[Narratives from Criminal Trials Contents]
THE study of the witchcraft trials in Scotland leaves behind it a frightful intelligence of what human nature may become. The impression made by these tough and sometimes drearily formal records is more dark and dreadful than anything imparted by fictitious writing. The difference is as great as all that lies between what has been and what might have been. True, these criminal records, the dreariest and most methodical of them, are full of fictions in the history attributed to the victims – full of fictions more revolting and improbable than we can find in imaginative literature, since the charges against sorcerers and witches are frequently the productions of low, uncultivated, and brutal minds; while the worst specimens of fictitious literature are illuminated by at least a faint light of civilisation and taste. But there is one element in these trials which does not partake of the character of the fictitious – which is altogether too true; and this is the evil minds of the prosecutors. Evil minds which, if we look at the whole mass, are composed of heartless capriciousness – of envy, hatred, and malice – of fanatical fury, and of mere brute cruelty, passing the conception of those who socially have lived in civilisation, and whose minds, when straying beyond the social circle, have lived in literature. It might be a question which were the worse fate, to be doomed to a belief in witchcraft, or to live in a country where it is believed. Assuredly, no demons of the imagination can be much worse than the demons which superstition has made of poor human beings.
Perhaps other nations can afford as evil a history to those who rummage among their criminal records. There are many sources of intelligence little known beyond the country to which they belong. We have few such means of examining the darker side of life in ancient nations as criminal trials afford. We only know of their historical crimes, or the accusations on which the great orators were engaged. If an imperfect Christianity could leave such horrid scenes to be looked back upon from a more advanced civilisation, it is easy to believe that an abundance of horror must have been connected with the influence of demon deities, whose fondest worshippers believed them to possess passions and propensities, human in their kind, but as much more intense than those of men as the capacity of the immortal is beyond that of the mortal. We know not all that the human heart is capable of; perhaps it is well that we should not, and that the vices of past ages should diffuse themselves into oblivion as the material bodies of those who indulged in them have been mingled with the dust of the earth. On this remark it may be asked – why then endeavour to resuscitate the contents of this little graveyard corner – the witchcraft trials of Scotland? The answer is, that there is no intention on the present occasion of endeavouring to give a picture of the grosser brutalities. It would not be tolerated in a work which the public in general are invited to peruse; and it would be difficult to adapt the written language of the present day to such an object. Few readers will probably desire more than a general glance at some of the more curious and fanciful characteristics of the witch belief in Scotland. Those who desire more, must go to the original sources of information.
And yet, vile as is the moral garbage thickening round the feet of one who wades through these sources of instruction, the self-sufficient selfishness of our nature might, perhaps, find a satisfaction in it – the satisfaction that we live under the protecting shadow of the experimental philosophy, which will not permit the tribunals to hold the crime we are accused of to be aggravated by being unseen and unknown; by being incapable of discovery and proof, and by being totally inconsistent with the laws which are seen to govern the material world. If we were to take certain anarchists of science, whose motto appears to be credo quia impossibile, at their word, they would have these chaotic times back again. But, in truth, they would be as much frightened if they actually saw them, as a drawing-room republican at a besieged barricade. They disport themselves under the strong protection of advanced science. Inwardly, they know that the world will not retrograde; that the onward steps of science are sure; and that they are perfectly safe from the realisation of their own doctrines. Hence, they are sometimes amusingly bold and clamorous; and their easy off-hand dealing with the supernatural is like the talk about storms and shipwrecks by the “gentlemen of England, who live at home at ease.” To enlighten them on the life they would lead in a world sent back into the chaos of their professed opinions, let them read a series of trials for witchcraft.
Our Scottish witch is a far more frightful being than her supernatural coadjutor on the south side of the Tweed. She sometimes seems to rise from the proper sphere of the witch, who is only the slave, into that of the sorcerer, who is master of the demon. The English witch is the very perfection of stupid vulgarity; and among the most wonderful things in the whole history of diablery is this, that men of dignity and position, if not of learning – that important country gentlemen, dignified clergy, judges, and privy councillors, should submit to the conviction that beings so contemptible and stupid could be objects of alarm to them, and be admitted to have some power or authority over their fate. One would have thought that the village hag, however humble her position and limited her views of life, would have had them widened in their destructiveness, when the prince of the power of the air selected them as the means of doing his work. But the old hag’s fiendish machinations cannot go beyond the sphere of her early habits. She is a terrible enemy to pigs; sometimes inflicts convulsions on a turkey; possibly arises to the dignity of afflicting a cow with heavy sickness, or giving a horse the staggers. She can disturb the elements it is true, but they go no further in their wrath than the souring of the beer, or the destruction of the butter. She is an inveterate slattern, managing with an infinite variety of offensive operations to disturb the equanimity of the tidy, notable English housewife. Even Ben Jonson’s stately blank verse cannot communicate dignity to her professional occupations:
“To make ewes cast their lambs – swine eat their farrow,
The housewives’ tun not work – nor the milk churn,
Writhe children’s wrists, and suck their breath in sleep,
Get vials of their blood – and when the sea
Casts up his slimy ooze, search for a weed
To open locks with, and to rivet charms
Planted about her in the wicked feat
Of all her mischiefs, which are manifest.”
More picturesque were the spells of the Lady Fowlis, of the witches of Auldearn, and of that wild crew, who, after revelling with the devil in the church of North Berwick, ransacked the surrounding graves for necromantic charms, and then went to sea in sieves, with the foul fiend as signal-master to raise a storm for the destruction of the king as he came from Norway with his bride.
But if the works of darkness have thus afforded incidents more gloomily picturesque in our northern regions, neither the accusers nor the unhappy beings who arrogated to themselves, or were accused of supernatural powers, have any more merit in the picturesqueness of the adjuncts in which they move, than in creating the vast mountain-ranges, and stormy winds of their country. With one or two exceptions, their ends are as base, and their means of accomplishing them as vulgar, as those of the destroyers of butter and enemies of pigs in the south; and we shall find that some of the Scottish charges are of as truly household and humble a character, though rendered somewhat more grotesque by northern peculiarities of language and habit.
In a people so far behind their neighbours in domestic organisation, poor and hardy, inhabiting a country of mountains, torrents, and rocks, where cultivation was scanty, accustomed to gloomy mists and wild storms, every impression must necessarily assume a corresponding character. Superstitions, like funguses and vermin, are existences peculiar to the spot where they appear, and are governed by its physical accidents. In the well-lighted drawing-room, we have the latest fashionable quackery; in the churchyard or the ruined mansion, we have the pallid spectre; in the stormy mountains, the ghosts of a traditional gigantic race rise before the tired wanderer in misty masses. When the benighted traveller is intercepted by a torrent, struggling among rocks bored into black holes by the cataracts, he thinks he sees the water-kelpie leering from each cavern, as he seeks dubiously and nervously a point where he may venture to cross. On vast treacherous marshes, where the danger to the belated wanderer is not so obvious but is often more formidable, he is led on by the perfidious will-o’-the-wisp – a creature of the English fens, of whom no trace can be found among Scottish superstitions. As gentles swarm about the putrid flesh of the dead dog, and bugs inhabit decayed deal, and earwigs shelter themselves behind the bark of rotting staves, so the superstitions which arise out of intellectual putrescence vary with the conditions in which they appear – and thus it is, that the indications of witchcraft in Scotland are as different from those of the superstition which in England receives the same name, as the Grampian Mountains from Shooter’s Hill or Kennington Common.
Mr. Charles Knight, in his ever-interesting and pleasant Commentaries on Shakspeare, endeavours to show that the machinery of the witchcraft scenes in Macbeth must have been found in a journey through Scotland; and, unable to discover any ordinary traveller’s traces of Shakspeare having been there, tries to prove it by internal evidence from the tragedy. Thus he thought he could make out that the witches in Macbeth are Scottish, not English. From the home market they certainly are not; Shakspeare was far too great an artist to make the domestic nuisance called a witch in the neighbourhood of Stratford-on-Avon, a material worker in the ancient revolutions and tragic events of a kingdom, supposed by all ordinary readers of history to have been ruled by a line of Oriental monarchs, who had passed northward from the palaces of their fathers, the Egyptian Pharaohs, several hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. Shakspeare would as readily have made Cassius an alderman, or Mark Antony the right honourable gentleman, or have given Cleopatra a starched ruff, – as have set English witches on the blasted heath. In fact, with the despotism of genius, he suited matters to his will. The witches in Macbeth are neither Scots nor English, nor are they beings of any other country – they evidently embody whatever was picturesque, powerful, and worthy of artistic admiration in all the witch lore that he had read. They partake as much of the Parcæ of the Greeks and the Choosers of the slain of the Noræ mythology, as they do of any superstition alive in later ages.
“If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,”
looks more like a classical than a northern representation. And again:
“Though ye untie the winds and make them war
Against the steeples – though the yeasty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up,”
might be readily enough suggested by the Scottish witchcraft scenes. Nothing about them, however, was at that time to be found in literature, and it is drawing too distant a conclusion to maintain from such coincidents that Shakspeare must have wandered in Scotland, and, mixing with the peasantry, have learned their superstitions, when there were other more obvious sources whence he might have drawn his materials. Olaus Magnus, whose pages are rife with elementary wrath, and all that the hardy Norsemen endure in sea-storms, pathless glaciers, and the cold and darkness of the northern winters, amply delivers himself on the power exercised by witches and the other servants of Satan over this dread enginery. The little Latin of the dramatic sage would be enough to let him into the Bishop of Upsala’s history of wonders; and the same materials may be traced to many other sources – in a great measure, even to the Latin poets, in whose phraseology the bishop in some measure invests his descriptions.
