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A History of the County of Renfrew from the Earliest Times
Chapter XX.—Witchcraft


An Act of Parliament was passed in the year 1563, in which the penalty of death was denounced against all who should “ take in hand in all time hereafter to use any manner of witchcraft, sorcery and necromancy.” The same year, four women were delated as witches by the Superintendent of Fife. Their cases came before the Assembly, when they were modestly disposed of by a resolution to the effect that the Privy Council be requested to take order concerning them. Six years later, a notable sorcerer, named Nic Neville, was condemned, and burnt to death at St. Andrews; and, on August 19 in the same year, William Stewart, Lyon King of Arms, was hanged in the same place “ for divers points of witchcraft and necromancy.” Still in the same year, according to the Diurnal of Occurrents, “ in my Lord Regent’s passing to the north, he causit burn certain witches in Sanctandrois, and in returning he causit burn ane other company of witches in Dundee.” After this, witchcraft grew apace, and the execution of witches increased.

In the shire of Renfrew, prosecutions for witchcraft were somewhat late in beginning. In the Presbytery of Kirkcaldy, processes against witches were set up as early as 1632. By the year 1645, the parish of Dunfermline was so completely overrun by these assumed agents of Satan, that it had to be divided into districts, and elders and others appointed to keep watch and ward over them.

In Renfrewshire, however, there were witches and cases of witchcraft before there were prosecutions. Of all the parishes in the shire, that of Inverkip seems to have been the first to obtain anything like notoriety. Early in the seventeenth century, “ Auld Dunrod,” who sold the barony of Dunrod in 1619 to Archibald Stewart of Blackhall, acquired a great reputation both in Renfrewshire and in the county of Lanark for the intercourse he was believed to have with the Evil One and his agents. His fame was celebrated in more than one ballad. In one of them it is said—

“In Auldkirk the witches ride thick,
And in Dunrod they dwell,
But the greatest loon amang them a’
Is auld Dunrod himsel’.”

In the extant Records of the Presbytery of Paisley, the first mention of witchcraft occurs in the libel laid against Mr. John Hamilton, the minister of Inverkip, on May 17, 1664, wherein he is accused of taking a bribe of fifty merks to secure against harm a woman who had been apprehended for the crime. Hamilton was deposed and the woman died in prison. The next reference to the subject does not occur in the Records till February 23, 1670, when the Presbytery resolved to consult the Synod as to “what course is fittingest to be taken with those who go under the name of witches.” Under date November 2, 1671, the following entry occurs: “Master William Cameron having given in a certain gross presumption of witchcraft against Janet Lyon, the presbyterie refers and recommends the business to the Sheriff or his Depute, and appoints Mr. William to give in the particulars of the presumption to him.”

By this time Greenock as well as Inverkip had become notorious for its witches. In March, 1672, the Presbytery again applied to the Synod for advice, and in the following May the brethren were directed to report all cases of presumption of witchcraft in their parishes to the Archbishop, in order that they might be brought by him before the Privy Council. At the next meeting of Presbytery, June 19, 1672, it was reported that Mr. William Cameron had given in “ some presumptions of witchcraft he had against two particular persons in Grinock to the Bishop.”

No other case is referred to in the Records until February 23, 1676, when Mr. Leslie, curate at Inverkip, delated one John Macgregor as a charmer in Greenock. The charge against Macgregor was that of restoring a young woman, named Agnes Christwell, suddenly to speech, “ whereof,” it is said, “ there is a famct clamosa in the country.” When summoned before the Presbytery, Macgregor denied that he had ever cured Agnes in any manner of way, and the case was remitted to the Session at Greenock to examine witnesses and to report. Subsequently, it appears to have been placed in the hands of Messrs. Leslie and Cameron, the ministers of Inverkip and Greenock. To these Macgregor admitted that he had hung a bead about the neck of “ Margaret Wilson ” at Inverkip when she was dumb, and that after leaving him she suddenly obtained the power of speech. He further admitted that he had taken money for this from the mother of Margaret Wilson. This was reported to the Presbytery by Mr. Leslie on February 7, 1677. Nothing more is heard of the case till the fifteenth of August following, when the Records bear : “ Mr. Cameron is appointed publickly from the pulpit to inhibit John Macgregor to practice any cures henceforth under the pain of holding him for a charmer and delating him to the Civill Magistrat as such. Likewise the people are to be discharged [prohibited] from seeking after the said John henceforth under pain of Church censure.”

