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History of the Burgh of Dumfries
Chapter XXXII


COVENANT-BREAKERS DEALT WITH BY THE PRESBYTERY--CASE OF CHARTERIS OF AMISFIELD- -CASES OF WITCHCRAFT-A PRETENDED WITCH DECLARED TO BE AN IMPOSTOR BY THE TOWN COUNCIL, AND BANISHED FROM THE BURGH-THE SESSION CALLS FOR EVIDENCE AGAINST SUSPECTED WITCHES --NINE WOMEN CONDEMNED TO DEATH ON A CHARGE OF WITCHCRAFT— ADDITIONAL CASES-THE LAST TRIAL FOR WITCHCRAFT IN SCOTLAND.

IN the Presbytery minutes for 1647 and 1648, numerous cases are entered of individuals being called upon to satisfy the Church for "Covenant-breaking;" "malignity and hostility;" accompanying the enemy towards Philiphaugh; for taking part in "James Graham's invasion," and the "lait sinful engagement under the Duke of Hamilton." One of the chief delinquents was Sir John Charteris of Amisfield. Though a member of the Dumfriesshire War Committee, and under a double bond to the cause of the Covenant, he proved false to his vows by following Montrose to the field, when that great captain made a daring but fruitless effort to redeem the fortunes of Charles the First. For so doing, the knight of Amisfield was called before the General Assembly, where he appeared in a submissive attitude, professing his readiness to endure any amount of punishment rather than remain unreconciled to the Church. He acknowledged his heinous offence in violating "the great oath of God taken by him in the National Covenant and Mutual League and Covenant, and in his joining in the lait rebellioune, and his being accessory to the shedding of the blonde of the people of God: which his confessioune, being maid in all humilitie before the Assembly, so far as men could discerne, and lykwise genibus flexis [on bended knees], he signed and subscribed, as his autographe, ordained to be preserved, will testifie." Charteris's case was an aggravated one; but he too seems to have been leniently dealt with. The reverend fathers might, according to the views prevalent at the time, have fined him heavily. They did not so much as amerce him in a single plack, or even force him to undergo a lengthened period of probation before being received back into the fold. Probably, however, the proud knight would feel the penance imposed upon him worse to endure than the loss of world's gear; the Assembly having " ordained him to satisfie, for his scandalous offence, in the kick of Dumfries, in a seat before the pulpit, and that there, genibus flexis, he should make the former declairatiounes, and such like, in his own parish kirk of Tinwal; and that at Tinwal, the minister, Mr. Humphrey Wood, receive him accordinge to the forementioned order and ordinance." All these proceedings in the Amisfield case were duly reported to the Dumfries Presbytery on the 29th of April, 1647; and the brethren, after considering it, ordained that the contrite baron be "advertised to expede his satisfactioune," in order that he might gratify his desire of being restored to the Church.

An order having been received by the Presbytery from the General Assembly, for renewing the Solemn League and Covenant, they resolved, on the 7th of December, 1648, to prohibit certain persons from subscribing it; among others, all who had in any way promoted "the laic unlawful engagement under the Duke of Hamilton," [The "engagement," so called, was made between the Duke of Hamilton, as leader of the moderate party, and Charles I., in virtue of which the King was to make large concessions ; but as the Covenanters could not trust his Majesty, the engagement came to nothing. In support of his views, the Duke raised an army, which obtained recruits in Dumfriesshire: it was defeated at Harlaw, and its leader made prisoner.] special mention being made of those who voluntarily countenanced the Duke's rendezvous at Annan Moor; of all captains of parishes who took part in the rebellious movement; of all heritors who contributed troops or rations to sustain them; of all soldiers who, of their own accord, were "out" on the occasion; and of "all women malignantly disposed." [Presbytery Records] It is obvious from these and other similar intimations, that though the Covenanters were dominant over Dumfries and the district, not a few persons from the vicinity took part with the Crown against the League.

During the seventeenth century, witchcraft was an article of almost universal belief in Scotland, and many Acts of Parliament were passed in the reigns of Mary and James VI., as well as in those of preceding sovereigns, for the punishment of such as gave "thame selfis furth to haif ony sic craft or knowlege," or who consulted these professors of the Satanic art. Numerous instances occur in the criminal records of old women having been tried, convicted, and strangled, or burned to ashes, on such a charge. After the Reformation, as well as before, the so-called crime was taken cognizance of both by the municipal and spiritual authorities, the latter deeming themselves specially called upon to interpose for its restriction and punishment. Colonel Cleland, the laureate of the Covenanters, and one of their military leaders, in celebrating the characteristics of the district, thus notices its supernatural visitors:

"There's as much virtue, sonce, and pith,
In Annan, or the Water of Nith,
Which quietly slips by Dumfries,
As in the rivers of old Greece.
For here, we're told, in sundry places,
Beside mill-dams, and green brae-faces,
The elves and eldrich brownies strayed,
And green-gowned fairies danced and played."

