Women in Bygone Days
Witchcraft and Witches
THE good old days! When were these?
The bad old days are what history discloses. Days of ignorance and
oppressionsuppression and crueltydays in which the strong bullied the
weakdays of religious tyranny and suffering for anyone who opposed the
established creed. Days of prolonged human suffering, when the rights of
the weaker were trampled under foot. Days when women were held in
subjection, when their only rights were to please some manfather, husband
or brother and if a woman failed in that, she was one of the worlds
failures, that unutterable thing, an old maid. Days when children were
repressed and held down, kept in their places to subjugate their will and
reason to the higher powers. Days when drink was a national curse, when
drunken men lay like logs under the table. Days when men fought on the
slightest provocation, believing that might was right. Days that tolerated
slavery. Days when men, but much more often women, were tortured, harried
and executed at the dictates of judges blinded by a fanaticism as cruel
and stupid as ever defaced the souls of men.
There are no stranger pages in
history than those which refer to witchcraft. Doubtless some of the
so-called witches were impostors, deluded persons, who pretended to have
intercourse with supernatural powers for their own ends, but the largest
number of them were unfortunate and miserable beings, driven by poverty
and want, by suspicion and persecution, by a desire of vengeance or a love
of power, or a curiosity after forbidden knowledge, to renounce their
baptismal vows and declare themselves as followers of the devil, and
elected by the same personage to his service.
Whether they were dupes, impostors,
or mentally afflicted beings, it is difficult to say. Hysterical diseases
are still unexplained and common. The belief in the supernatural still
exists; fortune-tellers, crystal-gazers, still ply their trade. Stories of
ghosts abound, spiritualistic mediums and second-sight are common; indeed,
all the elements of what was once witchcraft still flourish. From the
earliest days we hear of witchcraft. Scripture refers more than once to
the existence of witches, and most countries retained in their statutes
laws founded upon the text in Exodus, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to
live." The Romans laid down that no one should remove his neighbours
crops to another field by incantation, or carry away his corn. Later on
the exercise of magical and diabolical acts rendered the magicians
themselves liable to be burned alive, and those who consulted them to
crucifixion. Even the possession of any magical books was criminal. To
administer a love-potion, even though harmless, was punished by labour in
the mines, or by relegation and fine in cases of people of rank.
When Christianity was established
and the Church became a force it followed and amplified the Roman law. The
more serious forms of witchcraft were punished by burning, and the Church
from early days claimed jurisdiction over all such offences.
The earliest ecclesiastical decree
was that of Ancyra, 315 A.D., condemning soothsayers to five years
penance. In the fifteenth century was published the famous work,
Malleus Maleficorum, or Hexenhammer, the great textbook on
procedure in witch cases.
An alleged witch was to be conjured
by the tears of our Saviour and by our Lady and the Saints to weep, which
she could not do if she were guilty. The same authority tells us it is
more natural for women than men to be witches, on account of the inherent
wickedness of the female heart.
All through the middle ages we find
trials of witches, but it was in the seventeenth century that the
prosecutions waxed fast and furious.
In 1563 a law was passed, ratified
and confirmed, making it a capital offence to use witchcraft, sorcery or
necromancy, or to pretend to such knowledge, or to seek help from witches.
This law had been pressed for by Knox and his brethren. At first the
Church was reluctant, in spite of Knoxs wishes, to take part in its
administration. Towards the close of the year 1563, four women were
accused of witchcraft by the superintendent of Fife. This case came before
the General Assembly, which recommended that the Privy Council be
requested to take charge concerning it. But soon the dislike of the
Reformers to interfere in such matters passed away, and no sect was more
zealous or enthusiastic in the pursuit of witches and their punishment
than were the ministers of the Reformed Church.
The law was not repealed until 1736.
Little is heard of witchcraft in Scotland before the Reformation, when
Knox and Regent Murray suddenly became filled with the religious
significance of the words, "Thou shalt not let a witch live," and they
conceived it their duty to denounce and burn witches. To do Knox justice,
once he had conceived anything to be his duty, he was untiring and
relentless in its fulfilment.
The learned James VI. also had the
matter in hand; his learning and thirst for information had led him in
curious paths, and as a result of much reading, he published a book, a
treatise upon Witchcraft, called A Dialogue of Daemonologie. He
urges as a reason why women are more addicted to magic than men, that the
sex is frailer, and so more easily entrapped in these gross snares of the
devil, as was over well proved to be true by the serpents deceiving of
Eve at the beginning, "which makes him the homelier with that sex sinsyne."
James VI. had personal experience of
witches or "devilish dragons," as he called them. Their misdeeds had
caused him personal inconvenience. The poor King had fitted out a
sumptuous ship for the purpose of bringing his bride, Anne of Denmark, to
Scotland. No sooner were they started than his "Queen, our gracious lady,
was detained and stopped by the conspiracies of witches and such devilish
dragons," and, upon the accusation that they had attempted to raise
tempests to intercept her, several unfortunate persons were tried and
executed in the winter of 1591.
