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Borrowstounness and District
Chapter VII. The trial and burning of the Borrowstounness witches


1. Prevalence of Witchcraft and Superstition in Scotland — 2. Local Confessions of Charming: Commission Granted for Trial of Six Carriden Witches: Supplication of Isobel Wilson: the Case of Margaret Finlayson—3. Trial for Witchcraft of Six Women and One Man in Borrowstounness Tolbooth — 4. The Indictment: the Verdict and Commitment—5. Cases of Superstition and Witchcraft in Carriden Parish.

I.

The history of witchcraft and superstition in Scotland presents many strange and unaccountable phenomena, although the whole subject, as was recently said by an authority, deserves to be examined carefully, without disbelief, without fear, rejecting all impostures, and studying the residuum of truth that is left behind.

Notwithstanding the strong religious feelings which prevailed, witchcraft was rife all over the country during the seventeenth and part of the eighteenth century. So strange and foreign to most modern minds are those superstitions that, had we. not definite and undeniable records of the occurrences, we should never believe the things at all. The state of matters is well put by Graham when he says, "Superstition was spread amongst all classes; there was not an event of their lives from birth to death which was free from it; omens were seen in a myriad coincidences; charms were used to ward off every form of evil. Some superstitions were relics of paganism, others were relics of Popish days, while many were due to those instinctive fears and associations with mysterious events of Nature common to humanity everywhere."

These curious beliefs gave rise to a criminal code of great severity. Sorcery and witchcraft, according to the law of Scotland, were very serious crimes, and offenders were rigorously dealt with. The Ecclesiastical Courts, too, kept a watchful eye on suspected persons, and enforced disciplinary measures without fail. When we recall the punishments and deaths of so many-persons who, after all, were innocent of any actual crime, we-are amazed at the results of this peculiar phase of the mental state of all classes in the nation at that time.

The chief actor in all this hurly-burly, as is revealed im the indictments of the cases which came to trial, was his satanic majesty the devil. Let us take one example. The countryside-down by Tranent, especially a place called Saltpans, probably Prestonpans, was kept in terror for a time by the strange doings of one Doctor Fian, alias John Cunningham, master of the school at Saltpans, and his female associates. According-to one record,3 a company of at least two hundred females assembled there on "Allhallon-Even," and set out to sea, each one in a riddle or "cive." They went in-the same, "very sustantially," as it is put, with flagons of wine, "making merrie and drinking by the way to the Kirke of North-Bar rick." After landing, they took hands and danced a reel, singing as they danced. They afterwards formed a procession, and one of their number, accompanied by Fian, went before-them, playing a reel on "a small trumpe called a Jewe's trump, until they entered into the Kerk of North Barrick." The devil4 was in waiting for them, and, as they had tarried on the way and were late, he made them all do penance in a most revolting-and abasing fashion. His satanic majesty then delivered his ungodly exhortations from the pulpit, and, after receiving their oaths for good and true service, they returned to sea, and so-home again. What a length the imaginations of our-forefathers must have gone to in this direction! The sea voyage as narrated, for one thing, was utterly impossible in fact. Fian was convicted before the King and Privy Council for this and other like offences, and burned at Edinburgh in January, 1591. This is just a feeble sample of what went on and what was believed. The King sat often with the Privy Council during the trials for sorcery and witchcraft, and he, in respect of the strangeness of these matters, took great delight to be present at the examinations."

II.

That the district of Borrowstounness was not any freer than its neighbours from these strange happenings the Privy Council and other records show. Take the following as an example: — It is to be found among the confessions of charming (1617-21) by one Jonet Anderson, in Stirling.

"The said Jonet Andersone confesses that ane tailyour in the Falkirk, callit Sandie Wear, came to hir with ane sark of ane bairne of the Chalmerlane of Kinneil, and desyrit the sark mycht be charmit. He affirmit that she soght ane knyf to that effect. The said Jonet confesses that she charmit the said sark, and that in the tyme thereof she had ane knyf in hir hand, bot denyes she soght any: and confesses she said to the tailyour, 'Ye neid not seik this charme; the bairne will be ded or ye cam hame.' And, being demanded quhow she knew the bairne wad be ded, answered that she wald not receave meat quhen the same man cam fra hir."

On 27th January, 1648, the Council had before it a supplication by the Presbytery of Linlithgow, signed by Mr. Pa. Shiells, moderator, and Mr. Ro. Row, clerk. The supplication narrates that the Council had on a former occasion, also on the application of the Presbytery, granted a commission to several gentlemen for the trial of six witches in the Parish of Carriden, and that these (the witches apparently) had been duly executed. They had made confessions, and therein had denounced other persons, not only in Carriden, but in adjacent parishes. This supplication therefore craved the appointment of a Standing Commission to deal with such. The Council refused the request as unreasonable, and stated that, when any particular case was offered for their consideration, they would deal with it as might be necessary.

