ve come upon say that she was certainly an Osbourne, certainly the daughter of the Laird of Fail, ran a public house after her mother’s death, and was burned for witchcraft.

    ‘ve not read about the magic plates turning to wings, nor about the holy water turning into a toad. I have read about her turning herself into a beetle, and causing the house to collapse along with the storm responsible for sinking a ship. If anyone know of any primary, source documents that can verify some of the claims & observations made here, I would greatly appreciate it!

    Thank you,
    Angie Kelson-Packer
    angelakelsonpacker@weber.edu

    1. Hello Angie,

      Thank you for contacting South Ayrshire Libraries. Your Maggie Osborne enquiry sent via our History Blog has been referred to me. Unfortunately, no one has ever found any primary documentation connected to Maggie’s alleged supernatural activities. These seem to have been first written down in a poem entitled ‘The life and death of Maggie Osborne, the Ayrshire witch: a Scotch poem’ by William Welsh and John McMillan, published in 1821 in a now-rare 16-page pamphlet said to be ‘printed for the Company of Witch-mongers’. Nothing else seems to be known about this or about Welsh and McMillan, which may be pseudonyms. It must have been inspired by tales of Maggie, and of witchcraft in general, which were current in Ayrshire at the time, but it is impossible to know to what extent it preserved these and to what extent it embellished and added to them. In ‘Auld Ayr: Sketches and Reminiscences’ by James M. Ferguson, published in Ayr by the ‘Ayr Observer’ office in 1884, on page 97, is a version of the story said to have been handed down by a relative of Maggie. According to this, she was a young girl, the heiress to her deceased parents’ property in Ayr, who suffered from an illness affecting her brain. The effect this had on her behaviour convinced the Reverend William Adair (minister of Ayr 1639-1684) that she was in league with the Devil, and she was imprisoned and put under pressure to confess until she did so. (This may be someone’s guess as to what the real circumstances behind the legend were likely to have been.) In ‘Historical Tales and Legends of Ayrshire’ by William Robertson, published in London by Hamilton, Adams & Co and in Glasgow by Thomas D. Morrison in 1889, pages 93-111, the legend is given based on the 1821 poem and on local oral tradition, and it is this version which is best-known. William Robertson told the tale again in his ‘Old Ayrshire Days’, published in Ayr by Stephen & Pollock and in Glasgow and Edinburgh by John Menzies & Co in 1905, pages 79-89, with some additional details. These nineteenth-century versions of the Maggie Osborne story are all that we have to go on.

      I hope that this is of some assistance to you, and I wish you well with your project.

  5. Growing up in Glasgow my granny always told me that Maggie Osbourne was an ancestor of ours and if any desended family member stood on the malt cross Maggie would return. I tried it once and my Auntie shoved me off it so fast I fell over!

  6. Awesome website you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew of any forums
    that cover the same topics discussed in this article?
    I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get
    advice from other knowledgeable individuals that share the same interest.
    If you have any suggestions, please let me know.
    Kudos!

  7. It was quite usual for women accused of witchcraft in Scotland to be tried under their maiden name, this might have been to save the husband from the taint of association.

  8. As a child i lived at 74 High St. in Ayr, I was told that Maggie’s ghost roamed around the hallways. Maybe I saw her, but as a 6yr. old, how would I know what a ghost looked like.

  9. I grew up around the corner from St. John’s tower in Ayr.
    As children, my brother and our friends played in the walled grounds of the tower. We would frighten each other by recounting the tale of the witch Maggie Osbourne whom we had been told was buried somewhere in the grounds.
    At random, whilst we played our various children’s games inside the grounds, one of us would decide to give the call of ‘last one out!’ Once this call was made, (with the perpetrator having a head start of course!), we all made a panicked dash to the wall. We scrambled out as fast as possible,
    (sometimes very nearly over each other), because we feared that Maggie would catch the slowest one.
    We never did put in to words what we thought would happen if Maggie caught you!

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