On the whole, the curates in the shire appear to have been somewhat slack, as compared with their successors, in dealing with witchcraft and sorcery. Perhaps they were more anxious to repress conventicles and to win over the people from their Presbyterianism than to carry on a crusade against this peculiar form of superstition. It may be, too, that they were disposed to regard witches and charmers as charlatans, and preferred that they should be dealt with by the Civil Magistrate as impostors. At anyrate, their treatment of Macgregor, the Greenock charmer, seems to argue that they had more sense than to believe that witchcraft and sorcery were anything more than delusions. Credit is at least due to them for not sending him to the fire or the gibbet.

When Presbyterianism once more became triumphant in the country, witches began to multiply with amazing rapidity. In the shire of Renfrew nothing is heard of them until after the appointment of Mr. Thomas Blackwell to the ministry of Paisley, to which he was inducted, after considerable delay, on August 18, 1694. Mr. Blackwell was regarded as an able man, and had a great reputation for learning. In the shire of Renfrew he gained a reputation less creditable. Here he distinguished himself as a great witch finder. It was during his incumbency of Paisley, and chiefly through his influence, that Renfrewshire acquired an unenviable notoriety for its witches.

One of the earliest cases the Presbytery took in hand, after most of the vacant livings in the shire had been filled up, was that against a charmer named Dougal at Inverkip, who, among other things, “taught John Hunter how to make his neighbour’s corn go back by sowing sour milk among it at Beltane.” For curing convulsion fits he was reported to have given the following recipe : “ Take pairings from the nails of the person subject to the fits, some hairs from his eyebrows and others from the crown of his head; wrap them up in a clout with a halfpenny, and then deposit the parcel in a certain place ; when found the fits will at once leave the sufferer and be transferred to the finder of the parcel.” For the curing of John Hunter’s beast of the “ sturdy,” so the indictment runs, he had taught Hunter to cut off a stirk’s head, to boil it, burn the bones to ashes, and then bury the ashes, which, he said, would prove an infallible cure to the beast. He also offered “for a 14 1,1 to teach a man how to get a part of his neighbour’s fishing and his own too. With this impostor the Presbytery dealt summarily and wisely. He was rebuked before the congregation of his parish, and forbidden to practise his arts under pain of being sent to the Sheriff. This was on November 12, 1695.

Three months later, two cases were reported which appeared to the Presbytery to be of a much more serious character, and filled them with alarm. On February 5, 1696, Mr. Brisbane, the minister at Kilmacolm, reported that several individuals had been accused of witchcraft before his Kirk Session by a confessant or confessing witch, and that upon the person of one of them “ an insensible mark,” supposed to be a sure sign of intimacy with the evil one, had been found. At the same time, Mr. Turner, minister at Inchinnan, reported that “a woman of bad fame” in his parish had used threatening language towards her son, and thereafter the house had fallen upon him and killed him. Messrs. Brisbane and Turner were thereupon directed to take precognitions of the three “ malifices ” in their respective parishes, with a view to an application being made to the Sheriff. When the Presbytery met thirteen days later, Mr. Brisbane reported that, when examined, several witnesses had declared that a certain Janet Wodrow’s “ threats had been followed by injurious effects, and that Janet was now in Greenock, having been arrested there as a fugitive from the Session.”

At this meeting of the Presbytery serious developments were expected, and the Sheriff-Depute had been asked to attend. The cases were laid before him, and the Presbytery, led by Mr. Blackwell, “ did earnestly desire that he would take Janet into custody, and apply to the Lords of the Privy Council for a commission to put her and others suspected in the bounds for trial.” The Sheriff-Depute, who appears to have been no wiser than the ministers, promised to commit her, but suggested that the Presbytery should make a joint application with him for the appointment of a commission. Accordingly, Mr. Thomas Blackwell and Mr. David Brown, the minister at Neilston, were despatched to Edinburgh, where they appear to have had no difficulty in getting a commission appointed. But when the commissioners’ instructions came to be read, on April 29, they were found to apply only to the case of Janet Wodrow, who, in the meantime, had become a confessant and had accused others. The case against Jean Fulton, the “woman of bad fame” in Inchinnan, had also been enquired into, and was now fully matured. The instructions of the commissioners, therefore, required to be enlarged, so as to enable them to deal with her case and with those of others in Kilmacolm, Inverkip, and Inchinnan, who were now under suspicion. For this practically new commission, Messrs. Turner and Brisbane were sent to Edinburgh, and, on May 13, it was reported to the Presbytery that they had “ obtained, extracted, and brought west ane ample commission to the Sheriff-Depute and several gentlemen within the bounds for putting all delated for or suspected of witchcraft to a tryal.”

