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Aberdour and Inchcolme
Lecture 11


Superstitions prevalent in the neighbourhood in the seventeenth century— Definition of the term—Superstition vanishing before knowledge— Mirage—‘ Death-tick ’ and ‘ death-warning ’—Ecclesiastical miracles —Superstition of Dark and Middle Ages chargeable against the Roman Catholic Church—Witchcraft, how accounted for—The sin of the profession of it, and the crime against society—Belief in witchcraft wellnigh universal in seventeenth century—A bishop consulting a witch—The Earl of Angus refusing to do so—King James's treatise on Demonology—Mr. Bruce’s incumbency the great period of witch-burning in Aberdour—Case of Janet Anderson—The ‘Brodder’ and his needles—Margaret Cant’s case—Heroic resolution of the Kirk-Session—Accusations against Margaret Currie, Catharine Robertson, and Janet Bell—Lord Morton’s interference—Delation by dying witches—Susanna Alexander thus accused—Instruments of torture had recourse to in some places—‘ Casting up ’ the sins of the dead— Bessie Lamb accuses Elspeth Kirkland of the crime of bewitching with a ‘hairn tedder’—Pretended divination by ‘riddle and shears,' and ‘key and Bible’—Superstition traced to London !—Mr. Francis Hannay’s mode of proving a woman guilty of child-murder—Superstitions in the neighbouring parish of Inverkeithing—Mr. Walter Bruce of Inverkeithing a great witch-finder—Case of Robert Small—Sad case of the lady of Pittadro—Wife-keeping versus witch-burning— Cases in Burntisland.

I am to call your attention in this lecture to the superstitions which prevailed in our neighbourhood in the seventeenth century; and a few sentences of an explanatory kind are necessary, ere we enter on the subject. The theme is rather an unusual one for a popular lecture, but I have the conviction that, if properly handled, it may prove not only interesting but instructive as well.

What is Superstition? I would be inclined to define it as a state of mind that ascribes to supernatural causes what may be sufficiently accounted for by those that are natural.

That supernatural causes have been at work in the creation of the world, and are at work still, all around us, no wise man will venture to deny ; and the wildest superstition is not half so foolish as the denial of supernatural causes. But, on the other hand, that there are laws, by which the Great Creator regulates the events that occur all around us, is just as certain ; and it is only ignorance that can suppose such events occurring without an established order. There are phenomena which can only be accounted for by the direct intervention of a supernatural cause. Such was the creation of matter; but there are events which can be sufficiently accountedlor by laws, which the Creator has imprinted on His works. Such, for instance, is the phenomenon of thunder, which is caused by the discharge of electricity. It will at once be seen, then, that ignorance of these laws, or an imperfect acquaintance with them, will lead to a vast amount of superstition. Events will, in that case, be continually occurring which men cannot account for in a rational way; and they will be sure to account for them in some way, however irrational. Let me explain, by an illustration or two, what I mean. Benvenuto Cellini, the celebrated Italian artist, gives us in his Autobiography an account of a number of demons, which he says he once saw, chasing one another, with wonderful rapidity, amidst a circle of light. But there can be little doubt that these demons were of the very harmless kind which we have frequently seen projected from a magic lantern. That there are such beings as evil spirits, every man who believes his Bible knows; but they had nothing to do with the gambols that so alarmed the credulous Italian. He did not know a natural cause adequate to produce such appearances; and so he accounted for them on supernatural grounds. Similar to this was the superstition connected with a strange figure that used to terrify travellers among the Hartz Mountains in Germany; and which went by the name of the ‘ Giant of the Brocken.5 This very innocent giant is now known to be neither more nor less than the image of the person who happens to be on the top of the mountain at sunrise; so that the fear of it was really a case of people being frightened at their own shadow. And the strange appearances produced by mirage, whether on land or at sea, and whether in the form of temples and palaces in the air, or ships inverted or raised out of the water—which last we have seen more than once in our Firth—are well known to be the effect of the refractive power of the atmosphere, without the least aid from genii or spirits of the deep. So, too, with the ‘death-tick,’ which has so often kept old wives, of both sexes, awake and palpitating during midnight hours; and yet, after all, is due to a harmless little wood-worm, into whose head it never enters, that it is capable of terrifying or even disturbing anybody. And the ‘ death-warning,’ as it i.s called, which comes like the lash of a whip against the door, is neither more nor less than some part of the furniture or other wood-work of the room cracking in dry weather. In all these cases it will readily be seen that man is the dupe of his own ignorant fancy. And it is a very easy process to invest a fellow-man with more than human power, when he is connected with incidents which cannot easily be accounted for in any other way. Thus St. Columba got the credit of doing wonders on Inchcolme and its surrounding waters, in the way of extinguishing conflagrations, and keeping his friends afloat, and sending his enemies to the bottom of the sea, to an extent, I am sure, the good man would never have approved of, had he been consulted on the matter. But the mischief is that the saints, who are reputed to have wrought such wonders, seldom have been consulted about them. They have generally been devised after the reputed workers wefe dead; and dead bones have always been more remarkable for their powers than living ones, in Romish legends.

But when, from such cases as those we have enumerated, we pass to those in which designing men have pretended to possess a power which they had not; and have, for selfish ends, practised their craft on the simple-minded and the ignorant, we reach a form of superstition more akin to that which is chiefly to engage our attention in this lecture. That many of the wonderful legends, and so-called miracles, of the Middle Ages were the merest devices of wicked and designing men, we no more doubt than we do that the liquefaction of St. Januarius’ blood at Naples, in the present day, is the merest juggle that priestcraft ever played off on the ignorance of its votaries. The superstition of the Middle Ages is, no doubt, to be traced to the gross ignorance of the period. ‘And how,’ it may be asked, ‘are we to account for that of the seventeenth century, in our own country?’ We trace it also, to a large extent, to ignorance. It is, we fear, seldom considered by those who deal with this and cognate questions, how short a period elapsed between the Reformation period in Scotland, and the beginning of the seventeenth century. It was a period of only forty years. Within that time, considering the depth of ignorance in which the people had been kept, and the small number of Reformed ministers whose services were available, not much could be achieved in the way of instructing and elevating the people. The work of lowering a nation in the scale of intelligence is always easy; but the task of raising them to a higher level is beset with many hindrances. We therefore charge the superstition of the seventeenth century to a large extent against the religious system which for so many previous centuries kept the great mass of the inhabitants of our country in such gross ignorance. We have only to place the most thoroughly Protestant countries of the present day alongside of the most slavishly Catholic, to justify our charge. The diffusion of Protestant light is the surest way to expel superstition.

