St Andrew’s Gazette and Fifeshire News, 27th November, 1880.
“What was it that used to be done with kale-stalks?”
“That was on Hallowe’en, miss. They’d go into a garden after dark to steal kale, an’ they’d tak’ the first ane they touched, an’ hang it up above the door, an’ the first man that come into the house the next morning ‘ud be the intended husband; or ‘ud be o’ the same Christian name. There was aye a fine spree wi’ the lasses over the choosing o’ the stalks. If the kale-stalk was crooked, it was allowed they be to get a hump-backed husband; if it was bad, the sweetheart ‘ud be some old man; but if it was straight an’ sound, he’d surely be a fine clever young man.”
“Did the young men not try their fate also?”
“To be sure, dear, they did – just the same as the girls; but I was aye wi’ the girls in these plays, so I knowed best what they did. The boys ‘ud cut a wee chip off three door-posts, an’ bring them in an’ throw them on the fire; an’ while they were burning, some one in the company be to name their sweetheart. Many’s the time when a big whean o’ people, young an’ old, ‘ud be gathered round the fireside on Hallowe’en, I ha’ seen a boy up, an’ open knife, an’ outbye; then he’d come back an’ throw the chips on the fire, an’ it’ ‘ud be a struggle which o’ us could get the girl’s name out first. They’d go to bed wi’ the bools round their necks, too, an’ dream o’ their sweethearts; or they’d go to a neighbour an’ ax a piece o’ bread an’ butter, tak’ three bites out o’ it, an’ gang to bed without spaking.”
“What are the bools, Bell?”
“God bless your innocent wit, dear. The bools is the yokes that hangs on the crook for the pots to go on; it was allowed to be a great charm to wear them round your neck on Hallowe’en night. I ha’ seen mysel’ an’ the other girl – my comrade girl where I was hired – ganging to bed (we slept thegether) wi’ the bools round we’er necks; but I dinna mind that I had a dream ava. I mind we wakened yoked thegether, an’ we’d quare bother to get loose.
“These were all innocent wee plays, an’ I ha’ took part in them mysel’; but there was other tricks that was done in the bad man’s name, an’ I didna like them nigh hand as weel.”
“You mean in the devil’s name?”
“Whist, dear; it’s ill done to name his wicked name! I wouldna spake it out ava. But as I was sayin’, there was girls that tried their luck in the evil name. They’d go out to the barn, an’ open the door, an’ throw a weight o’ corn down on the floor in the bad man’s name, axing him to gie them a sight o’ their true love. They be to do it three times an’ each time a man’ll pass by the door. There was a servant girl in our country that went to the barn to try her luck. She throwed down one weight, an’ that minute her master passed the door o’ the barn.
“ ‘Mistress,’ says she, running back to the house, ‘why did you send the master out?’
“ ‘I didna sent him out ava,’ says the mistress.
“Wi’ that the girl went back to the barn an’ throwed down the second weight, an’ the master passed by the door again.
“ ‘Mistress,’ says the girl, ‘I wish you wouldna be sending the master past the barn,’ says she.
“ ‘But I didna do it, I tell you, girl.’
“The third time the weight went down – the master passed again.
“ ‘I’ll tell you what way it ‘ill be,’ says the mistress, when she tould her; ‘I’m going to die, an’ you’ll be married to the master.’ An’ so it happened not long after.
“There was other charms they’d try. They’d ride three times round a corn stack on a rake, axing the bad man to let them get a sight o’ their sweetheart. There was a girl I knowed did it, an’ while she was riding on a rake, a neighbour boy that was keeping company wi’ her came an’ sat behind her on the rake. In course it was his appearance that was there. She was very sore scared, but they were married soon after. Then they’d go out on Hallowe’en night to an old lime-kiln, wi’ a clue o’ woollen yarn, an’ drop it into the kiln-pot, an’ if it was catched they’d call out, ‘Wha holds my clue?’ an’ the true love’s voice wad mak’ answer. I ha’ knowed them to be that scared when the clue wad be catched, that they’d jist run hame without spaking a word.”
“I suppose the priest was never told what they had done?”
“Troth, no; The priest wouldna give in to them things ava. I ha’ known them that washed their shirt or chemise in south-running water an’ hung it up to dry before the fire in the evil name, laying bread an’ butter an’ a knife on the table; an’ the sweetheart wad ha’ come, an’ turned the shirt at the fire, an’ eaten the bread an’ butter.”
“Did you ever know any one who did so?”
“I ha’ heered tell o’ them. There was my father’s oldest sister hung her chemise at the fire, an’ while she was looking out of the bed to see what wad happen, a soldier in a red coat came in an’ turned her chemise, an’ ate the bread and butter. \he was a man she’d never seen before, but when they met afterwards, he could tell her he’d seen her somewhere or other, he couldna just say where. He was awa in France at the time.” – All the Year Round.
Buchan Observer, 2nd November, 1866.
I WAS sitting by my fireside thinking about home and what like it used to be at this season of the year, and at last my thoughts, after wandering in a dreamy sort of way around various subjects, became fixed upon Hallowe’en, and the different things we, as boys, used to do on that day – I, with a relish as great as I experienced when actually among them, went over in spirit the lighting of our bonfires, the pulling and blowing of our “caustocks” stuffed with tow, the running about with burning peats or sticks, the nicely ornamented lanterns made out of huge turnips, and the many other pastimes which used to engage our attention on that evening. While thus roaming over the records of the past I again felt myself a boy, and wished from the depth of my heart that those days were present again, though it was only for one evening, and that I were in the midst of a real Hallowe’en, as it used to be held in Peterhead some twenty-five or thirty years ago.
From thinking upon this I began to pass to its cause, and to wonder why it was that we performed those rites on this evening more than on any other, and from thinking I proceeded to investigate the cause, and after I have shortly related this to you, and given you the reason for all those mysterious incantations, I shall tell you how we used to spend our Hallowe’en about the year 1840.
I need not remind any of your readers, or any of the boys in Peterhead that a rhyme used to be sung by us as we danced around the bonfires to the following effect:-
This is Hallowe’en
The morn’s Hallow-day,
Nine days to Martinmas,
‘Twill soon wear away.
Why was it called by this name, said we to ourselves, and what was there remarkable about Martinmas that its approach should have been heralded with such a flourish of trumpets, and that the time between it and Hallowe’en should have been so particularly mentioned, and triumphantly announced to soon wear away?
As I had suspected, I found that Hallowe’en was originally one of the Druidical festivals, and that, according to the custom of the Romish Church, they had, on the introduction of Christianity, amalgamated it with some of their own festivals. They knew well that the best way to gain the people to Christianity was to give in to some of their peculiarities, and so they did not destroy their great feasts, but engrafted upon them some of their own. Accordingly, this was one of the feasts held at changes of the seasons, the others being on the eve of the first of May – Midsummer’s eve – and the eve of the 10th of March. The festival on the 1st of November was one of thanksgiving for the harvest, and on these occasions fires were kindled and sacrifices offered up according to the custom on all the others. When, however, the faith and worship of a better religion began to dawn among us, this festival received the name of All Saints or All Hallows, because it was originally appointed to commemorate the holy martyrs who perished in the persecutions of the fourth century. In the year 835 Gregory IV. appointed Nov. 1 for the celebration of this feast, and consecrated it to all the saints and angels, in order that it might be generally celebrated. It was introduced into [Britain] about the year 870.
The origin of the fires on this night is said to be the following:- Among the ancient Druids it was said to be the custom to extinguish all their fires on this eve, and again to light them for the next year with consecrated fire received from the priests, in order that by this means the year might be lucky or prosperous. This, however, he was only permitted to do if he had paid all his dues to the priest for the last year. If this was not done, no fire was granted him, and no one was allowed to give him any of his under pain of ex-communication. This custom of carrying fires to their houses from the sacred fires of the priests was no doubt the origin of boys carrying burning peats on sticks, blowing burning tow through hollow “caustocks,” and other such customs.
[He here goes on to talk of the significance of Martinmas]
Kelso Chronicle, 24th July, 1863.
Random Notes Anent the Antiquities, Traditions, Superstitions, and Old Manners and Customs of the Borders. – No. IV. – Witchcraft
HAVING devoted a few lines to the various trees which were entwined in one way or another in the superstitious beliefs of the country with the incantations of witchcraft, these Notes would be incomplete were no reference made to those animals – especially the cat and hare – whose forms witches had at all times the power of assuming, in order to carry on undiscovered the business of their supernatural craft.
Witches had not merely the power of assuming the form of a cat, but this useful domestic animal was their constant companion. The picture of a witch without her cat would be incomplete. Thus Ramsay –
“And yonder’s Mause;
She and her cat sit beaking in her yard.”
“A witch, according to my nurse’s account (says the author of this curious tract), must be a haggard old woman, living in a little rotten cottage, under a hill, by a woodside, and must be frequently spinning at the door; she must have a black cat, two or three broom sticks, an imp or two, and two or three diabolical teats to suckle her imps.”
On Hallow E’en, when some great witch convocation was held, cats were the favourite coursers on which the hags made their aërial excursion to the place of rendezvous; and in some parts of the Borders when a cat became lean without any apparent cause, it was firmly believed that she was witch ridden. This last phrase reminds me of a story in Patie Galbraith’s Diary, from which it will be seen that some witches were more ambitious in the choice of their coursers, and preferred a good horse to a broomstick, a cat, or even a “humloke schaw”:-
“1771. – Dec. 23. – Yesterday was an awsome day amang the hills, the drift blawin’ sae thick that it was mair than possible to see onything farther off than a Scots ell. But yet, in the gude providence o’ God, I managed to get a’ my charge in geyan snug quarters till the storm blaws by. I cam’ hame at the gloamin unco forfouchten like, and Mysie and the bairns were neither to haud nor bind wi’ joy when they saw me again; for nae doubt, as was natural, they thought I micht ha’e fa’en owre some crag into a deep gulley, and never mair be seen or heard tell o’. Howsomever, it was a’richt, and I had nae sooner sat down in my elbow chair at the side o’ a canty fire, and after the fatigues and dangers o’ the day, enjoyin’ a halesome supper o’ reekin’ champies and milk, when wha should lift the sneck and keek ben than the auld gaberlunzie wha has sorned wi’ us mony a time, and was aye made welcome baith by Mysie and me to a bite and a sup sic as we had to gie. Forbye, Davie, as he ca’s himsel’, is a weel informed body, and kens a’ the ongoin’s at a’ the clachans for twenty miles round. Sae after gettin’ the snaw daddit aff frae his auld blue bonnet and his cloak, which is geyan bare and thin now, we made him draw in his chair and thowe his outward man at the bleezin’ ingle, and his inner man wi’ the het savoury champies, which a’ the folk i’ the Overtown ken naebody can make like Mysie; and I may say mair, that even cauld sowens het owre again wad be a maist delectable treat when spiced wi’ the blith blink o’ her bonny blue e’e, and the smile that kithes sae sweetly on her dimpled cheek. Weel, after we had gotten our bit comfortable supper, Mysie biggit a wheen peats on the fire, and we drew closer round the bleeze to thowe our taes, and ha’e a crack about a’ the uncos round about, and specially about our friends in the west country. At lang and last we cam’ nearer hame, and I tauld him a’ the queer stories about Eppie Lang. This led on to a witch crack, and Davie, lauchin’ a’ the time at the superstitions, and yet half believin’ them, said he had heard a verra queer ane the ither nicht, and without even clearin’ his throat, as young women do afore they sing a sang, he narrated as follows:-
“Ye ken brawly where the clachan o’ Yarrowford stands – a few miles up frae Selkirk – which has aye ha’en the repute o’ bein’ the witch capital o’ the Borders. Aweel, the smith there, ance on a time, had twa apprentices – brithers – baith lithe, brawny chields, wha for the first towmond o’ their apprenticeship, enjoyed the verra best o’ health, and their like wasna to be seen in either Ettrick or Yarrow. At the beginnin’ o’ the second towmond, the youngest brither began to look unco shilpit and dwaumy like. He couldna clean out his bicker i’ the mornin’ as he used to do; and his elder brither, wha began to be anxious about him, couldna faddom the cause o’ the wonderfu’ change. Things gaed on frae ill to waur; he was unable to be at his wark frae day to day; and though he had nae spittin’ or host about him, he lookit like ane wha was gaun gey fast down the brae o’ a consumption. Ae nicht, when the twasome were lyin’ i’ their beds, he burst into tears and tauld his brither he couldna live lang, for his maister’s wife was a witch, and cam’ regularly ilka nicht and touched him wi’ a wand, when he was immediately transformed into a horse, which she mounted and rode off to the infernal meetings of her sister witches.