The brethren now prepared themselves to wrestle strenuously with the wicked one and his agents. But when an attempt was made to secure a quorum of the commissioners to preside at the trial, a number of them refused to act. This necessitated another journey to Edinburgh for the purpose of getting fresh commissioners appointed in their place. At last the appointments were made and a quorum was prepared to sit. In the meantime, however, things had gone from bad to worse. To the alarm of the Presbytery, a fresh outbreak of satanic agency had occurred more terrible than the one they were preparing to deal with.

At its meeting on December 30, 1696, Mr. Turner, the minister at Erskine, unfolded before the Presbytery the dreadful story of the bewitching of Christian Shaw, daughter of the laird of Bargarran. “ Mr. Turner,” so runs the minute, “ represented the deplorable case of Christian Shaw, daughter of the laird of Bargarran, in the parish of Erskine, who, since the beginning of September last, hath been under a sore and unnatural-like distemper, frequently seized with strange fits, sometimes blind, sometimes deaf and dumb, the several parts of her body violently extended, and other times violently contracted, and ordinarily much tormented in various parts of her body, which is attended with an unaccountable palpitation in those parts that are pained, and that, these several weeks bypast, she hath disgorged a considerable quantity of hair, folded up straw, unclean hay, wild foule feathers, with divers kinds of bones of fowls and others, together with a number of coal cinders, burning hot candle grease, gravel stones, etc., all which she puts forth during the forementioned fits, and in the intervals of these is in perfect health, wherein she gives ane account of several persons, both men and women, that appear to her in her fits, tormenting her, all which began upon the back of one Catherine Campbell her crossing her. And though her father hath called physicians of the best note to her during her trouble, yet their application of medicine to her hath proven ineffectual, either to better or worse, and that they are ready to declare that they look upon the distemper as toto genere preter-natural, all which is attested by the ministers who have visited her in her trouble, upon all which Mr. Turner desired that the Presbytery would do what they judged convenient in such a juncture.”

The Presbytery were now more than ever alarmed. They appointed “the exercising of fasting and prayer to be continued as it is already set up by Mr. Turner in that family [the Bargarran] every Tuesday.” Two of their number were appointed to repair to Bargarran and there draw up a narrative of all the circumstances of the case ; and two others were despatched to Edinburgh, to lay the whole matter before the Privy Council and to obtain a commission for the trial of all who were suspected to be the tormentors of Christian Shaw. On their way to Edinburgh, the two ministers were

instructed to call upon Dr. Brisbane, and “ to entreat him to give a declaration of his sentiments of the foresaid trouble.” There is a brief record of Dr. Brisbane’s “ sentiments,” but nothing to show what the brethren said to him. A commission was granted by the Privy Council to Lord Blantyre and others to take precognitions of the diabolical manifestations. Messrs. Symson, Turner, and Blackwell were appointed by the Presbytery to wait upon the Commissioners at their meeting at Renfrew on February 5, and a day of public fasting and humiliation was appointed to be held throughout the parish of Erskine, Messrs. Hutcheson and Symson being directed to assist the minister of the parish in holding the services.

The Commissioners lost no time in setting to work. Between the 5th and 17th of February they apprehended James and Thomas Lindsay and Elizabeth Anderson, whom Christian Shaw had denounced as her tormentors, and these having accused others, they also were apprehended. On February 18, the Presbytery, who had already held a meeting on the 17th, met at Renfrew, when they waited upon the Commissioners, and “ finding that Bargarran was desired by the Commissioners to go in [to Edinburgh] with their report, which was to be put into the hands of Sir John Maxwell, to present to the Council, did think that one of our number should go in company with Bargarran, and accordingly did appoint Mr. Thomas Blackwell, and failing him, Mr. Robert Taylor, to go to Edinburgh, and to represent to the said Sir John Maxwell, and, with his concurrence, to His Majesty’s Advocate and other Lords of His Majesty’s Privy Council, the lamentable condition of this part of the country upon account of the great number that are delated by some that have confessed, and of the many murders and other maleficies that in all probability are perpetrated by them, and to entreat their compassion in granting a commission for putting these persons to trial, and for bringing the same to an effectual and speedy issue, and that they would order some way for maintaining those of them that have nothing of their own till the trial be complete, or so long as they should be detained in prison.” As for the three confessants, the two Lindsays and Elizabeth Anderson, at the desire of the Commissioners, they were distributed in the houses of the ministers of the Presbytery, who were instructed to deal with their consciences as opportunity offered.