It is not proposed on this occasion to offer a complete account of the trials for witchcraft in Scotland. Even if omitting the very offensive portions already alluded to, it would not perhaps be welcome to the ordinary reader. Along with much dull, dreary nonsense, he would have perhaps to complain of matter which he had already seen in popular literature, being reiterated on him. It may not, however, be uninteresting to those who do not peruse the Scottish criminal records in their native form, to read a few selected characteristic extracts from them, no further differing from the original record than in the modernising of the spelling. Some trials which took place in Aberdeen in the year 1597, may be counted a fair enough specimen of this class of documents. A commission was in that year granted by the king in council to the provost and bailies of Aberdeen for the trial of Janet Wishart, spouse to John Leys Stabular, in Aberdeen; John Leys, her son, Isobel Cockie, in Kintore, and other persons, suspected of “witchcraft, sorcery, and other devilish and detestable practices.”1 The fate of the accused persons was deemed a matter of small importance, otherwise the trial would not have been left in the hands of these respectable magistrates – but the accusations are not thence the less characteristic. A few extracts from them follow. The time of the first charge is day dawn, or “the greiking of the day.” Then did Janet Wishart meet a mariner intending to go on board his vessel, in this wise:
“Thou the said Janet Wishart returning from the blockhouse and Futtie, where thou had been consultand with the devil, thou pursuing Alexander Thomson, mariner, coming forth of Aberdeen to his ship, ran betwixt him and Alexander Fidler’s door under the Castle-hill, as swift, as appeared to him, as ane arrow could be shot forth of a bow – going betwixt him and the sun then cast thy cantrips2 in his way. At the whilk moment the said Alexander took an extreme fear and trembling, where through he was forced to return home unpassed to his ship, took bed, and lay by the space of ane month fast bedsick, so that nane believed his life; the ane half of the day rosten in his body as if he had been rosten in an oven with an extreme burnen drought so that he could never be satisfied of drink; the other half of the day melting away his body with an extraordinar cold sweat. And the said Alexander Thomson, knowing that thou had casten this kind of witchcraft on him, send to thee his own wife with Catherine Crawford, sharply boasting and threatening thee, that unless thou incontinently remedied him then, that he would cause burn thee – thou sent with the said Alexander’s wife and the said Catherine Crawford certain beer and other thy drugs to drink – after the whilk reproof and receipt of thy drugs, the said Alexander daily mended, and returned again to his wonted health.”
Certain scholars or students see the witch coming out of Adam Mair’s grain-field at two o’clock of the morning, whereon they give information to his wife of the suspicious event:
“And thou then instantly being revealed to the wife of the said Adam, thou in thy fury answered and said to the said scholars, ‘Well have ye schemed me – I shall gar the best of you repent,’ and ere four afternoon that thou should gar as many wonder at them as should see them. Upon the same day, betwixt two and three hours afternoon, the said scholars passed to the old watergang in the links to wash them, and after they had once washen themselves and dried again, the said John Leslie and Johnston took a rink or race beside the water-gang, and most desperately, through thy witchcraft casten on them, ran in the midds of the water-gang and drowned themselves – and thereby, thou, as thou promised, murdered them.”
“Item, these twenty years last by-past, thou continually, and nightly upon the night, after eleven hours at even, while as thy husband and servants pass to their bed and take rest, then thou puts on nightly ane great fire, holds the same on the haill night, and sits thereat thyself using thy witchcraft – altogether contrarious to the nature of well-living persons. And such nights as thou puts naut on fire, then thou gangs out of thy ane house – remains therefrom the haill night where thou pleases.”
“Item, thou and thy daughter, Violet Leys, desired thy woman to gang with thy daughter at twelve hours at even to the gallows, and cut down the dead man hanging thereon, and take a part of all his members from him, and burn the dead corps – whilk thy servant would not do, and therefore then instantly thou put her away.”
“Item, nine years since or thereby, Kelman, wife to John Taylor, then being in thy service in time of harvest, gangen to Gordon’s mills to grind corn to the hooks with thee, a part being ground in the night, thou and she returning after midnight, passed out of the common way, passing through the links, the gate to the gallows, whereat the woman was greatly afraid and refused to gang – yet thou urged her nought to fear in thy company, so that she was forced to come forward where thou brought her to the gallows, and show her that thou would learn her ane lesson whilk would do her good all her days – and ane dead man being hanging there bade her hold his foot, while she cutted off a part of all his members – whereat the woman was stricken with such fear, fell dead, and refused to meddle with such thing. Whereupon, thou forcibly straited her by her oath never to reveal, or else thou would instantly gar her die.”
The following items bear on the witches’ command over the elements:
“Within these two years certain honest women within this burgh, with Andrew Rait mariner’s wife, came to thee to buy malt, to whom thou answered that thou had nane winnowed, but desired them to remain and they should have – incontinent. Who answered thee that there was no wind to winnow any malt, and thou said thou should get wind enough to do thy turn. Immediately thereafter thou took ane coal of fire, and divided it, the one half thou put in the one door and the other half in the other, and said thy orisons thereon. Thereafter there came wind enough in at thy doors, whereas there was none in the field.3
“Thou art indicted and accused for practising of thy witchcraft in laying of the wind and making of it to become calm and louden, a special point teached to thee by thy master Satan, whilk thou did in this form: taking of ane beatle in the craig toun of Lunfanan,4 and hanging up of the beatle by ane string or thread, and whispering thereon thy devilish orisons by a certain space, through the whilk thy devilish witchcraft so used by thee, the wind – that blew loud, the whilk no man for the greatness and vehemency thereof could hold his feet upon the ground – became calm and low.”
The charge of bringing on a sickness by witch cantrips is frequently repeated almost in the terms already cited. Intervals of burning heat and icy coldness, or their coexistence, in different parts of the body, are among the perpetually-recurring features. The patient is said sometimes to decline like a lighted white candle, and an intolerable thirst or “drouth,” not to be slaked by any amount of any kind of liquor, is an almost invariable feature. The charges then pass for a long way through very sublunary and material matters, such as the destruction of brewsts of ale, or the bewitching of clothes with an element of decay, which makes them wear out long before the owner had calculated on the necessity of renewing his garments, and sensibly affects his temper. One long charge relates to a leg of roast mutton, whence the witches dug out handfuls of flesh, distributing the same with baleful and deadly influences. Suddenly the charges which are of the earth earthy, take a turn to the wild ærial diablery which will be found in the following fragments:
“Thou confesses that the devil thy master, whom thou terms Christsunday, and supposes to be an angel and God’s godson – albeit he has a thraw by God, and sways to the Queen of Elphin5 – is raised by the speaking of the word Benedicite, and is laid again by taking of a dog under thy left oxter (shoulder [actually armpit]) in the right hand, and casting the same in his mouth, and speaking the word Maikpeblis, (?) and that Christsunday bit a mark in the third finger of thy right hand, whilk thou has yet to show. Suchlike thou affirms that the Queen of Elphin has grip of all the craft, but Christsunday is the goodman, and has all power under God, and that thou kens sundry dead men in their company, and that the king that died at Floden and Thomas Rymour is there.”6
“Item, upon the rood-day in harvest, in this present year, whilk fell on a Wednesday, thou confesses and affirms thou saw Christsunday come out of the snow in likeness of a stag, and that the Queen of Elphin was there and others with her, ryding upon white hacknies, and they came to the Binhill and Binlocht, where they use commonly to convene, and that all they who convenes with them, kisses Christsunday and the Queen of Elphin, &c., as thou did thy self, and if thou got leave to have keeped the convention on All-Hallow even last was, thou would have told of all them that should have been there in company with them.”
“Item, thou affirms that the elves have shapes and clothes like men, and that they will have fair covered tables, and that they are but shadows, but are starker7 nor men, and that they have playing and dancing when they please – and also that the queen is very pleasant and will be old and young when she pleases.”
“Item, thou affirms that thou can take away cow’s milk when thou pleases, and thou promised to Alexander Simpson to do the same.”
“Item, thou grants and affirms that the fruit of the corns is taken away by stripping of the crops of the straw, and casting it among the rest of the corn, by saying these words: ‘The dirt to thee, and the crops to me,’ nine sundry times – and if the plough-irons be dipped in lax water the oxen will not run away.”
“Item, that at the day of judgment, the fire will burn the water and the earth and make all plain, and that Christsunday will be casten in the fire because he deceives worldlings men. And this year to come shall be a dear year; and that there shall be twice seven good years thereafter. And this intelligence thou had from Christsunday thy master, whilk is plain witchcraft and devilry. Like as thou affirms and allows plainly – if thou look at a man’s hand thou shall tell him what ane wife he shall get.”
“Item, thou grants the elves will make thee appear to be in a fair chamber – and yet thou shall find thyself in a moss in the morn; and that they will appear to have candles, and light, and swords, whilk will be nothing else but dead grass and straw – amongst whom thou art not afraid to gang, as thou frequently all thy day has used their company and society.”
“Item, thou bidds lay the harrows on the land before the corn be brought forth, and hold off the crows until ane ridge be broken – for the crows are witrif (very cunning) beasts; and the devil will come in their likeness; and bidds say an oration – whilk thou has perqueir – nine sundry times, and that being done, the corns shall come safe to the barn that year. Suchlike, thou affirms the crows will bring a stone from one country to another to gar their birds cleck – whilk intelligence thou has of Christsunday, and is plain devilry and witchcraft – whilk thou can nought deny.”
“Item, thou affirms that at the day of judgment Christsunday will be notary to accuse every man, and ilk man will have his own dittay8 written in his own book to accuse himself, and also that the godly will be severed from the wicked, whilk was revealed to thee by the devil thy master.”
Though these reckless fancies do sometimes touch the border of poetry, there would certainly not be found enough of imagination in them to make them worth reading or thinking of, were it not that they were the substantial accusations raised against human beings, on which they were, in this country of well-administered justice, accused, tried with or without torture, condemned to death, and burned in a large fire fed with fagots and tar. In the perusal of these documents, it can hardly fail to be noticed how utterly repulsive the very terms of the accusations are to the spirit of Christianity. This may be counted a vague term; and it is more distinct to say that the official persons who drew out these charges, had little notion of the doctrines of Christianity as they are now followed, in an age whose greater civilisation is the companion of its higher development of religion. The thorough misunderstanding of the Christian doctrines in these charges – and the same thing is abundantly apparent in others – is a matter that must be left to the reader’s judgment. The doctrinal discussion of it would not be appropriate to such an occasion as this, nor would it be adapted to the writer’s knowledge or pursuits. The general antagonism, however, to Christianity, as it is now generally believed in, of the whole scheme of a belief in witchcraft, and of course of all the accusations in which it is embodied, forms an important matter in views historical and social, which even people not versed in theological learning are entitled to take up. It might be the more satisfactory for laymen to discuss it, but there are few ecclesiastical bodies of long standing, the predecessors of which have not embrewed their hands in blood in the pursuit of the old barbarous and unchristian notions on witchcraft and other superstitions. Churches do not like to find failings in their ancient foundations; and theologians will not readily endeavour to prove that those whom they represent by apostolic descent, or otherwise, were bad Christians. There can be no doubt, however, to the ordinary critical reader of witch trials, that all the belief on which they proceeded is characteristic rather of the creed of Zoroaster, or of those who made human deities endowed with more or less of human wickedness and weakness, than of the religion of the New Testament. In fact, it probably would not be difficult to show historically that the whole of this class of superstitions is a remnant of heathenism, running like a disturbing vein into Christianity. Its occasional identification with classical and northern superstitions has been noticed already, and may receive further attention as we go on. The classical coincidences, however, are the mere forms in which the clergy and the lawyers dressed their narratives. The heathen worship and superstitions of the northern nations were still practically alive in the witch revels or Sabbaths, which have descended from the customs of Valhalla, and are told nearly in the same terms by Olaus Magnus, and by the concoctors of the Aberdeen indictments.
