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Biggar and the House of Fleming
Chapter XVIII - The Witches of the Biggar District


A BELIEF in witchcraft and sorcery, it is well known, prevailed at one period throughout the whole of Europe. The minds of all men were, for a season, given up to gross delusion on this subject; a delusion, unfortunately, that did not remain visionary and passive, but manifested itself in acts of the most unrelenting cruelty. It is impossible at this day to read the details of the tortures and deaths that were inflicted on old helpless men and women, accused of these imaginary crimes, without experiencing a dirill of intense horror, and breathing a prayer of grateful acknowledgment that we live in times more rational and enlightened. The Romish Church, when it held undisputed sway over the nations, waged, with its papal bulls and inquisitorial proceedings, a terrible and unremitting warfare with the supposed possessors of these black arts. The Reformation, which had a great effect in eradicating errors, enlightening the mind, and banishing intellectual torpor, instead of dispelling the belief in witchcraft, rendered it more inveterate and intense, and fanned the rage against it to a state of fiercer activity than ever. His Scriptures were more diligently searched, and in many respects better understood; but all classes of men were still unable fully to discriminate between what was peculiar and temporary in a dispensation that had passed away, and what remained obligatory in the religious system that had taken its place. The Old Testament declared that witches, wizards, enchanters, familiar spirits, etc., not merely existed, but that the law of God was, that they should not be suffered to live. Those rulers among the ancient Jews who had signalized themselves in attempting to effect the utter extermination of these unfortunate beings, had received very special commendation, and therefore, it was argued, that men in authority, in all ages, should act a similar part. Fortified with such notions, the whole mass of the people became blind to the utter improbability that the Almighty, either directly or indirectly, would permit old, ignorant, crazed individuals to possess powers so extraordinary as to be able to raise storms, blast the produce of the field, inflict diseases and disasters on man and beast, metamorphose themselves into various animals, fly through the air from place to place, hold personal intercourse with the enemy of mankind, pry into the dark future, and foretell the designs of Providence and the fate of human beings.

The Scottish Parliament, in the reign of Queen Mary, enacted that ‘witchcraft, sorcerie, necromancies the vsurers thereof, and all persons seikand any helpe, response, or consultatione fra any sic vsurers, or abusers, are punished to the death with all regour.’ The consequence of this was, that vast numbers of aged persons, especially women, were seized and arraigned for crimes, which we now know were purely imaginary; and, in order to extort a confession of guilt, were subjected to the most excruciating tortures. The boots and the thumbkins were often called into requisition in such cases; men called prickers were employed to thrust large pins into the flesh of the accused; a terrible instrument, called the branks, or witches’ bridle, was placed on their heads, which fastened them to the wall of their cells, and prevented them from speaking; relays of men were appointed to guard them in prison and keep them from falling asleep; and a special and standing commission of the Privy Council was empowered to try the wretches accused of the supposed crime. Many of the persons seised, made mad by oppression, emitted before this tribunal the most extravagant, absurd, and incredible confessions; and, in most cases, were sent without delay to the gibbet or the stake. The effect of these severities was, that the numbers of the accused, instead of being diminished, were increased to an immense extent. Witches, warlocks, and charmers abounded in every parish, prisons sufficiently large could not be got to contain them, and terror and frenzy reigned in every quarter. The most active instruments in tbe discovery, prosecution, and destruction of witches, were the Reformed clergy. These men pursued this object with an unrelenting determination, that while it bears ample testimony to their energy and zeal, at the same time reflects no great credit on them as men and Christians. They seem to have divested themselves of all feelings of humanity, and to have gloried in evincing an amount of error, delusion, and barbarity utterly alien to the enlightened and benevolent principles which they had undertaken to enunciate to their fellow-sinners.

Warlocks and witches, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of course, abounded in the Upper Ward of Clydesdale, as well as in the other districts of Scotland. Every parish had its quota, but it appears, from the records of the Presbytery of Lanark, that they were especially numerous in the parishes of Douglas, Crawford, and Crawfordjohn. The Presbytery of Lanark, for a number of years, had their hands so full of business connected with these persons, that it engrossed a large portion of their time.