These midnight meetings were held often at a great distance, wherever Auld Nick, their maister, appointed them; and mair than ance they had broken into cellars and continued drinkin’ and gulravigin’ till the mornin’. When a’ was owre, she slippit the bridle aff his head, when he resumed his wonted shape. This took place when the elder brither was sound asleep after the hard toils o’ the day. The elder advised his younger brither to sleep ayont him, and he would take his chance o’ a nicht amang the witches. The next nicht he lay awake till the hour mentioned by his brither, when prompt at the exact time her ladyship made her appearance, rigged out in high style, with a bridle in ae hand and a wand i’ the ither. She cuist the bridle owre his head, and gied him a touch wi’ her wand, and in a jiffey he sprang up in the shape o’ a fine huntin’ horse. She vaulted into the saddle, and in the midst o’ a vast calvalcade o’ witches, she rade straight to the cellar o’ a neibourin’ gentleman, where they plied the inspirin’ juice o’ the grape till their ain torches burnt blue afore them. A’ the time her horse keepit rub, rubbin’ his head against his stall, till aff cam’ the bridle, an’ he was himsel’ ance mair. He took the bridle an’ stood in a neuk till his mistress an’ a’ the lave o’ the hags made their appearance in the stable, when, as quick as lightnin’, he threw it owre her head, when a fine grey mare started up in his hand. He mounted and rade through thick and thin till he noticed that ane o’ her forefeet had lost a shoe. He took her to the first smiddy he cam’ to, and had anither ca’ed on, and likewise a new ane on the ither foot. After this he led her into a ploughed field and gallop’d up and down amang the deep furrows till she had nearly drappit down. He pu’ed aff the bridle so that she might resume her ain shape an’ get into bed afore her husband gat up to begin his wark i’ the mornin’. When he cam’ in at parritch-time he fand his wife lyin’ i’ the bed, and mair like a corp than a leevin’ body. The blacksmith being seriously alarmed, sent off to the town for a doctor, wha in nae lang time stood at the bed-side of the sick wife. He lifted her arm to examine the state o’ her pulse, when to his great astonishment he observed that she had the shoes of a horse nailed to her hands. The apprentice wha was present stepped forward and tauld the hale circumstances, and the next day she was tried by the Magistrates o’ Selkirk, and condemned to be burnt on a stane in Bullsheugh – which sentence was as promptly carried into effect as her discovery, trial, and condemnation had been.”
In addition to this wonderful and almost incredible story of the old gaberlunzie, I will subjoin one or two more, which will serve to illustrate the witch literature of a former period, and afford amusement to the lovers of the supernatural of the present age.
As a man of the name of Ronaldson was one morning about sunrise tying his garter, having his foot upon a stone, he was astonished when something like a rope of straw was passed between his legs, on which he was carried to a small brook at the foot of the South Hill of Eildon. From hearing a hoarse laugh, he imagined that he was taken away by the witches, and as he was endeavouring to dismount from the rope at a ford called the Brig-o’-Stanes, he chanced to get his foot against a large stone, and exclaimed “In the name of God, ye’ll get me nae farther,” when, in a moment, the rope broke, and the whole air resounded as if a thousand people were laughing, and a voice was heard saying, “We’ve lost the coof this time.” Ronaldson lived in the village of Bowden, and had frequent encounters with the witches of that place. (Wilkie’s MS.)
A clergyman who took every opportunity of inveighing against the superstitious opinions of the times, and who denounced with all his powers of eloquence the popular belief in witches, fairies, and brownies, became convinced of his error in a rather practical manner. Returning home at a late hour from a meeting of Presbytery, at a period in the Church’s history when social intercourse and good fellowship had not been disturbed by the ghosts of non-intrusion or spiritual independence, he was seized by witches and carried aloft into the air.
“Over the cloudlet dim,
Over the rainbow’s rim,”
he was conveyed for a many a mile; and so far distant was he removed from the earth that neither manse, glebe, nor church was discernible, and he despaired of ever beholding these dearly beloved objects again. The witches, seeing that he was sufficiently convinced of their existence, brought him once more to terra firma, and set him quietly down beside the door of his manse, where he was found next morning to the no small astonishment of the household. He lived many years to relate to admiring circles the wondrous tale of his adventures – though his man, John, used to shrug his shoulders and aver that it “wasna for ane i’ his place to contradick the minister, but he kenned fu’ weel that he cam’ to his ain door on his ain mare, but nae doubt for a’ that, he had some unco sair encounter wi’ speerits, but whether they were the witches o’ Glenlivet or the brownies o’ Campbeltown he could na’ tell. – Old Tradition.
Tradition says that the Laird Harry Gillies of Littledean was extremely fond of hunting. One day as his dogs were pursuing a hare, they suddenly stopped and gave up the pursuit. In a rage, he swore that the animal they had been in chase of was one of the d—d witches of Maxton. He had no sooner spoken than the hares arose all around so numerous that they were springing over the saddle before him. His rage was so violent when he saw his hounds would not kill them that he jumped off his horse and slew them all but one black hound, who at that moment was in pursuit of a very large hare. He remounted and rode after the black gray hound who had turned the hare, which was coming directly towards him. She made a spring to clear his horse’s neck, but he dexterously laid hold of one of her fore legs, and drawing his knife cut it off, and very soon the hares, which were running in such multitudes, instantly disappeared. Next morning, he learned that an old woman of Maxton had lost her arm, but in what way his informant could not account. When the laird went to her house he pulled out his hare’s foot, which by this time had changed into a woman’s arm. On applying it, he found that she had been the hare he had mutilated, as it answered the stump perfectly. She confessed her crime, and was taken the same day and drowned in a pool of the Tweed by the people of the village. (Wilkie’s MS.)
“The fairies” (says the Ettrick Shepherd, no mean authority on the subject) have now totally disappeared; and it is pity they should; for they seem to have been the most delightful little spirits that ever haunted the Scottish dells. There are only very few now remaining alive who have ever seen them; and when they did, it was on Hallow evenings, while they were young, when the gospel was not very rife in the country. But, strange as it may appear, with the witches it is far otherwise. Never, in the most superstitious ages, was the existence of witches, or the influence of their diabolical power, more firmly believed in than by the inhabitants of the mountains of Ettrick Forest at the present day. Many precautions and charms are used to avert this influence, in order to free flocks and herds from the blasting power of these old hags. There are two farmers still living, who will both make oath that they have wounded several old wives with shot as they were traversing the air in the shape of moor-fowl and partridges. A very singular amusement that for old wives! – I heard one of these gentlemen relate, with the utmost seriousness, and as a matter he did not wish to be generally known, that one morning, going out a fowling, he sprung a pair of moor-fowl in a place where it was not customary for moor-fowl to stay – he fired at the hen – wounded her, and eyed her until she alighted beyond an old dyke – when he went to the spot, his astonishment may be well conceived, when he found Nell – picking the hail out of her limbs! He was extremely vexed that he had not shot the cock, for he was almost certain he was no other than Wattie Grieve!!
“The tales and anecdotes of celebrated witches, that are still related in the country, are extremely whimsical and diverting. The following is a well-authenticated one:- A number of gentlemen were one day met for a chase on the lands of Newhouse and Kirkhope – their greyhounds were numerous and keen, but not a hare could they rise. At length a boy came to them, who offered to start a hare to them, if they would give him a guinea, and the black greyhound to hold. The demand was singular, but it was peremptory, and on other conditions he would not comply. The guerdon was accordingly paid – the hare was started, and the sport afforded by the chase was excellent – the greyhounds were all baffled, and began to give up one by one, when one of the party came slily behind the boy, and cut the leash in which he held the black dog – away he flew to join the chase. The boy, loosing all recollection, ran, bawling out with great vociferation, ‘Huy, mither, rin!!! Hay, rin, ye auld witch, if ever ye ran i’ yer life!! Rin, mither, rin!!’ The black dog came fast up with her, and was just beginning to mouth her, when she sprung in at the window of a little cottage and escaped. The riders soon came to the place, and entered the cot in search of the hare; but, lo! there was no living creature there but the old woman lying panting in a bed, so breathless that she could not speak a word!!!
“But the best old witch tale that remains is that which is related of the celebrated Michael Scott, Master of Oakwood, Sir Walter Scott has preserved it, but so altered from the original way that it is not easy to recognise it. The old people tell it as follows:- There was one of Mr Michael’s tenants who had a wife that was the most notable witch of the age. So extraordinary were her powers that the country people began to put them in competition with those of the master, and say that in some cantrips she surpassed him. Michael could ill brook such insinuations; for there is always jealousy between great characters, and went over one day with his dogs on pretence of hunting, but in reality with an intent of exercising some of his infernal power in the chastisement of Lucky —– (I have the best reason in the world for concealing her reputed name). He found her alone in the field weeding lint; and desired her, in a friendly manner, to show him some of her powerful art. She was very angry with him, and denied that she had any supernatural skill. He, however, continuing to press her, she told him sharply to let her alone, else she would make him repent the day he troubled her. How she perceived the virtues of Michael’s wand is not known, but in a moment she snatched it from his hand, and gave him three lashes with it. The knight was momently changed to a hare, when the malicious and inveterate hag cried out, laughing, ‘Shu, Michael, rin or dee!’ and baited all his own dogs upon him. He was extremely hard hunted, and was obliged to swim the river, and take shelter in the sewer of his own castle from the fury of his pursuers, where he got leisure to change himself again to a man.
“Michael being extremely chagrined at having been thus outwitted, studied a deadly revenge; and going over afterwards to hunt, he sent his men to Fauldshope to borrow some bread from Lucky —– to give to his dogs, for that he had neglected to feed them before he came from home. If she gave him the bread, he was to thank her and come away; but if she refused it, he gave him a line written in red characters, which he was to lodge above the lintel as he came out. The servant found her baking of bread as his master assured him he should, and delivered his message. She received him most ungraciously, and absolutely refused to give him any bread, alleging, as an excuse, that she had not as much as would serve her own reapers to dinner. The man said no more, but lodged the line as directed, and returned to his master. The powerful spell had the desired effect; Lucky —– instantly threw off her clothes, and danced round and round the fire like one quite mad, singing the while with great glee –
“ ‘Master Michael Scott’s man
Cam’ seekin bread an’ gat nane.’