With these casual comments to draw attention to the peculiar character of the charges, a few more extracts from these singular accusations are offered:
“Thou art indicted and accused for being with Janet Wood, goodwife, of Pitmurchie, in winter last past, in her house of Pitmurchie, she and her husband lying in ane chamber, and thou lying in the same chamber in ane bed – none being in the house but the three; the devil thy master came to thee, and then by his instigation and thy enchantment, the goodwife being lying sick, the parpan wall of the house shook and trembled and made such ane din and noise as the same had been hailely fallen, and there-through the goodwife and the goodman was so afraid they could nought be contained within their beds for fear and dread that the wall should fall on them – albeit, there fell not ane stone thereof. And this thou did, being enspired by thy master as said is – and this thou confessed the shaking and tumbling of the wall, alleging only it was dogs and cats that ran on the wall.”
“Item, at this same night that the wall trembled and shook by thy devilish enchantments, the devil thy master appeared to thee in the said goodwife of Pitmurchie’s chamber, where the goodman himself was lying, in the form of ane four-footed beast, and specially like ane futret, and sometime like ane cat, and ran about the said goodman of Pitmurchie’s bed-clothes where he was lying, whereby he was so terrified that he cried, and thou speired at him what moved or troubled him – and he answered thee again, ‘I trow the deil is in this house for I can nought lie in my bed for fear,’ and he incontinently rose, lighted ane candle to see if there were any cat, dog, futret, or other four-footed beast about the house – who finding the doors and windows all fast could see nothing. To whom thou answered and said then again, ‘Goodman, be godlie; if ye have tane any man’s geer, restore the same again, and then the devil will nought appear.’ ”
This injunction was supposed to be a solemn mockery of the scriptural exhortations to penitence and the functions of the clergy. The tormenting of their victims by the presence of animals, we shall find to be among the most ordinary of the witch impeachments. Its phenomena are among the most easily resolvable by ordinary natural agency, in the habits of the animals, – domestic, such as cats, or wild, such as rats, – which frequent houses; and, what cannot thus be accounted for, may be resolved by the phenomena of dyspeptic dreams. The following act of vengeance is also characteristic of the ordinary accusations against these poor wretches:
“In June last or thereby, thou being entering into the kirkyard of Kincardine, gangen in at the kirk door thereof, umwhile Alexander Burnet, son to James Burnet in Larguie, ane young able man, meeting thee, and seeing that thou was going to offer thyself to bide ane trial for witchcraft, he knowing by open voice and common fame that thou wast ane witch, said merrily to thee, ‘Get fire to the witch carling.’ Then thou answered the said Alexander, being instructed at the present by thy master Satan, ‘Thou shall be first drowned ere I be burned;’ and true it is that then thy dittay being obscured9 by the reason aforesaid, continually from that forth, the said Alexander being in his flower,10 and coming but to his ability, by thy witchcraft and sorcery then casten on him, never ceased till that he riding in company with the Laird of Muchals and divers other gentlemen, in the water of Don, to wash their horses in ane hot summer’s day, the said Alexander drowned, and the rest was safe – and so that inspiration whilk thou had of thy master the devil came verily and truly to pass and took effect, in that he first drowned before thou was burnt for thy witchcraft. And to verify this to be true, ere ever any word came to Lunfanan, where thou dwell, of the drowning of the said Alexander Burnet, or ever any man or woman in these parts knew or heard thereof, thou passed to Kincragie, and said to the goodman, goodwife, and their family, “I have gotten my heart’s desire and wish upon one – that is Alexander Burnet, who is drowned before I be burned.’ ”
The next series of extracts in which we shall indulge are by no means of so homely and natural a cast, but bring us again into the darker recesses of Satan’s peculiar dominion:
“Thou art indicted and accused for being in company and society with thy master the devil, of whom thou learned all thy sorcery, at ane dance, where there was with thee eight other persons at ane grey stane at the foot of the hill of Craigleuche, where thou and they was under the conduct of thy master the devil, dancing in ane ring, and he playing melodiously upon ane instrument, albeit invisible to you,” &c.
“Upon All-hallow even last by-past, at twelve hours in the night, or thereby, thou comes to the fish-cross of this burgh, under the conduct of Satan thy master, playing before thee on his form of instruments – and there in company with thy devilish companions and faction transformed in other likeness – some in hares, some in cats, and some in other similitudes, ye all danced about the fish-cross and meal-market for a long space. Of the whilk dance, umwhile William Leys was ringleader, whilk he confessed himself before his death – and that thou was ane of the number.”
The passages that follow begin charges of the same character, but the scene gradually shifts to superstitions of another class:
“Thou confessed that the devil thy master, whom thou terms Christsunday, caused thee dance sundry times with him, and with our lady – who, as thou says, was a fine woman clad in a white walicot, and sundry others of Christsunday’s servants with thee, whose names thou knows not, and that the devil played on his form of instruments very pleasantly unto you.”
“Item, thou confessed that thou can charm a sword in such sort, that the owner thereof shall not get his blood drawn, nor reap any skaith so long as he has that sword – whilk charm, as thou confessed, is after this form: To cause the man that owns the sword, take it naked in his right hand and kiss the guard thereof, and then make three crosses in the gait therewith, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – and Christsunday. And this lesson thou confesses thou learned of thy master Christsunday.”
“Item, thou confessed that thou bade William Innes of Edingeith, take the cross of a rowan tree, and put on his right shoulder and turn him thrice about, and beseech him to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and Christsunday – and no evil would dare upon him.”
“Item, thou confessed that thou could help sick cattle by saying an oration to them, whilk thou repeated this day in the kirk, wherein there was a part in these words: ‘Nine times God swarbed between me and them,’ and by casting south running water on them, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and Christsunday, whereby thou would recover their sickness.”
“Item, thou confessed thou washed James Cheyne in Pein, twenty days since, or thereby, with south running water in his own house, and caused his own hire-woman bring in the water unspoken, and when he was washen therewith, thou caused the said woman cast it in the same place where she took it out, and bade her keep the same from the cattle.”
“Item, on Sunday last thou confessed the devil thy master, whom thou calls Christsunday, came to thee in the house of the said James Cheyne, about twelve hours of the night, in the likeness of a black stag, and bade thee be his servant, with whom thou consulted a long space.”
“Item, thou confessed, in presence of Mr. Thomas Leslie, sheriff depute, and sundry others, that the devil appeared to thee within these eighteen days or thereby, whom thou calls thy God, within the said James Cheyne’s pantry, about one hour in the night, and appeared to thee in ane great man’s likeness with silken habiliments, with ane white candle in his hand, and then gave thee thy injunctions to use thy devilish practices and services.”
Such are a few of the more remarkable incidents and characteristics selected out of a very large mass of matter. Besides the portions which have been deemed curious enough to be set down as they are found in the original documents, a minute investigator might find embedded in uninteresting verbiage or tedious details, little incidental matters which are curious, and might be important to psychological inquirers, but are not sufficiently continuous and distinct to be interesting in a work chiefly of a narrative character like the present. Classification and arrangement do not readily apply to matters of so vagrant a character as deposed superstitions. They are not, like an accepted science, where the dropping of an insignificant portion, like breaking a wheel of a watch, disturbs the whole economy; they are rather like a mountain landscape, where we desire the lights and shadows, the sparkle of the waters, the green of the forests, and the general hue and character of nature as it is there to be found. Still, in the same arena there are other workers – geologists investigating the strata; botanists, agricultural chemists, trigonometrical surveyors, and so forth. The field opened up by these extracts does not seem promising, but to inquirers into psychological and even physiological matters, these trials for witchcraft, occupying upwards of a hundred very closely-printed quarto pages, may afford valuable raw material.
Before leaving these curious records, however, it is scarcely more than fair to the reputation of the whole system of witch-belief, which in the extracts hitherto indulged in has a wildly capricious, fantastic, and malicious character, to quote one passage, illustrative of those neighbourly services which seem sometimes to have been either begged or bought from these witches, and sometimes to have been exacted by harsh threats of denunciation and punishment. We have here the method of reclaiming a bewitched mill; and it may be important to those who consider such objects as matter of scientific inquiry, instead of general curiosity, to find a case in point, showing that when one witch lays on a spell, it is necessary to have the services of another for its removal; just as a miller of the present day, having found that a lawyer, by some mystical process full of hard and incomprehensible words, had stopped his mill and laid an embargo on his property, finds that he must employ another lawyer for the removal of these insidious restraints or spells. Christian Reid is indicted as a notorious witch and sorcerer: “Thou came to Walter Innes, miller, at the mill of Federet, he being standing at the said mill, and said to him, ‘Ye are bewitched, and your mill also, and if you will give me any geer, I will get you remedy both for thee and for the other. And as to your mill, if you satisfy me, I shall get her remedied presently at home; but as to yourself, you man gang forty miles ere you get your own health.’ And the said Walter Innes answered thee, ‘I care not so much for my own disease as I care for my mill; and if thou presently will remeid my mill, I will recompense thee therefor.’ And this thou canst nought deny, for thou hast confessed this point already in the kirk of this burgh, before the provost, ministry, and divers others.