The most remarkable of the superstitions of the seventeenth century was what went by the name of witchcraft; and to this our attention will mainly be directed, although other forms will also be noticed. That there was such a crime as witchcraft known in very ancient times, is undoubted ; and however great the difficulties may be, with which the subject is beset, they are no greater than those which surround the question of demoniacal possession. And although much of what is spoken of as witchcraft, in our version of the Bible, may be simply resolved into wicked attempts to deceive others, this will by no means explain all. We have, however, seen nothing to induce the belief that the witchcraft of the seventeenth century was anything more than a mixture of wickedness, ignorance, and credulity. There was wickedness on the part of those who professed to have dealings of a certain kind with Satan; there was ignorance on the part of those who believed that supernatural power was possessed by the persons who claimed it; and credulity on the part of those who, looking with any degree of care at what reputed witches and warlocks ever accomplished, saw anything in it that could not be accounted for on natural grounds.

There is, however, another view of the matter that ought not to be lost sight of. For any one even to seek to have dealings with the Wicked One, saying to evil, ‘Be thou my good,’ is one of the deepest and most daring sins than can be committed. And that many, who suffered during the seventeenth century, sought to do this, and by their own confession did this, to secure some selfish and often some vicious end, cannot be doubted. Indeed, cases are recorded in which the accused persons had written an agreement in their own blood, resigning themselves to Satan. And if reputed witches thus put the Evil One in the place of the Only Good, most certainly they who consulted such persons aided and abetted them in their wickedness. And as the crime, thus committed, amounted to idolatry—avowedly putting another being in the room of God—we need not wonder that, in any age when it was considered the duty of the civil magistrate to punish idolatry with death, there was the dearest opinion that convicted witches should be capitally punished. Of course we do not vindicate this opinion; although we believe that the profession of witchcraft is a crime that should be punished by the civil magistrate ; because, to take no higher ground, it amounts to fraud in the form of raising money, or acquiring goods, on false pretences. And it may be questioned whether the laws that treat blasphemy as a crime against society do not, in principle, apply to professing witchcraft as well.

It will thus be seen that the men of the seventeenth century, who proceeded with such rigour against so-called witchcraft, were not entirely without something to say for themselves. They erred, we think, in considering that the witchcraft of their times had any supernatural element in it; and they erred in proceeding to such extremes in the way of punishment. But these were, to a large extent, the faults of the time, and we should look with some degree of leniency on them, especially when we find them associated with such splendid virtues as, in other departments, adorned the annals of the period.

The belief in witchcraft as supernatural, like a wave, swept over nearly the whole of Europe during the Middle Ages; and amidst much that is reprehensible in Michelet’s book, La Sorciere, it must be admitted that he has adduced good reason for the opinion that witchcraft was, in essence, a revolt against the feudal and priestly tyranny of those days, and against the religion from which it seemed to spring. The churchmen and nobles of the time, as a rule, so thoroughly oppressed the peasantry and others, and made their lives intolerable—and this under the guise of religion—that the oppressed people, in many instances, revolted against the system which tolerated such cruelties, and transferred their allegiance to Satan. It is a terrible theory, but seemingly a true one. Confining our attention to our own country and the seventeenth century, it may be said that the belief in witchcraft, as supernatural, was common to all ranks and classes. King, lords and commons, statesmen and ecclesiastics, all shared in it. King James the Sixth wrote a book against the crime. The legislators of the country enacted laws against it. Ecclesiastics were busily engaged in examining those who were reputed to be guilty of it. Nor can it be said, with any degree of truth, that Episcopalians differed from Presbyterians in their estimate of it. The examination and burning of witches went on during the Episcopal periods of the history of the Scottish Church with unabated promptness and activity. The superstition was in no sense peculiar to Scotland, but prevailed elsewhere to as great, if not a greater, extent.

A few paragraphs, showing the hold which witchcraft had on the mind of the nation, will pave the way for incidents connected with our own neighbourhood. This, indeed, is necessary, in order to prove how widespread the reign of the superstition was. It is gravely related by some of our early historians, regarding Mary Queen of Scots, that witches, both in England and Scotland, had predicted, that if her marriage with Darnley should take place before the end of July 1565, great good would come of it to both realms; but if it should be delayed beyond that time, it would be productive of evil. That such a thing should have been deemed worthy of being recorded in grave histories, is a striking proof of the importance attached to such silly and impious utterances. The marriage was celebrated before the date mentioned, but whether this was arranged out of deference to the witches’ weird I cannot say. It is also recorded, and at the time was evidently believed, that Patrick Adamson, Bishop of St. Andrews, had consulted a witch, in reference to a disease under which he had long laboured. It is even asserted that he set the woman free from her imprisonment in the Castle of St. Andrews, as a reward for the relief she had given him, but that she was apprehended and burned a few years afterwards. If a person of the Bishop’s learning and position gave such countenance to an ignoble superstition, we may wonder the less at poor and illiterate people consulting witches.

Those who have made themselves acquainted with the political intrigues that were carried on at the Scottish Court about the year 1585, will recollect that a rather unusual personage figures in them, under the name of ‘Kate the witch.’ It appears that she was hired by the anti-English party to utter railing accusations against Queen Elizabeth. But those who hired Kate would evidently not have been at pains to do so, if her reputation as a witch had not, in the estimation of the people, lent some force to what she said. A few years later we have a remarkable illustration of the power this dark superstition had over the minds of the higher and more educated classes. In 1588 the Earl of Angus, an excellent nobleman, who was greatly beloved, and went by the name of the ‘Good Earl,’ was afflicted with severe illness. The nature of his disease seems to have baffled the skill of his physicians, and it came to be believed that he was bewitched. In reading the account of his symptoms, I have no doubt it was a case of pulmonary consumption—his Lordship being afflicted with heavy perspirations. These symptoms were, however, at the time, accounted for on the supposition that witches were turning a wax image of the poor nobleman slowly before the fire. This was a favourite mode with the witches of those days, when they wished to torment any one. An image of wax or clay was made, representing in the rudest way some person or animal, and then whatever ill-usage the image got, the person or animal represented keenly felt. Thus an image of clay stuck full of pins gave intense pain to what it represented; and an image in wax turned before the fire gave rise to perspirations and scorching pain. A notorious wizard, Richard Graham, was brought by friends of the Earl’s to see him, and offered to cure him; but Spotswood tells us that when the sick nobleman heard that Graham professed to be a consulter of spirits, he would on no account admit him, declaring ‘ that his life was not so dear to him, as, for the continuance of it some years, he would be beholden to any of the devil’s instruments; that he held his life of God, and was willing to render the same at His good pleasure, knowing he should change it for a better.’ This was an instance of noble principle shining through the mist of superstition.