We have been unable to trace any evidence of the trial of these Carriden witches. More than likely it took place, and, if it did, there can be little doubt as to the result. The trial of the Bo'ness witches was thirty or forty years after this.

In the following year—1649—we find the Council considering the supplication of one Isobel Wilson, in Carraden, who had been imprisoned on a false charge of witchcraft, but since liberated by their lordships. Fearing she would be annoyed by her accusers and brought up for trial locally, she craved that in such a case she might be tried before the Justice Court, as she would then have the benefit of advocates to plead for her. Isobel apparently, though she wished the benefit of an advocate, was also afraid, and not without reason, that a Court composed of local assizers or jurymen would not be to her advantage. The Council do not appear to have disposed of the request.

In articles proven before the Council on 26th February, 1650, against a witch, Margaret Finlayson, of the parish of Renfrew, the following item occurs: —

"A man called Bargans, fugitive from Borrowstounness for the alleaged cryme of sorcerie, that was never known in that place of the counterie befor, being in Alexander Duglass house in the Yoker, said if he knew quhere Margaret Finlayson were shoe would give him a bunnock; and quhen it was told him that shoe lived in the nixt house he went in to hire, & shoe immediately following him out with a bunnock as he hade said, & they drank tua chappins of aile together in Alexander Duglass house befor they pairted."

If this is a sample of the sort of thing people were branded sorcerers and witches for, suffering in many cases death by torture, we may well feel utterly confounded at human credulity. Plainly Bargans knew Margaret Finlayson in Yoker, just as -any one here to-day might know some one there also. But he did not know where she stayed, and naturally inquired at Douglass' house (presumably an ale-house) into which he had gone. Evidently hungry, he mentioned that, if he knew where Margaret Finlayson stayed, and called for her, she would be sure to give him a "bunnock." It turned out, as we have seen, that she lived next door. He called, got his bunnock, and, in return, brought her into the inn, where they drank "tua chappins of aile together." And yet this was evidently sorcerie and witchcraft.

III.

But the worst case of all was still to come. In the year 1679 the Privy Council named Cochran of Barbbachlay; Richard Elphinstown; Saindelands of Hilderstown; Cornwall of Bonhard; Robert Hamilton of Dechmont, Bailzie of the Regality of Borrowstounness; Sir John Harper, advocate; Mr. William Dundas and Mr. John Prestowne, advocates, Commissioners of •Justiciary, specially constituted, nominated, and appointed for the trial and judging of the persons afternamed, viz.—Annaple Thomsone, widow in Borrowstounness; Margaret Pringle, relict •of the deceist John Cambell, sivewright there; Margaret Hamilton, relict of the deceist James Pollwart there; William "Craw, indweller there; Bessie Yickar, relict of the deceased James Pennie, indweller there; and Margaret Hamilton, relict -of the deceist Thomas Mitchell. The parties had been duly apprehended and imprisoned in the " tolbuith " of Borrowstounness. There they had served upon them a copy of the precept or charge, wherein it was stated they were suspected "guilty of the abominable crime of witchcraft, by entering into paction with the devill, and renouncing their baptizme." In the name •of the Sovereign they were commanded to "compear" before the abovenamed Commissioners, or any three of them (three being a quorum), within the "said tolbuith of Borrowstounness" upon the 19th day of December, 1679 there "to underlye the lawe for the crymes above specifiet," and that under the "paines" contained in the new Acts of Parliament. Officers of Court were likewise commanded to summon, warn, and charge an assize or jury "of honest and famous persons, not exceeding the number of fortie-five," also such witnesses who best knew the "veritie" of the persons above complained upon.

The precept concluded thus—"Given under our hands at Borrowstounes the twentie-nynt day of November, ane thousande six hunder and seventie-nyne yeirs."

It was signed "R. Hamilton, J. Cornwall, Rich. Elphinstone, W. Dundas."

IV.

The indictment makes painful and in some places revolting reading. But it furnishes a good illustration of the very superstitious state of the country two centuries and a half ago. We reproduce the document4 underneath, save the unreadable parts, which are left blank.