“Item, thou art indicted as a manifest witch and sorcerer, in so far that in the month of March last by-past, fourteen days or thereby before pasche last, after thou had spoken in this form with the said Walter Innes, thou passed to one Catherine Gerard, spouse to Crawford in Ironside, and daughter to one Hellie Pennie, that was burnt for witchcraft before in Slains; who, as thou alleged, desired thee to speak the forementioned words to the said Walter, and said to the said Catherine, ‘I have spoken with Watt Innes, who says he will give some of his geer to remeid his mill;’ and the said Catherine answered thee, ‘Well then, if so be ye must do a little thing for me at this time – and I will do as meikle for you again – whilk is this: Ye shall gang to the mill of Federet, and take up a little sand at the west cheek of the north door of the said mill, and cast the same upon the stones and wheels, in the name of God and Christsunday, and then the mill shall be in the old manner.’ And upon this, thou immediately thereafter, at the direction of the said Catherine, passed to the said mill and did as aforesaid; and then the said mill, whilk of before, by thy witchcraft, and by the witchcraft and devilry of the said Catherine, was unable to gang, and the wheels whereof could not be put about by eight men, ground after her old form, and made good meal and sheeling.
“Item, &c., thou confesses, thyself, that albeit Catherine Gerard cast on the witchcraft on the mill, she could not take it off herself, but it behoved another witch to take it off, for she could nought take off the witchcraft which she cast on. And therefore, seeing thou took off that devilry and inchantment off that mill by thy devilry and witchcraft, thou canst nought be clensit from witchcraft, for none can take it off but witches.”
Should these incoherencies – some of them so wild and demoniacal, others so homely – seem to the reader a semi-jocular narrative, that never can have been connected with serious results, there is a black account in the records of the receipt and expenditure of the funds of the good city of Aberdeen, telling another tale. The clerk makes up a statement of “the disbursements made by the compter, at command and by notice of the ordnance of the provost, bailies, and council, in the burning and sustentation of the witches.” Putting the sustentation after the burning is not logical, but it is evident that the civic officer did not put himself to the trouble of reflecting that the one expense naturally preceded the other. Among the earliest of the items is one that might, one would think, have even made a civic dignitary shudder – at all events, it would not make its appearance at the present day in an account-book, in terms so repulsively expressive. A sum of ten shillings is charged “for trailing of Monteith through the streets of the town in ane cart (who hanged herself in prison), and for cart hire and eirding of her (earthing or burying her).”
To the account of Janet Wishart and Isabel Cockie, there are set forth the following significant items:
|For twenty loads of peats, to burn them||40||0|
|For one boll of coalls||23||0|
|For four tar-barrels||26||8|
|For fire and iron barrels||16||8|
|For a stalk and dressing of it||16||0|
|For four fathom of tows (ropes)||4||0|
|For carrying the peats, coals, and barrels to the hill||13||4|
|To John Justice, for their execution||13||4|
The Dean of Guild of the town gained for himself golden opinions from his fellow-citizens, and was voted a pecuniary reward for his affectionate attention to their interests, in ridding them of witches. It was the function of this important officer, like the Edile of the Romans, to look after the public edifices, and protect the citizens from injury by ruinous buildings. As a clerk of works would deem that he did service in the present day by ridding the establishment under his management of bugs or rats, so it seems to have been deemed an act of zealous official duty, and good neighbourship, in the inspector of streets and public buildings to look after the burning of the witches. Hence, on the 21st of September, 1597, the provost, bailies, and council, considering the faithfulness shown by William Dun, the Dean of Guild, in the discharge of his duty, “and, besides this, his extraordinarily taking pains in the burning of the great number of the witches burnt this year, and on the four pirates, and bigging of the port upon the brig of Dee, repairing of the Grey Friars Kirk and steeple thereof, and thereby has been abstracted from his trade of merchandise continually since he was elected to the said office” – he is allowed a gratuity of forty-seven pounds out of the penalties levied on those who catch salmon out of season.11
Among the expenses of the occasion was that of building a palisade to keep off the crowd who thronged to “the great number of the witches burnt this year,” and the account intimates that it was broken down through the eager pressure of the mob. In the good old times, such holocausts occurred at intervals like storms or inundations. When the moral tempest of hatred and bigot ferocity was sweeping by, then was the time for all who had some old wrong to avenge, or who had been nourishing in their bosoms some well-matured hatred, to seize the opportunity and strike their enemies; then was the time for the strong, the fierce, and the unscrupulous, to triumph in the bloody struggle, and the weak to be trodden in the earth. And, in such a conflict of utter selfish ferocity, unlighted by any ray of generosity, chivalry, heroism, or even mercy, it is not surprising that we should find, when we analyse the fate of the strugglers, that men strong in person, in skill, and in social condition, should be the victors, and that aged women should be the victims.
These matters happened, as we have seen, in Aberdeenshire, just at the close of the sixteenth century. Sixty-four years later, there was another and similar outbreak in the parish of Auldearn, in the neighbouring county of Nairn. The documents which we possess relating to the Aberdeen cases are chiefly the accusations – those which relate to the Auldearn witches are singularly enough their confessions – a fact, the import of which will have to be afterwards noticed. There is a remarkable similarity to each other in these sets of instances; but the Auldearn witches were, as we shall find, the more heteroclite of the two, and they had far greater lyrical capacities, indulging themselves abundantly in poetry and song.12 According to the method adopted with their predecessors, some characteristic fragments from these lengthy statements are here strung together. In the present instance, the impression thus derived of the original will not be a very false one, as it is in many places fragmentary and imperfect. These women then confess, in the presence of the sheriff of the county, the clergyman of the parish, and a worshipful assembly of country gentlemen, such things as these:
“As I was going betwixt the towns of Drumduin and the heads, I met the devil, and there covenanted in a manner with him; and I promised to meet him in the night-time in the kirk of Auldearn, whilk I did. And the first thing I did there that night, I denied my baptism, and did put the one of hands to the crown of my head and the other to the sole of my foot, and then renounced all, betwixt my two hands, over to the devil. He was in the reader’s desk, and a black book in his hand. Margaret Brodie, in Auldearn, held me up to the devil to be baptised of him; and he marked me on the shoulder, and sucked out my blood at that mark and spouted it on his hand, and sprinkling it on my head, said, ‘I baptise thee, Janet, in my own name.’ ”
“John Taylor and Janet Breadhead, his wife, &c., and I myself, met in the kirkyard of Nairn, and we raised an unchristened child out of its grave, and at the end of Bradly’s corn-field land, just opposite the mill of Nairn, we took the said child, with the nails of our fingers and toes, pickels of all sorts of grain, and blaids of kail, and hacked them all very small together, and put part thereof among the muckheaps of Bradly’s lands, and thereby took away the fruit of his corns, &c., and we parted it among two of our covins (covies or companies). When we take corn at Lammas, we take but about two sheaves when the corns are full, and two stocks of kail or thereby, and that gives us the fruit of the corn-land, or kailyard, where they grow.”
“When we go to any house we take meat and drink * * * we put besoms in our beds with our husbands till we return to them again. We were in the Earl of Murray’s house in Darnaway, and we got enough then, and did eat and drink of the best, and brought part with us. We went in at the windows. I had a little horse, and would cry ‘HORSE AND HATTOCK IN THE DEVIL’S NAME,’13 and when any see these straws in a whirlwind and do not sanctify themselves, we may shoot them dead at our pleasure. Any that are shot by us, their souls go to heaven – but their bodies remain with us, and will fly as horses to us, as small as straws.”
“I was in the Downie hills, and got meat there from the Queen of Fairy more than I could eat. The Queen of Fairy is bravely clothed in white linens, and in white and brown cloathes, and the King of Fairy is a brave man, well-favoured and broadfaced. There were elf-bulls rowting and sqoilling up and down there, and affrighted me.”
The belief that a human life might be shortened by the melting of a waxen image – as old in literature as the days of Ovid, and perhaps much older in superstition – was probably never explained in so lively a form as in the following morsel of these confessions. It would almost seem as if the sorceress had a ferocious delight in the accuracy with which the child was represented, and the consequent air of reality in its symbolical torture and destruction:
“Bessie Wilson in Auldearn, and Margaret Wilson, &c., and I, made a picture of clay to destroy the Laird of Park’s male children. John Taylor brought home the clay in his plaid neuk – his wife brake it very small like meal, and sifted it with a sieve, and poured in water among it in the devil’s name, and wrought it very sore like ‘rye-bowt,’ and made of it a picture of the laird’s sons. It had all the parts and marks of a child, such as head, nose, hands, foot, mouth, and little lips. It wanted no mark of a child, and the hands of it folded down by its sides. It was like a ‘pou’ or a slain grice [sucking-pig]. We laid the face of it to the fire till it strakened [shrunk] and a clear fire round about it till it was red like a coal. After that we would roast it now and then. Each other day there would be a piece of it well rosten. The Laird of Park’s whole male children by it are to suffer, if it be not gotten and broken, as well as those that are born and dead already. It was still put in and taken out of the fire in the devil’s name. It was hung upon an knag. It is yet in John Taylor’s house, and it has a cradle of clay about it.”
“Elspet Chisholm, &c., and I, went into Alexander Cumming’s lit-house [dye-house] in Auldearn. I went in the likeness of a kea [daw], the said Elspet Chisholm was in the shape of a cat. Isabel More was a hare, and Maggie Brodie a cat. We took a thread of each colour of yarn that was in the said Alexander Cumming’s lit-vat, and did cast three knots on each thread in the devil’s name; and did put the threads in the vat widdershins14 about in the vat in the devil’s name, and thereby took the whole strength of the vat, away that it could litt nothing but only black, according to the colour of the devil, in whose name we took away the strength of the right colours that was in the vat.”
