Real Life Hallowe’en Stories from History

[Celebratory Days Contents]

A wee pick of happenings from history that seem suited to being told at Hallowe’en.


The well-known superstitious observances connected with Halloween have been referred to Eastern solar worship. The Reverend James Robertson, minister of Callander, described them in 1791, and alluded to the stone circles of Scotland as to Druidical temples. He tells that in his day, in hamlets, a fire was lighted at sundown, made entirely of ferns gathered on Halloween. The neighbours assembled, and each, according to seniority, placed a marked stone at the edge of the ashes till a circle was made about the site of the fire, which was then abandoned.

Next morning the place was visited, and if any of the party found his foot-print in the ashes, and his stone removed from its place, he was doomed to die before the twelve months expired…

All Saints, All Hallows or Halloween, “Samhuinn,” 1st of November, is late in autumn – so there are Pagan as well as Christian observances connected with these two seasons.


We intend to summon back, like the dissolving views in the magic mirror of Cornelius Agrippa, the Edinburgh of the past, with all the stirring, brilliant, and terrible events of which it has been the arena.


The ghosts of kings and queens, of knights and nobles, shall walk its old streets again, and the brave, or sad, or startling, story of every time-worn tenement will be told; nor shall those buildings that have passed away be forgotten. Again the beacon fires shall seem to blaze on the grassy summits of Soltra and Dunpender, announcing that southern hosts have crossed the Tweed, and summoning the sturdy burgesses, from every echoing close and wynd, in all the array of war, to man their gates and walls, as all were bound, under pain of death, to do when the Deacon Convener of the Trades unfurled “the Blue Blanket” of famous memory.

– Old and New Edinburgh (1880), Vol. 1, Introduction.


In the year 1749, the remote Highland district of Braemar, in Aberdeenshire, was the scene of a murder, which was subsequently alleged to have been discovered through the instrumentality of the ghost of the murdered person; to which effect evidence was given on the trial of two men before the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh. From the details of the trial, which have been printed in a separate volume by the Bannatyne Club, Sir Walter Scott framed a brief narrative, which may serve on the present occasion, with the help of a few additional particulars:

‘Upon the 10th of June 1754, Duncan Terig alias Clark, and Alexander Bain Macdonald, two Highlanders, were tried before the Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh, for the murder of Arthur Davis, sergeant in Guise’s Regiment, on the 28th of September 1749. The accident happened not long after the civil war [of 1745], the embers of which were still reeking, so there existed too many reasons on account of which an English soldier, straggling far from assistance, might be privately cut off by the inhabitants of these wilds. [Davis had a fowling-piece, and money and rings upon his person, and some of his valuables were afterwards seen in possession of the accused. Robbery seems to have been the sole object of his murderers.] It appears that Sergeant Davis was amissing many years without any certainty as to his fate. At length an account of the murder appeared from the evidence of one Alexander Macpherson [or Macgillies], (a Highlander [a farm-servant at Inverey, and about twenty-six years of age], speaking no language but Gaelic, and sworn by an interpreter), who gave the following extraordinary account of his cause of knowledge: He was, he said, in bed in his cottage, when an apparition came to his bedside, and commanded him to rise and follow him out of doors. Believing his visitor to be one Farquharson, a neighbour and friend, the witness did as he was bid; and when they were without the cottage, the appearance told the witness he was the ghost of Sergeant Davis, and requested him to go and bury his mortal remains, which lay concealed in a place which he pointed out, in a moorland tract, called the hill of Christie. He desired him to take [Donald] Farquharson as an assistant. Next day the witness went to the place specified, and there found the bones of a human body, much decayed. the witness did not at the time bury the bones so found; in consequence of which the sergeant’s ghost again appeared to him, up braiding him with his breach of promise. On this occasion, the witness asked the ghost who were the murderers, and received for an answer that he had been slain by the prisoners at the bar. The witness, after this second visitation, called the assistance of Farquharson, and buried the body.


‘Farquharson was brought in evidence, to prove that the preceding witness, Macpherson, had called him to the burial of the bones, and told him the same story which he repeated in court. Isabel Machardie, a person who slept in one of the beds which run along the wall in an ordinary Highland hut, declared that upon the night when Macpherson said he saw the ghost, she saw a naked man enter the house, and go towards Macpherson’s bed. [More in detail her evidence was this: ‘She saw something naked come in at the door; which frighted her so much that she drew the clothes over her head: that when it appeared, it came in a bowing posture; that she cannot tell what it was; that next morning she asked Macpherson what it was that had troubled them the night before? and that he answered, she might be easy, for it would not trouble her any more.’]

‘Yet, though the supernatural incident was thus fortified, and although there were other strong presumptions against the prisoners, the story of the apparition threw an air of ridicule on the whole evidence for the prosecution. It was followed up by the counsel for the prisoners asking, in the cross-examination of Macpherson: “What language did the ghost speak in?” The witness, who was himself ignorant of the English language, replied: “As good Gaelic as I ever heard in Lochaber.” “Pretty well for the ghost of an English serjeant,” answered the counsel. The inference was rather smart and plausible than sound, for the apparition of the ghost being admitted, we know too little of the other world to judge whether all languages may not be alike familiar to those who belong to it. It imposed, however, on the jury, who found the accused parties Not guilty, although their counsel and solicitor, [A brief account of the case is given in the European Magazine for May 1793, apparently from the recital of the agent for the prisoners, then surviving. The circumstance of the agent’s being fully persuaded of the guilt of his clients is there stated.] and most of the court, were satisfied of their having committed the murder.’

