Witchcraft and mystery, or, the object that never was in our collection

Witchcraft and mystery, or, the object that never was in our collection

Jessica Burdge and Katie Eagleton


Every museum has at least one object that people sometimes ask about, but which actually isn’t in their collection.  For the Museums of the University of St Andrews there is an added layer of mystery, because ours is a witch skull, and we can’t illustrate this blog with a photograph of it, because it has disappeared.

Lilias Adie, picture courtesy of Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, University of Dundee


More than 300 years ago, Lilias Adie from Torryburn, Fife, was accused of witchcraft. She died in prison in 1704, before the sentence of execution could be carried out, and her remains were buried on the beach weighed down by a large stone, which was said to be to stop her coming back to haunt people. In the 19th century, her remains were exhumed, and accounts you can find online today usually say that the skull was initially in the private collection of a doctor in Dunfermline, then in the University of St Andrews anatomy collection – but went missing sometime in the 20th century. Today, more than 300 years after Adie’s death, there are attempts to find her remains, and to more respectfully remember her and others who were tried for, and convicted of, witchcraft in Scotland.

It’s a story that has all the elements of a mystery story: witchcraft and a disappearing skull. As a result, we receive reasonably regular queries asking where the skull is now, and what records we have of it in our collection in the past?

The St Andrews connection seems to begin on 30th September 1884, when twelve men of the Fifeshire Medical Association met at St Andrews, in the classroom of Professor Pettigrew, anatomist at the University. The first talk was on the history of the University, and the second talk was on Lilias Adie. Dr William Barrie Dow from Dunfermline showed her skull to the gentlemen present, explained his observations on it, and read extracts from the Kirk-Session records. There was then a third talk on the then-recently-described tuberculosis bacterium, including viewing of specimens through microscopes, before everyone repaired to the Cross Keys Hotel for dinner and speeches to celebrate Dr Dow having been elected President of the Association for the coming year (Dundee Evening Telegraph, 2 October 1884, page 3).

It is not clear who owned the skull in 1884 – or, indeed, whether the group took it to the Cross Keys with them – but in the published version of his talk, Dow named Robert Couston (who had not been present at the meeting) as the former owner of the skull. Sometime around the turn of the century, although it is not known where or by whom, three photographs of the skull were taken, and it is these that have recently allowed a reconstruction of Adie’s face to be created by specialists at the University of Dundee. In 1901 and 1904, Robert Couston published articles about Lilias Adie in the Dunfermline Press in which he said that her skull had come to the St Andrews Museum.

The problem is, we can find no trace of it.

From 1838 onwards, the St Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society, who were responsible for the museum at the University, kept detailed lists of objects acquired for the collection, and in those there is no mention of anything that could be this skull. Nor is it included in a complete list of the museum and its collection that was compiled in 1904 when the Literary and Philosophical Society formally handed both over to the University. These records are detailed, but to be sure that the skull wasn’t somehow in the collection without proper documentation, we took copies of the photographs of Lilias Adie’s skull (which has distinctive and prominent front teeth) and compared it with the skulls in the Anatomy and Pathology collection. None were similar. The trail, at this point, goes cold, and we can only conclude that Lilias Adie’s skull was probably never part of the collections at the University of St Andrews.

However, readers who know the history of the University and the history of its museums may have spotted a coincidence of locations here, that might be the key to unlocking this mystery. That is, Professor Pettigrew’s rooms at the University were in the United College Building, only a few hundred metres from the location of the University Museum, which in 1884 was in Upper College Hall.

Perhaps, then, there is no witchcraft and no mysterious disappearance here at all – if statements that the skull was in the University of St Andrews Museum trace back to newspaper reports by someone who wasn’t there, published 15 years later, of an evening in 1884 when a group of medical gentlemen examined Adie’s skull at the University close to – but not in – the University Museum.

The last time the location of Lilias Adie’s skull was known was in 1938 when it was displayed along with other objects relating to witchcraft as part of the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, in one of the two Scottish pavilions. One contemporary newspaper reported that it “grins from a showcase”, and repeats Couston’s statement that the skull had previously been in the collections of the University of St Andrews but gives no details about who at that point owned it (Falkirk Herald, 16 July 1938, page 7). Records of the Empire Exhibition are now held in the University of Glasgow Archives but the Hunterian Museum has no record of Lilias Adie’s skull being deposited in their collection, so it may be that it is still in a private collection somewhere.

The search continues.

Welcoming everyone (but not their umbrellas) for more than 170 years

On Monday 16 April 1838, a group of men met in the University Library at St Andrews, with Robert Haldane, mathematician, theologian, and Principal of St Mary’s College, chairing the meeting. By his side was David Brewster, the Principal of the United College, and although these two men did not always agree on matters of religion, they, along with 35 other “Gentlemen connected with the University and the City of St Andrews” paid half a guinea each to support the foundation of a new Literary and Philosophical Society, to promote research and to found a museum in the university.