An account of the elf-attendants furnished by the infernal court to these earthly retainers, is, besides its innate vagueness, rendered fragmentary by the partial decay of the record. Still, enough remains in the fragments carefully dovetailed by the editor of the Criminal Trials to give one a more real notion of the familiars of the witch class, than it would be easy to find elsewhere:
“Three would meet – but sometimes a covin, sometimes more, sometimes less – but a grand meeting would be about the end of each quarter. There is thirteen persons in each covin, and each one of us has a spirit to wait upon us when we please to call him. I remember not all the spirits’ names, but there is one called Swein, whilk waits upon the said Margaret Wilson in Auldearn. He is still clothed in grass green, and the said Margaret has a nickname called ‘Pickle nearest the wind.’ The next spirit is called ‘Rorie,’ who waits upon Bessie Wilson in Auldearn; he is still clothed in yellow, and her nickname is ‘Through the corn yard.’ The third spirit is called ‘The Roaring Lion,’ who waits upon Isobel Nicol in Loch Low, and he is still clothed in sea green. Her nickname is ‘Bessie Rule.’ The fourth spirit is called ‘Mac Hector,’ who waits upon Jean Martin, daughter to the said Margaret Wilson. He is a young-like devil, clothed still in grass green. Jean Martin is maiden to the covin that I am of, and her nickname is ‘Over the Dyke with it.’ The name of the fifth spirit is ‘Robert the Rule,’ and he is still clothed in sad dunn, and seems to be a commander of the rest of the spirits, and waits upon Margaret Brodie in Auldearn. The name of the sixth spirit is called ‘The Thief of Hell wait upon herself,’ and he waits also on the said Bessie Wilson. The name of the seventh spirit is called the ‘Red Riever,’ and he is my own spirit, that waits upon myself, and is still clothed in black. The eighth spirit is called ‘Robert the Jackis,’ still clothed in dunn, and seems to be aged. He is ane gleiket gowket spirit. The woman’s nickname that he waits on is ‘Able and Stout.’ The ninth spirit is called ‘Laing,’ and the woman’s nickname that he waits upon is ‘Bessie Bauld.’ The tenth spirit is called ‘Thomas a’ Fairie.’ There will be many other devils waiting upon our master devil; but he is bigger and more awful than the rest of the devils, and they all fear him. I will ken them all one by one from others when they appear like a man.”
“When we raise the wind, we takes a rag of cloth and wets it in water, and we takes a beetle15 and knocks the rag on a stone, and we say thrice over:
“ ‘I knock this rag upon this stane,
To raise the wind in the devil’s name,
It shall not lie until I please again.’
“When we would lay the wind, we dry the rag, say thrice over:
“ ‘We lay the wind in the devil’s name,
Not to rise till we like to raise it again.’
And if the wind will not lie instantly, we call upon our spirit, and say to him, ‘Thief, thief, conjure the wind and cause it to lie.’ We have no power of rain, but we will raise the wind when we please. He made us believe16 * * * that there was no god beside him.
“As for elf arrow-heads, the devil shapes them with his own hands, and then delivers them to elf-boys, who whyttes and dightes17 them like a packing-needle.18 * * * Those that dightes them are little ones, hollow and bow-backed. They speak gowstie like. When the devil gives them to us, he says:
“ ‘Shoot these in my name,
And they shall not go haill hame.’
And when we shoot these arrows, we say,
“ ‘I shoot yon man in the devil’s name;
He shall not wone haill hame;
And this shall be also true,
There shall not be ane bit of him liew.’19
“We have no bow to shoot with, but spang them from the nails of our thumbs. Sometimes we will miss – but if they touch, be it beast, man, or woman, it will kill, though they had a jack upon them.”
This account of the elve weapons answers well to the little sharp, neat flint darts which are found in considerable numbers in the north of Scotland and Scandinavia. The northern antiquaries have classified the flint weapons, and have followed them by an arrangement of the bronze. The flint armory of Britain adjusts itself only to a secondary branch of this system. We are here inquiring, however, not as to these weapons with reference to the time when they were used, but as to the condition in which they were – no one can tell how many centuries after the time of their actual use – when the witches of Auldearn were charged with using them. These little fiendish-looking weapons are of the true shape of the barbed dart, as it may be seen in ancient architectural decoration and symbolical sculpture. They are often finished or “dichted” to perfection, the barbs corresponding with each other, and the point as sharp as that of a lancet. Their construction by the mere operation of chipping, indicates a peculiar manual art wrought to high perfection.20
When these beautiful little weapons, made of a stone unknown in the district, were turned up by the plough, it was not wonderful that the peasantry should immediately invest them with a supernatural origin and use. Hence they are still known by a name which may be found alluded to in the oldest Scottish topographical writers, of elfry heads, or elf arrow-heads.21 There are many traditions of their having been found in the bodies of cattle suddenly stricken, and still darker rumours of their discovery in human victims. When they are found, it is the practice of the country to hide them carefully, as their accessibility to light and air is supposed to put them at the disposal of the fiends who use them. It is difficult to conjecture how they can have been attached to a shaft, and it is probable that their deadly efficacy depended on the slightness of the adhesion, so that the barbed flint remained in the wound. Their shafts, of course, however attached to them, have rotted away many centuries ago. Their appearance, therefore, does not indicate how they could have been discharged by ordinary human means, and favours ideas about supernatural agency. It was hence, with a just adaptation to all appearances and to the prevailing notions of the district; that the Auldearn witches said they used no bows, but discharged the deadly weapon by a jerk of the thumb. So much by way of comment on the application of these wild confessions to facts and local superstitions; the episode may, perhaps, be a slight relief from extravagances which are growing monotonous. At the risk, however, even of tiring the reader with absurdities, some more extracts from these self-accusers’ tales are offered. We leave them slaying. The extract which follows begins with a healing charm; but we find them resting not long in the beneficent humour, and returning at intervals to the destructive. The narrative introductory of the following fragment of a rhyme is so extremely broken and scattered, as but barely to indicate that the intended charm is of a sanatory character:
“He put the blood to the blood till all upstood –
The lith to the lith till all took with;
Our lady charmed her dearly son
With her tooth and her tongue,
And her ten fingers,
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Haily Gaist.’
And this we say thrice over, stroaking the sore, and it becomes whole. 2ndly. For the bean shaw, or pain in the haunch: ‘We are here three maidens charming for the bean straw.22 The man of the midle earth, blew beaver, land feaver, maneris of stooris, the Lord fleigged the feind with his holy candles and yeird foot stone.23 There she sits, and here she is gone – let her never come here again.’ 3rdly. For the fevers we say thrice over: ‘I forbid the quaking fevers, the sea fevers, the land fevers, and all the fevers that ever God ordained out of the head, out of the heart, out of the back, out of the sides, out of the knees, out of the thighs – from the points of the fingers to the nibs of the toes, out shall the fevers go – some to the hill, some to the pass, some to the stone, some to the stock. In Saint Peter’s name, Saint Paul’s name, and all the saints in heaven, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.’
“And when we took the fruit of the fishes from the fishers, we went to the shore before the boat could come to it; and we would say upon the shore side three several times over:
“ ‘The fishers are gone to the sea,
And they will bring hame fish to me;
They will bring them hame intil the boat,
But they shall get of them but the smaller sort.’
So we either steal a fish or buy a fish, or get a fish from them one or ma. And with that we have all the fruit of the haill fishes in the boat; and the fishes that the fishermen will have themselves will be but froth.
“The first voyage that ever I went with the rest of our covins was to the ploughlands, and there we shot a man betwixt the plough stilts; and he presently fell to the ground upon his nose and his mouth; and then the devil gave me an arrow and caused me to shoot a woman in that field, whilk I did, and she fell down dead.
“In winter, 1660, when Mr. Harie Forbes, minister of Auldearn, was sick, we made ane bag of the gall’s flesh, and gutts of toads, pickles of bear (barley), pairings of the nails of fingers and toes; the liver of a hare and bits of clouts. We steeped this altogether all night, among water all hacked through other. And when we put it among the water Satan was with us, and learned us the words following to say thrice over. They are thus:
“ ‘He is lying in his bed – he is lying sick and sore,
Let him lie intil his bed two months and three days more;
Let him lie intil his bed – let him lie intil it sick and sore,
Let him lie intil his bed months two and three days more;
He shall lie intil his bed – he shall lie in it sick and sore,
He shall lie intil his bed two months and three days more.’
“When we had learned all these words from the devil as said it, we fell all down upon our knees, with our hair down upon our shoulders and eyes, and our hands lifted up upon the devil; and said the foresaid words thrice over to the devil, strictly against master Harie Forbes.”
The next extract, and it shall be the last, relates to metamorphoses – the most prominent and universal of all witch superstitions:
“The dogs will sometimes get some bites of us when we are in hares, but will not get us killed. When we turn out of a hare’s likeness in our own shape, we will have the bites, and rives, and scratts in our bodies. When we would be in the shape of cats, we did cry, and wraw, and riving, and, as it were, whirring on one another; and when we come to our own shapes again, we will find the scratts and rives in our skins very sore.
“When one of us or more is in the shape of cats, and meets with any others our neighbours, we will say, ‘Devil speed thee, go thou with me,’ and immediately they will turn to the shape of an cat and go with us. When we will be in the shape of crows, we will be larger than ordinary crows, and will sit upon branches of trees. We went in the shape of rooks to Mr. Robert Donaldson’s house – the devil and John Taylor and his wife went to the kitchen chimney and went down upon the cruik. It was about Lammas in 1659; they opened an window, and we went all into the house, and got beef and drink there.”
It is not wonderful that the cat should be a favourite shape of metamorphosis. The silent celerity of motion in these domesticated wild beasts, their consequent mysterious apparitions and vanishings, their assemblages and solemn communings with each other; their strange cries, so unpleasantly imitative of the human voice in fright or fury; their proverbial tenacity of life, which frequently startles those who have left them for dead by their reappearance alive; and in general, their strange amalgamation of the savage and the domestic animal have ever made them objects of interest, as the worship of the Egyptians, the history of the Knights Templars, the charges against the Waldensian sorcerers, and finally the northern witch trials, exemplify to us.