Scott’s hypothesis for the explanation of the alleged apparition, is that giving information is unpopular in the Highlands, and Macpherson got up the ghost-story, ‘knowing well that his superstitious countrymen would pardon his communicating the commission intrusted to him by a being of the other world.’ This hypothesis (whatever other may be adopted) is not only without support in positive fact, but it assumes a degree of anxiety for the execution of justice wholly gratuitous, and certainly far from characteristic of the Braemar Highlander of that day. It also ignores the corroborative evidence of Isabel Machardie. What is even more important, it is out of harmony with the chronology of the story, for Macpherson related his ghostly visitation and buried the sergeant’s bones three years before any measures for the vindication of justice were taken, and, for anything that appears, no such measures would ever have been taken, but for the active interference of a retired officer of the army, named Small. This gentleman seems to have been inspired with a strong feeling as a friend of the government and of the army, in contradistinction to the Jacobite sentiments which then largely prevailed. So vigorous were his efforts to make out evidence against the murderers of Davis, that it was taken notice of in the formal defences of the accused, and orally by their counsel, the eminent Mr Lockhart, who was notoriously a Jacobite. Small felt so much exasperated by the insinuations of the counsel, that he next day appeared in the Parliament Close, with his sword by his side, and made an assault upon Mr Lockhart, as the latter was walking to the court; for which offence he was put in prison by the Lords, and only liberated on his making an apology. [Scots Magazine, 1754.] It seems to have been to this circumstance that Wedderburn alluded in his famous retort upon Lockhart, in the Court of Session in Edinburgh, when, stung by the overbearing manner of his senior, he reminded him of his having been disgraced in his person and dishonoured in his bed – a burst of sarcasm followed by his laying down his gown, and deserting the Scotch for the English bar. (See Book of Days, vol. 1. p. 39.)

– Book of Days (1886), Vol. 2, 28th September.

Major Weir, “after a life characterised externally by all the graces of devotion, but polluted in secret by crimes of the most revolting nature, and which little needed the addition of wizardry to excite the horror of living men, fell into a severe sickness, which affected his mind so much that he made open and voluntary confession of all his wickedness.”

According to Professor Sinclair, the major had made a compact with the devil, who of course outwitted his victim. The fiend had promised, it was said, to keep him scatheless from all peril, but a single “burn;” hence the accidental naming of a man named Burn, by the sentinels at the Nether Bow Port, when he visited them as commander of the Guard, cast him into a fit of terror; and on another occasion, finding Libberton Burn before him, was sufficient to make him turn back trembling.

His sick-bed confession, when he was now verging on his seventieth year, seemed at first so incredible that Sir Andrew Ramsay of Abbotshall, who was Lord Provost from 1662 to 1673, refused for a time to order his arrest. Eventually, however, the major, his sister (the partner of one of his crimes), and the black magical staff, were all taken into custody and lodged in the Tolbooth.

The staff was secured by the express request of his sister, and local superstition still records how it was wont to perform all the major’s errands for any article he wanted from the neighbouring shops; that it answered the door when “the pin was tirled,” and preceded him in the capacity of a link-boy at night in the Lawnmarket. In his house several sums of money in dollars were found wrapped up in pieces of cloth. A fragment of the latter, on being thrown on the fire by the bailie in charge, went up the wide chimney with an explosion like a cannon, while the dollars, when the magistrate took them home, flew about in such a fashion that the demolition of his house seemed imminent.

While in prison he confessed, without scruple, that he had been guilty of crimes alike possible and impossible. Stung to madness my conscience, the unfortunate wretch seemed to feel some comfort in sharing his misdeeds with the devil, yet he refused to address himself to Heaven for pardon. To all who urged him to pray, he answered by wild screams. “Torment me no more – I am tortured enough already!” was his constant cry; and he declined to see a clergyman of any creed, saying, according to “Law’s Memorials,” that “his condemnation was sealed; and since he was to go to the devil, he did not wish to anger him!”

When asked by the minister of Ormiston if he had ever seen the devil, he answered, “that any fealling he ever hade of him was in the dark.”

He and his sister were tried on the 9th of April, 1670, before the Justiciary Court; he was sentenced to be strangled and burned [the usual punishment for witchcraft in Scotland], between Edinburgh and Leith, and his sister Grizel (called Jean by some), to be hanged in the Grassmarket.

When his neck was encircled by the fatal rope at the place of execution, and the fire that was to consume his body – the “burn” to which, as the people said the devil had lured him – he was bid to say, “Lord, be merciful to me!” But he only replied fiercely and mournfully, “Let me alone – I will not; I have lived as a beast and must die like a beast.” When his lifeless body fell from the stake into the flaming pyre beneath, his favourite stick, which (according to Ravaillac Redivivus) “was all of one piece of thornwood, with a crooked head,” and without the aid of which he could perform nothing, was cast in also, and it was remarked by the spectators that it gave extraordinary twistings and writhings, and was as long in burning as the major himself. The place where he perished was at Greenside, on the sloping bank, whereon, in 1846, was erected the new church, so called.

If this man was not mad, he certainly was a singular paradox in human nature, and one of a kind somewhat uncommon – outwardly he exhibited the highest strain of moral sentiment for years, and during all that time had been secretly addicted to every degrading propensity; till eventually, unable to endure longer the sense of secret guilt and hypocrisy, with the terrors of sickness and age upon him, and death seeming near, he made a confession which some at first believed, and on that confession alone was sentenced to die.

If Weir was not mad, the ideas and confessions of his sister show that she undoubtedly was. She evidently believed that her brother’s stick was one possessed of no ordinary power. Professor Sinclair tells us, that on one of the ministers returning to the Tolbooth from Greenside, she would not believe that her brother had been burned till told that it had perished too; “whereupon, notwithstanding her age, she nimbly, and in a furious rage, fell upon her knees, uttering words horrible to be remembered.” She assured her hearers that her mother had been a witch, and that when the mark of a horse-shoe – a mark which she herself displayed – came on the forehead of the old woman, she could tell of events then happening at any distance, and to her ravings in the Tolbooth must some of the darkest traditions of the West Bow be assigned.

She confessed that she was a sorceress, and among other incredible things, said that many years before a fiery chariot, unseen by others, came to her brother’s house in open day; a stranger invited them to enter, and they proceeded to Dalkeith. While on the road another stranger came, and whispered something in the ear of her brother, who became visibly affected; and this intelligence was tidings of the defeat of the Scottish army, that very day, at Worcester. She stated, too, that a dweller in Dalkeith had a familiar spirit, who span for her an extraordinary quantity of yarn, in the time that it would have taken four women to do so.