The poet might have added that other professors of diablerie abounded on the banks of Nith. Of reputed witches there were, at all events, more than enough; and, according to tradition, Lochar-bridge-hill, long used as a warlike rendezvous, was the favourite trysting-place of the weird women of Dumfries. Thither, it is said, they trooped to confer together when they had any extraordinary business on hand, encouraging each other by chanting a gathering hymn, of which the following rather apocryphal snatch has been preserved:

"When the gray howlet has three times hooed;
When the grimy cat has three times mewed;
When the tod has yowled three times in the wud,
At the red moon cowering ahin the clud;
When the stars has cruppen deep i' the drift,
Lest cautrips had pyked them out o' the lift;
Up horses a', but mair adowe !
Ryde, ryde for Locher-brigg-knowe!" *

* Cromek's Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, pp. 276-7.

"Roused by this infernal summons," says Allan Cunningham, "the earth and the air groaned with the unusual load. It was a grand though daring attempt, for man or aught of mortal frame to view this diabolical hurry. The wisest part barred their doors, and left the world to its own misrule."

In Dumfries the church courts seem to have had a monopoly of the business-so far, at least, as the initiatory proceedings against witches went-the only notice of the Council's interference with any of "these close contrivers of all harms," being contained in the following minute, dated 14th November, 1664:- "The Counsall being informed that Janet Burnes, commonly reputed a witche, and quho hath bein banished out of severall other burghis, and put out of this burgh in the month of August last, for cheating the people upon pretence of knowledge of all things done by them in tym past, or that may fall out in tym cuming, with certificatione to be scurgit if ever she was sein within the burgh thaireafter; and being well informed that she was sein within the town on Saturday, they have ordaint that intimation be maid by touk of drum, that non of the inhabitants resset or give meit or drink unto the said Janet Burnes." Whatever belief the honourable councillors had in witchcraft, abstractly considered, they had no faith in this professor of it, and came to the sensible conclusion that she was simply an impostor, and ought to be treated as such.

The following is an extract from the Presbytery records, dated 22nd April, 1656:- "John M`Quhan in Urr, compeared, confessing that he went to Dundrennan, to a witch-wife, for medicine for his sick wife, and that he got a salve for her, and that the wife said to him, 'If the salve went in his wife would live, if not she would die.' Janet Thomson in Urr, compearing, confessed that she went to the said witch, and got a salve to her mother, and that the witch bade her take her mother, and lay her furth twenty-four hours; and said that her mother got her sickness between the mill and her ain house, and bade her tak her to the place where she took it, and wash her with [elder] leaves. She also confessed that the deceased Thomas M`Minn and his friends sent her at another time to the same witch, whose name is Janet Miller. They were both rebuked [by the Presbytery], and referred to their own session to be rebuked from the pillar in sackcloth."

About this time the Kirk Session of Dumfries, after solemn deliberation on the subject, required the minister to announce from the pulpit that all persons having evidence to give against such as were under suspicion of "the heinous and abominable sin of witchcraft," should be ready to furnish the same to the Session without delay; and at their next meeting the elders wisely qualified the order, by resolving that any one who charged another with being guilty of " sic devilisch practises," without due reason, should be visited with the severest discipline of the Kirk. In the summer of 1658, we find the members of Presbytery girding up their loins for a wholesale razzia against all users and practisers of' witchcraft, sorcery, charming, and soothsaying. Public intimation was made to that effect, and the brethren were each required to take notice of suspected persons, and to urge their congregations to collect evidence against them, in order to enable sessions to bring the cases in a matured form before the Presbytery.

This was no idle resolution, as the following dread entry will show, dated 5th April, 1659:- "The Presbytery have appoynted Mr. Hugh Henrison, Mr. Wm. M'Gore, Mr. George Campbell, Mr. John Brown, Mr. Jo. Welsh, Mr. George Johnston, Mr. Wm. Hay, and Mr. Gabriel Semple, to attend the nine witches, and that they tak their own convenient opportunity to confer with them; also, that they be assisting to the brethren of Dumfries and Galloway, the day of the EXECUTION." Dr. Burnside states that he examined all the records of the town and neighbourhood that appeared likely to throw further light upon this horrible judicial tragedy, but without success.