The dinner hour arrived, but the reapers looked in vain for their dame, who was wont to bring it to them to the field. The goodman sent home a servant girl to assist her, but neither did she return. At length he ordered them to go and take their dinner at home, for he suspected his spouse had taken some of her tirravies [bad moods]. All of them went inadvertently into the house, and, as soon as they passed beneath the mighty charm, were seized with the same mania, and followed the example of their mistress. The goodman, who had tarried behind, setting some shocks of corn, came home last; and hearing the noise ere ever he came near the house, he did not venture to go in, but peeped in at the window. There he beheld all his people dancing naked round and round the fire, and singing, ‘Master Michael Scott’s man,’ with the most frantic wildness. His wife was by that time quite exhausted, and the rest were half trailing her around. She could only now and then pronounce a syllable of the song, which she did with a kind of scream, but seemed as intent on the sport as ever.
“The goodman mounted his horse, and rose with all speed to the master, to inquire what he had done to his people which had put them all mad. Michael had him take down the note from the lintel and burn it, which he did, and all the people returned to their senses. Poor Lucky —– died overnight, and Michael remained unmatched and alone in all the arts of enchantment and necromancy.”
J. G. S.
Dundee Courier, 26th January, 1875.
… Colin, the third Earl of Balcarres, was… married four times; which could hardly have been expected of one who forgot the day fixed for his marriage. His bride was Mauritia de Nassau, daughter of the Count of Beverwaert and Auverquerque in Holland. When the nuptial day arrived, “the noble party were assembled in the church, and the bride was at the altar; but, to the dismay of the company, no bridegroom appeared! The volatile Colin had forgotten the day of his marriage, and was discovered in his night-gown and slippers quietly eating his breakfast. Thus far the tale is told with a smile on the lip, but many a tear was shed at the conclusion. Colin hurried to the church, but in his haste left the ring in his writing case. A friend in the company gave him one; the ceremony went on, and without looking at it, he placed it on the finger of his fair young bride, it was a mourning ring, with the mort head and cross bones. On perceiving it at the close of the ceremony she fainted away, and the evil omen had made such an impression on her mind, that on recovering she declared she should die within the year; and her presentiment was too truly fulfilled.”
Aberdeen Press and Journal, 2nd November, 1878.
HALLOWE’EN. – This ancient festival, though sadly shorn, we are afraid, of many of its glories, not to mention superstitions, has still an existence in Scotland, and was observed on Thursday. Stormy though the weather was, a few youngsters in some of our bye-streets could be observed marching about with mort-heads, kail-stocks, and other symbols of the occasion. A large number of “parties” seemed to be given in honour of the night; and, no doubt, many spent a happy hour or so in burning nuts and ducking for apples.
Scots Magazine, 1st January, 1805.
THIS little poem was published two or three years prior to the longer and more celebrated one of Burns’s on the same subject. It appeared in Ruddiman’s weekly Magazine, of which Burns was then a constant reader. From it he appears to have drawn the hint, not only of the subject, but also of the measure and general tone of sentiment.
The morn is our gude Hallow-e’en,
And our Court a’ will ride;
Gin ony maiden wins her man,
Then she may be his bride.
Old Ballad of the Fairy Court.
OF a’ the festivals we hear,
Frae Handsel-Munday till New-year,
There’s few in Scotland held mair dear
For mirth, I ween,
Or yet can boast o’ better cheer,
Langsyne, indeed (as now in climes
Where priests for siller pardon crimes,)
The kintry round in Popish rhimes
Did pray and graen;
But customs vary wi’ the times,
Rang’d round a bleezing ingle-side,
Where nowther cauld nor hunger bide,
The farmer’s house, wi’ secret pride,
Will a’ conveen;
For that day’s wark is thrawn aside
Plac’d at their head, the gude-wife sits,
And deals round apples, pears, and nits,
Syne tells her guests, how, at sic bits,
Where she has been,
Bogles hae gart fowk tine their wits
Griev’d, she recounts, how, by mischance,
Puir poossy’s forc’d a night to prance
Wi’ fairies, wha, in thousands dance
Upon the green,
Or sail wi’ witches o’er to France,
At Hallow e’en.
Syne, issu’d frae the gardy chair,
(For that’s the seat of empire there,)
To kuir the table wi’ what’s rare,
Commands are gi’en;
That a’ fu’ daintily may fare
And when they’ve tuim’d ilk heaped plate,
And a’ things are laid out o’ gate,
To ken their matrimonial mate,
The youngsters keen,
Search a’ the dark decrees o’ Fate
A’ things prepar’d in order due,
Gosh guide’s! what fearfu’ pranks ensue!
Some i’ the kiln-pat thraw a clue,
At whilk, bedeen,
Their sweet-hearts by the far-end pu’,
Ithers, wi’ some uncanny gift,
In an auld barn a riddle lift,
Where thrice pretending corn to sift,
Wi’ charms between,
Their Joe appears as white as drift,
But ‘twere a langsome tale to tell
The gates o’ ilka charm and spell:
Aince, gaun to saw hemp-seed himsel’,
Puir Jock McLean,
Plump in a filthy peat-pot fell,
Ha’f fell’d wi’ fear, and drookit weel,
He frae the mire dught hardly speel;
But frae that time, the silly chiel’
Did never grein
To cast his cantrips wi’ the de’il
O, Scotland! fam’d for scenes like this;
That thy sons wauk where wisdom is,
Till death in everlasting bliss
Shall steik their ein,
Will ever be the constant wish
1 Hallow-E’en, or Hollow-Eve, is the evening previous to the celebration of All Saints. That it is propitious to the rites of divination, is an opinion still common in many parts of Scotland.
Off the back of Burns being mentioned, we have some notes about Tam o’ Shanter.
Poetry of Robert Burns (1896), Tam o’ Shanter Notes.
Writing to Francis Grose (first published in Sir Egerton Brydges’ Censura Literaria, 1796), ‘Among the many witch-stories I have heard,’ he says, ‘relating to Alloway Kirk, I distinctly remember only two or three. Upon a stormy night, amid whistling squalls of wind and bitter blasts of hail – in short, on such a night as the devil would choose to take the air in – a farmer, or farmer’s servant, was plodding and plashing homeward with his plough-irons on his shoulder, having been getting some repairs on them at a neighbouring smithy. His way lay by the Kirk of Alloway; and being rather on the anxious look-out in approaching a place so well known to be a favourite haunt of the devil, and the devil’s friends and emissaries, he was struck aghast by discovering through the horrors of the storm and stormy night, a light, which on his nearer approach plainly shewed itself to proceed from the haunted edifice. Whether he had been fortified from above on his devout supplication, as is customary with people when they suspect the immediate presence of Satan, or whether, according to another custom, he had got courageously drunk at the smithy, I will not pretend to determine; but so it was, that he ventured to go up to, nay into, the very Kirk. As luck would have it, his temerity came off unpunished. The members of the infernal junto were all out on some midnight business or other, and he saw nothing but a kind of kettle or cauldron, depending from the roof, over the fire, simmering some heads of unchristened children, limbs of executed malefactors, etc., for the business of the night. It was, in for a penny, in for a pound with the honest ploughman: so without ceremony he unhooked the cauldron from the fire, and pouring out the damnable ingredients, inverted it on his head, and carried it fairly home, where it remained long in the family, a living evidence of the truth of the story. Another story, which I can prove to be equally authentic, was as follows:- On a market-day in the town of Ayr, a farmer from Carrick, and consequently whose way lay by the very gate of Alloway Kirkyard, in order to cross the river Doon at the old bridge, which is about two or three hundred yards further on than the said gate, had been detained by his business till by the time he reached Alloway it was the wizard hour between night and morning. Though he was terrified with a blaze streaming from the Kirk, yet, as it is a well-known fact, that to turn back on these occasions is running by far the greatest risk of mischief, he prudently advanced on his road. When he had reached the gate of the Kirkyard, he was surprised and entertained, through the ribs and arches of an old Gothic window, which still faces the highway, to see a dance of witches merrily footing it round their old sooty blackguard master, who was keeping them all alive with the power of his bagpipe. The farmer, stopping his horse to observe them a little, could plainly descry the faces of many old women of his acquaintance and neighbourhood. How the gentleman was dressed, tradition does not say, but that the ladies were all in their smocks: and one of them happening unluckily to have a smock which was considerably too short to answer all the purpose of that piece of dress, our farmer was so tickled that he involuntarily burst out with a loud laugh, “Weel luppen, Maggy wi’ the short sark!” and recollecting himself, instantly spurred his horse to the top of his speed. I need not mention the universally known fact, that no diabolical power can pursue you beyond the middle of a running stream. Lucky it was for the poor farmer that the river Doon was so near, for notwithstanding the speed of the horse, which was good one, when he reached the middle of the arch of the bridge, and consequently the middle of the stream, the pursuing vengeful hags were so close at his heels that one of them actually sprang to seize him: but it was too late; nothing was on her side of the stream but the horse’s tail, which immediately gave way at her infernal grip, as if blasted by a stroke of lightning; but the farmer was beyond her reach. However, the unsightly tailless condition of the vigorous steed was, to the last hour of the noble creature’s life, an awful warning to the Carrick farmers not to stay too late in Ayr markets.
‘The last relation I shall give, though equally true, is not so well identified as the two former with regard to the scene; but as the best authorities give it for Alloway, I shall relate it. On a summer’s evening, about the time nature puts on her sables to mourn the expiry of the cheerful day, a shepherd boy, belonging to a farmer in the immediate neighbourhood of Alloway Kirk, had just folded his charge and was returning home. As he passed the Kirk, in the adjoining field, he fell in with a crew of men and women who were busy pulling stems of the plant ragwort. He observed that as each person pulled a ragwort, he or she got astride of it and called out, “Up horsie!” on which the ragwort flew off, like Pegasus, through the air with its rider. The foolish boy likewise pulled his ragwort, and cried with the rest, “Up horsie!” and, strange to tell, away he flew with the company. The first stage at which the cavalcade stopt was a merchant’s wine-cellar in Bordeaux, where, without saying by your leave, they quaffed away at the best the cellar could afford until the morning, foe to the imps and works of darkness, threatened to throw light on the matter, and frightened them from their carousals. The poor shepherd lad, being equally a stranger to the scene and the liquor, heedlessly got himself drunk; and when the rest took horse he fell asleep, and was found so next day by some of the people belonging to the merchant. Somebody that understood Scotch, asking him what he was, he said such a one’s herd in Alloway; and by some means or other getting home again, he lived long to tell the world the wondrous tale.’
Probably Burns drew the suggestion of his hero, Tam o’ Shanter, from the character and adventures of Douglas Graham – born 6th January 1739, died 23rd June 1811 – son of Robert Graham, farmer at Douglastown, tenant of the farm of Shanter on the Carrick Shore, and owner of a boat which he had named Tam o’ Shanter. Graham was noted for his convivial habits, which his wife’s ratings tended rather to confirm than to eradicate. Tradition relates that once, when his long-tailed grey mare had waited even longer than usual for her master at the tavern door, certain humourists plucked her tail to such an extent as to leave it little better than a stump, and that Graham, on his attention being called to its state next morning, swore that it had been depilated by the witches at Alloway Kirk (MS. Notes by D. Auld of Ayr in Edinburgh University Library).