In due time the Judges, who had been appointed with full powers, arrived, and a certain number of the Presbyters, who had been appointed by their brethren “ to wait upon their Lordships,” issued the following manifesto to all within the bounds of the Presbytery :—

“ The Presbytery, considering the great rage of Satan in this corner of the land, and particularly in the continued trouble of Bargarran’s daughter, which is a great evidence of the Lord’s displeasure, being provoked by the sins of the land (exprest as the causes of our former public fasts) so to let Satan loose amongst us. Therefore the Presbytery judge it very necessary to set apart a day of solemn humiliation and fasting, that we may humble ourselves under God’s hand, and wrestle with God in prayer, that he may restrain Satan’s rage, and relieve that poor afflicted damsel and that family from their present distress, and that the Lord would break in upon the hearts of these poor obdured that are indicted for witchcraft, that they may freely confess to the glory of God and the rescuing of their own souls out of the hands of Satau, and that the Lord would conduct and clear their way that are to be upon their trial, in order to the giving of Satan’s kingdom an effectual stroke. Therefore the Presbytery appoints Thursday come eight days to be religiously and solemnly observed upon the account foresaid in all the congregations within their bounds, and the same to be intimate the Sabbath preceding.”

Mr. Blackwell, who, as might be expected, took a particular interest in this case, intimated the fast from the pulpit of the Abbey Church in Paisley, according to the above injunction, and added some words of his own. These were considered of such importance that they were printed and published, and have thus been preserved. Evidently Mr. Blackwell was possessed by the idea that a great and critical struggle was going on between the Church and the devil. “ My friends,” he said, “ we have been preaching of Christ to you ; we are now going to speak of the devil to you—the greatest enemy that our Lord and His kingdom hath in the world. The thing I am about to intimate to you is this—the members of the Presbytery having taken into consideration how much Satan doth rage in these bounds, and, which indeed is lamentable, in our bounds, and in ours only, they have thought fit to appoint a day of fasting and humiliation, that so He who is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah may appear with power against him who is come out in great wrath. 0, that it may be because his time is short! ” He then went on to “ hint a few things ” as the causes of the fast, and ended with the startling suggestion—“ Who knows but in this congregation there be many who have these years hence been under vows to Satan . . . so it is the ministers’ and the people of God’s duty and interest not only to pray that God would find out the guilty among these that are apprehended, but also that God would discover others that are guilty and who are not apprehended, that the kingdom of Christ may run and be glorified, and the kingdom of Satan destroyed.” What effect these words had upon the congregation, is not told. Doubtless many were startled, if not alarmed and filled with fear that the hand of the officer might next be laid upon them.

Mr. Hutcheson was appointed to preach before the Judges, and chose for his text the ominous words : “ Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” With these words ringing in their ears, the Judges proceeded to their wrork. The trial lasted many days, much strange evidence was given, and the ministers were always at hand, ready with their suggestions, and equally ready to converse with the accused. These, when it was found that they had on them the “ insensible marks,” had no chance of an acquittal. The advocate for the prosecution declared to the jury that, if they acquitted the prisoners, “ they would be accessory to all the blasphemies, apostasies, murders, listures, and seductions whereof these enemies of heaven and earth should hereafter be guilty.” The jurors had no intention of running any such risk. They found seven of the accused—three men and four women—guilty as libelled, who were at once condemned to the flames.

After this pitiless sentence was pronounced, the Presbytery appointed two of their number to preach to the condemned prisoners in the Tolbooth. During the night before the execution, all the members of the Presbytery were instructed to spend some time in the prison with the condemned. On the morrow, each of the persons sentenced was assigned to one or two of the ministers, by whom they were to be dealt with, and then “waited on to the fire.” Before the day fixed for the execution, June 9, 1697, arrived, one of the men died in the prison of Renfrew, probably by his own hand, and thus deprived the one or two of the ministers who had been allotted to him by the Presbytery, of the privilege of “ waiting on him to the fire.” The rest were duly executed on the Gallow Green in Paisley. They were first hanged, and then burnt. They were the victims of one of the most horrible superstitions that ever darkened the human mind.

On June 22, 1698, Mr. Brisbane, who had so successfully dealt with the “diabolical” vagaries of his parishioner, Janet Wodrow, intimated that he had discovered a fresh case of the power of Satan in the person of Margaret Laird, who belonged to bis own parish of Kilmacolm. Then ensued the usual fasts and prayers, consultations with the Privy Council, letters to the King’s advocate, delations, and imprisonments, in all of which Mr. Thomas Blackwell took a prominent part; but, before anything effectual could be done, Mr. Blackwell was translated to Aberdeen, where he subsequently became a Professor in the University. His departure wears much the appearance of being the signal for the withdrawal of the forces of Satan from within the county. For, strange to say, shortly after he had gone, the Satanic manifestations against which he had fought so valiantly, began to cease, and the prosecution of witches and the search for them came to an end.


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