The books of the High Court of Justiciary, [Kept in the Register House, Edinburgh] however, supply the requisite information regarding it. We thus learn that the court was opened at Dumfries on the 2nd of April, in the above year, by the " commissioners in criminal cases to the people in Scotland," Judge Mosley and Judge Lawrence; and that ten women, each charged with divers acts of witchcraft, were brought before them for trial. The proceedings appear to have lasted till the 5th. One of the accused, Helen Tait, had a rather narrow escape-the jury finding, by a plurality of voices, that the " dittay" in her case was " not cleirly proven." Nevertheless, before being dismissed from the bar, she was required to find security to the extent of £50 sterling for her good behaviour, and that she would banish herself from the Parish. The other nine unfortunates were all convicted, as is shown by the subjoined minute, giving the finding of the jury and the deliverance of the judges, as pronounced by the official dempster, " F. Goyyen."

"Drumfreis, the 5th of Apryle, 1659.-The Commissioners adjudges Agnes Comenes, Janet M'Gowane, Jean Tomson, Margt. Clerk, Janet M'Kendrig, Agnes Clerk, Janet Corsane, Helen Moorhead, and Janet Callon, as found guiltie of the severall articles of witchcraft mentioned in the dittayes, to be tane upon Wednesday come eight days to the ordinar place of execution for the burghe of Drumfreis, and ther, betuing 2 and 4 hours of the afternoon, to be strangled at staikes till they be dead, and therefter their bodyes to be burned to ashes, and all ther moveable goods to be esheite. Further, it is ordained that Helen Moorhead's moveables be intromitted with by the Shereff of Nithsdaile, to seize upon and herrie the samin for the king's use."

Nine women given to the flames in one day! The scene at the execution must have been so inexpressibly shocking, that we dare not examine it too closely. The planting of the stakes, and building up about them vast heaps of peats, straw, and other combustibles; the executioners with their ropes and torches; the venerable victims, frail with age, trembling with terror or palsy, crazed by a natural visitation, or the dread of a cruel death-whom the horrid functionaries bind till they shake no more; the attendant ministers striving to benefit their souls before their bodies are charred into blackened clay; the curious on-lookers, who would be pitiful, perhaps, were their hearts not annealed by the belief that the miserable women, being witches, are alike beyond the pale of sympathy or forgiveness; the first stage of torture, by which they are kept literally hanging between life and death ; the second, which shortly finishes by fire what the suffocating noose and smoke had only half accomplished; the lurid blaze which, bursting forth, dispels the vapour that for awhile in pity veiled the shrivelling forms from sight; the wild leaping-the loud crackling of the fire as it gains full mastery; its subsidence when its consuming work is done; the awful close of all, when, as the clock strikes four, the crowd, which had "supped full of horrors," can see nothing where the nine poor martyrs to superstition stood, save a morsel of blackened bones and a heap of bloody dust, which the grimy hangmen, like so many scavengers of death, are sweeping up and preparing to carry out of sight.

Just two years before the date of this fearful auto da fe, the Council were required to carry out a sentence of the same kind against two other females, as we learn from the following strange items of charge entered in the Burgh treasurer's books:- "27th May, 1657. - For 38 load of peitts to burn the two women, £3 12s. [Scots]. Mair, given to William Edgar for ane tar barrell, 12s.; for ane herring barrell, 14s. Given to John Shotrick, for carrying the twa barrels to the pledge [house], 6s. Mair, given to the four officers that day that the whiches was brunt, at the provost and bayillis command, 24s. Given to Thomas Anderson for the two stoupes and two steaves [to which the women were tied], 30s." At an assize held in the Burgh in May, 1671, eight or more females were charged with witchcraft: five of them, whose fate we cannot trace, were eventually sent for trial to Kirkcudbright. An official document, signed by two judges, which lies before us, thus announces the doom of the other three:-" Magistrates of Drumfreis, Forasmuch as in ane Court of Justiciarie, holden be us within the Tolbuthe of Drumfreis, upon the fyftein day of May instant, Janet M'Muldritche, and Elspeth Thomsone, now found guiltie be ane assyze of the severall articles of witchcraft specified in the verdict given against them thereanent, were decerned and adjudged be us, the Lords Commissioners of Justiciary, to be tane upon Thursday next, the eighteen day of May instant, betwixt two and four houres in the afternoune, to [the] ordinare place of executione, for the toune of Drumfreis, and there to be worried [Worried, "strangled." The word sometimes means "smothered." " Oh, mother dear, gie up the house, For the reik it worries me." Ballad of Edom o' Gordon] at ane stake till they be dead: And theirafter their bodies to be brunt to ashes, and all their moveable goods and geir to be escheit. You shall thairfoir cause put the said sentence to due executione, whereanent thir presents shall be your warrand. Given at Drumfreis the sixteen day of May, 1671." [Burgh Records]