The latest judicial proceedings for witchcraft in Scotland have an intimate and ludicrous connexion with the habits of these animals. As no inflictions followed on them, the impression left by them is rather in favour of the accuser, who seems to have been so heavily persecuted by troops of unreasonable cats, that if he had a particle of superstition in his nature it could not fail to be roused to his rescue. These irritations occurred in the year 1718, at Scrabster, in Caithness, and the sufferer was an individual named William Montgomery, by trade a mason. His account of the matter, when claiming judicial protection against the powers of darkness, is ridiculous enough, and not unnatural; many occupants of houses with small sunny suburban patches of garden-ground attached to them, have suffered from similar inflictions. He says:
“Your petitioner’s house being infested with cats these three months by-past – viz., September, October, and November – to that degree that my wife was affrighted terribly at the fearful and unnatural noise in my absence for most of these months foresaid at Mey, and sent five several times to me to repair home, or else she would leave the house and flit to Thurso; and my servant-woman was so affrighted by the said cats that she left my service abruptly before term, and would by no means serve me longer; and your petitioner having returned home, was several nights disturbed by these cats, and five of them one night at the fireside where the servant-woman only was, she cried out ‘the cats were speaking among themselves;’ and particularly on Friday, the 28th of November, having got in at a hole in a chest I then saw her,24 when I watched an opportunity to cut off her head when she put it out at the said hole, and having fastened my sword in her neck, which cut her, nor could I hold her; at last, having opened the chest, my servant William Geddes, having fixed my dirk in her hinder quarter, by which stroke she was fastened to the chest – yet after all she escaped out of the chest with the dirk in her hinder quarter – which continued there till I thought by many strokes I had killed her with my sword; and having cast her out dead she could not be found next morning, though we arose early to see what had become of her. And further, about four or five nights my servant being in bed, cried out, ‘That some of these cats had come in on him,’ – and having wrapped the plaid about the cat I thrust my dirk through her belly, and having fixed the dirk in the ground, I drove at her head with the back of an axe until she was dead, and being cast out could not be found next morning.”
Though Mr. Montgomery’s statement is somewhat incoherent, his measures seem to have been energetic. The real marvel of the case, however, does not come from him, but from the statement of a local judge. The lord advocate, Robert Dundas, hearing that wonderful discoveries had been made in the far north, and apprehensive probably of the recurrence of one of the ferocious outbreaks against elderly females which had so often disgraced the country, desired a special report of the matter, and directed the local judge to leave it in the hands of the law officers of the crown. The sheriff in his report made the following wonderful statement:
“There was no further thought of this affair from December; that the representation was not given in until the 12th of February last; that one Margaret Nin Gilbert, in Owst, living about one mile and a half distant from Montgomery’s house, was seen by some of her neighbours to drop at her own door one of her legs from the middle; and she being under bad fame before for witchcraft, the leg, black and putrified, was brought to me, and immediately thereafter I ordered her to be apprehended and incarcerated.”
But this was not all. The sheriff enclosed a document which he called the confession of Nin Gilbert, in which there are these statements:
“Being interrogated if ever there was any compact between her and the devil, confessed that as she was travelling some long time byegone in an evening, the devil met with her by the way in likeness of a man, and engaged her to take an oath with him, which she consented to; and that she said she knew him to be the devil ere he parted with her. On being interrogated if ever the devil appeared afterwards to her, confessed that sometimes he appeared afterwards in the likeness of a great black horse, and other times riding on a black horse, and that he appeared sometimes in the likeness of a black cloud, and sometimes of a black hen. Being interrogated if she was in the house of William Montgomery, mason, in the burnside of Scrabster, especially on that night, &c., when that house was dreadfully infested with several cats, to that degree that W. M. foresaid was obliged to use sword, dirk, and axe in beating and fraying away these cats, answered that she was bodily present there, and that the said M. had broke her leg either by the dirk or axe, which leg since has fallen off from the other part of her body; and that she was in the likeness of a feltered cat night foresaid in the said house: and that Margaret Olsone was then in the likeness of a cat also, who being stronger than she, did cast her on Montgomery’s dirk, when her leg was broken.”25
It is satisfactory to know, that if the local authorities were in their zeal eager to institute criminal proceedings in this instance, they were checked by the interference of the crown lawyers.
The reader is now, perhaps, possessed of a sufficient quantity of characteristic scenery from the Scottish trials for withcraft. It is difficult to say what they teach. They must be left almost as they are found, a mass of wild incoherences, incapable of being classified and arranged. Their occasional picturesque darkness, and accompaniments of the ludicrously horrible, are not the creation of vivid imaginations revelling in eccentricity. Even in the midst of the most grotesque confession, something comes forth more indicative of the habitual thoughts of an aged female than of the proper poetical attributes of a demon. We may feel an imaginary thrill when the power of darkness appears as a black horse, as a dark forbidding man of giant frame, or as a cloud; but certainly he drops all his tangible attributes when he assumes the respectable appearance of a hen. We may experience some recoiling yet interested sensations in reading of the metamorphoses into beasts; but when their object is a design to purloin bottles of beer, beef, and legs of roast mutton, the mind passes at once from the ideal to the real. Perhaps, in the remarks now to be offered, may be found to some extent the secret why these accusations and confessions possess a certain fund of picturesqueness mixed with their vulgarity.
It is a startling fact, and one which ought to be boldly dealt with, that the most wonderful of these supernatural statements are to be found, not in mere accusations, but in confessions. To those who hold them to be genuine spontaneous confessions of things that really occurred, there is, of course, nothing more to be said. But it is a matter on which the sceptical reader, who cannot reject the confessions as entirely either forgeries or hallucinations, may have his difficulty, and he will only find a solution of it in the horrible influence of torture. From the time when King James took up this subject, and wrote a book intended to justify his reputation as the Solomon of the seventeenth century, downwards, the lawyers and clergy became imbued with the understanding of certain doctrinal characteristics of witchcraft, which they had found in Del Rio, Sprenger, and the other scientific authorities on the forbidden art. When they found a witch, they believed that she acted according to the method laid down by these authorities, just as a student of medicine, when he satisfies himself of the existence of typhus or scarlatina, believes that it will develop the symptoms set forth by the professor of Nosology. To a narrative, therefore, of circumstances corresponding with these doctrines, confession was demanded, and, under the influence of torture, yielded.26 It was surely not to be anticipated that people of the class and character of these unfortunates could preserve their constancy through inflictions which sometimes broke down the firmest minds embarked in the holiest cause, and forced apostacy on the most enthusiastic champions of religious faith. When even a few among the men of strong enthusiasm and lofty purpose, whose fate is inscribed in the martyrology, could be so borne down, is it wonderful that aged females of questionable character, and a few recluse men who had frightened themselves by the unexpected results of rash chemical experiments, should nearly all yield? The tortures inflicted on Urban Grandier, in the vain attempt to extract a confession of sorcery, rendered him who endured them illustrious for his undaunted courage; but Grandier had in view the influence of his order – his spotless fame as a priest – the love of truth – and, by his own account, the danger of passing to judgment with a falsehood on his tongue: he had last and not least the proud satisfaction of baffling the cruel enemies who had vowed that they should find the means of condemning him from his own lips. One less resolute would, in the moment when the overwrought spirit was flickering for release, have faintly assented to the whole horrible tale put together by his persecutors, and thus have left, as the Scottish witches have, a distinct narrative of diabolical experiences, to puzzle philosophers with a psychological mystery.
The inflictions on many of the Scottish victims were sometimes no less horrible than those borne by Grandier; and, in one or two instances, they were endured with a firmness nearly as great. The return to Scotland of King James with his Danish bride, was an occasion for a series of accusations, followed up by the most refined tortures. Of his romantic journey, so little in accordance with his usual character, the king was extremely proud; and he did not deem it at all wonderful that the powers of darkness should adopt the occasion for endeavouring to strike a blow at his sacred person. Though usually a good-natured man, his intense selfishness and vanity made him hard, relentless, and savage towards those who gave themselves up to the awful crime of plotting against their anointed king; and the criminal records of Scotland are marked by many dark traces of his sanguinary vindictiveness. The present instance, too, was an excellent opportunity for exercising his marvellous acuteness in the discovery of deep mysteries, and with the aid of the boots and the cord he did succeed in divulging a strange history. A certain Geiles Duncan was rumoured to have been present at a great sabbath of witches in the church of North Berwic, when Satan presided in the pulpit. It was said that they had gone there “to the number of 200, and that they all went together to sea, each one in a riddle or sieve – and that they all went into the same very substantially with flagons of wines, making merry and drinking by the way in the same riddles or sieves to the kirk of North Berwic.” Geiles played upon a trump, or jews-harp; and a contemporary says, that “these confessions made the king in a wonderful admiration, and sent for the said Geiles Duncan, who, upon the like trump, did play the said dance before the king’s majesty, who, in respect of the strangeness of these matters, took great delight to be present at their examinations.”27
This Geiles Duncan had been brought to confession by torture in the pilliwinkies or pilniwinkies, a species of thumb-screw – “and binding or wrenching her head with a cord or rope.” The inquisitors did not, of course, attribute the confession to the torture, but to their discovery during its infliction of the devil’s marks on her body, “which, being found, she confessed that all her doings was done by the wicked allurements and enticements of the devil, and that she did them by witchcraft.” Agnes Sampson was subjected to the same torture, and with exactly the same result. It is observable that these women, when they found that the king took so intense an interest in the matter of their accusation as personally to examine them, became extremely communicative, and mixed up their relations with some judicious flattery – such as, that the reason why the devil so hated the king was, because his majesty was the greatest enemy he had in the world; but the royal heart was too entirely petrified to be softened even with this skilful solvent.
We have more full particulars of the infliction of torture on a male wizard named Fian, who acted as registrar to the gang. The inquisitors began “by thrawing of his head with a rope, whereat he would confess nothing. Secondly, he was persuaded by fair means to confess his follies, but that would prevail as little. Lastly, he was put to the most severe and cruel pain in the world, called the boots; who, after he had received three strokes, being inquired if he would confess his damnable acts and wicked life, his tongue would not serve him to speak.” This was attributed to certain charmed pins; and when they were removed, the doctor, in the king’s presence, subscribed his confession.
The doctor seems, like the females, to have expected grace of his sovereign, but, finding that he had no chance for life, he made his escape. On being recaptured he denied everything, “notwithstanding that his own confession appeareth remaining in record under his own handwriting, and the same thereunto fixed, in the presence of the king’s majesty and sundry of his council – yet did he utterly deny the same.”
Next follows a horrible description, which we take from the curious pamphlet already cited, It was printed as a justification of the king, or rather an eulogy on him, for his conduct on the important occasion:
“Whereupon the king’s majesty, perceiving his stubborn wickedness, conceived and imagined that in the time of his absence he had entered into new conference and league with the devil his master; and that he had been again newly marked, for the which he was narrowly searched; but it could not in any way be found. Yet for more trial of him to make him confess, he was commanded to have a most strange torment, which was done in the manner following. His nails upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a turkas, which in England we call a pair of pincers, and under every nail there was thrust in two needles over even up to the heads. At all which torments notwithstanding, the doctor never shrunk any whit; neither would he then confess it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted upon him. Then was he with all convenient speed by commandment conveyed again to the torment of the boots, wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blows in them, that his legs were crushed and beaten together as small as might be; and the bones and flesh so bruised that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever. And, notwithstanding all these grievous pains and cruel torments, he would not confess anything; so deeply had the devil entered into his heart, that he utterly denied that which he before avouched; and would say nothing thereunto but this, that what he had done and said before was only done and said for fear of pains which he had endured.”