I have referred to King James’s efforts to enlighten the public mind on the subject of witchcraft, and have spoken of the treatise on Demonology which our British Solomon gave to the admiring age which he believed he so much adorned. But you may not all be aware that his Majesty had some reason to adduce for cherishing a grudge against witches. When he was returning from Denmark with his newly-wedded queen, it was with the greatest difficulty the royal pair reached their kingdom. It was not for a moment to be supposed that natural causes should raise a storm at sea, when King James did it the honour of trusting his distinguished person on its surface. King Canute may have seen through the folly of supposing that the waves of the sea would respect him more than any ordinary mortal, but King James reigned with more absolute authority; and was it not to be expected that, under his sway, the very waves should learn to be obedient? It must, then, have been some supernatural power, of a malign kind, that raised the storm 3 in short, it must have been the work of witches. Strangely enough, a number of reputed witches were laid hold of and brought to trial for this storm. Many of them confessed that they had met for wicked practices at the kirk of North Berwick; and Mr. John Feane, the schoolmaster of Saltpreston, confessed that he had met with many persons there, chiefly women, and that their meetings had been for lewd purposes. He and various others were executed for the part they took in that matter.

These general notices of the superstitions prevalent in the country in those early days will have prepared you for a statement regarding similar incidents occurring in our own neighbourhood. And permit me at this point to say that, unless I believed the narrative I am now to lay before you fitted to convey important practical lessons, I would not have been at the pains to wade through the original documents, in which the materials I have collected for it are laid up.

It is to be regretted that we have not fuller information of the cases of reputed witchcraft in Aberdour, at the time when this superstition was at its height. But we have as much as enables us to form a pretty fair opinion of the nature of such cases. The great period for witch-burning in Aberdour was during the incumbency of Mr. Robert Bruce, and he seems to have gone very thoroughly into the business, in the early part of his ministry more especially. The first of the witches of whom we have authentic accounts were burned in the year 1649. In the Acts of the Scottish Parliament, under the date 5th July 1649, we have a notice of a commission granted for administering justice upon witches in the parish of Aberdour. How many suffered death it is impossible to say; but, beyond a doubt, there were several. One of the first Minutes of Kirk-Session has reference to the appointment of a meeting, ‘to put an end to matters concerning witches that have already been burned;’ and also to consult about those whom the Session thought fit to apprehend. From this Minute it also appears that the two bailies of Aberdour—Robert Logan, acting for Lord Morton, and a person whose name is all but obliterated— probably Mr. James Stewart of Mains, acting for Lord Moray—are fully employed, in connection with this grave matter. We have full details of the cases that were afterwards dealt with; and it will make our task in relating these all the more pleasant, that we shall not be horrified with detailed descriptions of cases ending with burning.

On the 14th of May 1650, Janet Anderson presents herself before the Session with a bill, in which it is declared that Isobel Inglis and Marjorie Flooker have called her a witch. She craves that the Session will investigate the matter; and names Andrew Kellock and his wife, Andrew Russell, Isobel Maxwell, and Christian Seggie, as persons who were witnesses to the accusation. The Session appoints these witnesses to be summoned on an early day. The two women who made the accusation are also cited; and the elders are, meanwhile, to do what they can to discover evidence bearing on the case. The appointed day arrives, and the reputed witch and her accusers confront one another, before Mr. Bruce and the other members of the Kirk-Session. The whole story, it appears, has originated in connection with the death of a little child. It is averred that Janet Anderson, coming into the house where Andrew Kellock’s child lay in its cradle, put a mitten under its head; and the conclusion drawn by her accusers is that, by so doing, she bewitched the child, and caused its death. The witnesses are all put upon oath. Marjorie Flooker depones that she found Janet Anderson’s mitten under the child’s head after its death, and that she took the said mitten and cast it on the ground. Isobel Inglis depones that she took the mitten, when it was lying on the floor, and cast it into the fire. And she says she wondered exceedingly that Janet Anderson did not return to seek her mitten, for she was well known to be such a hard woman, that ‘ if she had lost the value of a pin-head, she would have returned to seek it.’ Isobel thinks, therefore, there must have been something ‘uncanny’ about the mitten, that its owner did not come back to seek for it. Isobel further declares that, when Janet Anderson knew that her mitten was burned, she said, ‘What misters [necessitates] the mitten to be burned, after the bairn is dead: for, if there had been any in in the mitten, it was past before the death of the bairn.’ Other witnesses corroborate this evidence; and Andrew Kellock and his wife depone that Janet Anderson told them, that on the very day that Robert Anderson got himself hurt, he had called her ‘a trumpous [cross-tempered] witch,’ and her heart ‘ sythed’ [glowed with satisfaction] when she saw him coming home in his hurt condition, holding his injured arm ‘as if it had been a fiddle.’ Still further, it was deponed that James Murray had declared that as he was going from Aberdour to Whitehill one night, he heard ‘ane great guleing voice and dinne, in the hollow of the gait be southold Couras Aiker [the Cross-acre],’ which greatly astonished him. But James, it appears, was somewhat ahead of his time, and was not to be deterred from investigation even by ‘ane great guleing voice.’ So he heroically advanced; and what, think you, did he see? Nothing less than Janet Anderson, on her knees, scraping the ground with both her hands, and uttering the most unearthly cries. He asked her what moved her to do this, and she replied that she could not tell. In addition to all this evidence, William Watson depones that, after Janet was delated to the Session, she said, in his house, ‘it might be that her spirit zeid [went] forth out of her when she did not know of it.’