At the place of execution in the Grassmarket a frenzy seized her, and the wretched old creature began to rend her garments, in order, as she shrieked, that she might die “with all the shame she could!”

Undeterred by her fate, ten other old women were in the same year burned in Edinburgh for alleged dabbling in witchcraft.

The reverend Professor who compiled “Satan’s Invisible World,” relates that a few nights before the major made his astounding confession, the wife of a neighbour, when descending from the Castle Hill towards the Bow-head, saw three women in different windows, shouting, laughing, and clapping their hands. She passed on, and when abreast of Major Weir’s door, she saw a woman of twice mortal stature arise from the street. Filled with great fear, she desired her maid, who bore a lantern, to hasten on, but the tall spectre still kept ahead of them, uttering shouts of “unmeasurable laughter,” till they came to the narrow alley called the Stinking Close, into which the spectre turned, and which was seen to be full of flaming torches, as if a multitude of people were there, all laughing merrily. “This sight, at so dead a time of night, no people being in the windows belonging to the close, made her and her servant haste home, declaring all that they saw to the rest of the family.”

“For upwards of a century after Major Weir’s death he continued to be the bugbear of the Bow, and his house remained uninhabited. His apparition,” says Chambers, “was frequently seen at night, flitting like a black and silent shadow about the street. His house, though known to be deserted by everything human, was sometimes observed at midnight to be full of lights, and heard to emit strange sounds, as of dancing, howling, and, what is strangest of all, spinning. Some people occasionally saw the major issue from the low close at midnight, mounted on a black horse without a head, and gallop off in a whirlwind of flame. Nay, sometimes the whole inhabitants of the Bow would be roused from their sleep at an early hour in the morning by the sound of a coach and six, first rattling up the Lawnmarket, and then thundering down the Bow, stopping at the head of the terrible close for a few minutes, and then rattling and thundering back again; being neither more nor less than Satan come in one of his best equipages to take home the major and his sister after they had spent a night’s leave of absence in their terrestrial dwelling.”

Scott also tells us in his “Letters on Demonology,” that bold indeed was the urchin who approached the gloomy house, at the risk of seeing the major’s enchanted staff parading the desolate apartments, or hearing the hum of the necromantic wheel which procured for his sister such a reputation as a spinner.

About the beginning of the present century, according to the author above quoted, when Weir’s house was beginning to be regarded with less superstitious terror, an attempt was made by the luckless proprietor to find one bold enough to become his tenant, and such an adventurer was procured in the person of a dissipated old soldier named William Patullo, whose poverty rendered him glad to possess a house at any risk, on the low terms at which it was offered; and the greatest interest was felt by people of all ranks in the city, on its becoming known that Major Weir’s house was about to have a mortal tenant at last!

Patullo and his spouse felt rather flattered by the interest the excited; but on the first night, as the venturesome couple lay abed, fearful and wakeful, “a dim uncertain light proceeding from the gathered embers of their fire, and all being silent around them – they suddenly saw a form like that of a calf, which came forward to the bed, and setting its fore-feet upon the stock, looked steadfastly at the unfortunate pair. When it had contemplated them thus for a few minutes, to their great relief it took itself away, and, slowly retiring, vanished from their sight. As might be expected, they deserted the house next morning; and for another half century no other attempt was made to embank this part of the world of light from the aggressions of the world of darkness.”

But even the world of spirits could not withstand the Improvement Commission, and the spring of 1878 saw the house of the wizard numbered with the things that are no more in this quarter of Edinburgh, and to effect the removal of which the Commissioners gave freely the sum of £400,000.

– Old and New Edinburgh (1880), Vol. 1, Ch. 38, The West Bow.

The old Theatre Royal had an unpleasant tenant in the shape of a ghost, which made its appearance, or rather made itself heard first during the management of Mr. Jackson. His family occupied a small house over the box-office and immediately adjoining the theatre, and it was alleged that long after the latter had closed and the last candle been snuffed out, strange noises pervaded the entire building, as if the mimic scenes of the plays were being acted over again by phantoms none could see. As the story spread and grew, it caused some consternation. What the real cause of this was has never been explained, but it occurred for nights at a time.

– Old and New Edinburgh (1880), Vol. 1, Ch. 43, East Side of the North Bridge.

Dec. 26 [1590]. – A series of extraordinary trials for witchcraft and other crimes commenced at this date.

One David Seton, dwelling in Tranent, suspected his servant-maid, Geilie Duncan, of a supernatural power of curing sickness, and, having subjected her to the torture of the pilniewinks (a screw for the fingers), soon extorted from her, not only a confession that the devil had given her the power of a witch, but information inculpating a number of persons in the like criminality. Among these were John Fian (alias Cunningham), schoolmaster at Prestonpans; Agnes Sampson, a midwife at Keith; Barabara Napier, the wife of a citizen of Edinburgh; and Eupham McCalyean, a lady of rank, daughter of a deceased judge of the Court of Session. The confessions of these persons, for the most part wrung from them by torture, form a strange jumble of possible and impossible, of horrible and ludicrous things.

Fian, who was a young man, confessed to some wicked arts which he had practised for obtaining the love of a young woman of his neighbourhood. There was nothing in them or their effects but what is easily reconcilable with natural fact, even to the striking of a rival with a sort of madness, under which, when brought into the king’s chamber, where Fian was under examination, he fell a-bounding and capering with an energy which it required many persons to restrain, and this for an hour together, at the end of which he declared that he had been in a sound sleep. But Fian also admitted, though only under torture, his having had conferences with the devil; he had attended various meetings of witches with the Enemy of Man, some of which took place in North Berwick kirk, and on these occasions he had acted as registrar or clerk of proceedings. He had also been one of a party of witches which went off from Prestonpans one night to a ship at sea, which they sunk by their incantations. He had chased a cat at Tranent, with the design of trowing it into the sea, in order to raise storms for the destruction of shipping; and in this chase it was alleged that he was borne above the ground, and had leaped a wall, the head of which he could not, but for witchcraft, have touched with his hand. Fian soon after contrived to escape from prison, but was retaken and brought back, when, being found to deny his former confession, the king expressed his belief that he must have entered into a new compact with the Prince of Darkness. His person was searched for marks, but in vain; and he was then subjected to tortures of the direst kind, with a view to bringing him back to his confession. The nails of the poor wretch were torn away with pincers; needles were thrust up to the heads in his fingers, and his legs were crushed in the boots till ‘the blood and marrow spouted forth.’ He resisted all, and thus only impressed the king and others with the conviction that the devil had entered into his heart,. He was then arraigned, condemned, and burned.