Narratives from Criminal Trials in Scotland (1852), Trials for Poisoning.
In the earlier trials, witchcraft and poisoning are mixed together. The sages of the law took their rules rather from classical poetry than from any knowledge which their meagre scientific acquirements placed at their command. The agencies which, without external violence, extinguished life, could not be separated from those which were believed by the ignorant to accomplish in the same inscrutable manner the traditionary exploits which we now treat as supernatural. Thus the poisoner was the direct representative of the Roman veneficus, whose philtres are equally efficacious in extinguishing life, in raising the spectres of the departed, in transforming men into brutes, and in absorbing the agricultural riches of a neighbour’s field.
One of the earliest cases of this character – that of the Lady Glammis – is extremely tantalising, from its imperfect details, and the glimpses they afford into a mysterious and inexplicable history. She was subjected to the revolting punishment of being publicly burned at the stake for attempts against the life of King James V. At an earlier period we find traces of an attempt to bring her to trial for the “intoxication of her husband” – a charge which, according to the modern meaning of words, and without further explanation, would only seem criminal in the eyes of a jury of total abstainers. But a darker colouring is given to the affair by other documents, which refer to her having put him to death through the same means (per intoxicationem); and the accusation, doubtless, referred to the use of philtres, poisonous drugs, or incantations. She was never brought to trial for this offence; and the form in which the few faint allusions to it are recorded is very singular. It is in the levying of penalties on persons who had failed to come forward as jurymen on her trial. They were men of standing and substance, and their evasion of the trial, when coupled with what afterwards occurred, would seem to point at the monarch’s determination to sacrifice this lady having been baffled by a desire among her fellow-subjects to protect her from the royal vengeance. These proceedings occurred in the year 1532. It was in 1537 that she was charged with the more formidable offence of an attempt on the life of the king. The chronicles of the day allude to the means by which she was to perpetrate the murder – sometimes as witchcraft – sometimes as poison. The criminal charge against her, which is recorded in the briefest possible form, is simply that she had “conspired and imagined the destruction of the most noble person of our most serene lord the king by poison.” But, coupled with this, there is another charge which is supposed to reveal the secret of her fate; it is for giving aid and succour to Archibald Earl of Angus and his brother, George Douglas, in their rebellion. The Lady Glammis was a sister of Angus, and appears to have inherited the high spirit of her race. The house of Douglas, after its most desperate wrestle with the power of the crown, had fallen, to all appearance irretrievably. There was little generosity or even compassion in those days for humbled enemies; and the slightest footing left to the subdued foe might only give him the means of future vengeance. When it was a merit in the court menials to refuse a cup of water to the fallen chief, he was, however, tended with bountiful affection by his sister, the Lady Glammis. This is believed to be the secret of her tragic fate, and of the narrow information on the specific acts of which she was charged. Sir Thomas Clifford, the English ambassador, in a letter in which he strangely misspells the title of the great earl, says: “The Lady Glammis, sister to th’ Earle of Anguysh, was brint in Edinburgh for treason laid to her charge against the king’s person – as I can perceive without any substantial ground or proof of matter.”
Some historians speak in a tone almost chivalrous of the fate of this unfortunate lady. The historian of the family of Drummond says: “She was accused by suspected witnesses, if not false, that she and her son and some others had gone about to take away King James the Fifth his life by witchcraft. Whereupon she was burnt upon the Castlehill of Edinburgh with great commiseration of the people, in regard of her noble blood and singular beauty, she being in the prime of her age, and suffering with a masculine courage – all men conceiving that the king’s hatred to her brothers had brought her to that end.” Similar and more full are the notices of old Hume of Godscroft, whose history of the house of Douglas was penned with the devotion of a family bard or Celtic senachie:
“The king’s anger still continued against them in such sort, that nine years after, in 1537, he was contented that Jane Douglas, Lady Glammis, who was Angus’s sister, should be accused by false witnesses, condemned, and execute. The point of her accusation was, that she and her husband, Archibald Campbell then, and her son, and an old priest, had gone about to make away the king by witchcraft. Their servants were tried and racked, but confessed nothing. Her accuser, John Lyon, a servant of her first husband, when he saw how they were liked to be used, and that the house of Glammis would be ruined, repenting of what he had done, confessed to the king that he had wronged them – but it did no good.”
It must be mentioned as in some measure weighing against the theory of the Lady Glammis being fictitiously accused, that a certain Alexander Makke, or Mack, was tried for having prepared and sold the poison. His punishment was a curious one: to have his ears cut off, and to be banished to the county of Aberdeen; there to remain for the remainder of his life, which was to be forfeited if he entered any other part of Scotland.
After some uninteresting and briefly recorded cases, the next remarkable trial for poisoning is that of another titled woman – the Lady Fowlis – who was indicted on the 22nd July, 1590, for witchcraft, incantation, sorcery, and poisoning. The accusations against her, if true, are a history of terrible criminality and superstition. She was the second wife of the Lord Fowlis, and one of the victims against whom she directed her machinations was his eldest son by his former marriage, and the heir to the family estate. The other object of her murderous attempts was Marjery Campbell, the wife of her brother Ross of Balnagowan. Her object in this instance was, it appears, to bring about a marriage between her brother and her step-daughter, the sister of the other victim; but the ultimate effects which she had in view are far from being distinct.
The lady’s chief familiar and agent in this diabolical business was a certain Marjery McAllester, alias Loskie Loncart, denounced in the indictment as “a notorious witch.” A portion of their operations, which they seem to have carried on with a perseverance worthy of a better and more productive cause, was the making of “pictures” or images of their victims in clay and butter. Loskie Loncart was the artist on the occasion, and it would be interesting could we know how far the accomplishments which gave her a reputation for supernatural powers extended to the fine arts. The lady and her colleague occupied themselves in discharging elf arrows, or the little flint arrow-heads, which have been dug up in numbers throughout Scotland, at these figures. One instance is mentioned where the Lady Fowlis stood by when Loskie Loncart discharged the elf arrow eight times at the picture, flagrantly missing it at every shot. They had provided, it appears, “three-quarters of fine linen cloth for the pictures, if they had been hit by the elf arrow-head, and the linen to be bound about the said pictures, and the pictures so have been eirded (or earthed) under the brigend of the stank of Fowlis;” a species of shrouding and burial which was to follow the symbolical extermination.
The charges of preparing and administering poison, mixed up with these attempts to wield the powers of darkness, are numerous and rather confused. The lady is said to have made a stoup full of poisoned new ale in the barn of Drymmen, assisted by Loskie Loncart, who appears to have been prepared to undertake anything that had malice and wickedness for its end, whether by natural or supernatural means – and another familiar named Christian Ross. The poison, says the indictment, “was kept in the kiln of the said town of Drymmen for the space of three nights, and the said Christian Ross, Loskie Loncart, and thou, convened the third day again thereafter in the said kiln, where thou commanded Loskie Loncart to make a pig full of ranker poison that would destroy shortly the foresaid persons – at whose command the said Loskie Loncart made the said poison and put it in a pig and sent it to thee.”
Then comes another charge, attended by curious incidents: “Also thou art accused for assisting and giving council in company with the said Christian Ross and Loskie Loncart, in sending of a pig of poison with the nurse to Angus Leith’s house, where the young Laird of Fowlis was for the time, of deliberate mind to have poisoned him therewith – whilk thou had in keeping, and the said nurse bringing the said pig from thee, it fell in the way under silence of night, and broke the pig, and she tasting the same, immediately after departed (that is, died) of the said poison – and the same was devised for poisoning of the young Laird of Fowlis, which the said Christian confessed judicially, being accused as said is, and was convicted of the same. And for the more witnessing the place where the said pig broke, the grass that grew upon the same was so high by the nature of other grass, that neither cow, ox, nor sheep ever previt thereof yet – whilk is manifest and notorious to the whole country of Ross, whilk thou can nought deny.”
The staple excuse of poisoning rats seems to have been well known even at that early day. “Thou art accused,” says another branch of the indictment, “of giving of eight shillings money to William McGillivirie-dam to pass to Elgin, for buying rattoun poison – who wared [disbursed] thereof but sixteen pennies; and brayed the said poison, and put it in ane piece leather, and delivered it to thee in June, seventy-seven years within the stank of Fowlis – Catharine Ross, daughter to Sir David Ross, of Balnagowan, being in council thereof – and to the more verification thou delivered to him with the said eight shillings, four ells linen cloth for his labours; whilk he confessed, being accused judicially, and was convict by an assize, and burnt for the same, as the haill country knows.”
The mysterious charge against the master of Orkney, for attempts on the life of his brother, the earl, is another amalgamation of witchcraft and poisoning. It is referred to in the chapter on witchcraft trials as one of the unhappy examples of confession under torture. As in Lady Fowlis’s case, the subordinate instruments were executed, after being duly tortured; the master was acquitted, and the denials, which were of no avail to them, appear to have operated strongly in his vindication. The indictment is extremely vague – apparently it had been made so intentionally, to give room for acquittal.
In a case of mixed poisoning and witchcraft which occurred in 1607, no moral distinction appears to have been made between the administration of potions destined to kill and potions destined to cure. The adoption of means held to involve unlawful and supernatural agency, was held to be the moral offence, not affected by the ultimate temporal result. Thus Bartie Paterson, tasker in Newbottle, is accused “of the crime of sorcery and witchcraft, in abusing of the people with charms and divers sorts of inchantments, and ministering, under the form of medicine, or poisonable drinks. For curing of James Brown, in Turndykes, of an unknown disease, by ministering to him of drinks, rubbing him with salves made of divers green herbs, and causing him to pass home to his own house, and at his own bedside to sit down on his knees three several nights, and every night, thrice nine times, to ask his health of all living wights above and under the earth, in the name of Jesus. And thereafter ordained the said James to take nine pickles of wheat, nine pickles of salt, and nine pieces of rowen tree, and to wear them continually upon him for his health, committing thereby manifest sorcery and witchcraft. Item, for abusing the people with a certain water, brought by him forth of the loch called the Dhu Loch, beside Drumlanrig, and curing of his own bairn with the said loch water, by washing of the said bairn at every neuk (corner) thereof thrice; and casting in of the bairn’s sark in the said loch, and leaving of the sark behind him, affirming that if any should come forth of the loch at that time, the patient would convalesce, and if nathing appeared to him, the patient would die;” and so on in the same strain.
If Bartie Paterson performed these operations at the present day, the humblest peasantry of Drumlanrig would think him as innocent as he was preposterous. But what makes such a charge typical of ignorance frightful and chaotic among the people, whose most learned men entertained such charges, is the entire overlooking of the ultimate object and its effects, good or bad, on human beings. The murder of John Miller and Elizabeth Robertson with poisonable drinks, seems to have been put in the same category of crime as the curing James Brown of an unknown disease, and the attempt by the wizard to restore his own child’s health with the waters of the Dhu Loch. Paterson was sentenced to be “worried,” or strangled, at a stake, and burned.
