A drowning pit, drowning pool or murder hole (not to be confused with defensive murder holes) was a pit or well dug for the purpose of specifically executing females under Scottish feudal laws. Rivers, lochans, etc. were used if conveniently situated near to the moot hill where the baronial court dempster would announce the death penalty. The term fossa was also used as in furca and fossa, the fossa being a ditch filled with water.
Drowning pits came into legal use after it was enacted at the parliament assembled in Forfar in 1057 by King Malcolm Canmore that every baron should sink a well or pit, for the drowning of females, a gibbet being used for males. The place name element 'murder hole' sometime relates to these formal drowning sites. Bones have been found close to some of these sites, suggesting that the corpses were buried close by and not in hallowed ground.
Some drowning pits had ladders down which the condemned person had to climb; the ladder was then withdrawn. On other sites hurdles were used to hold the person below the water. Many moot hill sites are or were surrounded by water or were situated at the edge of a body of water, such as Mugdock, Mound Wood near Auchentiber and the Court Hill at the Hill of Beith, Hutt Knowe at Bonshaw, etc.
It is not clear why men were more likely to be hanged and women drowned in a fen, river, pit, or murder hole. However, it may relate to ideas of decency or because it was a less violent death. In Norse law the reason was that men were sent to Wodan, and women were given to Ran (a sea goddess) or Hel. In Norse tradition the pit and gallows stood on the west of the moot-places or the prince's hall ready for use.
The term pit and gallows or, reversing the terms, furca and fossa, refers to the "high justice" rights of a feudal baron, etc., including the capital penalty. The right is described in full as pit and gallows, sake and soke, toll, team, and infangthief.
With the introduction to Scotland of the feudal system in the 12th-century, pre-feudal, or Celtic tenures, were transformed into holding from the Crown and a number of these were held directly or in chief of the Crown and were held in liberam baroniam, in free barony, with the aforementioned high justice (with pit and gallows). It is said that King Malcolm Canmore legislated in 1057 that every barony was to have a tree for hanging convicted men and a pit of water for the execution of convicted women.
Although drowning was generally reserved for females, being the least brutal form of death penalty, at times a male was executed in this way as a matter of favour, for instance in 1526 a man convicted of theft and sacrilege was ordered to be drowned "by the queen's special grace" and in 1611 a man was drowned at Edinburgh for stealing a lamb.
The hereditary right of high justice survived until 1747 when it was removed from the barons and from the holders of Regalities and sheriffdoms, by the Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act 1746, however the use of the death penalty by barons had largely fallen into abeyance well before it was abolished. Its last use in Scotland may have been in 1685, the year of the drowning of the Wigton martyrs. Lesser feudal powers surprisingly continued to the twentieth century.
Examples of murder holes
These pits were often close to the residence of the baron or clan chief and OS maps show that many gallows sites were close to water. so that a pit or ditch did not have to be constructed, making actual drowning pits rare features within the physical landscape. It is not clear what the ratio of male to female deaths was in feudal times. Many gallows sites are also associated with the discovery of bones; however records do not clearly state the sex.
There was a Drowning Pool, at Balliemore, Strathspey, South-east of Inverness, where it is said that witches and other women criminals used to be put to death.
Between Mugdock Castle and Craigend is a round knoll, called the moot hill or place of judgement. Guilty women were drowned in the little sheet of water which lay at the foot of the gibbet where the men were hanged.
In Straiton parish near Craigenrae is a site known as the murder hole, represented by a marshy depression. In the novel The Grey Man written by S. R. Crockett this murder hole is used, however its site is placed elsewhere.
On the Water of Minnoch is a deep pool known as the Murder Hole in which a family from Rowantree dumped their victims; they were caught, confessed and were the last to be hanged on the dule tree.
The author Joseph Train records, however, that at the last shire-mote ever held in Carrick by the Earl of Cassillis, the MacKillups of Craingenreach were hanged on the dule tree of Cassillis circa 1746, having murdered a neighbour and thrown his remains into "the common murder hole of the Bailiery at Craigenreach".
Drowning pits elsewhere in Britain
The owner of Baynard's Castle, London, in the reign of John, had powers of trying criminals, and his descendants long afterwards claimed the privileges, the most valued of which was the right of drowning in the River Thames traitors taken within their jurisdiction. Drowning was the punishment ordained by Richard the Lionheart for any soldier of his army who killed a fellow crusader during the passage to the Holy Land.
- Love, Dane (2009). Page 74
- Train, pp. 40-46
- RCAHMS Execution sites Retrieved : 2012-07-01
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 592–595. .
- The Northvegr Foundation Retrieved : 2012-07-01
- Baronies & Regalities. Accessed: 2009/12/02
- Cawley, Charles, Peers and Heirs by Sir Malcolm Innes of Edingight, KCVO, Medieval Lands database, Foundation for Medieval Genealogy,[self-published source][better source needed] Retrieved : 2012-07-01
- RCAHMS Retrieved : 2012-07-01
- In the Days of the Baron Bailies Retrieved : 2012-07-01
- RCAHMS Retrieved : 2012-07-01
- Love (2009), Page 322
- Love (2003), Page 208
- Love, Dane (2003). Ayrshire : Discovering a County. Ayr : Fort Publishing. ISBN 0-9544461-1-9.
- Love, Dane (2009). Legendary Ayrshire. Custom : Folklore : Tradition. Auchinleck : Carn Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9518128-6-0
- Train, Joseph (1844). The Dule Tree of Cassillis. The Ayrshire Wreath MDCCCXLIV. Kilmarnock : R. Crawford & Son.