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Annals of Auchterarder and Memorials of Srathearn
The Witch Covin at the Crook of Devon


NOTWITHSTANDING witchcraft being made a capital crime both by the civil and canon law, the Old Church does not appear to have used much exertion either in tracing it out or in its prosecution. Strange to say, the influence of the Reformation—the general effect of which was to dissipate darkness and remove superstition —had, so far as the imaginary crime of witchcraft was concerned, a different tendency. When the priest remained careless, and, perhaps, incredulous, as to the obscure workings of the deeds of darkness, the presbyter of the New Church considered it his duty to expiscate and clear out even to the cleansing by fire rumoured delinquencies, in the exercise of magical arts. In Scotland this feeling was intensified in the Reformed Church by the Act of Queen Mary, 4th June, 1563, passed within three years after the downfall of the Roman establishment. This Act was no doubt inspired by the zeal of the Reformers to purge the country of diabolical influences. It seems, however, not to have been called much into requisition until after the return of James VI. from his matrimonial expedition to Denmark in 1591. The revelation of unholy practices against the Lord's anointed in the course of that memorable voyage, and after his return, threw the timorous King into a state of terror, and inspired him with the desire, as a sovereign prince, to exterminate the practisers of devilish arts from his dominions. Not only did he encourage prosecutions, but he wrote a book to prove the reality of the crime the credibility of which had been impugned by the catholic Weir. From 1591 to the death of King James, in 1625, thirty-five trials for witchcraft appear in the Justiciary records, and from that date down to 1640 only eight trials are recorded. From 1640 to 1660 there were thirty trials, although under the Commonwealth the judges generally discouraged such prosecutions,

After the Restoration the prosecutions fur witchcraft greatly increased, and in the year immediately following 1661 not fewer than twenty persons were condemned to death for witchcraft before the High Court of Justiciary, and, in addition, instead of the cases being brought before the ordinary criminal courts, Circuit and Justiciary, commissions were also granted by the Privy Council to understanding gentlemen, empowering them to deal with the cases of reputed witchcraft occurring in the special loca iljes with which they were connected. On one single day—7th November, iu6i—not less than fourteen commissions were granted, and during the first eight months of the following year fifty additional commissions, each of them containing from one to ten names of reputed witches. The reports of these Commissions have not been preserved, but the recorded executions alone during 1662 are stated at not less than one hundred and fifty in number.

One of the most fruitful in the number of executions resulting from its investigations was that granted in favour of Mr Alexander Colville of Blair, His Majesty's Justice Depute for Scotland, under whose presidency five trials were held in the parish of Fossoway, within the ancient Stewartry of Strathearn. From the proximity of the scenes of the alleged malefices and the place of the trial and execution to Auchterarder, it has been resolved to include the record of them in this historical collection.

These trials took place at the Crook of Devon. For a number of years suspicions of witchcraft were entertained, and that of practisers of unholy arts being resident in the Ochils and their southern boundaries. The case of John Brugh, who resided in Fossoway, and who exercised his arts in the adjoining parishes of Glendevon and Muckhart, was still fresh in the memory of the terrorised inhabitants. The persons brought to trial before the Justice Depute, Mr Alexander Colville of Blair, the same judge who presided at the trial of Alexander Drummond in 1629, were thirteen in number, consisting of one warlock, Robert Wilson, and twelve witches; and as thirteen formed a "covin," or company of witches—a "deil's dozen," it is supposed that the Commission had for its ultimate object the eradicating of the whole gang. Of the thirteen, only one of them, Agnes Pittendriech, escaped, which she owed to being pregnant at the time of her trial, and being respited under an obligation to come up again for trial when required. As there is no record of any ulterior proceedings being taken against her, it is to be hoped that her respite resulted in their ultimate withdrawal. In the case of Margaret Hoggan no conviction or sentence against her is recorded, although the evidence against her was equally strong as against the other panels; but in the dittay against her she is described as a woman of threescore and nineteen years, and she may have been either spared on account of her old age, or she may have died in the excitement and terror in the course of her trial. She is referred to as deceased at the next diet of Court, which took place two months after wares. Christian Grieve was put to her trial in July, 16C2, and although the evidence against her appears to have been strong, the "hail assize in one voice declare that they will not convict her in no point of witchcraft, nor clenze her in no point," and yet within a period of three months the same jury, under the same presiding judge, and apparently without any additional evidence, convicted her, and she was strangled and burnt on the fifth day thereafter.

As appears from the Records, the Court sat at the Crook of Devon. It met on five different occasions—viz., 3rd and 23rd of April, 1662; 5th May, 1662; 21st July, 1662; and 8th October, 1662. On the first of these trials Agnes Murrie, Bessie Henderson, and Isabella Rutherford were condemned, and strangled and burnt on the following day. On the second occasion Robert Wilson, Bessie Neil, Margaret Lister, Janet Baton, and Agnes Brugh were found guilty and sentenced to be burnt on the following day, Agnes Fittendriech being respited on account of her pregnancy. At the third diet, Margaret Hoggan and Janet Paton were brought to trial. As before stated, there is no conviction against Margaret Hoggan; but Janet Paton was sentenced and strangled and burnt the same day. At the next diet two prisoners were brought to trial—Janet Brugh and Christian Grieve. The former was convicted and executed the same day, but Christian Grieve was acquited. She was, however, re-tried and convicted by the same jury on the 8th October following, and burnt on the 13th. These sentences were carried into execution at a place called the Lamblairs, bewest the Cruick Miln.

As appears from the Records, the juries were formed of men of position, and in various instances the surnames which were then identified with the different properties and localities remain identified with them still. It will be also seen from the Records that the principal heritor of the parish— the Laird of Tullibole, assisted by his Bailie and the ministers of Fossoway, Kinross, Cleish, and Muckhart, were instrumental in getting up the prosecutions and extorting confessions and admissions from the accused. It may be noticed that two of the accused bore the same name as John Brugh, whose trial is narrated above—viz., Agnes Brugh, in-dweller in Goosclands, and Janet Brugh, spouse to James Morries, at the Crook of Devon. It is likely that these women were related to him.

We do not know from the Records of any such wholesale holocaust of witches in Scotland as took place at the Crock of Devon. The account is a dreadful one, and shows what an amount of credulity and terror had seized upon the inhabitants of this country parish, with many of whom the victims must have been related by ties of blood. While persons of consideration in Fossoway and the adjoining parishes evinced their ardour in the prosecution, there was no difficulty in getting men to carry the executions into effect by strangling and burning the accused. No fewer than three are named in the trials as having acted as dompsters—viz., William Donaldson, Alexander Abernethy, and Thomas Gibson, and the executions were in all probability carried into effect by the same men who pronounced the doom.

The original record of the Court held at the Crook of Devon is not now believed to be in existence, but the following transcript is made from an authenticated copy of the proceedings, which belonged to the late Mr Henry Flockhart of Annacroich, who had procured the document from the Rev. Mr Harvey, minister at Muckhart. It was contributed with an interesting introduction by Robert Burns Begg, Esq., Sheriff Clerk of Kinross-shire, to the Transactions of the Society of the Antiquaries of Scotland, and we are indebted to that gentleman for the privilege of its present reproduction.




































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