The accused are named and designed as already noted, and it proceeds—

"Yee, and ilk ane of you ar indytted & accused that whereas, notwithstanding be the law of God, particularlie set down in the 20 chapter of Leviticus and eighteen chap, of Dewtronomie, & be the lawes & Actes of Parliament of this kingdome, and constant practis thereof, particularlie be the 73 Act of Parliament, 2 Marie, the cryme of witchcraft is declaired to be ane horid, abominable, and capitall cryme, punishable with the paines of death & confiscatioun of moveables; nevertheless .it is of veritie that you have committed and are gwyltie of the said cryme of witchcraft in so far as ye have entered in pactioun with the devill, the enemie of your salvatioun, & have renounced our blessed Lord and Saviour, and your baptisme, and have given yourselffes, both soulles and bodies, to the devill, and have bein severall meetings with the devill, and wyth sundrie witches in diverse places; and particularie ye, the said Annaple Thomsone, had a meeting with the devill the tyme of your weidowhood, befoer you was married to your last husband, in jour coming betwixt Linlithgow and Borrowstownes, when the devill, in the lykness of ane black man, told you that you wis ane poore puddled bodie, and had ane evill lyiff and difficultie ±0 win throw the world: and promesed iff ye wald follow him and go alongst with him you should never want, but have ane better lyiff: and about fyve wekes therefter the devill appeired to you when you wis goeing to the Coal-hill about sevin aclock in the morning: having renewed his former tentatiown, you did condeschend thereto, and declared yourselff content to follow him & becum his servant, whereupon the devill threw you to the ground. . . .

"And ye, and each person of you, wis at several mettings with the devill in the linkes of Borrowstounes, and in the house -of you, Bessie Vickar, and ye did eatt and drink with the devill and with ane anither, and with witches in her house in the night tyme: and the devill and the said William Craw brought the ale which ye drank, extending to about sevin gallons, and from the hous of Elizabeth Hamilton: and you, the said Annaple, had ane other metting about fyve wekes ago, when you wis goeing to the Coal-hill of Grange, and he inveitted you to go alongst and drink with him in the Grangepannes:

And you, the said Margaret Pringle, have bein ane witch thir many yeers bygane, had renounced your baptizme and becum the devill's servant, and promeist to follow him: and the devill . . . and tuik you by the right hand, whereby it was for eight dayes grevouslie paind, but having it twitched of new againe it imediatlie becam haill:

"And you, the said Margaret Hamilton, has bein the devill's .servant these eight or nyne yeeres bygane: and he appered and conversed with you at the toun-well of Borrowstownes and several tymes in your awin hous, and drank severall choppins of ale with you, and thereafter . . . and the devill gave you ane fyve merk piece of gold whilk a lyttell efter becam ane asklaittstane:

"And you, the said Margaret Hamilton, relict of James Pullwart, has bein ane witch and the devill's servant thirtie yeeres since, haith renounced your baptizme as said is, and has . . . with the devil in the lyknes of ane black dowg.

"And ye, and ilk ane of you, wis at ane metting with the-devill and other witches at the croce of Murestane, above-Kinneil, upon the threttin of October last, where you all danced, and the devill acted the pyper, and when you endeavored to have distroyed Andrew Mitchell, sone to John Mitchell, elder in. Dean of Kinneil."

We had hoped to supply a list of the names of the jurymen, or assizers in this case, but, unfortunately, the justiciary records, of the period have gone amissing.

Here is a copy of the verdict and commitment— "Forasmeikle as (then here follows the names of the five women and the man), prisoners in the Tolbuith of Borrowstownes, are found guiltie be ane assyse of the-abominable cryme of witchcraft, comitted be them in manner mentioned in their dittayes, and are decerned and adjudged be-, us under-subscryvers (Commissioners of Justiciary speciallie appoynted to this effect), to be taken to the west end of Borrowstownes, the ordinary place of execution, ther upon. Tuesday, the twentie-third day of December current, betwixt two and four o'cloack in the afternoon, and ther to be wirried at a steack till they be dead, and therefter to have their bodies burnt to ashes: these therefoir require and command the-baylie-principal off the Regalitie of Borrowstowness and his deputts to see the said sentence and doom put to dew execution in all poynts as yee will be answerable: given under our hands; at Borrowstounes, the nynteenth day of December, 1679 years: W. Dundas, Rich. Elphinstone, Wa. Sandilands, Jn. Cornwall, R. Hamilton." And duly and punctually, we must sorrowfully say, was this sentence of death carried out on the flat glebe-land at the west end of Corbiehall, on the afternoon of the 23rd of December, 1679.

We have heard it stated that the Bo'ness witch burning was the last, or about the last, in Scotland, but this is not so. There were witch trials and witch burnings long after the one here narrated.

V.