In former times, great attention was paid to certain wells. They were held to poiress a sovereign efficacy in curing diseases, and were dedicated to some saint or angel, who was supposed to preside over them, and to confer upon them their curative virtues. Bands of people walked in procession to them on the festivals of the holy beings to whom they were dedicated; and on these occasions they were decorated with flowers and boughs of trees, and libations of their water were poured out with great ceremony and solemnity. Pilgrims from distant parts of the kingdom were often to be seen seated by their side, imbibing their water, or washing the sores with which their persons were afflicted. The leaders of the Reformation resolved to suppress these superstitious practices; and, accordingly, a statute was enacted, in 1579, prohibiting all pilgrimages to wells. This law, however, had not the desired effect It was to little purpose that the civil authorities threatened and prosecuted, or that the Reformed clergy thundered against the practice, and inflicted their spiritual censures. The people could not be deterred from the observance of their old custom, or led to believe that the wells, once so sacred and efficacious, had lost their virtues. The Privy Council, in 1629, issued an edict, in which they lamented that pilgrimages to chapels and wells were still common in the kingdom, to the great offence of God, the scandal of the Kirk, and disgrace to his Majesty’s Government, and enacted that Commissioners should cause diligent search to be made ‘at all suche pairts and places where this idolatrous superstition is used, and to take and apprehend all suche persons, of whatsoever rank or qualitie, whom they sail deprehend, going in pilgrimage to chappellis and wellis, or whome they sail know themselffes to be guiltie of that cryme, and commit thame to waird,1 until measures should be adopted for their trial and punishment Notwithstanding the severity of this enactment, it is evident from the records of the Presbytery of Lanark, and from other sources of information, that the practice was still, more or less, continued. For instance, in September 1641, Mali Lithgow was reported to the Presbytery of Lanark, by John Hume, to be guilty of charming in the parish of Skirling; and William Somervail, minister of Dunsyre, was appointed to make diligent search for her, and send her to the Session of Skirling to be tried. On the 5th November following, Mali was brought before the Presbytery, and confessed that she went to the Well of Skirling, and was ordered to appear before the Kirk Session of Skirling, and answer for her incantations. And the Session records of that parish, if they have been preserved, no doubt contain a detail of her trial and sentence. The principal wells in Biggar and its neighbourhood were, and still are* Bow’s, Malcolm's, Duncan’s, Jenny’s, Gum’s, and the Greystane. Some of these were, no doubt, locally famous, in former days, for their healing virtues. The practice was common, till a recent period, of young persons going to them early in New Year’s day morning, and, after thrusting into them a bunch of straw, drawing forth what was considered of sovereign excellence, the flower of the well.

It can hardly be questioned that Biggar, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, would have its quota of witches and sorcerers, as well as the adjacent parishes. It is not yet fifty years since persons were pointed out in the town, who were supposed to possess supernatural powers, and whom their neighbours did not like to displease. Tradition has preserved the names of several women in the town and parish of Biggar, who were reputed witches at an earlier period, and who underwent the operation of ‘scoring abune the breath,’ that is, having several incisions made with a knife, or other sharp instrument, across the forehead. This operation, like that of cutting off the locks of Samson, was understood to deprive them of their supernatural powers. One of the most noted of these witches was Bessie Carmichael, who lived in the neighbourhood of Biggar, and was regarded with awe on account of her ‘grewsum’ looks, her intercourse with the weird folk, and her extraordinary powers in curing diseases, etc. One day a man in her neighbourhood was going to the mill of Biggar, with one or two loads of grain on a horse’s back—then the usual mode of conveyance—and Bessie requested him to take, either her ‘pock,’ which hung in the mill, to receive the gratuitous offerings of the farmers when they had a ‘melder* at the mill, or a quantity of grain with him, which she had gleaned or received as a gift from some of the farmers. The man refused to do this; and Bessie told him, in the hearing of some persons, that he would soon rue it. In course of disloading the horse, at the mill, the animal became restive, and gave the man so violent a kick, that he was laid lifeless on the spot. The whole country round soon rang with this terrible instance of the witch's revenge, and the universal desire was, that she should be burnt. By the time this incident happened, the days of judicial burning for witchcraft had passed away; but it is said that some persons, in disguise, broke into her cot, and maltreated her in such a way, that they hoped she would no longer ‘keep the country-side in fear.'