The trials of three of the women inculpated took place in the course of a few ensuing months – that of Agnes Sampson on the 27th of January 1591.

On Sampson’s trial, some of the transactions first revealed in Fian’s case came out in greater detail, particularly the night-meeting of the sorcerers of the district with their grisly master at North Berwick kirk. ‘John Fian blew up the doors, and blew in the lichts, whilk were like meikle black candles sticking round about the pulpit. The devil start up himself in the pulpit, like ane meikle black man, and callit every man by his name, and every ane answerit; “Here, Master.” Robert Grierson being namit, they ran all hirdy-girdy, and were angry; for it was promisit that he should be callit “Robert the Comptroller, alias Rob the Rower,” for expreming of his name. The first thing he demandit was, “gif they [had] keepit all promise and been guid servants?” and “What they had done since the last time they had convenit?” On his command, they openit up the graves, twa within and ane without the kirk, and took off the joints of their fingers, taes, and knees, and partit them amang them; and the said Agnes Sampson gat for her part ane winding-sheet and twa joints, whilk she tint negligently. The devil commandit them to keep the joints upon them, while [till] they were dry, and then to make ane powder of them, to do evil withal. Then he commandit them to keep his commandments, whilk were to do all the evil they could.’ The devil then ordered them to perform an act of homage towards himself, which does not admit of description, but which may be said to have been at least one degree more humiliating than the kissing of the papal great toe. In the account of the confessions, it is stated that they inveighed against the king, and, being asked why he had such a hatred to him, answered: ‘By reason the king is the greatest enemy he hath in the world.’ According to the dittay, the devil ‘had on him ane gown and ane hat, whilk were baith black; and they that were assembled, part stood and part sat. John Fian was ever nearest the devil, at his left elbock; Graymeal keepit the door.’

Mrs Sampson was adjudged to be taken to the Castle-hill, and there strangled at a stake, and her body burned to ashes.

– Domestic Annals (1885), 1585-1590.

In July and August, [1165,] there appeared 2 fearful comets, before the sun rising and quarter of an hour, with a radiant crown over them. In July and August this year, that wicked spirit and enemy of mankind, Satan, so acted his part with thunder and fire, exhibiting himself in diverse horrid postures, was visibly seen by many thousands of people of all kinds.

– Historical Works (1824), Vol. 1, Malcolm IV.

Mr. George Sinclair, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow, and afterwards minister of Eastwood in Renfrewshire, by the publication, in 1685, of his work, “Satan’s Invisible World Discovered,” did much to add to the terrors of Mary King’s Close, by his account of apparitions seen therein, and recorded “by witnesses of undoubted veracity” – a work long hawked about the streets by the itinerant sellers of gingerbread. The last, or northern portion of the close, with its massive vaulted lower storeys, was an open ruin in 1845; the south, or upper, had fallen into ruin after a fire in 1750, and was in that condition when a portion of the site was required for the west side of the Royal Exchange, three years after.

It would appear from the Professor’s narrative, that Mr. Thomas Coltheart, a respectable law agent, whose legal business had begun to flourish, took a better style of house in Mary King’s Close. Their maid-servant was, of course, duly warned by obliging neighbours that the house was haunted, and in terror she gave up her situation and fled, leaving Mr. And Mrs. Coltheart, to face whatever they might see, alone.


Accordingly, it came to pass that, when the lady had seated herself by the bedside of her gudeman, who, being slightly indisposed on the Sunday afternoon, had lain down to rest, while she read the Scriptures, chancing to look up, she saw to her intense dismay a human head, apparently that of an old man, with a grey floating beard, suspended in mid-air, at a little distance, and gazing intently at her with elvish eyes. She swooned at this terrible sight, and remained insensible till the neighbours returned from church. Her husband strove to reason her out of her credulity, and the evening passed without further trouble; but they had not been long in bed when he himself espied the same phantom head by the fire-light, floating in mid-air, and eying him with ghostly eyes.

He lighted a candle, and betook him to prayer, but with little effect, for in about an hour the bodyless phantom was joined by that of a child, also suspended in mid-air, and this was followed by an arm, naked from the elbow, which, in defiance of all Colthearts prayers and pious interjections, seemed bent on shaking hands with him and his wife!

In the most solemn way the luckless lawyer conjured these phantoms to entrust him with the story of any wrongs they wished righted; but all to no purpose. The old tenants evidently regarded the new as intruders, and others came to their aid, for the naked arm was joined by a spectral dog, which curled itself up in a chair, and went to sleep; and then came a cat, and many other creatures, but of grotesque and monstrous forms, till the whole room swarmed with them, so that the honest couple were compelled to kneel on their bed, there being no standing room on the floor; till suddenly, with a deep and awful groan, as of a strong man dying in agony, the whole vanished, and Mr. And Mrs. Coltheart found themselves alone.


In those days of superstition, Mr. Coltheart – if we are to believe Professor Sinclair – must have been a man of more than ordinary courage, for he continued to reside in this terrible house till the day of his death, without further molestation; but when that day came, it would seem not to have been unaccompanied by the supernatural. At the moment he expired, a gentleman, whose friend and law agent he was, while asleep in bed beside his wife, at Tranent, ten miles distant, was roused by the nurse, who had been terrified “by something like a cloud moving about the room.”