For a long season the parishes lying in the southern part of the Presbytery were kept in terror by a horde of reputed witches. These were Marion Dickson in Blackshaw, Isobel Dickson in Locharwoods, her daughter Agnes, and Marion Herbertson in Mousewaldbank. "Many grievous malefices, committed upon their neighbours and others," were laid at their door; and the Presbytery, horror-struck and indignant at the reports laid before them regarding these dangerous sybils, declared it to be " damnifying to all good men and women living in the country thereabouts, who cannot assure themselves of safety of their lives by such frequent malefices as they commit." Encouraged by the Presbytery, a party of country people made bold to lay hands upon the women and carry them to be imprisoned at Dumfries by the sheriff, who sent them to jail, on their captors consenting to appear as witnesses in the case. He then, fortified by a certificate of the witches' dread doings from the Presbytery, brought the matter by petition before the Privy Council, who ordered the delinquents to be sent to Edinburgh for trial. [Privy Council Records] The district was thus delivered from their presence; how they fared afterwards is not recorded.

On the 15th of February, 1697, the following curious case of alleged divination was brought before the reverend court, at the instance of the Session of Carlaverock. About a month before, John Fergusson in Woodbarns, Cummertrees, and William Richardson, Cummertrees-town, on coming from Dumfries, went into the tavern of William Nairns, Bankend of Carlaverock, for the purpose of enjoying a social dram; Richardson leaving his horse, which carried a sack with cheese and herrings in it, tied at the door. The latter, after the lapse of a considerable time, on going out to see about his steed, perceived to his dismay that its burden of provender had vanished. Returning to the interior, he affirmed that some one had stolen his property, whereupon his fellow-traveller and boon companion, Fergusson, called for two Bibles, declaring that if the pilferer were anywhere in the whole "town of Bankend" he would find him out. Mine host, with a salutary regard for the reputation of his house, declared that he would allow no charming with Bibles to go on within it. The diviner swore that if they refused his request, he "would make bloody work among them;" and, under dread of this threat, "some brought two Bibles to the said John Fergusson, who brought a key out of his pocket, and put the one end of it within one Bible and the bowl end out, clasping the Bible upon it, and two holding the bowl of the key upon their fingers. The said John then read three verses of the fiftieth Psalm (out of the second Bible), beginning always at the eighteenth verse, always naming a person before he began to read, till they came to William M'Kinnell in the same town; and when they named him, and were reading the said Scriptures, the key and the Bible turned about and fell on the table. This was done three times, as attested by James Tait, mason, who is quartered in Townhead, James Fergusson, servitor to George Maxwell of Isles, George Fergusson in Bankend, and William Nairns, in whose house it was done."

Evidence to this effect having been given, the moderator was instructed to write to Mr. Gilbert Ramsay, minister of Cummertrees, to "cause summon the said John to next meeting of Presbytery," the minute of which meeting reveals the upshot of the case. "2nd March, 1697.-Compeared John Fergusson in Woodbarns, who acknowledged his scandalous carriage in charming and turning the key at Bankend, conform to the accusation, but says he knew not there was any evil in it: the Presbytery appoint him to stand on the pillar in the church of Carlaverock, and be sharply rebuked for his scandalous practice, and recommends him to the magistrates to be secured till he give bail to answer and satisfy, conform to this act." [Presbytery Records]

Before the next century was far advanced, enlightened views on the subject of witchcraft began to prevail; and exactly fifty years after the nine-fold execution previously noted, the last trial for witchcraft by the Court of Justiciary in Scotland took place at Dumfries. The accused was named Elizabeth Rule.

Evidence having been furnished against her, she was found guilty, and condemned to be burned on the check with a hot iron; which barbarous sentence was carried out with such merciless effect, that persons living in 1790 have been told by their parents, that the smoke caused by the torturing process was seen issuing out of the mouth of the unhappy woman. [Burnside's MS. History]


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