The next case is an instance of unquestionable crime perpetrated by several members of a very worshipful family, for the basest motives. In 1613, Robert Erskine and his three sisters, Helen, Isobel, and Agnes, were brought to trial for the murder of their nephew, the young Laird of Dun. This miserable family were the direct descendants and representatives of that John Erskine of Dun, one of the leaders of the Reformation, whose zeal, piety, and private worth, acquired for him a veneration not far behind that paid to Knox and Wishart. He died at a good old age, twenty-two years before these sad events, but his descendants seem not to have been men of long life, for it would appear that the two generations of them intervened between the patriarch and the murderers. The attempt was made against two boys, the Laird of Dun and his brother, for the end of the principal perpetrator would not have been served by the death of one. His sisters, the aunts of the two children, seem to have urged him on with a vehemence not less horrible, that they had not apparently the same mercenary motive. The ladies were charged with “having proponed to one David Blewhouse that if he would undertake to get a witch, that by some sinistrous means would undertake to take away the lives of the said two boys that were betwixt the said Robert and the living of Dun, that the said David should receive for his reward a possession for his lifetime on the lands of Dun, and five hundred merks of silver.”
Blewhouse, however, was not induced to serve their purpose. It is then stated that the ladies crossed the Cairn of Mont – a pass of the Grampians near which the upper portion of Angus touches the Highlands – and having entered the wilder country to the north, forgathered at the Muir-alehouse with one suited for their purpose – a certain Janet Irving, “a witch and abuser of the people.” From her they received the poisonous herbs; and it is stated that, on seeing them, Robert Erskine having doubts of their sufficiency for their murderous purpose, crossed the Mont himself, and held a consultation with the sorceress. The herbs were steeped for a long time in ale. Robert, it seems, still had doubts of their efficacy, and questioned whether the mixture had not better be thrown away. But the sisters thought it would be a pity not to give it a trial, and so setting off to Montrose, they managed to get the boys to partake of the liquid. The clumsiness of such an act, in which two boys were to partake of a nauseous drink, which was immediately to produce sickness and destroy life, is one of the most singular features of the affair – but it was not always considered fatal to the criminal in that age for his crime to be suspected or known – punishment was by no means a necessary sequence. The children are described as being speedily seized with spasms and violent vomiting. The eldest turned black and dwined away, “in great dolour and pain,” and before his death, said in his agony, “Wo is me that I ever had right of succession to any lands or living; for if I had been born some poor cotter’s son, I had nought been so demeaned – nor such wicked practices had been plotted against me for my lands.”…
Since the accession of James to the throne of England, the law had become somewhat stronger than of old, and these conspirators were convicted and executed, with the exception of one of the ladies, who, being “more penitent and less guilty” than the other two, was banished.
Old and New Edinburgh (1880), pp.315-321.
Alexander Napier of Wighthouse appears as one of an inquest in 1488. His coat armorial was a bend, charged with a crescent between two mullets. He married Margaret Napier of Merchiston, whose father, Sir Alexander, was slain at Flodden, and whose brother (his heir) was slain at Pinkie. In 1581, among the names of the Commissioners appointed by James VI., “anent the cuinze,” that of William Napier of the Wrightshouse appears; and in 1590 his sister Barbara Napier was accused of witchcraft on the 8th of May, and of being present at the great meeting of Scottish witches held by the devil in North Berwick.
The wife of Archibald Douglas (brother of the Laird of Carshoggil), her trial was one of great length, involving that of many others; but a portion of the charges against her will suffice as a sample of the whole, from “Pitcairn’s Trials.”
“Satan had informed the witches that James VI. of Scotland was the greatest enemy he had, and the latter’s visit to Norway, to bring over his queen, seemed to afford an opportunity for his destruction. Accordingly, Dr. Fiar of Tranent, the devil’s secretary, summoned a great gathering of witches on Hallow Eve, when 200 of them embarked, each in a riddle or sieve, with much mirth and jollity; and after cruising about somewhere on the ocean with Satan, who rolled himself before them on the waves, dimly seen, but resembling a huge haystack in size and aspect, he delivered to one of the company, named Robert Grierson, a cat, which had been drawn previously nine times through a crook, giving the order to ‘cast the same into the sea.’ ”
This remarkable charm was intended to raise such a furious tempest as would infallibly drown the king and queen, then on their homeward voyage from Christiania, which, if any credit may be given to the declaration of James (who greedily swallowed the story), was not without some effect, as the ship which conveyed him encountered a furious contrary wind, while all the rest of the fleet had a fair one and a smooth sea.
On this, Barbara Napier and her infernal companions, after regaling themselves with wine out of their sieves, landed, and proceeded in procession to North Berwick Kirk, where the devil awaited them in the pulpit, singing as they went –
“Cummer go ye before, cummer go ye;
Gif ye winna gang before, cummer let me.”
Sir James Melville gives us a most distinct account of the devil’s appearance on this auspicious occasion. His body was like iron; “his faice was terrible; his nose like the bek of an egle;” he had claws like those of a griffin on his hands and feet. He then called to roll to see that all were present, and all did him homage in a manner equally humiliating and indecorous, which does not admit of description here.
All this absurdity being proved against Barbara Napier, she was sentenced, with many others, on the 11th of May, 1590, to be burnt “at the stake sett on the Castle Hill, with barrells, coales, heather, and powder;” but when the torch was about to be applied, pregnancy was alleged, according to “Calderwood’s Historie,” as a just and sufficient cause for staying proceedings; the execution was delayed, and ultimately the unfortunate creature was set at liberty by order of James VI.
Scottish National Memorials (1890), Branks.
BRANKS, or Witch’s Bridle… this instrument of torture was a skeleton helmet. A band of iron, with an opening for the nose, went from the chin over the face to the back of the head, and was hinged at the top. Another band crossed from side to side, and was not hinged. A third band, hinged under the ears, went round the chin and jaws to the back of the head, where it met the front strap, and was secured to it by a padlock. This arrangement was intended for the application of a gag, which was riveted to the chin-strap and was forced into and kept in the mouth so long as the instrument was worn. In what may be called the milder forms of the torture, like the present, and that exhibited under No. 989, the tongue-piece or gag was flat and tapering, about 2 inches long and ¾ of an inch at the broadest part. This was enclosed by a four-square bar, set on the angle so as to bring the edges against the tongue. This is 2 ½ inches wide where it is riveted to the chin-strap, and it projects inwards 2 ⅝ inches.
A drawing of an excellent set of branks found in Moray House is given in Wilson’s Archæology, p. 693, and the Bishop’s branks at Abbotsford is represented in the Monastery, Abbotsford Edition, p. 270. There is a good set of branks in the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, preserved in the old castle there. A set is also preserved in the Parish Church of St. Andrews.
Bad as this torture was, it was humane in comparison with another form, a drawing of which is given also by Wilson. It consists solely of a chin strap, but the gag is a sharp three-pointed star which must have lacerated the mouth of the victim.
Popular Tales (1890), vol.4, pp.348-369.
The well-known superstitious observances connected with Halloween have been referred to Eastern solar worship. The Reverend James Robertson, minister of Callander, described them in 1791, and alluded to the stone circles of Scotland as to Druidical temples. He tells that in his day, in hamlets, a fire was lighted at sundown, made entirely of ferns gathered on Halloween. The neighbours assembled, and each, according to seniority, placed a marked stone at the edge of the ashes till a circle was made about the site of the fire, which was then abandoned.
Next morning the place was visited, and if any of the party found his foot-print in the ashes, and his stone removed from its place, he was doomed to die before the twelve months expired…
All Saints, All Hallows or Halloween, “Samhuinn,” 1st of November, is late in autumn – so there are Pagan as well as Christian observances connected with these two seasons.
Book of Days (1886), 28th September.
In the year 1749, the remote Highland district of Braemar, in Aberdeenshire, was the scene of a murder, which was subsequently alleged to have been discovered through the instrumentality of the ghost of the murdered person; to which effect evidence was given on the trial of two men before the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh. From the details of the trial, which have been printed in a separate volume by the Bannatyne Club, Sir Walter Scott framed a brief narrative, which may serve on the present occasion, with the help of a few additional particulars:
‘Upon the 10th of June 1754, Duncan Terig alias Clark, and Alexander Bain Macdonald, two Highlanders, were tried before the Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh, for the murder of Arthur Davis, sergeant in Guise’s Regiment, on the 28th of September 1749. The accident happened not long after the civil war [of 1745], the embers of which were still reeking, so there existed too many reasons on account of which an English soldier, straggling far from assistance, might be privately cut off by the inhabitants of these wilds. [Davis had a fowling-piece, and money and rings upon his person, and some of his valuables were afterwards seen in possession of the accused. Robbery seems to have been the sole object of his murderers.] It appears that Sergeant Davis was amissing many years without any certainty as to his fate. At length an account of the murder appeared from the evidence of one Alexander Macpherson [or Macgillies], (a Highlander [a farm-servant at Inverey, and about twenty-six years of age], speaking no language but Gaelic, and sworn by an interpreter), who gave the following extraordinary account of his cause of knowledge: He was, he said, in bed in his cottage, when an apparition came to his bedside, and commanded him to rise and follow him out of doors. Believing his visitor to be one Farquharson, a neighbour and friend, the witness did as he was bid; and when they were without the cottage, the appearance told the witness he was the ghost of Sergeant Davis, and requested him to go and bury his mortal remains, which lay concealed in a place which he pointed out, in a moorland tract, called the hill of Christie. He desired him to take [Donald] Farquharson as an assistant. Next day the witness went to the place specified, and there found the bones of a human body, much decayed. The witness did not at the time bury the bones so found; in consequence of which the sergeant’s ghost again appeared to him, up braiding him with his breach of promise. On this occasion, the witness asked the ghost who were the murderers, and received for an answer that he had been slain by the prisoners at the bar. The witness, after this second visitation, called the assistance of Farquharson, and buried the body.
‘Farquharson was brought in evidence, to prove that the preceding witness, Macpherson, had called him to the burial of the bones, and told him the same story which he repeated in court. Isabel Machardie, a person who slept in one of the beds which run along the wall in an ordinary Highland hut, declared that upon the night when Macpherson said he saw the ghost, she saw a naked man enter the house, and go towards Macpherson’s bed. [More in detail her evidence was this: ‘She saw something naked come in at the door; which frighted her so much that she drew the clothes over her head: that when it appeared, it came in a bowing posture; that she cannot tell what it was; that next morning she asked Macpherson what it was that had troubled them the night before? and that he answered, she might be easy, for it would not trouble her any more.’]
‘Yet, though the supernatural incident was thus fortified, and although there were other strong presumptions against the prisoners, the story of the apparition threw an air of ridicule on the whole evidence for the prosecution. It was followed up by the counsel for the prisoners asking, in the cross-examination of Macpherson: “What language did the ghost speak in?” The witness, who was himself ignorant of the English language, replied: “As good Gaelic as I ever heard in Lochaber.” “Pretty well for the ghost of an English serjeant,” answered the counsel. The inference was rather smart and plausible than sound, for the apparition of the ghost being admitted, we know too little of the other world to judge whether all languages may not be alike familiar to those who belong to it. It imposed, however, on the jury, who found the accused parties Not guilty, although their counsel and solicitor, [A brief account of the case is given in the European Magazine for May 1793, apparently from the recital of the agent for the prisoners, then surviving. The circumstance of the agent’s being fully persuaded of the guilt of his clients is there stated.] and most of the court, were satisfied of their having committed the murder.’