Aleson Balfour’s execution, in 1594, would have passed unnoticed in the crowd, but that her confessions were adduced in evidence against the master of Orkney, for attempting to kill his brother by witchcraft and poison. She made her confession after forty-eight hours of the “vehement torture of the caschielaws.” This instrument is supposed to have been an iron boot, heated gradually by a movable chafer; but we shall see that a prisoner was sometimes kept for several days under the operation, and we may presume that it was rather an instrument of constraint than of active infliction. Aleson’s age was not mentioned, but she may be supposed to have passed the most robust period of life, since her husband, by profession a tailor, was eighty-one years old. The treatment of this family was a terrible refinement of cruelty. Her old husband, “together with her eldest son and her daughter, were all kept at once and at the same instant in ward beside her, and put to tortures at the same instant time; the father being in the long irons of fifty stone weight; the son galled in the boots with fifty-seven strokes; and the daughter, being seven years old, put in the pilniwinkies – to this effect, that her said husband and bairns being so tormented beside her, might move her to make any confession for their relief.” So say the pleadings recorded in the trial of the master of Sinclair.28 We are then told as to the confession made by another accomplice, Thomas Palpa, thus: “The same was in like manner extorted of him, he being kept in the caschielaws eleven days and eleven nights; twice in the day by the space of fourteen days galled in the boots – he being naked in the mean time and scourged with tows (or ropes) in such sort that they left neither flesh nor hide on him – in the extremity of which torture the said pretended confession was drawn out of him.”
The confessions so extorted were adduced as evidence against the master of Orkney, and he was acquitted, his counsel scornfully directing attention to the cruelties which produced them. But they had been in the mean time fatally efficacious against the poor people who had uttered them. Aleson Balfour, however, showed spirit and courage at the closing scene. At the heading hill in Kirkwall, where she was taken to be burned, she made a last solemn declaration, and found a notary-public courageous enough to attest it. “She declared and took upon her soul and conscience, as she would answer at the day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that she was as innocent, and would die as innocent, of any point of witchcraft as a bairn new born;” and being asked by the parson of Ropher how she had been induced to make confession in the castle of Kirkwall, she answered: “That the time of her first deposition she was tortured divers and several times in the caschielaws, and sundry times taken out of them dead and out of all remembrance either of good or evil. As likewise her goodman being in the stocks, her son tortured in the boots, and her daughter put in the pilniwinkies, where-through she and they were so vexed and tormented, that partly to eschew a greater torment and punishment, and upon promise of her life and good deed by the said parson, falsely against her soul and conscience she made that confession, and not otherwise, for the whilk she asked the Lord mercy and forgiveness.” She was put to death, adhering “constantly” to this statement; and, though her firmness did not avert her own fate, when it was found to bear on that of the scion of a noble house, it was allowed its full influence.
Such are a few specimens of the manner in which the marvellous confessions of the witches were extracted.29 The subject is not so pleasing as to invite one to further elucidation. If there be any who, after such instances as these, hold that the long and minute confessions of these poor creatures, as they are now recorded, were actually uttered by them, whether from the influence of diseased imagination, or as a faithful record of events which took place, he must be left in his opinion – it would be useless to attempt to influence it by evidence.
A glance over the history of this melancholy subject, shows that in Scotland, as in other countries, these witch panics, with their consequent tortures and slaughters, came in great pulsations. In connecting them with historical events, we find, in the first place, that so far as our records bear, they followed the Reformation. It might be inferred from this, that there is a certain amount of latent superstition in the half-civilised mind; and that if it is not led into comparatively safe channels by persons of knowledge and authority, it stagnates, and, accumulating, breaks its bounds in a destructive torrent. On a general aspect of the case, such a view seems plausible. But it would need support from a fuller knowledge than we possess ere it could be finally adopted. We have not readily the means of knowing to what extent ecclesiastical proceedings were carried out in earlier times, while, in the later, the records of our criminal courts afford us ample knowledge. The monkish annalists of Scotland amplify their fabulous narratives with frequent tales of witchcraft, showing it to be in their own time a common belief; as, for instance, when they tell us how the life of King Duffus was attempted by the melting of a wax image, and record the incidents in the history of Macbeth.30 We know, also, that if prosecutions for witchcraft were rare in Scotland during Catholicism, they were abundant in other lands.
The multitude, however, of these persecutions during the first century and a half after the Reformation, is certainly a scandal pretty equally distributed over all the Protestant bodies. If Puritanism took the sway in New England and some other places, the most violent inflictions in Scotland came from the two monarchs who were the chief opponents of Puritanism – James VI. and Charles II. The period least signalised by so unhappy a characteristic was that of the Protectorate. The Cavaliers would say that the great demon had put down all the small ones. Cromwell had a mind certainly sufficiently under spiritual impressions, but here, as in other matters, we see the wonderful wisdom with which he conducted the practical business of this world, however much he might have another in his thoughts. It was his business, with a stern and strong hand, to restrain all useless persecution. Terrible and remorseless as he was when cutting down the crop of Irish Papists, that he might plant the land with what he deemed a better seed, he was never cruel without a definite object, nor would he permit cruelty in others, unless it aided his own projects. Thus, unless it could be shown that the state was to be disturbed by them, hallucinations might have their free course, people might see visions and dream dreams, and old women might ride on broomsticks or go to sea in sieves. He required to see some more substantial evil ere he considered it a dignus vindice nodus.
How much greater was his wisdom than that of his witty and learned contemporary. Selden, who, with a mocking half-credulity, says, “The law against witches does not prove there be any; but it punishes the malice of those people that use such means to take away men’s lives. If one should profess that, by turning his hat thrice and crying buz, he could take away a man’s life, though, in truth, he could do no such thing; yet this were a just law made by the state, that whoever should turn his hat thrice, and cry buz, with an inclination to take away a man’s life, shall be put to death.”31 Cromwell thought and did far otherwise. Men might whirl their hats and cry buz until they were tired, ere he meddled with them – and the consequence was that they did tire.
A belief in witchcraft lingered for a considerable time among the educated classes in Scotland. “The last execution of a Scottish witch,” says Mr. Kirkpatrick Sharpe, “took place in Sutherland, A.D. 1722, the sentence having been pronounced by the sheriff depute Colonel David Ross, of Little Dean. The old woman belonged to the parish of Loth, and, among other crimes, was accused of having ridden upon her own daughter, transformed into a pony and shod by the devil, which made the girl ever after lame both in hands and feet, a misfortune entailed upon her son, who was alive of late years. The grandmother was executed at Doroch; and it is said that, after being brought out to execution, the weather proving very severe, she sat composedly warming herself by the fire prepared to consume her, while the other instruments of death were making ready.”32
The penal statutes against witchcraft were repealed in 1736. In 1743, the Associate Presbytery, the predecessors of an ecclesiastical body which at this day embraces a large portion of the educated community of Scotland, in an act for the renewal of the covenant, enumerate, among other national sins, that “The penal statutes against witches have been repealed by the parliament, contrary to the express law of God; for which a holy God may be provoked in a way of righteous judgment, to leave those who are already ensnared to be hardened more and more; and to permit Satan to tempt and seduce others to the same wicked and dangerous snare.” This may be held as the latest public and authoritative announcement in Scotland that there exists a crime called Witchcraft, which ought to be suppressed by punishment.
1 Miscellany of the Spalding Club, i., 84 et seq.
2 This word puzzles the philologists. Dr. Jameson, in his Scottish dictionary, says: “I have sometimes been disposed to think that it might be a sea term, or one borrowed from gipsy language, from cant, to throw or cast, or turn over, and raup, or rope, as alluding, perhaps, to the tricks of jugglery.”
[A “cantrip” is generally taken to be a spell or charm.]
3 There was for some time a superstitious prejudice in Scotland against winnowing-machines, as a presumptuous interference with the elements – but superstitions do not hold out long in the north against palpable and profitable improvements.
4 This was a tolerably well-selected place for witchcraft machinations with the elements, from its connexion with the fate of Macbeth. But if Shakspeare had known of the history of this laying of the storm, it might have come accompanied with historical intelligence undermining the chief events of his tragedy. There are few things about Macbeth, except indeed his connexion with this remote spot, which are not very vague and dubious. It is questioned if he was a very good or a very bad man. It is questioned if he murdered Duncan, or if in his person he slew the usurper of his wife’s throne in open battle. There is little doubt, however, that death overtook him at Lunfanan. All the older chroniclers state it distinctly, and it is a remote unknown spot, unlike the conspicuous places with which tradition generally associates strange stories of the death of kings. Wyntoun, in his vernacular, gives all the stages of the chase across the Grampians, and then
“This Macbeth slewe thai than
Into the wode of Lunfanan
And his hewyd thai struk off there.”
To this day, on a bleak mountain-side in that remote district, a grey heap of stones is known by the name of Cairn Beth, a name preserved without reference to any tradition about the monarch’s fate: throughout Scotland, tradition has followed Shakspeare by making his death take place at Dunsinane.
5 In the Record “hes a thraw by God and swyis to the Queen of Elphen.” It may be put thus, with a great diminution in the power of the expression – he has a tendency against the Almighty and towards the Queen of Elphin. The extreme irreverence as well as logical absurdity of such a form of accusation are sufficiently obvious.
6 The fate of James IV. and the battle of Floden were then a history of only fifty-five years old; but the superstition among the common people, of the Scottish monarch wandering in elfland, shows how much the catastrophe of Floden was considered a national calamity, and how affectionately the warrior-monarch was remembered, even in the remotest parts of the Scottish Lowlands. The reference to Thomas Rymour, or Thomas of Erceldoun, might seem far more remarkable to persons not acquainted with the traditions of the North, since it refers to a person whose traditionary fame must have been a matter of greater antiquity at the period of the battle of Floden than the battle of Floden is to us of the nineteenth century. But the fame of the prophet-poet seems to have been ever strongest in Aberdeenshire, some 200 miles from the Border district, with which all that is known of his history is associated. Thomas was, however, one of those beings whose names seem to be syllabled by airy tongues, and who, like the Sacroboscos, Erigenas, and Duns Scotuses, are claimed by many countries. Wide, however, as the popularity of his name has been, the Rymer seems to have been always considered a Scot. Conrad Gesner says in his “Bibliotheca,” some forty years before these Aberdeen trials, “Thomas Leirmont, vel Ersiletonus, natione Scotus, editit Rhythmica quædum, et ob id Rhythmicus apud Anglos cognominatus.”