In 1640, a case of alleged witchcraft engaged a great portion of the attention of the Presbytery of Lanark. As it shows the untiring energy of the Presbyterian clergy in the prosecution of such cases, we will give an outline of the proceedings. The person accused of this crime was an aged woman called Marion, or, as she was commonly termed, Mali M‘Watt, who lived at Nisbet, in the parish of Coulter. Previous to her coming under the cognizance of the Presbytery of Lanark, she had been arraigned by the Presbytery of Peebles, and had undergone a lengthened examination in the Kirk of Glenholm, in presence of David Murray of Stenhope, the Laird of Hadden, and other members of that reverend court. These parties appear not to have followed up the examination with any further prosecution of the case, as the accused most likely removed herself out of the bounds of the Presbytery, and took refuge among the Coulter Hills, in the county of Lanark. Here, however, she was found out by John Currie, minister of Coulter, and summoned to appear before the Presbytery of Lanark on the 14th of May 1640. She appeared, but aa a copy of her confession in the Kirk of Glenholm was not forthcoming, she was dismissed till next meeting, after giving John M‘Watft, in Cagill, and William M‘Watt, in Baitlaws, as cautioners for her attendance, under the pain of L.100 Scots. She, accordingly, presented herself before the Presbytery on the twenty-eighth day of the same month, and showed a disposition to deny what it was understood she had confessed at Glenholm; but she admitted that she had charmed a stream of water with an axe, by crossing it in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and then giving three knocks on the threshold of the door; that having been sent for to John Black’s cow, she had caused it to take the calf, and then prayed to God that it might give milk, which it did; and, lastly, having been sent for to see Alexander Barn's mare, she had also prayed to God for its recovery. We are now apt to think, if no further charge could be brought against her than is contained in her confession, that it would have been amply sufficient, in so frivolous a case, to have dismissed her with an admonition to abstain from any absurd symbolism in future, when she attempted to purify the water, or cure the bestial in her neighbourhood; but the Presbytery thought otherwise, and therefore set themselves with the most restless activity to take the life of this poor woman. In the times to which we refer, it was a practice observed by the Presbyteries of the Scottish Kirk, to hold diets of visitation in each parish within their bounds. The Lanark Presbytery, therefore, at their meeting on the 11th June, instructed the visitors of the Kirk of Coulter to be careful and diligent to find out everything they possibly could against Mali M‘Watt, and report the result of their investigations at next meeting. On the 16th of July, the Rev. John Currie of Coulter, and the Bev. George Bennet of Quothquan, gave in a ‘ process,' which they had drawn up, and which, after deliberation, it was agreed should be delivered to the Commissary of Lanark for his revision. At this diet of the Presbytery, James Bry-den, a son of the accused, was present, and became bound, under a penalty of L.100 Scots, that his mother, till Whitsunday next, would at any time appear before the Presbytery when summoned. The Commissary of Lanark, it appears, had requested to be furnished with a copy of the proceedings instituted against Mali by the Presbytery of Peebles, and therefore John Currie was instructed to proceed to Peebles to procure one; but he either did not go, or was unsuccessful, for, on the 21st of January 1641, a committee, consisting of the Bev. Bichard Inglis of Wiston, the Rev. James Douglas of Douglas, and the Rev. George Bennet of Quothquan, was appointed to hold a meeting at Coulter with some members of the Presbytery of Peebles, but the result is not stated.

