Site icon Random Scottish History

Sketches of Superstitions, Saturday July 18, 1840, pp.206-207.

[Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal Contents]



   THE mania respecting witchcraft – for such it might be called – which sprang up into vigour throughout southern Europe in consequence of the edicts of Innocent and Leo, spread in time to Scotland, and acquired strong possession of the public mind during the reign of Queen Mary. At that period, an act was passed by the Scottish parliament for the suppression and punishment of witchcraft; but this only served, as the papal bulls had done, to confirm the people in their maniacal credulity, and to countenance and propagate the general delusion. In terms of these ill-judged statutes, great numbers of persons, male as well as female, were charged with having intercourse with the devil, convicted, and burned on the Castlehill of Edinburgh and elsewhere. This continued during the earlier part of the reign of James VI., whose mind, unfortunately for the more aged of the female part of his subjects, was deeply impressed with the flagrant nature of the crime of witchcraft. In 1590, James, it is well known, made a voyage to Denmark to see, marry, and conduct home in person, his appointed bride, the Princess Anne. Soon after his arrival, a tremendous witch conspiracy against the happy conclusion of his homeward voyage was discovered, in which the principal agents appeared to be persons considerably above the vulgar. One was Mrs Agnes Sampson, commonly called the Wise Wife of Keith (Keith being a village in East Lothian), who is described as “grave, matron-like, and settled in her answers.” On this occasion, the king was induced by his peculiar tastes to engage personally in the business of judicial investigation. He had all the accused persons brought before himself for examination, and even superintended the tortures applied to them to induce confession. The statements made by these poor wretches form a singular tissue of the ludicrous and horrible in intimate union. 

   “The said Agnes Sampson was after brought again before the king’s majestie and his council, and being examined of the meetings and detestable dealings of those witches, she confessed, that upon the night of All-Hallow-even she was accompanied, as well with the persons aforesaid, as also with a great many other witches, to the number of two hundred, and that all they together went to sea, each one in a riddle, or sieve, and went in the same very substantially, with flaggons of wine, making merrie and drinking by the way in the same riddles, or sieves, to the Kirk of North-Berwick, in Lothian, and that after they had landed, took hands on the land, and danced this reil, or short daunce, singing all with one voice, 

‘Cummer, goe ye before, cummer, goe ye; 

Gif ye will not goe before, cummer, let me.’ 

At which she confessed that Geillis Duncan did goe before them, playing this reil or daunce upon a small trump, called a Jew’s harp, until they entered into the Kirk of North-Berwick. These made the king in a wonderful admiration, and he sent for the said Geillis Duncan, who upon the like trump did play the said daunce before the king’s majestie, who, in respect of the strangeness of these matters, took great delight to be present at their examinations.” 

   In the sequel of Agnes Sampson’s confession we find some special reasons for the king’s passionate liking for these exhibitions, in addition to the mere love of the marvellous. The witches pandered to his vanity on all occasions, probably in the vain hope of mitigating their own doom. Agnes Sampson declared that one great object with Satan and his agents was to destroy the king; that they had held the great North Berwick convention for no other end; and that they had endeavoured to effect their aim on many occasions, and particularly by raising a storm at sea when James came across from Denmark. “The witches demanded of the divell why he did beare such hatred to the king? who answered, by reason the king is the greatest enemie hee hath in the world.” Such an eulogy, from such a quarter, could not but pamper the conceit of “the Scottish Solomon.” 

   The following further points in the deposition of Agnes Sampson are worthy of notice. “Item, She went with the witch of Carrieburn, and other witches, to the kirk of Newton, and taking up dead folks and jointing them [cutting off fingers, &c.], made enchanted powders for witchcraft. Item, She went with other witches in a boat, the devil going before them like a rock of hay. Item, The devil, in the shape of a dog, gave her responses concerning her laird’s recovery, and endeavoured to put awa ane of the ladies’ daughters. Item, She raised a universal great storm in the sea when the queen was coming to Scotland, and wrote a letter to that effect to a witch in Leith. Item, She used this prayer in the healing of sickness:- 

All kinds of ill that ever may be, &c. 