Now this is about as full and well-defined a case of the reputed witchcraft of the time as we have met with. These witnesses evidently believe that this old woman is a witch; and her purpose is more than half served when she gets her neighbours to believe that she possesses, or is in league with, malign supernatural power. A bad-hearted old woman she evidently is, seeing her heart glowed with satisfaction at the injury of her neighbour. And the night-scene near the ‘Cross-acre’ seems to point to that lowest deep in the so-called witchcraft of the time, an attempt at devil-worship, in which case her ignorance was more than matched by her wickedness. Moreover, in the admission made, in William Watson’s house, that it might be her spirit went forth of her when she did not know of it, there appears a disposition, on Janet’s part, to encourage the idea that, in some way or other, she possesses supernatural power, or is in a very special way under its influence. It probably did not require much effort on her part to leave the impression on the minds of her neighbours, that she might be abroad at night in an ‘ uncanny’ way; for it was at the time generally believed that, among'other privileges enjoyed by witches, they had the power of transforming themselves into a variety of shapes, so that sometimes they were seen scampering through the fields in the form of hares, and at other times prowling about in the shape of cats—especially black ones. We all know, too, what wonderful journeys they performed through the air, seated on broomsticks; and how they sometimes went to sea in a sieve, and so could afford to laugh at the danger of springing a leak. I have myself conversed with an old woman who accounted for the lameness of an ancient crone, whom she had in her childhood seen, by an injury she had received when returning from one of her witch journeys. The form she had assumed was that of a black cat; and when she was about to enter her house, through a broken pane, a man passing, with a hedge-bill in his hand, struck the animal on the leg, and the witch was lame ever afterwards!

To return to Janet Anderson : it is evident that a woman of this kind would easily be able to frighten her neighbours, so as to induce them to give her money or goods. And it should be noticed that it is not her neighbours who bring her case before the Session ; it is she who accuses them of calling her a witch. The severities at that time practised on reputed witches made it a rather dangerous thing to be called one; otherwise, I suspect, Janet would not have cared much about the reproach of it. Soon after the meeting of Kirk-Session to which we have referred, we find Janet in prison; the two bailies of Aberdour being very serviceable, in the matter, to the minister and elders. But, although she is now in ‘firmance,’ the Session are evidently at a loss to know how to proceed with the case. They probably have no doubt, in their own minds, that Janet is a witch; but another question has to be faced: ‘Have they proved it?’ They are evidently not quite sure that they have; and in their difficulty they apply to a personage well known in those superstitious times, but whose name is probably now heard by many for the first time. I refer to f the Brodder.’ 'And who,’ you say, ‘was the Brodder?’ He was a functionary called into existence by the necessities of those old times. His office was to settle the question, whether those accused of being witches were so or not; and his mode of procedure, from which, indeed, his occupation derived its name, was by searching for the ‘devil’s mark’ on their bodies, by ‘brodding’ or pricking it with a sharp needle. The mark, it was averred, covered a spot insensible to pain; and when it \vas discovered there was an end of controversy regarding the matter. These witch-finders were, as a rule, unprincipled fellows, who had taken up the trade for gain, and sometimes bargained to clear a parish of witches at so much a head, as is sometimes done, in modern times, in the case of moles. The occupation was, moreover, a very cruel one; as, in many instances, they inflicted great torture on their victims, by running needles into their bodies, with the professed aim of discovering the mysterious mark. Such, then, is the functionary whom Mr. Bruce and his Session resolve to bring to their aid in the case of Janet Anderson. It would appear, however, either that the Brodder was too busily employed in the prosecution of his calling elsewhere, or that he had not been successful in discovering the mark on Janet, for there is no further notice of her for many years. She was, no doubt, released from prison; for another notice we have of her is after the lapse of nine years, when she applies to the Kirk-Session for a ‘testimonial,’ or certificate of character, being on the point of leaving the parish. The Session grant the certificate, but are careful to note the fact that ‘she had been accused of being a witch.’