Starting up with the first instinct of a Scot in those days, he seized his sword to defend himself, when “the something” gradually assumed the form and face of a man, who looked at him pale and ghastly, and in whom he recognised his friend Thomas Coldheart.

“Are you dead, and if so, what is your errand?” He demanded, despite his fears, on which the apparition shook its head twice and melted away. Proceeding at once to Edinburgh, the ghost-seer went direct to the house of his friend in Mary King’s Close, and found the wife of the former in tears for the recent death of her husband. This account – a very common kind of ghost story – we are told, was related by the minister (of course) who was in the house on this occasion, to John Duke of Lauderdale (who died in 1682), in presence of many other nobles. After this the house was again deserted; yet another attempt was made to inhabit it – probably rent-free – by a courageous and drink-loving old soldier and his wife; but towards midnight the candle began to burn blue, and the grisly old head was seen to hover in mid-air, on which the terrified couple fled, and Mary King’s Close was finally abandoned to desolation and decay. No record of its inmates in the flesh has ever been handed down, and thus the name of the place is associated with its goblins alone.

Professor Sinclair, who wrote the history of these, was author of several very learned works on astronomy, navigation, mathematics, and so forth; but he also favoured the world with a strange “Discourse concerning Coal” – a compound of science and superstition, containing an account of the witches of Glenluce, Sinclair being, like many other learned men of his time, a firm believer in the black art.

– Old and New Edinburgh (1880), Vol. 1, Ch. 26, The High Street Continued.

Writing to Francis Grose (first published in Sir Egerton Brydges’ Censura Literaria, 1796), ‘Among the many witch-stories I have heard,’ he says, ‘relating to Alloway Kirk, I distinctly remember only two or three. Upon a stormy night, amid whistling squalls of wind and bitter blasts of hail – in short, on such a night as the devil would choose to take the air in – a farmer, or farmer’s servant, was plodding and plashing homeward with his plough-irons on his shoulder, having been getting some repairs on them at a neighbouring smithy. His way lay by the Kirk of Alloway; and being rather on the anxious look-out in approaching a place so well known to be a favourite haunt of the devil, and the devil’s friends and emissaries, he was struck aghast by discovering through the horrors of the storm and stormy night, a light, which on his nearer approach plainly shewed itself to proceed from the haunted edifice. Whether he had been fortified from above on his devout supplication, as is customary with people when they suspect the immediate presence of Satan, or whether, according to another custom, he had got courageously drunk at the smithy, I will not pretend to determine; but so it was, that he ventured to go up to, nay into, the very Kirk. As luck would have it, his temerity came off unpunished. The members of the infernal junto were all out on some midnight business or other, and he saw nothing but a kind of kettle or cauldron, depending from the roof, over the fire, simmering some heads of unchristened children, limbs of execut4ed malefactors, etc., for the business of the night. It was, in for a penny, in for a pound with the honest ploughman: so without ceremony he unhooked the cauldron from the fire, and pouring out the damnable ingredients, inverted it on his head, and carried it fairly home, where it remained long in the family, a living evidence of the truth of the story. Another story, which I can prove to be equally authentic, was as follows:- On a market-day in the town of Ayr, a farmer from Carrick, and consequently whose way lay by the very gate of Alloway Kirkyard, in order to cross the river Doon at the old bridge, which is about two or three hundred yards further on than the said gate, had been detained by his business till by the time he reached Alloway it was the wizard hour between night and morning. Though he was terrified with a blaze streaming from the Kirk, yet, as it is a well-known fact, that to turn back on these occasions is running by far the greatest risk of mischief, he prudently advanced on his road. When he had reached the gate of the Kirkyard, he was surprised and entertained, through the ribs and arches of an old Gothic window, which still faces the highway, to see a dance of witches merrily footing it round their old sooty blackguard master, who was keeping them all alive with the power of his bagpipe. The farmer, stopping his horse to observe them a little, could plainly descry the faces of many old women of his acquaintance and neighbourhood. How the gentleman was dressed, tradition does not say, but that the ladies were all in their smocks: and one of them happening unluckily to have a smock which was considerably too short to answer all the purpose of that piece of dress, our farmer was so tickled that he involuntarily burst out with a loud laugh, “Weel luppen, Maggy wi’ the short sark!” and recollecting himself, instantly spurred his horse to the top of his speed. I need not mention the universally known fact, that no diabolical power can pursue you beyond the middle of a running stream. Lucky it was for the poor farmer that the river Doon was so near, for notwithstanding the speed of the horse, which was good one, when he reached the middle of the arch of the bridge, and consequently the middle of the stream, the pursuing vengeful hags were so close at his heels that one of them actually sprang to seize him: but it was too late; nothing was on her side of the stream but the horse’s tail, which immediately gave way at her infernal grip, as if blasted by a stroke of lightning; but the farmer was beyond her reach. However, the unsightly tailless condition of the vigorous steed was, to the last hour of the noble creature’s life, an awful warning to the Carrick farmers not to stay too late in Ayr markets.

‘The last relation I shall give, though equally true, is not so well identified as the two former with regard to the scene; but as the best authorities give it for Alloway, I shall relate it. On a summer’s evening, about the time nature puts on her sables to mourn the expiry of the cheerful day, a shepherd boy, belonging to a farmer in the immediate neighbourhood of Alloway Kirk, had just folded his charge and was returning home. As he passed the Kirk, in the adjoining field, he fell in with a crew of men and women who were busy pulling stems of the plant ragwort. He observed that as each person pulled a ragwort, he or she got astride of it and called out, “Up horsie!” on which the ragwort flew off, like Pegasus, through the air with its rider. The foolish boy likewise pulled his ragwort, and cried with the rest, “Up horsie!” and, strange to tell, away he flew with the company. The first stage at which the cavalcade stopt was a merchant’s wine-cellar in Bordeaux, where, without saying by your leave, they quaffed away at the best the cellar could afford until the morning, foe to the imps and works of darkness, threatened to throw light on the matter, and frightened them from their carousals. The poor shepherd lad, being equally a stranger to the scene and the liquor, heedlessly got himself drunk; and when the rest took horse he fell asleep, and was found so next day by some of the people belonging to the merchant. Somebody that understood Scotch, asking him what he was, he said such a one’s herd in Alloway; and by some means or other getting home again, he lived long to tell the world the wondrous tale.’