In the meantime, it was resolved to apply to the Committee of Estates for a commission to try Mali for the crime of witchcraft. The Commissary of Lanark, however, told the Presbytery that, in his opinion, Mali had been guilty, at the most, of charming, and that ruch an offence did not infer the penalty of death. The Presbytery were evidently chagrined and annoyed by this decision; but it did not deter them from the prosecution of their bloodthirsty design. They instructed the moderator, and the committee previously named, to revise the whole process against Mali, and, if possible, to get it signed by the members of the Presbytery of Peebles; and ordained the Rev. James Baillie of Lamington to summon Mali and her cautioner, James Bryden, to appear before them on the 1st of July. In these unhappy times, it often happened that old women accused of witchcraft were deserted by their relatives, and left to the tender mercies of their persecutors, without a friend to console and defend them. This happened on the present occasion. The old woman trudged away from Nisbet to Lanark, and presented herself, on the day appointed, before the Presbytery; but as no person, not even her son, was present, who would vouch for her future appearance, she was committed to the prison of Lanark. Her own minister, John Currie, was one of her most inveterate persecutors; but on this occasion he insisted that she should either be declared guilty of witchcraft, or that the charge against her should be abandoned. The Presbytery were not yet prepared to decide either the one way or the other; they still desiderated further proofs of her guilt; and therefore they appointed John Currie and George Bennet to attend the Presbytery of Peebles, ‘to labour,' as they called it, for additional information, and to request that a committee of the Presbytery of Peebles should meet at Biggar on the 21st of the same month of July, to hold a conference with the following committee of their own body, viz.,—the Rev. Alexander Somervail of Dolphinton, the Rev. George Bennet of Quothquan, the Rev. John Currie of Coulter, the Rev. Andrew Gudlatt of Symington, and the Rev. John Veitch of Roberton; and to summon all parties interested to attend the said meeting. This meeting accordingly took place, and the result of its deliberations, as embodied in a report, was, that many of the charges against Mali M‘Watt were found proven, and that there were just grounds for arraigning her before the civil tribunals of the country. The Presbytery thereupon once more took courage, and acting, as they said, on the Scripture warrant, *Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,’ they ordained John Currie to repair to Edinburgh to wait upon the Earl of Angus, Sir William Baillie of Laming-ton, Sir William Carmichael, and Sir John Dalziel, to induce them to lend their assistance to procure a commission to apprehend Mali, who had been set at liberty, and subject her to such punishment as the laws of God and the country authorized. John Currie, as instructed, went to Edinburgh; but he was met with the objection, that his application for a commission was informal, so long as Mali continued at large, and practised her charms and cures. The Presbytery, when they heard this, with one consent, requested the elder for Lamington, Sir William Baillie, or, in his absence, his bailie, Alexander Menzies of Culterallers, to apprehend poor Mali with all expedition, and to keep her in confinement at Coulter, or to send her to the county jail, to be under the vigilant eye of the bailies of Lanark.

The Privy Council had begun, by this time, to be wearied with the endless prosecutions raised by the clergy against old women; and, in the case of Mali M‘Watt, they could not, at any rate, see that the charge o? witchcraft could be sustained. The clergy were determined, however, not to be baffled; and on the 24th of March 1642, the day on which Mali was lodged in Lanark Jail, they met and resolved to appoint a committee to revise her process, and to make a fresh effort to obtain a commission for her trial. The committee, consisting of the Rev. William Somervail of Dunsyre, the Rev. Alexander Somervail of Dolphinton, the Rev. George Bennet, and the Rev. John Currie, met at Dolphinton, and, after revising the process, drew up a petition to the Lords of the Privy Council, which was signed by the clerk in name of the Presbytery, and conveyed to Edinburgh by the indefatigable John Currie. When John arrived in Edinburgh, he found that the Privy Council would hold no meeting sooner than the 1st of June; and thus he and the Presbytery were once more baulked in their design. The Presbytery, nevertheless, ordered John to repair to Edinburgh so soon as the Council met, and agreed to allow him two dollars to pay his expenses; but when the day arrived, John had become unwell, and could not leave his manse. The Presbytery, still unwearied in their efforts, resolved to take the advice of the Synod on their procedure in Mali’s case, and also to consult the Commission of the General Assembly and the legal agent of the Church; but what advice they got, or what further steps they took, their records, so far as we have seen them, give no information. The likelihood is, that Mali M<Watt, after undergoing a most harassing and protracted persecution from the Presbyteries of Peebles and Lanark, lived and died in her own quiet home in the Vale of Coulter.