Scott’s hypothesis for the explanation of the alleged apparition, is that giving information is unpopular in the Highlands, and Macpherson got up the ghost-story, ‘knowing well that his superstitious countrymen would pardon his communicating the commission intrusted to him by a being of the other world.’ This hypothesis (whatever other may be adopted) is not only without support in positive fact, but it assumes a degree of anxiety for the execution of justice wholly gratuitous, and certainly far from characteristic of the Braemar Highlander of that day. It also ignores the corroborative evidence of Isabel Machardie. What is even more important, it is out of harmony with the chronology of the story, for Macpherson related his ghostly visitation and buried the sergeant’s bones three years before any measures for the vindication of justice were taken, and, for anything that appears, no such measures would ever have been taken, but for the active interference of a retired officer of the army, named Small. This gentleman seems to have been inspired with a strong feeling as a friend of the government and of the army, in contradistinction to the Jacobite sentiments which then largely prevailed. So vigorous were his efforts to make out evidence against the murderers of Davis, that it was taken notice of in the formal defences of the accused, and orally by their counsel, the eminent Mr Lockhart, who was notoriously a Jacobite. Small felt so much exasperated by the insinuations of the counsel, that he next day appeared in the Parliament Close, with his sword by his side, and made an assault upon Mr Lockhart, as the latter was walking to the court; for which offence he was put in prison by the Lords, and only liberated on his making an apology. [Scots Magazine, 1754.] It seems to have been to this circumstance that Wedderburn alluded in his famous retort upon Lockhart, in the Court of Session in Edinburgh, when, stung by the overbearing manner of his senior, he reminded him of his having been disgraced in his person and dishonoured in his bed – a burst of sarcasm followed by his laying down his gown, and deserting the Scotch for the English bar. (See Book of Days, vol. 1. p. 39.)
Old and New Edinburgh (1880), Ch. 43, East Side of the North Bridge.
The old Theatre Royal had an unpleasant tenant in the shape of a ghost, which made its appearance, or rather made itself heard first during the management of Mr. Jackson. His family occupied a small house over the box-office and immediately adjoining the theatre, and it was alleged that long after the latter had closed and the last candle been snuffed out, strange noises pervaded the entire building, as if the mimic scenes of the plays were being acted over again by phantoms none could see. As the story spread and grew, it caused some consternation. What the real cause of this was has never been explained, but it occurred for nights at a time.
Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1890), vol. 4, West Highland Stories.
THE NESNAS is described as having half a head, half a body, one arm, and one leg, with which it hops with much agility. No such creatures appear in German or Norse tales, but the smith, in the Lay of the Smithy, had one leg and one eye. In a very wild version of No. XXXVIII., got from old MacPhie, the DIREACH GHLINN EITIDH MHICCALAIN, the desert creature of Glen Eiti, of the son of Colin, is thus described:- “With one hand out of his chest, one leg out of his haunch, and one eye out of the front of his face.” He was a giant, and a wood-cutter, and went at a great pace before the Irish king Murdoch MacBrian, who had lost sight of his red-eared hound, and his deer, and Ireland. In the same story a “FACHAN” is thus described:- “Ugly was the make of the Fachin; there was one hand out of the ridge of his chest, and one tuft out of the top of his head, it were easier to take a mountain from the root than to bend that tuft.”
Old and New Edinburgh (1880), Ch. 26, The High Street Continued.
Mr. George Sinclair, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow, and afterwards minister of Eastwood in Renfrewshire, by the publication, in 1685, of his work, “Satan’s Invisible World Discovered,” did much to add to the terrors of Mary King’s Close, by his account of apparitions seen therein, and recorded “by witnesses of undoubted veracity” – a work long hawked about the streets by the itinerant sellers of gingerbread. The last, or northern portion of the close, with its massive vaulted lower storeys, was an open ruin in 1845; the south, or upper, had fallen into ruin after a fire in 1750, and was in that condition when a portion of the site was required for the west side of the Royal Exchange, three years after.
It would appear from the Professor’s narrative, that Mr. Thomas Coltheart, a respectable law agent, whose legal business had begun to flourish, took a better style of house in Mary King’s Close. Their maid-servant was, of course, duly warned by obliging neighbours that the house was haunted, and in terror she gave up her situation and fled, leaving Mr. And Mrs. Coltheart, to face whatever they might see, alone.
Accordingly, it came to pass that, when the lady had seated herself by the bedside of her gudeman, who, being slightly indisposed on the Sunday afternoon, had lain down to rest, while she read the Scriptures, chancing to look up, she saw to her intense dismay a human head, apparently that of an old man, with a grey floating beard, suspended in mid-air, at a little distance, and gazing intently at her with elvish eyes. She swooned at this terrible sight, and remained insensible till the neighbours returned from church. Her husband strove to reason her out of her credulity, and the evening passed without further trouble; but they had not been long in bed when he himself espied the same phantom head by the fire-light, floating in mid-air, and eying him with ghostly eyes.
He lighted a candle, and betook him to prayer, but with little effect, for in about an hour the bodyless phantom was joined by that of a child, also suspended in mid-air, and this was followed by an arm, naked from the elbow, which, in defiance of all Coltheart’s prayers and pious interjections, seemed bent on shaking hands with him and his wife!
In the most solemn way the luckless lawyer conjured these phantoms to entrust him with the story of any wrongs they wished righted; but all to no purpose. The old tenants evidently regarded the new as intruders, and others came to their aid, for the naked arm was joined by a spectral dog, which curled itself up in a chair, and went to sleep; and then came a cat, and many other creatures, but of grotesque and monstrous forms, till the whole room swarmed with them, so that the honest couple were compelled to kneel on their bed, there being no standing room on the floor; till suddenly, with a deep and awful groan, as of a strong man dying in agony, the whole vanished, and Mr. And Mrs. Coltheart found themselves alone.
In those days of superstition, Mr. Coltheart – if we are to believe Professor Sinclair – must have been a man of more than ordinary courage, for he continued to reside in this terrible house till the day of his death, without further molestation; but when that day came, it would seem not to have been unaccompanied by the supernatural. At the moment he expired, a gentleman, whose friend and law agent he was, while asleep in bed beside his wife, at Tranent, ten miles distant, was roused by the nurse, who had been terrified “by something like a cloud moving about the room.”
Starting up with the first instinct of a Scot in those days, he seized his sword to defend himself, when “the something” gradually assumed the form and face of a man, who looked at him pale and ghastly, and in whom he recognised his friend Thomas Coldheart.
“Are you dead, and if so, what is your errand?” He demanded, despite his fears, on which the apparition shook its head twice and melted away. Proceeding at once to Edinburgh, the ghost-seer went direct to the house of his friend in Mary King’s Close, and found the wife of the former in tears for the recent death of her husband. This account – a very common kind of ghost story – we are told, was related by the minister (of course) who was in the house on this occasion, to John Duke of Lauderdale (who died in 1682), in presence of many other nobles. After this the house was again deserted; yet another attempt was made to inhabit it – probably rent-free – by a courageous and drink-loving old soldier and his wife; but towards midnight the candle began to burn blue, and the grisly old head was seen to hover in mid-air, on which the terrified couple fled, and Mary King’s Close was finally abandoned to desolation and decay. No record of its inmates in the flesh has ever been handed down, and thus the name of the place is associated with its goblins alone.
Professor Sinclair, who wrote the history of these, was author of several very learned works on astronomy, navigation, mathematics, and so forth; but he also favoured the world with a strange “Discourse concerning Coal” – a compound of science and superstition, containing an account of the witches of Glenluce, Sinclair being, like many other learned men of his time, a firm believer in the black art.
Domestic Annals (1885), Interregnum.
Nov . – At this time commenced the series of alleged incidents constituting the once famous history of the DEVIL OF GLENLUCE.
A poor weaver named Gilbert Campbell, at Glenluce in Galloway, had given offence to a sturdy beggar, named Agnew, ‘a most wicked and avowed atheist, for which he was hanged at Dumfries.’ The wretch went away muttering that he would do the family a mischief. Whether before or after Agnew’s death does not appear, the weaver and his family began to be annoyed with whistling noises, and by petty acts of mischief – as the mislaying and destroying of little articles, and the throwing of stones and peats, all by unseen hands. Their clothes were sometimes drawn from them as they lay in bed. At the suggestion of some neighbours, Campbell sent away his children, and for the time peace ensued. So it was, after all except Tom had been brought back, and not so after Tom had returned likewise; but, to show that this was a point of indifference, when Tom had been again sent away in the keeping of the minister of the parish, the annoyances recommenced. This lad, it may be remarked, said he had heard a voice warning him not to go back to his father’s house; and when he did return, he was ‘sore abused,’ and thus once more driven away.
In February, the family began to hear a voice speak to them, but could not tell whence it came. ‘They came at length in familiar discourse with the foul thief, that they were no more afraid to keep up the clash with him than to speak with one another; in this they pleased him well, for he desired no better than to have sacrifices offered to him. The minister, hearing of this, went to the house upon the Tuesday, being accompanied by some gentlemen; one James Bailie of Carphin, Alexander Bailie of Dunragget, Mr Robert Hay, and a gentlewoman called Mrs Douglas, with the minister’s wife, did accompany. At their first coming in, the devil says: “Quam literarum is good Latin.” These are the first words of the Latin Rudiments, which scholars are taught when they go to the grammar-school. He cries again: “A dog!” The minister, thinking he had spoken it to him, said: “He took it not ill to be reviled by Satan, since his Master had trodden that path before him.” Answered Satan: “It was not you, sir, I spoke to; I meant the dog there;” for there was a dog standing behind backs. This passing, they all went to prayer; which being ended, they heard a voice speaking out of the ground, from under the bed, in the proper country dialect, which he did counterfeit exactly, saying: “Would you know the witches of Glenluce? I will tell you them;” and so related four or five persons’ names that went under a bad report. The weaver informed the company that one of them was dead long ago. The devil answered and said: “It is true she is dead long ago, but her spirit is living with us in the world.” The minister replied, saying (though it was not convenient to speak to speak to such an excommunicated and intercommuned person): “The Lord rebuke thee, Satan, and put thee to silence; we are not to receive information from thee, whatsoever name any person goes under; thou art seeking but to seduce this family, for Satan’s kingdom is not divided against itself.” After which, all went to prayer again, which being ended – for during the time of prayer no noise or trouble was made, except once that a loud fearful yell was heard at a distance, the devil threatening and terrifying the lad Tom, who had come back that day with the minister, “that if he did not depart out of the house, he would set all on fire” – says the minister: “The Lord will preserve the house, and the lad too, seeing he is one of the family, and had God’s warrant to tarry in it.” The fiend answered: “He shall not get liberty to tarry; he was once put out already, and shall not abide here, though I should pursue him to the end of the world.” The minister replied: “The Lord will stop thy malice against him.” ‘
After a great deal of the like talk with the unseen tormentor, ending with a declaration from him that he was an evil spirit come from the bottomless pit to vex this house, and that Satan was his father, ‘there appeared a naked hand, and an arm from the elbow down, beating upon the floor till the house did shake again.’ This the minister attested, and also that he heard the voice saying: ‘Saw you that? It was not my hand – it was my father’s; my hand is more black in the loof [palm].’
Sinclair, who relates these things (Satan’s Invisible World Discovered), states that he received them from a son of Campbell, who was at Glasgow College with him.
Scottish National Memorials (1890), Charms & Amulets.