The repetition of these and such like verses by the confessing witches, has been matter of frequent surprise. But it must be remembered that a code of witchcraft, extensively known and accredited, existed at that day, regular forms and rules for its exercise having been laid down in the course of time. It must be recollected, also, that these poor creatures, though guiltless of all supernatural intercourse, had really pretended to the gift of healing by charms and incantations in many cases, and had to invent or learn formulas for the purpose. Besides, we find these doggrel scraps chiefly in the revelations of Agnes Sampson. She, it is stated, could write, and of course could read also; and hence she is to be regarded as a person who had had superior opportunities for acquiring a knowledge of the witchcraft code, as well as superior capabilities for filling up deficiencies on the spur of the moment. In her confession she implicated one Doctor Fian, otherwise called John Cunningham, master of the school at Saltpans, in Lothian, a man whose story may be noticed at some length, as one of the most curious and instructive in the whole annals of Scottish witchcraft. 

   Mrs Sampson deposed that Dr Fian was always a prominent person at the witch-meetings, and Geillis Duncan, the marvellous trump-player, confirmed this assertion. Whether made through heedlessness or malice, these averments decided Fian’s fate. He was seized, and after being “used with the accustomed paine provided for those offences inflicted upon the rest, first, by thrawing of his head with a rope, whereat he would confess nothing;” and, secondly, being urged “by fair meanes to confesse his follies,” which had as little effect; “lastly, hee was put to the most severe and cruell paine in the world, called the bootes, when, after he had received three strokes, being inquired if he would confesse his actes and wicked life, his tongue would not serve him to speake; in respect whereof, the rest of the witches willed to search his tongue, under which was founde two pinnes thrust up into the heade, whereupon the witches did say, now is the charme stinted, and showed that those charmed pins were the cause he could not confesse any thing; then was he immediately released of the bootes, brought before the king, and his confession was taken.” Appalled by the cruel tortures he had undergone, Fian seems now only to have thought how he could best get up a story that should bring him to a speedy death. He admitted himself to be the devil’s “register,” or clerk, who took the oaths from all witches at their initiation, and avowed his having bewitched various persons. In proof of the latter statement he instanced the case of a gentleman near Saltpans, whom he had so practised upon, he said, that the victim fell into fits at intervals. This person, who seems to have been either a lunatic or afflicted with St Vitus’s dance, was sent for, and “being in his majestie’s chamber, suddenly hee gave a great scritch, and fell into madnesse, sometimes bending himself, and sometimes capring so directly up, that his heade did touch the seeling of the chamber, to the great admiration of his majestie.” On these and other accounts Dr Fian was sent to prison, but he contrived soon after to escape from it. “By meanes of a hot and harde pursuite,” he was retaken, and brought before the king, to be examined anew. But the unfortunate man had had time to think, and, like Cranmer under somewhat similar circumstances, resolved to retract the admissions which the weakness of the body had drawn from him, and to suffer any thing rather than renew them. He boldly told this to the king; and James, whom these records make us regard with equal contempt and indignation, ordered the unfortunate man to be subjected to the following most horrible tortures. “His nailes upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a turkas, which in England are called a payre of pincers, and under everie nayle there was thrust in two needles ever, even up to the heades; at all which tormentes, notwithstanding, the doctor never shrunk a whit, neither would he then confesse it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted on him. Then was hee, with all convenient speed, by commandement, convaied again to the torment of the bootes, wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blowes in them, that his legges were crusht and beaten together as small as might bee, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever.” Notwithstanding all this, such was the strength of mind of the victim, or, as King James termed it, “so deeply had the devil entered into his heart” that he still denied all, and resolutely declared that “all he had done and said before was only done and said for fear of the paynes which he had endured.” As, according to this fashion of justice, to confess or not to confess was quite the same thing, the poor schoolmaster of Saltpans was soon afterwards strangled, and then burned on the Castlehill of Edinburgh (January 1591). 

   Much about the same time that Agnes Sampson made her confessions, some cases occurred, showing that witchcraft was an art not confined to the vulgar. A woman of high rank and family, Catharine Ross, Lady Fowlis, was indicted at the instance of the king’s advocate for the practice of witchcraft. On inquiry it was clearly proved that this lady had endeavoured, by the aid of witchcraft and poisons, to take away the lives of three or more persons who stood between her and an object she had at heart. She was desirous to make young Lady Fowlis possessor of the property of Fowlis, and to marry her to the laird of Balnagown. Before this could be effected, Lady Fowlis had to cut off her sons-in-law, Robert and Hector Munro, and the young wife of Balnagown, besides several others. Having consulted with witches, Lady Fowlis began her work by getting pictures of the intended victims made in clay, which she hung up, and shot with arrows shod with flints of a particular kind, called elf-arrow heads.  No effect being thus produced, this really abandoned woman took to poisoning ale and dishes, none of which cut off the proper persons, though others who accidentally tasted them lost their lives. By the confession of some of the assistant hags, the purposes of Lady Fowlis were discovered, and she was brought to trial; but a local or provincial jury of dependents acquitted her. One of her purposed victims, Hector Munro, was then tried in turn for conspiring with witches against the life of his brother George. It was proved that a curious ceremony had been practised to effect this end. Hector, being sick, was carried abroad in blankets, and laid in an open grave, on which his foster-mother ran the breadth of nine riggs, and, returning, was asked by the chief attendant witch, “which she chose should live, Hector or George?” She answered, “Hector.” George Munro did die soon afterwards, and Hector recovered. The latter was also acquitted, by a provincial jury, on his trial. 