Two side by side images of a man sat with a book.
A stereoscope (3D) image of Dr John Adamson, first curator of the Museum. Library Photographic Collections: ALB-8-88.

What kind of museum?

The first meeting appointed the first curator for the new museum, John Adamson, a physician and pioneer of early photography. The Society quickly got to work, and by the time of the first general meeting of the Society in the Library on 7 May, there had already been “numerous donations” to the museum by members. On 4 June David Brewster reported that the United College would provide a room to be fitted out and used as a Museum, and by October of the same year the Society’s meetings had moved there. Soon, with a rapidly-growing collection, members of the Society began to think about the possibilities for access to the museum, including for university classes to be held in there in the future. They weren’t yet clear whether it would be (as the minutes put it) “more of a character of a University, than of a Private, museum”, but whichever it was, in the first few years it didn’t seem that the Society had a clear sense of the potential public audience for the collections and displays.

Fishermen and tradesmen

By the 1850s, the Museum was open to members of the Society, to professors and their classes, and to students studying the collection, and it also opened on Saturdays in summer for the public. Evidently relishing the way public access had brought interesting things to him for the collection, Curator John Adamson reported in 1855 that since the Museum had been “thrown open to the fishermen” the Society had been given some interesting specimens for the collection. The same year, he proudly noted that as many as 247 people had visited on one afternoon, and that “many tradesmen” had as a result begun to study natural history. The following year, in summer 1856, interest was similarly strong but the curator’s report had a note of caution: there had been damage done, by accident, because of the number of visitors. They were in future to be asked to leave sticks, parasols, and umbrellas outside rather than bringing them into the museum to protect the Museum and its collection.

Rows of glass museum display cases with antlers and taxidermy mounted aroudn the walls.
The Museum in Upper College Hall in 1910. Library Photographic Collections: StAU-BMMus-1.

A penny or two

All was not, however, well with the Society’s finances despite this growing public interest in the Museum. The University had already had to contribute to the costs of taking care of the collection, and from 1857 the Society introduced admission fees for the Museum. Members of the Society were still admitted free with up to five guests, students of the University were admitted free on Saturday, and special arrangements were made for professors and their classes to use the museum. School pupils were welcome on Wednesdays and Saturdays, as long as they were accompanied by a teacher or tutor, and they paid 1 penny each, with general admission for the public charged at 2 pence each.

Fast forward to today

Fast forward more than 150 years, and the Museums of the University of St Andrews no longer charge entry fees, and the Wardlaw Museum and Bell Pettigrew Museum are currently temporarily closed due to the impact of coronavirus Covid-19. This April, the Museums team are celebrating the birthday of the Literary and Philosophical Society and its museum. Whether you are a student, fisherman, tradesman, school pupil, or anyone else, we look forward to welcoming you to the Museums when we’re able to reopen. But we might still ask you to leave your umbrella at the door, to protect the collections and objects on display, among them some of the ones that were acquired by the Literary and Philosophical Society for its collections 182 years ago.

The first volume of the minutes of the Literary and Philosophical Society (1838-1861) has been digitised by the University of St Andrews Library. If you would like to learn more about the society, click here to view the minutes online.

Dr Katie Eagleton, Director of Museums

Welcome to the Wardlaw Museum

Dr Katie Eagleton, Director of Museums

A new University Museum
St Andrews was Scotland’s first University and there have long been artworks and collections displayed in spaces across the campus. A dedicated University Museum was set up in 1838 in Upper College Hall, but by 1912 it had outgrown that space and the collections and displays were moved to the newly-built Bell Pettigrew Museum. Almost 100 years later, the Museum of the University of St Andrews (MUSA) opened on the Scores, but within a decade it, too, had reached capacity and needed to be expanded and extended.

Since 2018, the Museums team have been working on a major project that builds on 10 years of success as MUSA, but also takes the opportunity to reimagine our work and our approach to it. When it reopens in spring 2020, the Museum will have four new thematic galleries, a temporary exhibitions gallery, and new and renewed spaces to welcome visitors and expand our events and programmes.


Why Wardlaw?
Marking this transformation, we decided to change the name from MUSA to the Wardlaw Museum, after Bishop Henry Wardlaw, who played a critical role in founding the University of St Andrews. In 1413, Wardlaw secured a document from the Pope that officially marked the foundation of the this as a university – this Papal Bull, which arrived in St Andrews to much celebration in 1414, will be one of the star objects when the Wardlaw Museum opens. It reflects the 600-year history of the University, but will be displayed alongside contemporary objects and artworks that remind us that this is an ancient university that has always looked to the future, and always been groundbreaking.

Statue of Bishop Henry Wardlaw, St Mary’s College Quadrangle

We’ll share more details of our upcoming exhibitions and events programmes on our blog and website, as well as stories and features about objects in our collection that will be on display.

Join us from Spring 2020 to celebrate the opening of the Wardlaw Museum!