In 1654 Margaret Cant is accused of the crime of witchcraft, and begs of the Session that she may be cleared of the aspersion. The Session, however, refuse to do this until there is some general course taken with those who are similarly accused. It was evidently found a very difficult thing to deal with such cases ; and, for a long time after this, we find the Session very chary of having anything to do with them. Occasionally, however, the smouldering flame bursts out. There is a curious instance of this in July 1661. It was about the time when the noble Covenanters were girding themselves for the last long struggle for liberty, carried on in the midst of privation, suffering, and blood. The minister and elders of Aberdour did not take any part in that contest; or, if they did, it was rather in opposition to the patriotic cause. But they did not like to be thought entirely idle, when their neighbours in the parish of Dalgety and elsewhere were so busy. And so it is recorded in the Minutes as follows: ‘Finding that, in all parts, they are doing something for the dinging down of the kingdom of Sathan, the Session thought that they likewise would do something for God’s glory.’ And what is it that they are at length resolved to do? To plant their foot behind the old rights of Christ’s Church in Scotland, and bid defiance to the assailant? No! it is a course of a less heroic kind on which the Session resolve to enter; for the Minute continues—and I think you will join me in regarding it as £ a lame and impotent conclusion,’—£ Seeing there are severalls, in this toune, that long ago should have been apprehended for witchcraft, and never hands yet laid upon them, wherefore the Session desires the Bailzie to cause apprehend and incarcerate, presently, Margaret Currie and Catharine Robertson, or any of the two if the one be absent.’ Let us follow Mr. Bruce and his elders in the path they have thus hewn out for themselves. A new feature appears in the case of these two women, for it is stated that they were ‘ accused by dying witches.’ It was a common thing at that time for those who died at the stake to tell of others who had attended nocturnal meetings along with them. This was called ‘delation by dying witches.’ Soon after this we find that Margaret Cant has also been apprehended, and that she and Margaret Currie have been brought the length of making an ample confession of their guilt. They admit that they have practised witchcraft, and they involve another woman, named Janet Bell, in their guilt. Janet is immediately ordered to be imprisoned in one of her own houses, she being the owner of several houses in Easter Aberdour. And now a curious incident occurs. Lord Morton hears of Janet Bell’s imprisonment, and at once gives orders that she should be set at liberty. The Session are in great wrath at this, and the minister is deputed to inquire on what grounds his Lordship has given this order. The very same day on which it is resolved to take this step, the minister reports that Lord Morton is to give full satisfaction to the Session, and is to give orders to his officer to put Janet Bell in prison again; it being understood, however, that the Session shall be answerable for the way in which she and the other women in prison are treated. At the same time Mr. Bruce reports to the Session that ‘ he has sent for the man that tries the witches, for seeking out of the devil’s mark;’ and the minister seems to have been more successful in his efforts, on this occasion, to get the ‘ Brodder.’ This personage seems, in fact, to have been on the spot, which probably accounts for all this hot haste; for the Session ‘ thought fit that he should go along with the elders to the witches, and let them know that he is to seek for the mark,’ and that they are to be tried the following day. Once more there is a lack of definite information; but as in a following Minute Susanna Alexander is ordered to be sent to prison, because Margaret Cant, Catharine Robertson, and Janet Bell had, in their confession, accused her of being as guilty as they, I much fear that all three were burned. It is a stretch of leniency, hardly to be looked for in those times, for such persons as confessed themselves guilty of witchcraft to be allowed to escape; and it is merely an incidental thing for notices of such burnings to be inserted in the Session Record. The way in which the miserable creatures were tried was this:— A commission was appointed by the Privy Council to try the case; and this commission was generally composed of gentlemen living in the neighbourhood. Evidence was led before this judicatory, and the judges had the power of putting the accused to torture, should this be deemed necessary. This torture, in ordinary cases, consisted in the free use of the brodder’s needles; but in some instances, and more especially when the accused were of the male sex, instruments of a more dreadful kind were employed. The 'boots’ were used for tormenting pressure on the legs; the 'caspie claws’ for wedging the arms in a painful manner; while the ‘pilniewinks,’ a species of thumbscrew, produced the most excruciating torture when applied to the fingers. One cannot but feel indignant at the thought of such barbarities, practised even on those who had laid themselves open to the gravest suspicion of being guilty of witchcraft. It is but fair to say, however, that I have seen nothing to show that any instruments of torture beyond the Brodder’s needles were ever used in the cases that occurred at Aberdour. It would, however, be rash to say that other instruments were not used. The last scene of all was of a kind almost too revolting to bear description. The wretched creatures were first tied to stakes, around which were piled heather, turf, wood, and sometimes coals and gunpowder; then they were strangled, and, the pile being set on fire, their bodies were burned to ashes. And yet, with such a fearful fate before their eyes, many persisted in attending nocturnal meetings for the practice of suspicious rites, and ran almost any risk.

In 1663 Mr. Bruce reported to the Kirk-Session that he had got the names of several persons in the parish, who had been accused by dying witches at Auchtertool; but no active measures seem to have been resorted to in reference to them. Throughout nearly the whole of the seventeenth century, there are incidental notices which prove how deeply the belief in witchcraft had burned itself into the public mind. A common word of reproach among the people was ‘witch-carle,’ as applied to a man, and 'witch-bird,’ as applied to the child of a woman accused of witchcraft. Again and again, too, complaint is made to the Session of those who 'cast up’ to neighbours the sins of those relatives who had suffered for witchcraft. This £casting up’ of the sins of the dead is always dealt with by the Session as deserving of the severest censure.

Among the last notices of witchcraft in the parish is one which occurs in the year 1681, when Bessie Lamb accuses Elspeth Kirkland of the crime. Bessie’s husband had become insane, and was so violent that he had to be kept in the house by the aid of such formidable obstructions as trees and posts. On one occasion, when the poor man was in one of his worst paroxysms, Elspeth Kirkland happened to go into his house, and took a 'hairn tedder’—a tether or rope made of hair—from the couple-foot. This was the head and front of the poor woman’s offence; but no small matter was made of it by Bessie Lamb. She averred that no one but Elspeth knew that there was such a thing as a 'hairn tedder’ there; and that she alone must have put it there, for the purpose of bewitching Bessie’s husband. In proof of this, she declared that no sooner had the tether been taken away than her husband became perfectly calm. Whereupon, as she now confesses, she said that Elspeth was 'not soncie;’ that is, unlucky or uncanny; and, further, used considerable freedom of speech, in calling Elspeth a 'witch,’ and her children 'witch-birds.’ This affords a good illustration of the frivolous grounds on which many at that time, and since, have been accused of witchcraft, or, as it was sometimes mildly expressed, being 'uncanny.’

Some common event happened : the cow refused to yield her milk, or the milk she yielded became speedily sour— probably on account of imperfectly washed dishes,—or when churned no butter would come; or, perhaps, the horse or the cow or the pig turned ill; or a foul chimney took fire, and as it blazed some sparks fell on the thatch, which, in dry weather, naturally burst into flame, and the house was burned in whole or part. But all these events proceeded from natural causes, many of them being traceable to carelessness. This, however, was thought too simple a way of accounting for such occurrences; and because there was some cross-grained old woman in the parish, who was sometimes heard wishing ill to her neighbours in general, or to the sufferer from some calamity in particular, straightway the blame of the whole matter was laid on her. There is a very common fallacy in reasoning by which one event is held to be the effect of another, merely because it follows it. This fallacy has a thousand false accusations of witchcraft lying at its door. Bessie Lamb’s husband became calm after Elspeth Kirkland had removed the hair rope from the foot of the rafter, where, probably, it had been lying long before the poor man was seized with insanity; therefore it was the removal of the ‘hairn tedder’ that had made him better; and therefore it was the placing of the ‘hairn tedder ’ there that had made him ill; and because it was Elspeth Kirkland who took it away, therefore it must have been she who put it there, with the evident design of bewitching Bessie Lamb’s husband ! This is not a tithe more absurd than the reasoning which sometimes passes unchallenged in the present day; although, fortunately, it seldom leads up to charges of witchcraft. Surely the time will come when education, going hand in hand with the benign spirit of Christianity, will lead to sounder reasoning, and better feeling between man and his neighbour. But we must follow Elspeth Kirkland’s case to its close. The Session had evidently learned to be chary of accusations involving the charge of witchcraft; and so Bessie Lamb was ordered to appear in front of the pulpit when the congregation was assembled, and crave pardon for her aspersions against Elspeth Kirkland.