For the rhythmus of Tam o’ Shanter, see ante, Prefatory Note to The Twa Dogs (p. 319). The motto is the eighteenth verse of Gavin Douglas’s sixth ‘Proloug’ (Eneados), and should read thus:- ‘Of browneis and of bogillis full this buke.’

Probably Burns drew the suggestion of his hero, Tam o’ Shanter, from the character and adventures of Douglas Graham – born 6th January 1739, died 23[rd] June 1811 – son of Robert Graham, farmer at Douglastown, tenant of the farm of Shanter on the Carrick Shore, and owner of a boat which he had named Tam o’ Shanter. Graham was noted for his convivial habits, which his wife’s ratings tended rather to confirm than to eradicate. Tradition relates that once, when his long-tailed grey mare had waited even longer than usual for her master at the tavern door, certain humourists plucked her tail to such an extent as to leave it little better than a stump, and that Graham, on his attention being called to its state next morning, swore that it had been depilated by the witches at Alloway Kirk (MS. Notes by D. Auld of Ayr in Edinburgh University Library).

– Poetry of Robert Burns (1896), Tam o’ Shanter Notes.

I met two tinkers in St. James’s Street in February with black faces and a pan of burning coals each. They were followed by a wife, and preceded by a mangy terrier with a stiff tail. I joined the party, and one told me a version of “the man who travelled to learn what shivering meant,” while we walked together through the park to Westminster. It was clearly the popular tale which exists in Norse, and German, and Gaelic, and it bore the stamp of the mind of the class, and of the man, who told it in his own peculiar dialect, and who dressed the actors in his own ideas. A cutler and a tinker travel together, and sleep in an empty haunted house for a reward. They are beset by ghosts and spirits of murdered ladies and gentlemen, and the inferior, the tinker, shows most courage, and is the hero. “He went into the cellar to draw beer, and there he found a little chap a-sittin’ on a barrel with a red cap on ‘is ‘ed; and sez he, sez he, ‘Buzz.’ ‘Wot’s buzz? sez the tinker. ‘Never you mind wot’s buzz,’ sez he. ‘That’s mine; don’t you go for to touch it,’ “ etc. etc. etc.


Alexander Napier of Wighthouse appears as one of an inquest in 1488. His coat armorial was a bend, charged with a crescent between two mullets. He married Margaret Napier of Merchiston, whose father, Sir Alexander, was slain at Flodden, and whose brother (his heir) was slain at Pinkie. In 1581, among the names of the Commissioners appointed by James VI., “anent the cuinze,” that of William Napier of the Wrightshouse appears; and in 1590 his sister Barbara Napier was accused of witchcraft on the 8th of May, and of being present at the great meeting of Scottish witches held by the devil in North Berwick.

The wife of Archibald Douglas (brother of the Laird of Carshoggil), her trial was one of great length, involving that of many others; but a portion of the charges against her will suffice as a sample of the whole, from “Pitcairn’s Trials.”


“Satan had informed the witches that James VI. of Scotland was the greatest enemy he had, and the latter’s visit to Norway, to bring over his queen, seemed to afford an opportunity for his destruction. Accordingly, Dr. Fiar of Tranent, the devil’s secretary, summoned a great gathering of witches on Hallow Eve, when 200 of them embarked, each in a riddle or sieve, with much mirth and jollity; and after cruising about somewhere on the ocean with Satan, who rolled himself before them on the waves, dimly seen, but resembling a huge haystack in size and aspect, he delivered to one of the company, named Robert Grierson, a cat, which had been drawn previously nine times through a crook, giving the order to ‘cast the same into the sea.’ ”

This remarkable charm was intended to raise such a furious tempest as would infallibly drown the king and queen, then on their homeward voyage from Christiania, which, if any credit may be given to the declaration of James (who greedily swallowed the story), was not without some effect, as the ship which conveyed him encountered a furious contrary wind, while all the rest of the fleet had a fair one and a smooth sea.

On this, Barbara Napier and her infernal companions, after regaling themselves with wine out of their sieves, landed, and proceeded in procession to North Berwick Kirk, where the devil awaited them in the pulpit, singing as they went –

“Cummer go ye before, cummer go ye;
Gif ye winna gang before, cummer let me.”

Sir James Melville gives us a most distinct account of the devil’s appearance on this auspicious occasion. His body was like iron; “his faice was terrible; his nose like the bek of an egle;” he had claws like those of a griffin on his hands and feet. He then called to roll to see that all were present, and all did him homage in a manner equally humiliating and indecorous, which does not admit of description here.

All this absurdity being proved against Barbara Napier, she was sentenced, with many others, on the 11th of May, 1590, to be burnt “at the stake sett on the Castle Hill, with barrells, coales, heather, and powder;” but when the torch was about to be applied, pregnancy was alleged, according to “Calderwood’s Historie,” as a just and sufficient cause for staying proceedings; the execution was delayed, and ultimately the unfortunate creature was set at liberty by order of James VI.

– Old and New Edinburgh, pp.315-321.

The 23rd of July, [1519], a man possessed with the devil, being stark mad, in Dundee, kills a religious noblewoman, of the order of St. Francis, and 2 others, whereof one [was] big with child, and three men.

– Historical Works (1824), Vol. 1, James V.

According to the superstition of the time the earth and air over Scotland teemed with strange omens of the impending strife, and in a rare old tract, of 1650, we are told of the alarm created in the fortress by the appearance of a “horrible apparition” beating upon a drum.