7 Stronger. Stark is still used north of the Grampians. It is one of many north-eastern terms, which, while unknown in the south, are not only traceable to a Teutonic continental root, but are identically the same with words used in Germany. In Aberdeenshire there are many terms obsolete in England, and even in the south of Scotland, which are to be found in use in Germany, but a still greater number which are in familiar use in Low Dutch. It would be a curious piece of philological work to find out how many of them, if any, are Anglo-Saxon, deserted by England and southern Scotland. It is a curious enough incidental circumstance, that though a thoroughly northern term occasionally occurs in these records of witchcraft trials, yet the language of the record is on the whole less peculiarly Scottish than the parliamentary privy council and other metropolitan records of the same period.
8 The equivalent, in the Scottish vernacular, of indictment, as a derivative from indictamenta.
9 Dittay obscured – indictment hidden. One of the charges against this woman – which can scarcely be called a supernatural one – was bribing the clerks of court with ten merks to “obscure and extract the dittay.”
10 The flower of his age.
11 Editor’s Preface to Miscellany of the Spalding Club, vol. i.
12 The Confessions of the Auldearn witches – a document almost unrivalled in interest in this department of inquiry – may be found in the Appendix to Mr. Pitcairn’s Collection (iii., 602). A portion of it had been shown to Sir Walter Scott before the publication of Mr. Pitcairn’s work, and is referred to in his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft.
13 The editor of these Confessions notices a curious confirmation from Aubrey’s Miscellanies of this form of northern enchantment. He preserves a tradition how a Lord Duffus, who lived near this same Auldearn, while walking in his paternal fields was suddenly swept away, and was found in the King of France’s wine-cellar, with a silver cup in his hand. According to the account of the family tutor who wrote to Aubrey, on being brought before the king and questioned as to his identity, this Scots lord “told his name, his country, and the place of his residence; and that on such a day of the month – which proved to be the day immediately preceding – being in the fields, he heard the noise of a whirlwind, and of voices crying ‘horse and hattock’ (this is the word which the fairies are said to use when they remove from any place), whereupon he cried ‘HORSE AND HATTOCK’ also, and was immediately caught up and transported through the air by the fairies to that place. Where, after he had drunk heartily he fell asleep, and before he awoke, the rest of the company were gone, and had left him in the posture wherein he was found. It is said that the king gave him the cup which was found in his hand and dismissed him.” The person who communicated this story to Aubrey had made further inquiries in the Duffus family, and found that “there is yet an old silver cup in his lordship’s possession still, which is called ‘the fairy cup,’ but has nothing engraven upon it except the arms of the family.” The tutor who communicated these traditions, had his own story of personal experience to tell. It happened when he was a schoolboy at Forres, but there is his own authority for the statement, that he was “not so young but that he had years and capacity both to observe and remember that which fell out.” What fell out was this; “He and his schoolfellows were, upon a time, whipping their tops in the churchyard before the door of the church. Though the day was calm, they heard a noise of a wind, and, at some distance, saw the small dust begin to arise and turn round; which motion continued advancing till it came to the place where they were. Whereupon they began to bless themselves. But one of their number (being, it seems a little more bold and confident than his companions) said ‘horse and hattock with my top,’ and immediately they saw the top lifted up from the ground, but could not see what way it was carried, by reason of a cloud of dust which was raised at the same time.” From the many persons mentioned in such narratives, a hasty reader might derive the notion that there have been many witnesses of the miracle – while the reality only is, that many people to whom it was told are said to have believed it. The miraculous elevation of the top reminds one of an old Edinburgh anecdote about the elevation of a much more important article – a lawyer’s wig. It was in the days when members of the Bar lived in the closes of the High-street, that one of them in full costume for attendance in the parliament-house, having peeped out of his library window to enjoy a stray current of air or a sunbeam that had lost its way, felt his wig removing itself from his head, and looking up, beheld it ascending towards the clouds. The lawyer being sceptical, desired a solution of the phenomenon, and readily found it. Some children at the window of a floor above were amusing themselves too much in the way marked out for censure by Hogarth, in letting down a kitten by a long string. The animal coming near the wig naturally clutched at it. The children seeing this, pulled the kitten hastily back, lest they should get into a scrape, and hence the rapid and mysterious ascent of the wig.
14 Widdershins is a word in perpetual use in witch trials, and is still employed in some parts of Scotland, chiefly in reference to superstitious legends. It means against the course of the sun. The sound at once carries one to the German weiter and schein or sonne, away from the light or the sun. A root common with German words is not a remarkable thing to note about any English or Lowland Scottish term. But in this instance it is curious, as the word widdershins has no cognates, or etymological connexions as they might be called, but is preserved with its peculiar application, as a Greek or Hindoo word might be. Such a disconnected relic of the common Teutonic root would seem, when its meaning is remembered, to be a remnant of the times of the old Pagan sun-worship.
15 This is not to be understood as an animal of the scarabæus group, but a wooden roller for beating cloth. Those who are acquainted with Scottish legal facetiæ, will remember the jeu d’esprit about a litigation concerning a diamond beetle, where much of the wit rests on the supposition that it was a beetle for beetling of cloth, and must have been one of a very costly character.
17 Cleans, or gives the finish – evidently from the same root as the German deichten.
18 Some sentences very fragmentary in this part.
20 If the accounts given of the strange contents of the cave near Torquay, called Kent’s Hole, are to be entirely relied on, it seems to have been a sort of manufactory of flint weapons. “Here,” says the narrator, “in sinking a foot into the soil we came upon flints in all forms, confusedly disseminated through the earth, and intermixed with fossil and human bones, the whole slightly agglutinated together by calcarious matter derived from the roof. My collection possesses an example of this aggregation in a mass consisting of pebbles, clay, and bone, in the midst of which is imbedded a fine blade of flint – all united together by a sparry cement.
“The flints were in all conditions, from the rounded pebble as it comes out of the chalk, to the instruments fabricated from them, as arrow and spear heads and hatchets. Some of the flint blocks were chipped only on one side, such as had probably furnished the axes; others in several faces, representing planes corresponding exactly to the long blades found by their side, and from which they had been evidently sliced off. Other pebbles, still more angular and clipped at all points, were, no doubt, those which yielded the small arrow-heads. These abounded in by far the greatest number. Small, irregular splinters, not referrible to any of the above divisions, and which seem to have been struck off in the operation of detaching the latter, not unlike the small chips in a sculptor’s shop, were thickly scattered through the stuff, indicating that this spot was the workshop where the savage prepared his weapons of the chase, taking advantage of its cover and the light.” – (Account by Mr. McEnery, quoted in Wilson’s Archæology of Scotland, p. 187.) It is worthy of remark, that the districts where these arrow-heads are chiefly found – such as Aberdeenshire, with its primitive rock – being destitute of flint, the article seems to have been imported from manufactories in the chalk ranges, like Birmingham or Sheffield goods at the present day.
21 See the description of Scotland in Bleau’s Atlas, where there are accurate representations of these curious weapons. Its author does not appear to have abjured supernatural notions on their origin: “Solo hoc, lapilli hi mirandi, quod casu aliquando in agris, in publicis tritisque viis reperiantur, nunquam autem investigando inveniantur; hodie fortasse reperias, ubi heri nihil, item, a meridie, ubi horis antemeridianis omnia vacua; et hæc, ut plurimum, sudo cœlo œstivis diebus,” – Bleau Theatrum Scotiæ, p. 105.
22 The disease called in one place bean, or bone shaw, and in the other straw, is the sciatica.
23 As these expressions were not intended to be intelligible in any language that exists, or did exist, they are given in the original spelling.
24 Meaning a cat. Grammatically, his vengeance would appear to be launched against the servant-woman.
25 Kirkpatrick Sharpe’s Preface to Law’s Memorials, p. 100 et seq.
26 Those who would have the prototypes of a great portion of the confessions of the Auldearn witches, may consult Reginald Scott’s eight chapters, which he writes with reluctance, and does not particularly recommend for perusal; Del Rio, Disquisitiones Magicæ, p. 74; Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, p. 256-7, a little thick duodecimo volume, which is a complete encyclopædia of diablery, and has the name Magica de Spectris, et Apparitionibus Spirituum (Leyden, 1656); Dialogue de la Lycanthropie; Histoire veritable et memorable de ce qui c’est passé sur l’Exorcisme de trois Filles possedées (Paris, 1623). To these may be added the more recent Amber Witch, evidently the production of a person well read in this sort of lore. The Incubus, well known to all who have read books on diablery, is painfully conspicuous in these Scottish trials. They repeat frequently a physiological peculiarity of the Evil One in a certain frigiditas, which is not in accordance with popular notions of his dwelling-place, but is in entire and striking coincidence with what is laid down in the authorities above referred to. If Mr. Montgomery had read such books, he would have found his conflict with the cats prefigured in the little book called Magica, &c., where the conclusion of the onslaught on the cats is “quæ postea in fæminas versæ, gravia vulnera compertæ sunt accepisse.” P. 292.
27 Newes from Scotland. A true Discourse of the Apprehension of sundry Witches.
28 Pitcairn, i., 376.
29 Among some sensible and humane remarks on witchcraft confessions, by Sir George Mackenzie – who has not always enjoyed a reputation for humanity – the following passage, coming from the head of the criminal prosecution department, in the time of witch trials, is very instructive: “Most of these poor creatures are tortured by their keepers, who, being persuaded they do God good service, think it their duty to vex and torment poor prisoners; and I know, ex certissimâ scientiâ, that most of all that ever were taken, were tormented after this manner; and this usage was the ground of all their confession.” – Laws and Customs in Matters Criminal, p. 87.
30 The history of the origin of Macbeth, as described by Wyntoun, is an application of the Doctrine of the Incubus.
31 Table Talk.
32 Preface to Lawe’s Memorials, p. 107.