There were superstitions somewhat akin to the so-called witchcraft of the seventeenth century, yet in some respects different from it, which are noticed in the Session Records; and I must devote a few paragraphs to them. I suppose my audience will not need to be assured by many arguments that there was such a thing as dishonesty in the parish, in the seventeenth century. Now it becomes evident that, when losses occurred in this way, it was not only thought desirable to get the lost articles back, but some of the parishioners were rather unscrupulous as to the means they employed for this purpose. One very reprehensible mode was that which went by the name of ‘the riddle and shears;’ another method was by the ‘key and Bible.’ These were not only silly, but profane expedients, being attempts at divination—trying to discover by supernatural knowledge, and that generally believed to be from the Wicked One, what should have been found out by natural means. Those who professed to discover secret things in this way were, of course, impostors; and they who consulted them were either very weak or very wicked —possibly a mixture of both. There are several notices of the existence of these practices in Aberdour during the seventeenth century, and some of the instances came under the notice of the Session. Thus, on ist August 1669, John Lister appears before the Kirk-Session, and gives in a bill against John Wardone, John M‘Kie, and Jane Shaw, who, he alleges, said that he ‘turned the riddle.’ This short way of speaking of it indicates that it was well known, and so did not need a laboured description. Robert Chambers, in his Domestic Annals of Scotland, quotes the following account of it:—‘Divination by a sieve was performed in this manner : “The sieve being suspended, after repeating a certain form of words, it is taken between the two fingers only, and the names of the parties suspected repeated; he at whose name the sieve turns, trembles, or shakes, is reputed guilty of the evil in question. ... It was sometimes practised by suspending the sieve by a thread, or fixing it to the points of a pair of scissors, giving it room to turn, and naming as before the parties suspected.” ’

At the same meeting of Session, it came out, in the evidence led, that John Lister, having lost some thread, said in the hearing of others, and, I have no doubt, with a knowing shake of his head, that he would make it come back again; and one of the elders having asked him how he would effect this, he replied that he would make ‘ a Psalm-book and a key; do it. The chief virtue of this mode of divination lay in the circumstance that many believed it to be effectual; and many a time the thief, afraid of being detected, found ways and means of restoring the' stolen property; whereupon the diviner got credit for supernatural skill. On the occasion I allude to, the minister, Mr. Thomas Litster, very properly exhorted his namesake to ‘fear God, and be more circumspect in his speeches.’ There is another instance of this superstition in 1678, when a girl, named Isobel Mercer, went into Harry Tod’s house and showed a number of people how, by means of a key and a Bible, she could find out secret things. Being brought before the Session, Harry Tod deponed that he saw Isobel Mercer put a key into a Bible, and then she uttered the words, 'By St. Peter and by St. Paul, such a thing as she desired to know shall come to pass or be true;’ whereupon the key and Bible turned. It is not very clear how secret things were discovered in this way; in all probability it was by the key pointing to some word or text. But the matter was reckoned so important in the eyes of the Kirk-Session, that the whole parties who had witnessed Isobel Mercer’s performance were summoned; and the case was actually remitted to the Presbytery.

After careful deliberation, the Presbytery came to the conclusion that the practice ‘savoured of diabolical arts and indirect contract with Satan.’ In extenuation of her offence, the girl stated that she had learned the art by having seen it practised in London! She and all who witnessed the exhibition in Harry Tod’s house had to appear before the pulpit, and crave pardon from God and the congregation. There can be no doubt that putting the Bible or Psalmbook to such a use was profane, and worthy of censure; but we question if the belief in divination by the ‘Key and Bible,’ or the ‘Riddle and Scissors,’ which was an analogous mode, was a whit more silly than the ridiculous practice of ‘Table-turning,’ or the belief in ‘Spirit-rapping,’ of which we have heard so much in our own day.

One other singular instance of superstition, occurring in the Minutes, I cannot refrain from noticing, and all the more because it shows how credulous even the learned men of that time were. In 1667 Mr. Francis Hannay was schoolmaster of Aberdour. On many grounds we may hold that he was a good specimen of the class to which he belonged. He had received his education at one of the Universities, and had taken the degree of Master of Arts. An intelligent, scholarly, shrewd man of affairs, I can vouch for it, was Mr. Francis Hannay. But he could not help being born in the seventeenth century, and I daresay he could as little help being tinged with the superstitious feeling of the period. A parish tragedy had occurred, in the month of May 1667. A dead child had been found at Easter Buchlyvie, and it was more than suspected that the poor innocent had met with foul play at the hands of its mother, Marjory Schort. It was the year in which Mr. Bruce the minister had died, and so Mr. Hannay was, for the time being, the leading dignitary in charge of parochial matters. He accordingly went to Easter Buchlyvie to inquire into this dark business. And what think you was the mode adopted by Mr. Hannay, for the purpose of discovering the perpetrator of the foul deed? The mother was brought into the presence of her dead child, and made to touch it. So far well. The mere touch of the dead infant, nay, the mere sight of it, was fitted to awaken the pity that has its home in a mother’s heart, and evoke a confession, if that heart has not turned to stone. But Mr. Hannay did not stop here. The sight, the touch, had not proved potent enough, and so he ordered the dead child to be put into its mother’s arms. And what then? Hear his own words, in the Minute of Kirk-Session: —'The child’s mouth was seen to open, as the by-standers were ready to testify.’ This was considered conclusive— the opening of the child’s mouth being, no doubt, deemed equivalent to a cry for vengeance on its murderer. The mother immediately afterwards confessed her guilt. Along with her dead child she was brought down to Aberdour the same day, and the infant’s dust lies in some obscure corner of the old churchyard. The inhuman mother was given into the hands of Andrew M‘Kie, ‘the depute bailzie;’ and I have no doubt she suffered death as the punishment of her crime.