THE ARDVORLICH ‘CLACH DEARG.’ A ball of rock-crystal about an inch and a half in diameter in a mounting of two hoops of silver, with a clasp and chain for suspension. It has been long in the possession of the Stewarts of Ardvorlich, and was formerly held in great repute in the neighbourhood as a charm-stone for curing diseases of cattle. It is said to have been brought from the East by the Crusaders. The Ardvorlich Stone was one of the most famous of the curing stones in the Highlands of Scotland, and it was the last of them which continued to be in request. Regarding stones of this class Pennant (Tour, vol. i. p. 116) says: ‘The same virtue is said to be found in the crystal gems and in the adder stone, and it is also believed that good fortune must attend the owner; so for that reason the first is called Clach Bhuai or “the powerful stone.” Captain Archibald Campbell showed me one – a spheroid set in silver – for the use of which people came above a hundred miles, and brought the water it was to be dipt in with them, for without that, in human cases, it was believed to have no effect.’ Dalyell (Darker Superstitions, p. 155) also mentions and describes the above Glenlyon Charm, saying that it has been employed for curing cattle within the present century. He adds: ‘Another Amulet, much of the same description, is preserved in the family of Stewart of Ardvorlich, which is said to have been thus used within these three or four years.’
Old and New Edinburgh (1880), Ch. 6, Castle of Edinburgh Continued.
According to the superstition of the time the earth and air over Scotland teemed with strange omens of the impending strife, and in a rare old tract, of 1650, we are told of the alarm created in the fortress by the appearance of a “horrible apparition” beating upon a drum.
On a dark night the sentinel, under the shadow of the gloomy half-moon, was alarmed by the beating of a drum upon the esplanade and the tread of marching feet, on which he fired his musket. Col. Dundas hurried forth, but could see nothing on the bleak expanse, the site of the now demolished Spur. The sentinel was truncheoned, and another put in his place, to whom the same thing happened, and he, too, fired his musket, affirming that he heard the tread of soldiers marching to the tuck of drum. To Dundas nothing was visible, nothing audible but the moan of the autumn wind. He took a musket and the post of sentinel. Anon he heard the old Scots march, beaten by an invisible drummer, who came close up to the gate; then came other sounds – the tramp of feet and clank of accoutrements; still nothing was visible, till the whole impalpable array seemed to halt close by Dundas, who was bewildered with consternation. Again a drum was heard beating the English, and then the French march, when the alarm ended; but the next drums that were beaten there were those of Oliver Cromwell.
A strange story went abroad concerning the spectre of Dundee; the terrible yet handsome Claverhouse, in his flowing wig and glittering breastplate, appearing to his friend the Earl of Balcarres, then a prisoner in the Castle, and awaiting tidings of the first battle with keen anxiety.
About daybreak on the morning when Killiecrankie was fought and lost by the Williamites, the spectre of Dundee is said to have come to Balcarres, and drawing back the curtains of his bed, to have looked at him steadfastly and sorrowfully. “After this” (says C. K. Sharpe, in a note to ‘Laws Memorials’), “it moved towards the mantelpiece, remained there for a short time in a leaning posture, and then walked out of the chamber without uttering one word. Lord Balcarres, in great surprise, though not suspecting that what he saw was an apparition, called out repeatedly on his friend to stop, but received no answer, and subsequently learned that at the very moment the shadow stood before him Dundee had breathed his last near the field of Killiecrankie.”
Old and New Edinburgh (1880), Ch. 38, The West Bow.
Major Weir, “after a life characterised externally by all the graces of devotion, but polluted in secret by crimes of the most revolting nature, and which little needed the addition of wizardry to excite the horror of living men, fell into a severe sickness, which affected his mind so much that he made open and voluntary confession of all his wickedness.”
According to Professor Sinclair, the major had made a compact with the devil, who of course outwitted his victim. The fiend had promised, it was said, to keep him scatheless from all peril, but a single “burn;” hence the accidental naming of a man named Burn, by the sentinels at the Nether Bow Port, when he visited them as commander of the Guard, cast him into a fit of terror; and on another occasion, finding Libberton Burn before him, was sufficient to make him turn back trembling.
His sick-bed confession, when he was now verging on his seventieth year, seemed at first so incredible that Sir Andrew Ramsay of Abbotshall, who was Lord Provost from 1662 to 1673, refused for a time to order his arrest. Eventually, however, the major, his sister (the partner of one of his crimes), and the black magical staff, were all taken into custody and lodged in the Tolbooth.
The staff was secured by the express request of his sister, and local superstition still records how it was wont to perform all the major’s errands for any article he wanted from the neighbouring shops; that it answered the door when “the pin was tirled,” and preceded him in the capacity of a link-boy at night in the Lawnmarket. In his house several sums of money in dollars were found wrapped up in pieces of cloth. A fragment of the latter, on being thrown on the fire by the bailie in charge, went up the wide chimney with an explosion like a cannon, while the dollars, when the magistrate took them home, flew about in such a fashion that the demolition of his house seemed imminent.
While in prison he confessed, without scruple, that he had been guilty of crimes alike possible and impossible. Stung to madness by conscience, the unfortunate wretch seemed to feel some comfort in sharing his misdeeds with the devil, yet he refused to address himself to Heaven for pardon. To all who urged him to pray, he answered by wild screams. “Torment me no more – I am tortured enough already!” was his constant cry; and he declined to see a clergyman of any creed, saying, according to “Law’s Memorials,” that “his condemnation was sealed; and since he was to go to the devil, he did not wish to anger him!”
When asked by the minister of Ormiston if he had ever seen the devil, he answered, “that any fealling he ever hade of him was in the dark.”
He and his sister were tried on the 9th of April, 1670, before the Justiciary Court; he was sentenced to be strangled and burned [the usual punishment for witchcraft in Scotland], between Edinburgh and Leith, and his sister Grizel (called Jean by some), to be hanged in the Grassmarket.
When his neck was encircled by the fatal rope at the place of execution, and the fire that was to consume his body – the “burn” to which, as the people said the devil had lured him – he was bid to say, “Lord, be merciful to me!” But he only replied fiercely and mournfully, “Let me alone – I will not; I have lived as a beast and must die like a beast.” When his lifeless body fell from the stake into the flaming pyre beneath, his favourite stick, which (according to Ravaillac Redivivus) “was all of one piece of thornwood, with a crooked head,” and without the aid of which he could perform nothing, was cast in also, and it was remarked by the spectators that it gave extraordinary twistings and writhings, and was as long in burning as the major himself. The place where he perished was at Greenside, on the sloping bank, whereon, in 1846, was erected the new church, so called.
If this man was not mad, he certainly was a singular paradox in human nature, and one of a kind somewhat uncommon – outwardly he exhibited the highest strain of moral sentiment for years, and during all that time had been secretly addicted to every degrading propensity; till eventually, unable to endure longer the sense of secret guilt and hypocrisy, with the terrors of sickness and age upon him, and death seeming near, he made a confession which some at first believed, and on that confession alone was sentenced to die.
If Weir was not mad, the ideas and confessions of his sister show that she undoubtedly was. She evidently believed that her brother’s stick was one possessed of no ordinary power. Professor Sinclair tells us, that on one of the ministers returning to the Tolbooth from Greenside, she would not believe that her brother had been burned till told that it had perished too; “whereupon, notwithstanding her age, she nimbly, and in a furious rage, fell upon her knees, uttering words horrible to be remembered.” She assured her hearers that her mother had been a witch, and that when the mark of a horse-shoe – a mark which she herself displayed – came on the forehead of the old woman, she could tell of events then happening at any distance, and to her ravings in the Tolbooth must some of the darkest traditions of the West Bow be assigned.
She confessed that she was a sorceress, and among other incredible things, said that many years before a fiery chariot, unseen by others, came to her brother’s house in open day; a stranger invited them to enter, and they proceeded to Dalkeith. While on the road another stranger came, and whispered something in the ear of her brother, who became visibly affected; and this intelligence was tidings of the defeat of the Scottish army, that very day, at Worcester. She stated, too, that a dweller in Dalkeith had a familiar spirit, who span for her an extraordinary quantity of yarn, in the time that it would have taken four women to do so.
At the place of execution in the Grassmarket a frenzy seized her, and the wretched old creature began to rend her garments, in order, as she shrieked, that she might die “with all the shame she could!”
Undeterred by her fate, ten other old women were in the same year burned in Edinburgh for alleged dabbling in witchcraft.
The reverend Professor who compiled “Satan’s Invisible World,” relates that a few nights before the major made his astounding confession, the wife of a neighbour, when descending from the Castle Hill towards the Bow-head, saw three women in different windows, shouting, laughing, and clapping their hands. She passed on, and when abreast of Major Weir’s door, she saw a woman of twice mortal stature arise from the street. Filled with great fear, she desired her maid, who bore a lantern, to hasten on, but the tall spectre still kept ahead of them, uttering shouts of “unmeasurable laughter,” till they came to the narrow alley called the Stinking Close, into which the spectre turned, and which was seen to be full of flaming torches, as if a multitude of people were there, all laughing merrily. “This sight, at so dead a time of night, no people being in the windows belonging to the close, made her and her servant haste home, declaring all that they saw to the rest of the family.”
“For upwards of a century after Major Weir’s death he continued to be the bugbear of the Bow, and his house remained uninhabited. His apparition,” says Chambers, “was frequently seen at night, flitting like a black and silent shadow about the street. His house, though known to be deserted by everything human, was sometimes observed at midnight to be full of lights, and heard to emit strange sounds, as of dancing, howling, and, what is strangest of all, spinning. Some people occasionally saw the major issue from the low close at midnight, mounted on a black horse without a head, and gallop off in a whirlwind of flame. Nay, sometimes the whole inhabitants of the Bow would be roused from their sleep at an early hour in the morning by the sound of a coach and six, first rattling up the Lawnmarket, and then thundering down the Bow, stopping at the head of the terrible close for a few minutes, and then rattling and thundering back again; being neither more nor less than Satan come in one of his best equipages to take home the major and his sister after they had spent a night’s leave of absence in their terrestrial dwelling.”
Scott also tells us in his “Letters on Demonology,” that bold indeed was the urchin who approached the gloomy house, at the risk of seeing the major’s enchanted staff parading the desolate apartments, or hearing the hum of the necromantic wheel which procured for his sister such a reputation as a spinner.
About the beginning of the present century, according to the author above quoted, when Weir’s house was beginning to be regarded with less superstitious terror, an attempt was made by the luckless proprietor to find one bold enough to become his tenant, and such an adventurer was procured in the person of a dissipated old soldier named William Patullo, whose poverty rendered him glad to possess a house at any risk, on the low terms at which it was offered; and the greatest interest was felt by people of all ranks in the city, on its becoming known that Major Weir’s house was about to have a mortal tenant at last!
Patullo and his spouse felt rather flattered by the interest they excited; but on the first night, as the venturesome couple lay abed, fearful and wakeful, “a dim uncertain light proceeding from the gathered embers of their fire, and all being silent around them – they suddenly saw a form like that of a calf, which came forward to the bed, and setting its fore-feet upon the stock, looked steadfastly at the unfortunate pair. When it had contemplated them thus for a few minutes, to their great relief it took itself away, and, slowly retiring, vanished from their sight. As might be expected, they deserted the house next morning; and for another half century no other attempt was made to embank this part of the world of light from the aggressions of the world of darkness.”
But even the world of spirits could not withstand the Improvement Commission, and the spring of 1878 saw the house of the wizard numbered with the things that are no more in this quarter of Edinburgh, and to effect the removal of which the Commissioners gave freely the sum of £400,000.
Domestic Annals (1885), 1585-1590.