No other local case seems to have gone to trial, but the Carriden Kirk Session records show not a few references to superstitions.6 One Margaret Thompson was cited for "using magicall arte in burning of a corn riddle to find out some money she wanted, and that on Sabbath last, April 5th."

A man, Thomas Holland, compeared against Christian Henderson, and alleged that, if she did not call his mother a witch, she did mean as much, in that she should have come to his said mother and "asked the health of her son for God's sake: and should have taken bread from his said mother to her said chylde."

One woman, Anna Wood by name, was accused in 1704 of witchcraft. She was brought before the session, and witnesses appeared to prove her a witch.

Robert Nimmo, seaman, being called and required to declare what he saw or knew anent Anna Wood, declared as follows: — "That upon Monday, the 29th January last, about 7 o'clock at night, as he was coming from Linlithgow to the waterside (Carriden shore), he met with six catts, who followed him homewards till he came to Sir Walter Seton's Park Dyke at Northbank, at which place they appeared to him as women; that he knew one of them to be Anna Wood, and that he did speak to her, and that she did bid kill him; and that all of them convoyed him a considerable space and then appeared as birds fleeing by him and about him, and after that appeared again as women and went alongst with him till he came to the Grange, when they left him; and that he knew the said Anna to be one of them this time also.

"The said Anna Wood, cited and compearing, was interrogate what envye she had at Robert Nimmo that she should have offered to kill him. Answered that she had no envye at him: indeed she had no envye at the young man. Was asked when she was at Holland last. Answered not there twelve years. Was asked if she dreamed she was there since. Answered she never dreamed such a thing. Interrogate whether she met with Robert Nimmo 29th January, at such time and in such a place. Answer—Denyed it. Was interrogate whether she forbade him to mention her name to the Session. Answered she never said such a thing. Was interrogate where she was that night at that time, for she was found to be missing, for she had left work till nyne o'clock at night. Answered in Thomas Henderson's and Archibald Campbell's, in Coudonhill. Was further interrogate whether she was at Sir Walter Seton's Park Dyke that night, the 29th January, and other five women with her. Denyed it, saying she was free of such scandall.

"John and James Craig were deputed to find out whether she was in Thomas Henderson's and Archibald Campbell's such a night, and report next day. And the said Anna to be summoned against the next day, with other witnesses, and the said Robert Nimmo. also that she had a candle in her hand, and that she went fore and eft the ship, and that the half of ane hogshead of sack was drunk out that night, for it was wanting on the morrow, they knew not how: Also, that ane day, in Isabel Nimmo's, the said Anna Wood did forbid him to speak of her name to the Session. He further declared that eight nights before the night he met them coming from Linlithgow three women came aboard their ship and kept him from sleeping and speaking.

"James Linlithgow, seaman, cited and compearing, declared that he saw the said Anna Wood aboard their ship, that she went fore and eft with a candle in her hand, and he, being admonished to take good heed what he said, asserted that he really knew it to be Anna Wood, and that he could depone upon it before any judge in the world, and further declared that he saw her another night aboard a ship when he was aboard with Robert Nimmo.

"John Craig reported that Euphaim Allan declared that Anna Wood, on 29th January last, left her work in the said Euphaim's house about seven hours at night, and was not in again till nine o'clock.

"James Steidman, skipper, declared that if ever he saw Anna Wood in his days, he saw her at the Briell, in Holland, in his ship cabin, when he was last there, anno 1693, otherwise the devill in her likeness, at which time he lost a boy.

"The said Anna Wood, cited, called, and non-compearing, it was told the Session that she was fled, whereupon the clerk was ordered to draw out the whole process against her, to be sent to Edinburgh: and referred to the magistrate, and in particular to the Bailie of Grange, to make search for her: all which was done."

It was well for Anna Wood that she fled, for her life was in serious danger. In that very year a woman was burned on the opposite shore of Torryburn for witchcraft, and the evidence recorded above shows that the Session and Parish of Carriden might have been guilty of a similar crime had the opportunity not been snatched from them.

The laws against witchcraft in Scotland were afterwards abolished, As Graham says—" It was a terrible blow to the credulous and pious when the old Act against witchcraft was abolished, in 1736, and, instead of death being passed on all" traffickers with Satan,' there was a prosaic, rational statute-left making liable to a year's imprisonment and three months in the pillory all vulgar practisers of occult arts ' who pretended, to tell fortunes and discover stolen goods.' "

We have now as a nation strong views on the sacredness of human life, which is doubtless a reaction from the carelessness, of former generations. But although witchcraft has been legally abolished, the cult of the witch is so dear to humanity that it is in some aspects as prevalent to-day as it was some-centuries ago.


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