For several years after the formation of the Presbytery of Biggar, the members of that reverend court appear to have taken no part in the prosecution of witches. Their persecuting zeal, however, broke out, all of a sudden, in 1649. At a meeting on the 28th of November of that year, it was reported that one Janet Bowis, a confessing witch, was imprisoned at Peebles; and therefore Robert Brown of Broughton, and John Crawford of Lamington, were instructed to wait on the Commissioners appointed to try cases of witchcraft, to ascertain if, in her depositions, she had accused any one connected with their congregations of being guilty of that crime, and to request liberty to bring Janet to Biggar, to be detained in confinement there, and to be confronted with such old women as she might declare to be witches.

These two reverend gentlemen, accordingly, repaired to Peebles, and obtaining an interview with Janet, the confessing witch, they received from her the names of & number of persons in the parishes of Broughton, Lamington, and Walston, whom, she alleged, had been guilty of the crime of witchcraft. The authorities at Peebles, however, refused to allow Janet to be taken out of their hands, and transferred to the Tolbooth of Biggar. The two delegates, therefore, repaired to the moderator of the Presbytery, and laid before him the result of their proceedings; and that dignitary lost no time in sending a communication on the subject to Sir John Christie. Through the influence of this gentleman, a commission was granted by the Committee of Estates to sit at Biggar on the 19th of December, with power to try all witches within the bounds of the Presbytery; and an order was at the same time issued for transporting Janet Bowis, the confessing witch, to Biggar. The Commission met at Biggar on the day appointed. The whole members of Presbytery attended. It is a matter of regret that no report of what took place at that meeting can now be obtained. We only know that the divines of the Presbytery were greatly disappointed and dissatisfied with the result; and particularly with the conduct of the confessing witch, of whom they expected to make so much. She appears to have broken completely down under the searching examination to which she was subjected. The divines resolved not to give her up. They appointed a meeting to take place on the 29th, and summoned her before them. The minute referring to what then took place is curious, and therefore we give it entire:— ‘The brethrine in yr attendance upone ye Commissioneres appoynted for tryall pf suspected witches, within ye boundis of ye Presbyterie, haveing perceived that Jennett Bowis, ye confesseing witche (brocht to Biggar for yat end), that schoe micht be confronted with suche persones as schoe had delated and affirmed to be guyltie with her of ye said cryme of witchcraft, had clearlie contradicted herself in these declara-tiones in verie many points, and that the most part of her dispositiones wer full of variationes, bothe in regaird of persones, names, tymes, places, matter, and everie other circumstance; all whiche haveing maid them suspicious of her, that schoe had lyed upone some innocent persones, and concealed ye guyltiness of others, tending to the prejudice of ye work of tryall, and discoverie of that fearfull sinne, and to ye advantage of Satan, did therefore aggrie togeder to sett aparte this day for humiliatione and prayer. And being (at least ye most parte of yr number) convenit this day in ye Kirk of Biggar, and ye said Jennett Bowis being brocht before theme, efter manie exhorta-tiones from ye word of the Lord, and pouring forth of prayers and supplicationes to God (by turns), entreating his Majestie to open her mouthe to confess her guyltiness in this point, and with manie wurds exhorteing her to yat effecte. At last ye said Jennett burst furthe in clamours and teares, and said that schoe had condemned her awin sillie saule in sweareing falsdie, and, in signe yrof, schoe presentlie cleared about fortie eight persones, whoes guyltiness before schoe had affirmed. Whairupone the breethrine of ye Presbyterie thocht fitting to referre, as be ther presents they doe referre, ye matter to ye consi-deratione of ye Commissioners for try all, that they may bothe advyse what to doe, and also (if need be), to represent the samyn to ye Committee of Estaitts for direction^ what sail be done anent ye said Jennet Bowis.' No further statements regarding her appear in the records of Presbytery, and therefore her ultimate fate cannot now be ascertained.