On a dark night the sentinel, under the shadow of the gloomy half-moon, was alarmed by the beating of a drum upon the esplanade and the tread of marching feet, on which he fired his musket. Col. Dundas hurried forth, but could see nothing on the bleak expanse, the site of the now demolished Spur. The sentinel was truncheoned, and another put in his place, to whom the same thing happened, and he, too, fired his musket, affirming that he heard the tread of soldiers marching to the tuck of drum. To Dundas nothing was visible, nothing audible but the moan of the autumn wind. He took a musket and the post of sentinel. Anon he heard the old Scots march, beaten by an invisible drummer, who came close up to the gate; then came other sounds – the tramp of feet and clank of accoutrements; still nothing was visible, till the whole impalpable array seemed to halt close by Dundas, who was bewildered with consternation. Again a drum was heard beating the English, and then the French march, when the alarm ended; but the next drums that were beaten there were those of Oliver Cromwell.

– Old and New Edinburgh (1880), Vol. 1, Ch. 6, Castle of Edinburgh Continued.

One Alexander Hamilton was apprehended as a notorious warlock, and put into the Tolbooth of Edinburgh. He ‘delated’ four women of the burgh of Haddington, and five other women of its neighbourhood, as guilty of witchcraft. The Privy Council sent orders (November 1629) to have the whole Circean nine apprehended; and as their poverty made it inconvenient to bring them to Edinburgh, the presbytery of Haddington was enjoined to examine them in their own district. What was done with them ultimately, we are not informed. Another woman, named Katherine Oswald, residing at Niddry, near Edinburgh, was likewise accused by Hamilton, and taken into custody. This seems to have been considered an unusually important case, as four lawyers were appointed to act as assessors to the justices on her trial. – P. C. R. It was alleged of Katherine that she had that partial insensibility which was understood to be an undoubted proof of the witch quality. Two witnesses stated that they ‘saw ane preen put in to the heid, by Mr John Aird, minister, in the panel’s shoulder, being the devil’s mark, and nae bluid following, nor she naeways shrinking thereat.’

Hamilton alleged that he had been with Katherine at a meeting of witches between Niddry and Edmonstone, where they met with the devil. It was also stated that she had been one of a witch-party who had met at Prestonpans, and used charms, on the night of the great storm at the end of March 1625. But the chief articles of her dittay bore reference to cures which she had wrought by sorcery. Katherine was convicted and burned. – B. A.


The warlock Alexander Hamilton also accused the Lady Home of Manderston, in Berwickshire, of having practised against the life of her husband, Sir George Home, by witchcraft. Patrick Abernethy, notar in Duns, and William Mowat, a servant, were accordingly cited by the Council to come and give information regarding the case. The presence of Sir George himself was of course desirable; but Sir George, like many other good Scotch lairds, of that day and of later days, was under some danger of the law on account of his debts. It therefore became necessary to send him a protection, in order that he might be enabled to appear in the city. There does not seem to have been any other foundation for the charge than the fact that Sir George Home and his wife did not live on amicable terms.

Hamilton himself was tried (January 22, 1630), when it came out that he had begun his wicked career in consequence of meeting the devil in the form of a black man on Kingston Hills, in Haddingtonshire. Being engaged to serve the fiend, he was instructed to raise him by beating the ground thrice with a fir-stick and crying: ‘Rise up, foul thief!’ He had consequently had him up several times for consultations; sometimes in the shape of a dog or cat, sometimes in that of a crow. By diabolic aid, he had caused a mill full of corn, belonging to Provost Cockburn, to be burned, merely by taking three stalks from the provost’s stacks and burning them on the Garleton Hills. He had been at many witch-meetings where the enemy of man was present. This wretched man was sentenced to be worried at a stake and burned.

In March 1631, occurred a case which throws some light upon the affair in which Sir George Home of Manderston was the intended victim. John Neill, in Tweedmouth, was then brought forward and tried for sorcery and witchcraft. It was alleged of him that ‘he made a man’s wife wash her husband’s shirt in a south-running water, and then put it on him; whereupon he recovered.’ His professes skill in both laying on and taking off diseases. Amongst other things laid to his charge was ‘meeting with the devil and other witches on Coldingham Law, and consulting how Sir George Home of Manderston might be destroyed, to that end getting ane enchanted dead foal, and putting it in Sir George’s stable, under his horse’s manger, and putting a dead hand enchanted by the devil in Sir George’s garden in Berwick; by which enchantments Sir George contracted a grievous disease, of which he could not be recovered till the said foal and hand were discovered and burned.’ He was found guilty. – B. A.

– Domestic Annals (1885), Reign of Charles the First (1625-1637).

Nov [1653]. – At this time commenced the series of alleged incidents constituting the once famous history of the DEVIL OF GLENLUCE.

A poor weaver named Gilbert Campbell, at Glenluce in Galloway, had given offence to a sturdy beggar, named Agnew, ‘a most wicked and avowed atheist, for which he was hanged at Dumfries.’ The wretch went away muttering that he would do the family a mischief. Whether before or after Agnew’s death does not appear, the weaver and his family began to be annoyed with whistling noises, and by petty acts of mischief – as the mislaying and destroying of little articles, and the throwing of stones and peats, all by unseen hands. Their clothes were sometimes drawn from them as they lay in bed. At the suggestion of some neighbours, Campbell sent away his children, and for the time peace ensued. So it was, after all except Tom had been brought back, and not so after Tom had returned likewise; but, to show that this was a point of indifference, when Tom had been again sent away in the keeping of the minister of the parish, the annoyances recommenced. This lad, it may be remarked, said he had heard a voice warning him not to go back to his father’s house; and when he did return, he was ‘sore abused,’ and thus once more driven away.