Dec. 26 . – A series of extraordinary trials for witchcraft and other crimes commenced at this date.
One David Seton, dwelling in Tranent, suspected his servant-maid, Geilie Duncan, of a supernatural power of curing sickness, and, having subjected her to the torture of the pilniewinks (a screw for the fingers), soon extorted from her, not only a confession that the devil had given her the power of a witch, but information inculpating a number of persons in the like criminality. Among these were John Fian (alias Cunningham), schoolmaster at Prestonpans; Agnes Sampson, a midwife at Keith; Barbara Napier, the wife of a citizen of Edinburgh; and Eupham McCalyean, a lady of rank, daughter of a deceased judge of the Court of Session. The confessions of these persons, for the most part wrung from them by torture, form a strange jumble of possible and impossible, of horrible and ludicrous things.
Fian, who was a young man, confessed to some wicked arts which he had practised for obtaining the love of a young woman of his neighbourhood. There was nothing in them or their effects but what is easily reconcilable with natural fact, even to the striking of a rival with a sort of madness, under which, when brought into the king’s chamber, where Fian was under examination, he fell a-bounding and capering with an energy which it required many persons to restrain, and this for an hour together, at the end of which he declared that he had been in a sound sleep. But Fian also admitted, though only under torture, his having had conferences with the devil; he had attended various meetings of witches with the Enemy of Man, some of which took place in North Berwick kirk, and on these occasions he had acted as registrar or clerk of proceedings. He had also been one of a party of witches which went off from Prestonpans one night to a ship at sea, which they sunk by their incantations. He had chased a cat at Tranent, with the design of throwing it into the sea, in order to raise storms for the destruction of shipping; and in this chase it was alleged that he was borne above the ground, and had leaped a wall, the head of which he could not, but for witchcraft, have touched with his hand. Fian soon after contrived to escape from prison, but was retaken and brought back, when, being found to deny his former confession, the king expressed his belief that he must have entered into a new compact with the Prince of Darkness. His person was searched for marks, but in vain; and he was then subjected to tortures of the direst kind, with a view to bringing him back to his confession. The nails of the poor wretch were torn away with pincers; needles were thrust up to the heads in his fingers, and his legs were crushed in the boots till ‘the blood and marrow spouted forth.’ He resisted all, and thus only impressed the king and others with the conviction that the devil had entered into his heart. He was then arraigned, condemned, and burned.
The trials of three of the women inculpated took place in the course of a few ensuing months – that of Agnes Sampson on the 27th of January 1591.
On Sampson’s trial, some of the transactions first revealed in Fian’s case came out in greater detail, particularly the night-meeting of the sorcerers of the district with their grisly master at North Berwick kirk. ‘John Fian blew up the doors, and blew in the lichts, whilk were like meikle black candles sticking round about the pulpit. The devil start up himself in the pulpit, like ane meikle black man, and callit every man by his name, and every ane answerit; “Here, Master.” Robert Grierson being namit, they ran all hirdy-girdy, and were angry; for it was promisit that he should be callit “Robert the Comptroller, alias Rob the Rower,” for expreming of his name. The first thing he demandit was, “gif they [had] keepit all promise and been guid servants?” and “What they had done since the last time they had convenit?” On his command, they openit up the graves, twa within and ane without the kirk, and took off the joints of their fingers, taes, and knees, and partit them amang them; and the said Agnes Sampson gat for her part ane winding-sheet and twa joints, whilk she tint negligently. The devil commandit them to keep the joints upon them, while [till] they were dry, and then to make ane powder of them, to do evil withal. Then he commandit them to keep his commandments, whilk were to do all the evil they could.’ The devil then ordered them to perform an act of homage towards himself, which does not admit of description, but which may be said to have been at least one degree more humiliating than the kissing of the papal great toe. In the account of the confessions, it is stated that they inveighed against the king, and, being asked why he had such a hatred to him, answered: ‘By reason the king is the greatest enemy he hath in the world.’ According to the dittay, the devil ‘had on him ane gown and ane hat, whilk were baith black; and they that were assembled, part stood and part sat. John Fian was ever nearest the devil, at his left elbock; Graymeal keepit the door.’
Mrs Sampson was adjudged to be taken to the Castle-hill, and there strangled at a stake, and her body burned to ashes.
Domestic Annals (1885), Reign of Charles the First (1625-1637).
One Alexander Hamilton was apprehended as a notorious warlock, and put into the Tolbooth of Edinburgh. He ‘delated’ four women of the burgh of Haddington, and five other women of its neighbourhood, as guilty of witchcraft. The Privy Council sent orders (November 1629) to have the whole Circean nine apprehended; and as their poverty made it inconvenient to bring them to Edinburgh, the presbytery of Haddington was enjoined to examine them in their own district. What was done with them ultimately, we are not informed. Another woman, named Katherine Oswald, residing at Niddry, near Edinburgh, was likewise accused by Hamilton, and taken into custody. This seems to have been considered an unusually important case, as four lawyers were appointed to act as assessors to the justices on her trial. – P. C. R. It was alleged of Katherine that she had that partial insensibility which was understood to be an undoubted proof of the witch quality. Two witnesses stated that they ‘saw ane preen put in to the heid, by Mr John Aird, minister, in the panel’s shoulder, being the devil’s mark, and nae bluid following, nor she naeways shrinking thereat.’
Hamilton alleged that he had been with Katherine at a meeting of witches between Niddry and Edmonstone, where they met with the devil. It was also stated that she had been one of a witch-party who had met at Prestonpans, and used charms, on the night of the great storm at the end of March 1625. But the chief articles of her dittay bore reference to cures which she had wrought by sorcery. Katherine was convicted and burned. – B. A.
The warlock Alexander Hamilton also accused the Lady Home of Manderston, in Berwickshire, of having practised against the life of her husband, Sir George Home, by witchcraft. Patrick Abernethy, notar in Duns, and William Mowat, a servant, were accordingly cited by the Council to come and give information regarding the case. The presence of Sir George himself was of course desirable; but Sir George, like many other good Scotch lairds, of that day and of later days, was under some danger of the law on account of his debts. It therefore became necessary to send him a protection, in order that he might be enabled to appear in the city. There does not seem to have been any other foundation for the charge than the fact that Sir George Home and his wife did not live on amicable terms.
Hamilton himself was tried (January 22, 1630), when it came out that he had begun his wicked career in consequence of meeting the devil in the form of a black man on Kingston Hills, in Haddingtonshire. Being engaged to serve the fiend, he was instructed to raise him by beating the ground thrice with a fir-stick and crying: ‘Rise up, foul thief!’ He had consequently had him up several times for consultations; sometimes in the shape of a dog or cat, sometimes in that of a crow. By diabolic aid, he had caused a mill full of corn, belonging to Provost Cockburn, to be burned, merely by taking three stalks from the provost’s stacks and burning them on the Garleton Hills. He had been at many witch-meetings where the enemy of man was present. This wretched man was sentenced to be worried at a stake and burned.
In March 1631, occurred a case which throws some light upon the affair in which Sir George Home of Manderston was the intended victim. John Neill, in Tweedmouth, was then brought forward and tried for sorcery and witchcraft. It was alleged of him that ‘he made a man’s wife wash her husband’s shirt in a south-running water, and then put it on him; whereupon he recovered.’ His professed skill in both laying on and taking off diseases. Amongst other things laid to his charge was ‘meeting with the devil and other witches on Coldingham Law, and consulting how Sir George Home of Manderston might be destroyed, to that end getting ane enchanted dead foal, and putting it in Sir George’s stable, under his horse’s manger, and putting a dead hand enchanted by the devil in Sir George’s garden in Berwick; by which enchantments Sir George contracted a grievous disease, of which he could not be recovered till the said foal and hand were discovered and burned.’ He was found guilty. – B. A.
Historical Works (1824), James V.
The 23rd of July, , a man possessed with the devil, being stark mad, in Dundee, kills a religious noblewoman, of the order of St. Francis, and 2 others, whereof one [was] big with child, and three men.
Old and New Edinburgh (1880), Ch. 8, The Castle Hill.
Again and again has the same place been the scene of those revolting executions for sorcery which disgraced the legal annals of Scotland. There, in 1570, Bessie Dunlop “was worried” at the stake for simply practising as a “wise woman” in curing diseases and recovering stolen goods. Several others perished in 1590-1; among others, Euphemie McCalzean, for consorting with the devil, abjuring her baptism, making waxen pictures to be enchanted, raising a storm to drown Anne of Denmark on her way to Scotland, and so forth.
In 1600 Isabel Young was “woryt at a stake” for laying sickness on various persons, “and thereafter burnt to ashes on the Castle Hill.” Eight years after, James Reid, a noted sorcerer, perished in the same place, charged with practising healing by the black art, “whilk craft,” says one authority, “he learned frae the devil, his master, in Binnie Craigs and Corstorphine, where he met with him and consulted with him divers tymes, whiles in the likeness of a man, whiles in the likeness of a horse.” Moreover, he had tried to destroy the crops of David Liberton by putting a piece of enchanted flesh under his mill door, and to destroy David bodily by making a picture of him in wax and melting it before a fire, an ancient superstition – common to the Western Isles and in some parts of Rajpootana to this day. So great was the horror these crimes excited, that he was taken direct from the court to the stake. During the ten years of the Commonwealth executions on this spot occurred with appalling frequency. On the 15th October, 1656, seven culprits were executed at once, two of whom were burned; and on the 9th March, 1659, “there were,” says Nicoll, “fyve wemen, witches, brint on the Castell Hill, all of them confessand their covenanting with Satan, sum of thame renunceand thair baptisme, and all of them oft tymes dancing with the devell.”
Domestic Annals (1885), Reign of James the Sixth (1603-1625).
July 21, . – James Reid, a noted sorcerer and charmer, was strangled and burnt on the Castle-hill of Edinburgh for his alleged practice of healing by the black art. ‘Whilk craft,’ says his dittay, ‘he learnt frae the devil, his master, in Binnie Craigs and Corstorphin Craigs, where he met with him and consulted with him to learn the said craft; wha gave him three pennies at ane time, and a piece creish [grease] out of his bag at ane other time; he having appeared to the said James diverse times, whiles in the likeness of a man, whiles in the likeness of a horse… whilk likewise learned him to tak south-rinning water to cure the said diseases.’ Other crimes were alleged against him. The authorities made short work of so grievous an offender by sending him direct from judgement to execution. – Pit.
Old and New Edinburgh, Vol. 2, The Canongate.
Returning to Scotland, [the Earl of Angus] became involved in many troubles, and died in 1588 – the victim, it was alleged, of sorcery, by the spells, says Godscroft, of Barbara Napier, in Edinburgh “wife to Archibald Douglas, of Carshogle, who was apprehended on suspition,” but set at liberty. “Anna Simson, a famous witch, is reported to have confessed at her death that a picture of waxe was brought to her having A. D. written on it, which, as they said to her, did signifie Archibald Davidson, and she (not thinking of the Earl of Angus, whose name was Archibald Douglas, and might have been Davidson, because his father was David) did consecrate or execrate it after her forms, which, she said, she would not have done for all the world… His body was buried at Abernethy and his heart in Douglas, by his oune direction. He was the last Earle of the race of George, Master of Angus, who was slain at Flowden.”
Narration by Jenny
Art by Alex
Intro-Outro by Tony ‘Lucky Dog’ Wilson
Greysteil by Paul Burns.