A few paragraphs in reference to the state of matters in Inverkeithing and Burntisland during those superstitious times will make our statement more complete. Of the events which occurred in the parish of Dalgety I have spoken in another connection. Much as Aberdour and Dalgety distinguished themselves by their zeal in putting down witchcraft, it must be acknowledged that they have to yield the palm to Inverkeithing. Certain I am that neither Mr. Robert Bruce nor Mr. Andrew Donaldson had anything like the reputation, for this kind of work, that was enjoyed by Mr. Walter Bruce, the minister of Inverkeithing. Mr. Bruce, who was brother to the laird of Kinnwill, studied at the University of St. Andrews, and was presented to the parish of Inverkeithing by Charles the First, in 1641. He attracted the attention of the whole neighbourhood by the display of a particular aptitude in dealing with cases of witchcraft. That he was not strictly orthodox we are led to believe by a notice of a strange sermon which he once preached, in which he is reported to have said ‘ that the spirit of godlines in thir tymes was ane salt humour, arising fra the melt [the spleen], trubling the stomack and ascending to the head, whilk maid a cracking of the brain.’ Nor did he display the finest sense of propriety in the mode he employed in clenching an argument, as appears from a charge given by the Synod to the Presbytery of Dunfermline, to have a care of Mr. Walter, inasmuch as it is reported that he uses swearing. Mr. Bruce struck out a distinct path of his own to fame; and a generous posterity should not deny him his due as the greatest witch-finder of the seventeenth century within the bounds of the Presbytery of Dunfermline. Committees on witchcraft were admittedly incomplete without Mr. Walter Bruce. In 1650 he is engaged on a committee appointed to deal with a petition, presented to the Synod of Fife, by the husbands and children of women within the bounds who have been accused of witchcraft; and a few years later he is a member of a committee who have the notorious Robert Small in their hands—a man who went through the country pretending to cure diseases and recover stolen goods, by means of hidden arts, whether by the ‘key and Bible/ or the ‘riddle and shears/ does not appear. It is of more importance to know that Small appeared to be brought to a sense of his guilt, promising, through God’s grace, never to do the like again. Whereupon the Lord Archbishop and Synod — for Episcopacy was at the time in the ascendant—‘ appointed that he appear before some congregation within the Presbitry of Megil, confes his sin, and professe his repentance for it, and engadge himself to doe no more so; and that this be intimate to all the congregations within the Presbitry: which the said Robert acquiesced unto, and promised to do whenever he sould be appointed be the Presbitry of Megil.’ Yet with such a man among them as Mr. Walter Bruce, the Presbytery of Dunfermline, on more than one occasion, found themselves inadequate to the management of some cases of witchcraft which came before them, and members of other Presbyteries were conjoined with them to help them over their difficulties. It is highly probable that some of these difficulties were connected with Inverkeithing. I have not had the opportunity of examining the Session Records of that parish, but all who are acquainted with Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of a Graridfather know how famous it was for its dealings with witches. There can, of course, be no doubt that it is to Inverkeithing Sir Walter refers, when, after relating some traditional stories regarding persons who had confessed themselves guilty of witchcraft, and yet afterwards were proved to be innocent, he narrates two authentic instances, one of them being the sad case of the lady of Pittadro. Sir Walter’s words are these:— ‘The first of these instances regards a woman of rank, much superior to those who were usually accused of this imaginary crime. She was sister of Sir John Henderson of Fordel, and wife of the laird of Pittadro, in Fife. Notwithstanding her honourable birth and connections, this unfortunate matron was, in the year 1649, imprisoned in the common jail of Edinburgh, from the month of July till the middle of the month of December, when she was found dead, with every symptom of poison. Undoubtedly the infamy of this charge, and the sense that it must destroy her character and disgrace her family, was the cause which instigated her to commit suicide.’ As I have had the opportunity of examining most of the papers in the charter-room at Fordell, I am able to add some important facts to this statement. Margaret Henderson, the lady referred to, was the daughter of James Henderson of Fordell, the father of the first baronet, and her mother was Jean Murray, the daughter of the tenth baron of Tullibardine. By this marriage there were four sons and seven daughters. Three of the sons, Sir Robert, Sir James, and Sir Francis, were brave soldiers, and for their gallantry abroad were knighted. Of the daughters, Grizell was married to Alexander Douglas of Mains; Barbara to James Spittal of Leuchat—an estate now merged in that of Donibristle ; and Margaret, whose sad story we have just heard, was married to William Echline of Pittadro—a property adjoining Fordell, and now incorporated with it. This William Echline was, I believe, the son of Harry Echline of Pittadro, and a brother of Robert Echline, who in 1601 was minister of the second charge at Inverkeithing—the only minister who ever filled that charge,—but who, in 1613, was promoted to the bishopric of Down and Connor. You will remember that this personage has crossed our path in an earlier lecture as a persecutor of Robert Blair.

From references to the case, which are found in an Act of the Scottish Parliament, of date 19th July 1649, ^ is Put beyond dispute that the lady of Pittadro had been accused by several persons who had been put to death for the crime of witchcraft, of being involved in the crime for which they suffered, and that she had ‘kepit severall meittings and abominable societie with the devill.’ This was too inviting a case for Mr. Walter Bruce to pass over, notwithstanding the high social position in which the accused stood; and fearing, as she might well do, what the issue would be in the hands of such a keen witch-finder as the minister of Inverkeithing, she made her escape to Edinburgh. But she was not allowed to remain long in peace there. Her case was brought before the General Assembly, and that Court addressed a supplication to Parliament, stating the crime with which Lady Pittadro was charged, mentioning the fact that she was now apprehended and lodged in the Tolbooth of Edinburgh, and craving that a course should be taken for putting her to legal trial before the Justice-General.

This petition was granted, the Estates of Parliament leaving it on record that ‘they have recommendit and re-commendis the said supplicatioun, wi' the depositions of certaine witches against the said Margaret Hendirsoune, to Mr. Thomas Nicollsone, His Majesties Advocat, and ordanis him to intend and follow furth ane criminall persute aganis her, befoir the Justice Generali and his deputis, for the said cryme of witchcraft, and givis warrand and [power] to the saidis Justice Generali and his deputis to call and conveine befoir them the said Margaret Hendirsone, for the said cryme of witchcraft, and proceid and administerat Justice aganis hir, and if shoe be guiltie of the said cryme of witchcraft, to convict and condemne hir, pronunce sentence of death against [her], cause strangle hir, and burne hir bodie, and doe everie requisit in sic caices.’