   These disgraceful proceedings were not without their parallel in other families of note of the day. Euphemia Macalzean, daughter of an eminent judge, Lord Cliftonhall, was burned at the stake in 1591, having been convicted, if not of witchcraft, at least of a long career of intercourse with pretenders to witchcraft, whom she employed to remove obnoxious persons out of her way – tasks which they accomplished by the very simple means of poisoning, where they did accomplish them at all. The jury found this violent and abandoned woman, for such she certainly was, guilty of participation in the murder of her own godfather, of her husband’s nephew, and another individual. They also found her guilty of having been at the Wise Woman of Keith’s great witch-convention of North Berwick; but every witch of the day was compelled to admit having been there, out of compliment to the king, to whom it was a source of agreeable terror to think himself of so much importance as to call for a solemn convocation of the powers of evil to overthrow him. Euphemia Macalzean was “burnt in assis, quick, to the death.” This was a doom not assigned to the less guilty. Alluding to cases of this latter class, a writer (already quoted) in the Foreign Quarterly review remarks, “In the trials of Bessie Roy, of James Reid, of Patrick Currie, of Isobel Grierson, and of Grizel Gardiner, the charges are principally of taking off and laying on diseases either on men or cattle; meetings with the devil in various shapes and places; raising and dismembering dead bodies for the purpose of enchantments; destroying crops; searing honest persons in the shape of cats; taking away women’s milk; committing housebreaking and theft by means of enchantments, and so on. South-running water, salt, rowan-tree, enchanted flints (probably elf-arrow heads), and doggrel verses, generally a translation of the creed or Lord’s Prayer, were the means employed for effecting a cure.” Diseases, again, were laid on by forming pictures of clay or wax; by placing a dead hand, or some mutilated member, in the house of the intended victim; or by throwing enchanted articles at his door. A good purpose did not save the witch; intercourse with spirits, in any shape, being the crime. 

   Of course, in the revelations of the various witches, inconsistencies were abundant, and even plain and evident impossibilities were frequently among the things averred. The sapient James, however, in place of being led by these things to doubt the whole, was only strengthened in his opinions, it being a maxim of his, that the witches were “all extreme lyars.” Other persons came to different conclusions from the same premises, and before the close of James’s reign, many men of sense began to weary of the torturings and incremations that took place almost every day, in town or country, and had done so for a period of thirty years (betwixt 1590 and 1620). Advocates now came forward to defend the accused, and in their pleadings ventured even to arraign some of the received axioms of “Daemonologie” laid down by the king himself, in a book bearing that name. The removal of James to England moderated, but did not altogether stop, the witch prosecutions. After his death they slackened most considerably. Only eight witchcraft cases are on the Record as having occurred between 1625 and 1640 in Scotland, and in one of these cases, remarkable to tell, the accused escaped. The mania, as it appears, was beginning to wear itself out. 

   As the spirit of puritanism gained strength, however, which it gradually did during the latter part of the reign of Charles I., the partially cleared horizon became again overcast, and again was this owing to ill-judged edicts, which, by indicating the belief of the great and the educated in witchcraft, had the natural effect of reviving the frenzy among the flexible populace. The General Assembly passed condemnatory acts in 1640, 43, 44, 45, and 49, and with every successive act, the cases and convictions increased, with even a deeper degree of attendant horrors than at any previous time “The old impossible and abominable fancies,” says the review formerly quoted, “of the Malleus were revived. About thirty trials appear on the Record between 1649 and the Restoration, only one of which appears to have terminated in an acquittal; while at a single circuit, held at Glasgow, Stirling, and Ayr, in 1659, seventeen persons were convicted and burnt for this crime.” But it must be remembered that the phrase “on the Record” alludes only to justiciary trials, which formed but a small proportion of the cases really tried. The justiciary lists take no note of the cases really tried. The justiciary lists take no note of the commissions perpetually given by the Privy-Council to resident gentlemen and clergymen to try and burn witches in their respective districts. These commissions executed people over the whole country in multitudes. Wodrow, Lamont, Mercer, and Whitelocke, prove this but too satisfactorily. 

