Random Notes Anent the Antiquities, Traditions, Superstitions, and Old Manners and Customs of the Borders. – No. II. – Witchcraft.

[Kelso Chronicle Articles Contents]








   THE story of witchcraft has been often told. It is a story replete with delusions and cruelties which to an enlightened mind are almost incredible. That certain old women gave themselves up to the Evil One, body and soul – that they possessed the power of assuming whatever shape they pleased in order to visit and torment their enemies – that they were able to transport themselves through the air on broomsticks, or sail across the sea in sieves or in egg shells – and that to their demoniacal power was to be ascribed every new disease, every extraordinary phenomenon of nature or rarity of art and human invention, and every just judgment of the Most High – that all this was devoutly believed in the seventeenth century by all classes of the community may well excite our wonder at the gross superstitions and the deplorable ignorance of our forefathers. 

   The popular belief in the supernatural power of witches is so fully and graphically expressed by Allan Ramsay in the “Gentle Shepherd” that I cannot help quoting the passages entire:- 

“Here Mausy lives a witch, that for sma’ price, 

Can cast her cantrips, and gie me advice; 

She can o’ercast the night and cloud the moon, 

And mak the deils obedient to her croon. 

At midnight hours, o’er the kirk-yard she raves, 

And howks unchristened weans oout o’ their graves; 

Boils up their livers in a warlocks pow; 

Rins withershins about the hemlock low; 

And seven times does her prayers backward pray, 

Till Plotcock comes wi’ lumps o’ Lapland clay, 

Mixt wi’ the venom o’ black taids and snakes. 

O’ this unsonsy pictures aft she makes 

O’ ‘ony any she hates, and gars expire 

Wi’ slaw and racking pains afore a fire; 

Stuck fou o’ prins, the devilish pictures melt, 

The pain by folk they represent are felt. 


“When last the wind made Glaud a roofless barn; 

When last the burn bore down my mother’s yarn; 

When Brawnie, elf-shot, never mair cam hame; 

When Tibby kirned, and there nae butter came; 

When Bessy Freetock’s chuffy-cheekit wean, 

To a fairy turned and couldna stand alane; 

When Wattie wandered ae night thro’ the shaw, 

And tint himsel amaist amang the snaw; 

When Mungo’s mare stood still and swat wi’ fright, 

When he brought east the howdy under night; 

When Bawsy shot to dead upon the green, 

And Sara tint a snood was naemair seen; 

You, Lucky, gat the wyte o’ a’ fell out, 

And ilk ane here dreads you a’ round about.” 

   I have already said that the story of witchcraft, replete with the grossest delusion and the most barbarous cruelties, has been often told; and in no country perhaps in proportion to its population were these delusions more firmly believed, and these cruelties more barbarously exercised than in our own. From the reign of Queen Mary, when an Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament for the suppression and punishment of witches, to the year 1722 when the last regular execution is said to have taken place, the mania had complete possession of the public mind. During that period the number of victims who suffered death by drowning or at the stake, and whose confession was extorted by the most excruciating tortures, is computed by some to exceed four thousand persons. “These victims” (to quote from Chambers’s “Information for the People), “were, in by far the majority of cases, 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. 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. 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 their crime, pronounced the doom, and sent the poor victims of delusion to the torture, the stake, and the scaffold. 

   The trying of witches was reduced to a system, and had its laws and regulations for the more effectual discovery of such as had sold themselves to the Evil One. One was, finding private marks on their bodies, which King James in his “Demonology” calls “finding of their mark, and trying the insensibleness thereof.” Another was, weighing the suspected person against the Church Bible. An elderly woman was accused of bewitching her neighbour’s spinning wheel, she was conducted to the church, stript of all her clothes, and weighed against the Bible, when to the no small mortification of her accuser, she outweighed it, and was honourably acquitted of the charge. A third method was forcing the accused to weep; for the modern Solomon, in the work above mentioned, says that “witches cannot even shed tears, though women in general are like the crocodile, ready to weep on every light occasion.” But the most popular and effectual mode of trying a witch was swimming her in water. She was stripped naked and cross bound, the right thumb to the left toe, and left thumb to the right toe. In this state she was cast into a pond or river, in which, if guilty, it was thought impossible for her to sink. “This test,” King James observes, “God hath appointed for a supernatural signe of the monstrous impietie of witches, that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosom that have shaken off them the sacred water of baptism, and wilfully refused the benefit thereof.” 

   The following example of the confession of a witch, and of the horrible tortures which were endured, will suffice to convey to the reader some adequate idea of the delusions and cruelties of the reign of witchcraft. 

   In the remarkable account of witches of Scotland, about 1591, reprinted in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1779, is the following:- “Agnes Sampson confessed that, at the time when his Majesty (James Vi.) was in Denmark, she, accompanied by parties before specially named, took a cat and christened it, and afterwards bound to each part of that cat the chiefest parts of a dead man, and several joints of his body; and that in the night following the said cat was conveyed into the midst of the sea by all these witches sailing in their riddles or sieves, as is aforesaid, and so left the said cat right before the town of Leith in Scotland; this done, there did arise such a tempest in the sea, as a greater hath not been seen; which tempest was the cause of the perishing of a boat or vessel coming over from the town of Burnt Island to the town of Leith, wherein were sundrie jewels and rich gifts, which should have been presented to the now Queen of Scotland, at her Majesty’s coming to Leith. Again, it is confessed that the said christened cat was the cause that the King’s Majesty’s ship, at his coming forth of Denmark, had a contrary wind to the rest of his ships, these being in his company; which thing was most strange and true, as his King’s Majesty acknowledgeth.” 