At that period, so many persons were apprehended for the crime of witchcraft, that the ordinary prisons could not contain them. An order was therefore issued, that each parish, in its turn, should furnish a quota of men to guard them and prevent their escape. The members of the Biggar Presbytery, in their great zeal against witchcraft, resolved that they would, along with their parishioners, take their turn in watching. On the 7th of May 1650, they even went the length of resolving to call in the services of a person called Cathie, ‘ a searcher for ye DevilTs mark on witches,’ who dwelt at Tranent, and who had recently been pursuing his vocation within the bounds of the Presbytery of Peebles. They therefore requested the Presbytery of Haddington, in conjunction with a magistrate, to bind him down'to answer before the Judge Ordinary when he should be called.

At this period, the members of the Presbytery of Lanark were equally active in the prosecution of witches. In 1650, they caused a very considerable number of old women to be apprehended in the parishes to the west of Biggar, and lodged in the Tolbooth of Lanark. We may briefly refer to one or two of these casesOn the 10th of January of that year, Marion Hunter, one of the suspected persons incarcerated for witchcraft, compeared before the Presbytery, and declared,—1st, That the devil appeared like a little whelp between Haircleuch and Littleclyd, and evanished in a bush; 2d, Like a brown whelp at Haircleuch, and, a good while afterwards, like a man, between Haircleuch and Glispen, and nipped her in her shoulder, and requested her to be his servant; 3d, That she was in Gallowberriehill, and rode upon a 4 bunwede,’ and that of those who are at present in prison, the following were with her on this occasion, viz.—Lillies Moffat, Marion Watson, Helen Aitchison, Marion Moflat, and Mali Laidlaw;— the last, she said, was of special service to her, for she ‘drew her when she was hindmost, and could not winne up.1

In a month or two afterwards, Janet Biraie, from Crawford, was tried by a committee of the Presbytery, and the following points were found proved:—First, That she followed William Brown, slater, to Robert Williamson’s house in Watermeetings, and there craved him for something that he was due her; A quarrel thereupon ensued between them ; and in twenty-four hours thereafter he fell from a house and broke his neck. Second, 4 Ane outcast' having taken place between her family and the family of Bessie Aitchison, the said Janet prayed that the Aitchisons might soon have bloody beds and a light house; and after that, Bessie Aitchison’s daughter took sickness, and cried, 'There is a fire in the bed,' and died; and Bessie Aitchison’s 'gudeman dwyned.' And, Third, She was blamed for causing discord between Newton and his wife, and procuring the death of William Geddes. The Presbytery, notwithstanding these grievous charges, agreed to set her at liberty, provided the bailies of Lanark would enter into recognisances, to the amount of 1000 merks, that she would appear before than when called on.

On the 21st March of the same year, 1650, the Presbytery received papers from Richard Inglia, which contained the confession of 'ane warlock called Archibald Watt, alias Sole the Paitlet, freelie given by him in the Tolbooth of Douglas.’ The brethren read over the papers, and considered that it was clearly set forth that this warlock had made a paction with the devil, that he had held frequent meetings with his satanic majesty and several witches in different places, and that he had been guilty of many horrid abominations. They were unanimously of opinion that it was their duty to obtain a commission of the Lords of Council to try him; and therefore they appointed Mr Robert Lockhart to proceed to Edinburgh for this purpose, with all convenient speed. Mr Inglis requested that, as the warlock had once before escaped out of the prison of Douglas, he should be brought to the Tolbooth of Lanark; and further, that a committee of the Presbytery should be appointed to confer with him on his arrival. All this was agreed to; but the records of the Presbytery fail to show what was the fate of this unfortunate and infatuated individual.


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