   The clergy continued, after the Restoration, to pursue these imaginary criminals with a zeal altogether deplorable. The Justiciary Court condemned twenty persons in the first year of Charles II.’s reign (1661), and in one day of the same year the council issued fourteen new provincial commissions, the aggregate doings of which one shudders to guess at. To compute their condemnations would be impossible, for victim after victim perished at the stake, unnamed and unheard of. Morayshire became at this particular period the scene of a violent fit of the great moral frenzy, and some of the most remarkable examinations signalising the whole course of Scottish witchcraft took place in that county. The details, though occasionally ludicrous from their absurdity are too horrible for narration in the present pages. 

   The popular frenzy seems to have exhausted itself by its own virulence in 1661-62, for an interval of six years subsequently elapsed without a single justiciary trial for the crime of witchcraft, and one fellow was actually whipped for charging some person with it. After this period, the dying embers of the delusion only burst out on occasions, here and there, into a momentary flame. In 1678, several women were condemned, “on their own confession,” says the Register; but we suspect this only means, in reality, that one malicious being made voluntary admissions involving others, as must often have been the case, we fear, in these proceedings. Scattered cases took place near the beginning of the eighteenth century, such as those at Paisley in 1697, at Pittenweem in 1704, and at Spott about the same time. It is curious, that, as something like direct evidence became necessary for condemnation, that evidence presented itself, and in the shape of possessed or enchanted young persons, who were brought into court to play off their tricks. The most striking case of this nature was that of Christian Shaw, a girl about eleven years old, and the daughter of Mr Shaw of Bargarran, in Renfrewshire. This wretched girl, who seems to have been an accomplished hypocrite, young as she was, quarrelled with a maid-servant, and, to be revenged, fell into convulsions, saw spirits, and, in short, feigned herself bewitched. To sustain her story, she accused one person after another, till not less than twenty were implicated, some of them children of the ages of twelve and fourteen! They were tried on the evidence of the girl, and five human beings perished through her malicious impostures. It is remarkable that this very girl afterwards founded the thread manufacture in Renfrewshire. From a friend who had been in Holland, she learnt some secrets in spinning, and, putting them skilfully in practice, she led the way to the extensive operations carried on in that department of late years. She became the wife of the minister of Kilmaurs, and, it is to be hoped, had leisure and grace to repent of the wicked misapplication, in her youth, of those talents which she undoubtedly possessed. 

   The last justiciary trial for witchcraft in Scotland was in the case of Elspeth Rule, who was convicted in 1708, and – banished. The last regular execution for the crime is said to have taken place at Dornoch in 1722, when an old woman was condemned by David Ross, sheriff of Caithness. But we fear the provincial records of the north, if inquired into, would show later deaths on this score. However, here may be held to end the tragical part of the annals of Scottish witchcraft. the number of its victims, for reasons previously stated, it would be difficult accurately to compute, but the black scroll would include, according to those who have most attentively inquired into the subject, upwards of FOUR THOUSAND persons! And by what a fate they perished! Cruelly tortured while living, and dismissed from life by a living death amid the flames! And for what? For an impossible crime! And who were the victims, and who the executioners? The victims, in by far the majority of cases, were the aged, the weak, the deformed, the lame, and the blind; those to whom nature had been ungentle in her outward gifts, or whom years and infirmities had doomed to poverty and wretchedness; exactly that class of miserable beings, in short, for whom more enlightened times provide houses of refuge, and endow charitable institutions, aiming, in the spirit of true benevolence, to supply to them that attention and support which nature or circumstances have denied them the power of procuring for themselves. Often, too, was the victim a person distinguished by particular gifts and endowments; gifts bestowed by the Creator in kindness, but rendered fatal to the possessor by man. These were the victims of witchcraft. the executioners were the wisest and greatest of their time. Men distinguished above their fellows for knowledge and intelligence, ministers of religion and of the laws, kings, princes, and nobles – these and such as these judged of the crime, pronounced the doom, and sent the poor victims of delusion to the torture, the stake, and the scaffold.

Exit mobile version