In February, the family began to hear a voice speak to them, but could not tell whence it came. ‘They came at length in familiar discourse with the foul thief, that they were no more afraid to keep up the clash with him than to speak with one another; in this they pleased him well, for he desired no better than to have sacrifices offered to him. The minister, hearing of this, went to the house upon the Tuesday, being accompanied by some gentlemen; one James Bailie of Carphin, Alexander Bailie of Dunragget, Mr Robert Hay, and a gentlewoman called Mrs Douglas, with the minister’s wife, did accompany. At their first coming in, the devil says: “Quam literarum is good Latin.” These are the first words of the Latin Rudiments, which scholars are taught when they go to the grammar-school. He cries again: “A dog!” The minister, thinking he had spoken it to him, said: “He took it not ill to be reviled by Satan, since his Master had trodden that path before him.” Answered Satan: “It was not you, sir, I spoke to; I meant the dog there;” for there was a dog standing behind backs. This passing, they all went to prayer; which being ended, they heard a voice speaking out of the ground, from under the bed, in the proper country dialect, which he did counterfeit exactly, saying: “Would you know the witches of Glenluce? I will tell you them;” and so related four or five persons’ names that went under a bad report. The weaver informed the company that one of them was dead long ago. The devil answered and said: “It is true she is dead long ago, but her spirit is living with us in the world.” The minister replied, saying (though it was not convenient to speak to speak to such an excommunicated and intercommuned person): “The Lord rebuke thee, Satan, and put thee to silence; we are not to receive information from thee, whatsoever name any person goes under; thou art seeking but to seduce this family, for Satan’s kingdom is not divided against itself.” After which, all went to prayer again, which being ended – for during the time of prayer no noise or trouble was made, except once that a loud fearful yell was heard at a distance, the devil threatening and terrifying the lad Tom, who had come back that day with the minister, “that if he did not depart out of the house, he would set all on fire” – says the minister: “The Lord will preserve the house, and the lad too, seeing he is one of the family, and had God’s warrant to tarry in it.” The fiend answered: “He shall not get liberty to tarry; he was once put out already, and shall not abide here, though I should pursue him to the end of the world.” The minister replied: “The Lord will stop thy malice against him.” ’


After a great deal of the like talk with the unseen tormentor, ending with a declaration from him that he was an evil spirit come from the bottomless pit to vex this house, and that Satan was his father, ‘there appeared a naked hand, and an arm from the elbow down, beating upon the floor till the house did shake again.’ This the minister attested, and also that he heard the voice saying: ‘Saw you that? It was not my hand – it was my father’s; my hand is more black in the loof [palm].’

Sinclair, who relates these things (Satan’s Invisible World Discovered), states that he received them from a son of Campbell, who was at Glasgow College with him.

– Domestic Annals (1885), Interregnum.

Again and again has the same place been the scene of those revolting executions for sorcery which disgraced the legal annals of Scotland. There, in 1570, Bessie Dunlop “was worried” at the stake for simply practising as a “wise woman” in curing diseases and recovering stolen goods. Several others perished in 1590-1; among others, Euphemie McCalzean, for consorting with the devil, abjuring her baptism, making waxen pictures to be enchanted, raising a storm to drown Anne of Denmark on her way to Scotland, and so forth.1

In 1600 Isabel Young was “woryt at a stake” for laying sickness on various persons, “and thereafter burnt to ashes on the Castle Hill.”2 Eight years after, James Reid, a noted sorcerer, perished in the same place, charged with practising healing by the black art, “whilk craft,” says one authority, “he learned frae the devil, his master, in Binnie Craigs and Corstorphine, where he met with him and consulted with him divers tymes, whiles in the likeness of a man, whiles in the likeness of a horse.” Moreover, he had tried to destroy the crops of David Liberton by putting a piece of enchanted flesh under his mill door, and to destroy David bodily by making a picture of him in wax and melting it before a fire, an ancient superstition – common to the Western Isles and in some parts of Rajpootana to this day. So great was the horror these crimes excited, that he was taken direct from the court to the stake. During the ten years of the Commonwealth executions on this spot occurred with appalling frequency.3 On the 15th October, 1656, seven culprits were executed at once, two of whom were burned; and on the 9th March, 1659, “there were,” says Nicoll, “fyve wemen, witches, brint on the Castell Hill, all of them confessand their covenanting with Satan, sum of thame renunceand thair baptisme, and all of them oft tymes dancing with the devell.”

– Old and New Edinburgh (1880), Vol. 1, Ch. 8, The Castle Hill.
1 “Diurnal of Occurrents.”
2 Spotswood, “Miscellany.”
3 Pitcairn.

A strange story went abroad concerning the spectre of Dundee; the terrible yet handsome Claverhouse, in his flowing wig and glittering breastplate, appearing to his friend the Earl of Balcarres, then a prisoner in the Castle, and awaiting tidings of the first battle with keen anxiety.

About daybreak on the morning when Killiecrankie was fought and lost by the Williamites, the spectre of Dundee is said to have come to Balcarres, and drawing back the curtains of his bed, to have looked at him steadfastly and sorrowfully. “After this” (says C. K. Sharpe, in a note to ‘Laws Memorials’), “it moved towards the mantelpiece, remained there for a short time in a leaning posture, and then walked out of the chamber without uttering one word. Lord Balcarres, in great surprise, though not suspecting that what he saw was an apparition, called out repeatedly on his friend to stop, but received no answer, and subsequently learned that at the very moment the shadow stood before him Dundee had breathed his last near the field of Killiecrankie.”

– Old and New Edinburgh (1880), Vol. 1, Ch. 6, Castle of Edinburgh Continued.

July 21 [1603]. – James Reid, a noted sorcerer and charmer, was strangled and burnt on the Castle-hill of Edinburgh for his alleged practice of healing by the black art. ‘Whilk craft,’ says his dittay, ‘he learnt frae the devil, his master, in Binnie Craigs and Corstorphin Craigs, where he met with him and consulted with him to learn the said craft; wha gave him three pennies at ane time, and a piece creish [grease] out of his bag at ane other time; he having appeared to the said James diverse times, whiles in the likeness of a man, whiles in the likeness of a horse… whilk likewise learned him to tak south-rinning water to cure the said diseases.’ Other crimes were alleged against him. The authorities made short work of so grievous an offender by sending him direct from judgement to execution. – Pit.

– Domestic Annals (1885), Reign of James the Sixth (1603-1625).

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