What the causes were which delayed the trial thus ordered, and at what stage of the procedure in her case the lady of Pittadro committed suicide, I have been unable to discover. In whatever light we regard it, the story is a dark and sad one, and seems to reflect nothing but disgrace on those who had any hand in originating it, Mr. Walter Bruce among the rest. It was something more than a doubtful reputation that Mr. Walter acquired, by means of his dealings with such cases. When a man was reputed to have a talent for such work, and more especially if he himself was convinced that he possessed it, he must, many a time, have been sorely tempted to ride his hobby in an unmerciful way; and Mr. Bruce evidently kept the magistrates of Inverkeithing pretty fully occupied with his witch cases. So much were these worthy men bowed down under the pressure of this kind of work, that, in April 1649, as stands on record, the bailies of Inverkeithing signified their desire to the Synod of Fife, that help might be given them in examining witches, and bringing them to confession; and the Synod recommended the distressed condition of the bailies to the Presbytery of Dunfermline.

From the date—three months before the incarceration of the lady of Pittadro—it is extremely probable that her case was one of those which gave such trouble to the magistrates of Inverkeithing.

But we are not yet done with the exploits of Mr. Bruce as a witch-hunter. Either through his keen scent, or for a reason which I shall presently mention, grave suspicion began to arise that the wives of some of the magistrates were not free of the taint of witchcraft. We have just seen how active these men had been in the work prescribed to them by their minister, so long as the game run down was not within their own preserves. But would they be as keen if these preserves were invaded? I have been assured by an intelligent parishioner of Inverkeithing, that a tradition has come down, to the effect that the prosecution of witches by the magistrates of the burgh became so intolerable that it was resolved by some of the wise heads of the place to put a stop to it. And they fell on the ingenious device of accusing the wives of some of the magistrates of the crime. It was found that these cases did not proceed so briskly as some that had preceded them; the evidence was not quite so ample as was to be desired; and what there was of it seemed far from reliable. The whole matter practically assumed the form of wife-keeping versus witch-burning. I wonder these wise men did not think of beginning with Mr. Walter Bruce’s wife,. Joanna, sister of Robert Menzies of Rotmell. She was still alive, and lived for nearly half a century after this. There may have been reasons well known at the time, although unknown to us, which made this step unadvisable ; but it should be kept in mind in the event of witchcraft coming back. All honour to the magistrates of Inverkeithing, who humanely preferred to nourish and cherish their own wives, rather than burn the wives of others as witches!

There is a striking corroboration of this tradition, in the fact that the Scottish Parliament, on the 31st of July 1649, on the ground that the magistrates of Inverkeithing were remiss in dealing with cases of reputed witchcraft, appointed the following persons to deal with them, viz., John Bairdie of Selvadge, William Blackburne, John Davison, John Douglas, Thomas Thomson, John Anderson, and James Brown, all burgesses of Inverkeithing. It is to be hoped that the Estates of Parliament, before they named these men for this work, made sure that they were either bachelors or widowers. If they did not, we may be sure the keen-witted people of Inverkeithing would immediately delate their wives as witches. Whether this actually took place we cannot, in default of evidence, take it upon us to say; but we hear nothing more of the witches of Inverkeithing.

Of Mr. Walter Bruce we do, however, hear a little more. He had, for some considerable time, been acting as if man’s chief end, and that of the minister of Inverkeithing in particular, had been to hunt witches ; and so he had been grievously neglecting other departments of duty which, in the estimation of his parishioners and his co-presbyters, were at least as important. The sad end of the lady of Pittadro must have stirred up a disagreeable feeling in the minds of many towards Mr. Bruce; and not a single magistrate, or an accused wife of a magistrate, would be able to bear the sight of him. So we are not astonished to learn that on June 26th, 1650, Mr. Bruce was deposed from the ministerial office, ‘for gross neglects in the special duties of the ministrie.’ He was, however, restored to office in 1651, conformed to Episcopacy in 1662, and died about the year 1673.

I have dwelt longer on these matters connected with Inverkeithing than I intended, but the materials were so tempting that I could not forbear bringing them under your notice. A very few sentences regarding Burntisland will bring this lecture to a close. As far back as the year 1597, Janet Smyth was accused of witchcraft at Burntisland, and was condemned to be ‘ worriet [strangled] and brunt to the death.’ In the following year Janet Allane was also convicted of the crime, and condemned to be ‘ quick burnt to the death.’ This reveals a more horrible mode of execution than any other case that has come under our notice. Mercy generally prevailed so far as to secure that the wretched creature was dead ere the pile was fired; in this ‘quick’ burning, however, it is a living victim that we see in the midst of the flames. But if Burntisland was thus earlier occupied with the burning of witches than other places in our neighbourhood, of which we have authentic information, and if she shared in the feverish excitement on the subject which characterised the year 1649, as Acts of Parliament show, she possessed in one of her ministers a witch-doctor, who did what he could to deal effectively with the moral epidemic. For when the Presbytery of Dunfermline, in 1643, were at wits’ end to know how to deal satisfactorily with the many and painful cases of witchcraft that came before them, they prayed the Synod to send them some skilled assistants from the Presbytery of Kirkcaldy. And Mr. John Smith, at that time minister of Leslie, but before the year closed minister of Burntisland, was one of the three sent. Mr. Smith, a few years after this, was translated to Trinity College Church, Edinburgh; but whether it was his skill as a witch-doctor that led to such speedy promotion I must leave undetermined.

I have left myself little time for moralising on this painful subject. I feel assured that while we are willing to do justice to the men, whether lay or clerical, who busied themselves with such cases, and are prepared to make great allowance for them, on the ground of the circumstances in which they were placed, there must be in our hearts a feeling of thankfulness to God that we live in more enlightened times. We have made some progress in many directions since those old days. Shame on us if we had not! But let us make sure that there are not blots in connection with the intellectual, moral, and religious state of the neighbourhood in which we dwell, that will, considering the clearer light we enjoy, look as black, in the eyes of future generations, as the superstitions we have now been looking at do in ours. The greatest panegyrists of the present time must admit that there is much progress still to be made. I trust the time is not far distant when every child in the neighbourhood shall be able to read his Bible, and take a pleasure in the exercise,—when our weekday and Sabbath schools shall be taken full advantage of,— when our churches shall be filled with intelligent and reverent worshippers,—and when a pure, social morality shall pervade our population. For then true religion, adding to the comforts of the present life, shall prepare us for another and a better.


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