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Strange Tales from Scotland
Witches of Ayr


The witches were put to death because they practiced healing abilities. They maintained the early teachings of the Celtic Christain Church.

It is curious that amongst the witches of Ayr the name of Maggie Osborne does not occur, though local tradition has woven a story around it which enters confidently into the minutest details.*

Unfortunately the evidence for the odium in which witchcraft was held does not rest upon her case alone. A large number of witches are mentioned in the Session Records. They were invariably referred by the Session to the Presbytery and tried by the latter court. The Presbytery Records of the seventeenth century are so very defective that we have no account of the conduct of such a trial. But the Session books give us a few stray glimpses of the charges which were wont to be preferred.

*  "Where there is smoke there is fire," and no doubt there was a veritable Maggie Osborne who was put to death in Ayr. In 1653 the Kirk Session appointed A committee to enquire into several cases of witchcraft  and prepare evidence for the Presbytery. The names of the witches are not recorded, but very probably Maggie Osborne was one of them. It is commonly asserted that she was the last witch executed in Scotland, but this is not the case. The last was an old woman of Dornoch, who was burned in 1722.

The witch was generally a wise woman who professed to cure the sick by her charms. Three mothers were brought in 1618 before the Session and reprimanded for having "socht remeid by charming to yair bairns seik at the hands of Janet M'Alister, witche, quha a little afoir her execution be burning deponit and gaif up thir personis." Proceedings were taken in 1605 against Agnes Andro, who "for to get helth to a bairne causit tak the bairne about an aiken trie." Her spell evidently lay in carrying the child round an oak tree.

In 1630 two women acknowledged their sin in having been present " at a dog-hanging be way of witchcraft." In 1663 one woman declared that another " had come to her house on a thundery nyght and bad her renunce her baptisme but she confessed afterwards that she could not make good the charge. An official who played a prominent part at the Presbytery trials was the witch-finder. He or she knew the various marks which were to be found on the bodies of all witches. In 1644 the minister of Straiten asked the Presbytery if, "for trial of sundrie persones suspect of witchcraft in his parish," he might consult a young woman from Galloway "who took upon her the discoverie of witches throw the cuntrey." It is gratifying to find that the mind of the Presbytery was by, that time against the practice and the crave was refused. Witch-trials none the less went on for several years.

While the case was in process the accused party was excluded from the fellowship of the Church. Janet Craufurd and Elizabeth Wallace, for example, were "discharged the halye Comunioun in respect of sum spottes of charming lying upon thame unremuved." If ultimately the charge was proven, the sentence passed was invariably that of burning.

One shudders at the awful realism of such extracts as these from the Town's accounts. 1586 1n expenses sustenit in ye burning of ye witche of Barnweill in candills, her meit and drink pyk (pitch) barrels, colis, rosat (rosin), heddir (heather) treis and uthers necessaris 7 3s 8d." again in 1594 "For coles, cordis, tar-barrellis, and uther graith yat burnit Marioun Greiff, witche  4 4s."

If a witch anticipated the execution of her sentence by a natural death, her body was supposed to be still infected with infernal taints. In 1649 the Magistrates, " with advyse of Mr. William Adair, minister," ordained that the corpse of Janet Smelie, a witch who had died in the Tolbuith, "salbe drawin upoun ane slaid (sledge) to the gallowis foot and brunt in asches." It is with pain and shame that we turn away from these records of superstition and barbarity.

They lead us, however, to describe more particularly the different forms of punishment which were inflicted by the Session. These may be divided into two classes, spiritual and civil. The spiritual consisted of processes of admonition. Sometimes the rebuke was administered privately, i.e., before the Session. The culprit was called upon to give "evidence of repentance," and to submit to an examination upon " the grunds of religion." After the compilation of the Shorter Catechism, the questions commonly asked were: What is sin? What doth every sin deserve? What doth God require of us, that we   may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin? What is repentance unto life? What is  faith in Jesus Christ? Usually, however, the humiliation took place in Church.

Kindly contributed by Kelly d. Whittaker


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