   The said Agnes Sampson, in the course of her confession, implicated one Doctor Fiar, master of the school at Saltpans, and was put to the torture, and confessed that “he was registrar to the devil, and sundry times preached at North Baricke kirke to a number of notorious witches; the very persons who are said to have pretended to bewitch and drown his Majesty in the sea coming from Denmark.” He was committed to prison, when he escaped, but was afterwards retaken and brought before his Majesty, when, horrible dictu, the following scene took place:- “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 pavre of pincers, and under everie naile there was thrust in two needles over, even up to the heades. Then was he with all convenient speede, by commandment, convaied again to the torment of the bootes, wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blows in them, that his legges were crusht and beaten together as small as might bee, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever.” After undergoing these and other tortures, too  harrowing to mention, the poor schoolmaster of Saltpans was soon afterwards strangled and then burned on the Castle Hill of Edinburgh (January, 1591.) 

   All this took place in the metropolis of the country; and, from the history of the time, it is found that similar scenes were enacted in provinces, though not under the personal superintendence of a sovereign who piqued himself on his rare talent of discovering witches. Nor were the Borders an exception to the general state of matters. Every town, every village and hamlet had their witch, or person who was looked on as uncanny, or owre sib wi’ the Auld Ane. I may have occasion to refer to these in a subsequent paper. Meanwhile, I will conclude this, which bears more on the subject of witchcraft in general, with an extract from the diary of Peter Galbraith, to which I have been already indebted, and which shews that even in his day the superstitious belief that there were such beings as witches or uncanny folk lingered in the minds even of the intelligent and religious men of the Border:- 

   “1772. (Date not given.) – There maun be something by ordinar uncannie about Eppie Lang, wha lives in a bit cot house up by at the Hillhead o’ the Overtown. The folk about the doors will have it that she’s a witch, and has some confabbins wi’ the ‘Auld Ane.’ Whether or no, she maun be a geyan queer birkie, and although I put my trust in a higher power, yet after a’ I’ve heard about her, I wadna like to come under the power o’ her cantrips. Some  weeks syne, Johnnie McKing, the only mason in our town, was biggin up the foundation of the front wa’ o’ a new house for the smith, when Eppie, wha had been bleachin’ some claes on a green at the water side, cam by. Johnnie, wha was a gey hardened cumstarie chiel, lifted up a skull which they had come on in diggin’ out the foundation o’ the house, lifted it up, and cried, ‘Eppie, here’s a grand parritch bicker for ye.’ This was just as much as to ca’ her a witch, for witches aye used skulls for their savoury dished at their feasts. Eppie, puir body, kenned a’ that, sae she never turned her head, but said in a mutterin’ way like ‘Aye, aye, Johnnie, keep it to yersel’: naebody will ever sup parritch out o’ your skull.’ Aweel, no mony days after, Johnnie was obligated in the way o’ business to gang down to the bottom of a very deep well ayont at the Laird’s to big in some stane that was needed some way or anither, and just as they were shovin’ the stane aff at the mouth o’ the well, it slippit aff the rope, and down it fell on puir Johnnie’s head, and smashed his skull a’ to pieces, makin’ it perfectly useless for a parritch bicker or ony thing else. Eppie’s words, which were laught at at the time, are brought to min’ now, and the folk i’ the hale country side are mair feared for her than ever. 

   “Naebody likes to meet her in the morning, for they’re sure everything will gang wrang wi’ them the hale day after. Tam Whitebairn, the smith, tauld me he for-gathered wi’ her aw morning as he was coming frae the joiner’s shop, and the very first ring he het was burned through. No a single thing gaed wight about the smiddy that day. Ane o’ his apprentices tried his han’ at a horse shoe, and do as he could it aye turned out a flauchter-spade; sac, what wi’ puffin at bellows and hammerin’ and swearin’, it was an awfu’ day at the smiddy. 

   “No a single misfortune can happen about the place but Eppie is sure to be at the bottom o’t. The ither mornin’, when Rab Thamson gaed out to his wark, he saw a hare comin’ scuddin’ down the town gait. He tried to wear’t and grip it; but what do ye think? – it ran through atween his legs, and when he  lookit round, it was nowhere to be seen. In about ten minutes after a clud o’ smoke rose frae the kiln, which ina  very short time was a’ in a flame, and burnt to the ground. Eppie and the miller, it seems, had some words the day afore about a melder, and it is jaloused that out o’ revenge she had set the kiln on fire, and, to avoid suspicion, had escaped out o’ the mill in the shape o’ a maukin. 

   “But, to crown a’, our new minister has ta’en the alarm. Eppie has a little green on the ither side o’ the burn for bleaching claes, and some o’ the men, wha are biggin’ the wa’ round the manse garden, took away her steppin’ stanes through the water, and built them intil the dyke; but when the minister heard o’ the unco stories about her, he turned fleyed, and garred the masons pu’ down the wa’, and put Eppie’s stanes exactly where they were afore. How a’ this is to end, gudeness only kens; but mony a lang night Mysie and me canna get a wink o’ sleep for thinkin’ about it.” 

   In conversing with some of the old worthies of the remote and now almost extinct clachan of the Overtown, I find that Patie’s narration with some trivial variations, are still remembered; and the bleaching ground, which forms a narrow peninsula at the influx of the milldam into the streamlet, is still known as “Eppie’s Green.” 

   (The subject of witchcraft, with special reference to the Borders, will be continued in the next paper.) 

J. G. S.      

– Kelso Chronicle, 26th June, 1863, p.3. 

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