Women were the chief victims of the
new barbarity. Their fate was not long in doubt. Once the King and the
Church and the Reformers set themselves determinedly to discover witches,
they succeeded, and it is a curious fact that the greater the punishments,
the more revolting the methods employed, the greater their success in
unearthing culprits. Cruelty did not shock the populace of these days; for
a hundred and fifty years they were to watch unmoved, without pity or
remorse, the burning of witches. The male witch was known as a warlock.
Before the Reformation an occasional witch was brought to book; after the
Reformation, trials and executions became all too common: the Reformed
Church hated and feared witches. Poor wretches, by the pedantic curiosity
of James and his lavish advocacy of tortures, approved and strengthened by
the ministers, the fate of these unfortunatesmostly destitute old
womenwas sealed! Terrible deeds were done in the name of Christianity;
terrible sufferings were endured by the helpless witches, who often were
thankful to end their miseries by death. The punishment was generally
Trials were either
before the ordinary courts, or more frequently before special tribunals,
elected by the authority of commissions from time to time, issued by the
Privy Council, often on a petition from a Presbytery or General Assembly.
Boxes were placed in the churches to receive accusations. The wildest
evidence was received, once the witch was accused before the bar. Tortures
too revolting for words were used. Tortures, indeed, were usual, as it was
supposed that the devil protected his own people from torture.
A special form of iron collar and
gag, called the "witches bridle ", was in use, and other horrors too
numerous to mention.
It was alleged that the devils mark
on the witchs body could be punctured without causing pain. "Prickers",
or "witch-finders ", were appointedall men, and to them were accorded
municipal honours, and their fees were increased as their labour
increased. The prickers job was one of the most revolting possible.
First, the victims were stripped and bound with cords, and then the
pricker thrust his needles everywhere into their bodies. If one of the
unfortunate creatures fainted, restoratives were applied. When, exhausted
and numbed by misery, the witch remained silent, the pricker would
proclaim the joyful news that he had detected certain signs of guilt.
Every kind of cruelty was practised
to detect a witch; confession, if all else failed, was wrung out of them
by pure barbarity.
When physical torture failed to
produce a confession, torture of another kind was tried.
The parents and children of victims
were brought into the cells, and in their presence subjected to barbarous
cruelties. After each fresh application of torture, magistrates or
ministers were brought in to the cell to record such depositions as the
unfortunate person might have been forced into giving.
To attend a witchs trial was
apparently more important than to preach the Gospel. In the records of the
parish of Cortachy, in the county of Forfar, is an entry in the following
words :" No sermon at Cortachy this day, the minister being at Clova, at
the trial of a witch."
After sentence affirming guilt, and
ordering execution, had been pronounced, the victim was not allowed a
minutes rest. While the witch slept, Satan might fortify his follower to
further acts of sin; so they said; but the underlying motiye was to induce
Very often the prevention of sleep
induced delirium, and the mutterings of the patient were accepted as proof
of Satanic dedication. The watchers of the condemned were generally
appointed by the Ecclesiastical Court.
The mode of execution was revolting,
as were the trial and tortures. The victims were led to the stake amidst
the booings and cries of the rabble. The officiating clergy thanked heaven
for the immolation of the wretched beings, whom they believed Satans
servants, and who had thus renounced all claim to human sympathy. The
executions were invariably brutal.
After the law of 1563 was passed,
the Church for a short time held aloofbut not for long; once they
commenced, their zeal was boundless. King James stirred the whole country
to action, and where he led, the Church followed. The King was frequently
present at trials. In 1591 a well-connected woman had been up on a charge
of witchcraft and acquitted. This enraged the monarch and he went himself
to Falkiand to sit in person at the re-trial ordered. James made a great
oration. He said :" As I have thus begun, so purpose I to go forward, not
because I am James Stewart, and can command so many thousands of men, but
because God hath made me a king and judge, to judge righteous judgment.
For witchcraft, which is a thing grown very common among us, I know it to
be a most abominable sin; and I have occupied three quarters of a year for
the sifting out of them that are guilty therein. We are taught by the
laws, both of God and man, that this sin is most odious, and by Gods law
punishable by death . . . As for them," he concluded, "who think these
witchcrafts to be but fantasies, I remit them to be catechised and
instructed in these most evident points."
Encouraged by the leaders and
thinkers, no wonder the passion for witch-hunting grew. Superstition was
rife; it dominated all classes, rich and poor, learned and ignorant. It
penetrated into the daily life of the nation. Satan was supposed to be
ever active, exercising a malignant interest in all that was happening,
and constantly winning over the wicked, who sold themselves to him and
promised to serve and obey his behests. The witches, his servants, were
said to meet him regularly, and from him directly to receive their orders.
It was thought to be foolish to offend a witch, for, even if a witch did
no bodily harm, she could put the evil eye on other people; so they sought
to propitiate her by gifts, in order that misfortunes might be warded off.
Witches were responsible for a variety of thingsa sudden storm at sea, a
blight upon agriculture, the stoppage of a plough by unexpected boulders.
If an aged woman had acquired skill in curing diseases, either by the
application of medicines of which she had acquired the secret, or by
repeating spells or charms, which people believed in, she was accounted a
white witch; that is one who employed her skill for the benefit, not the
harm, of her fellow-creatures. Nevertheless she was a sorceress, and as
such liable to be brought to the stake. If her patient died she was
accused of having used sorcery to kill him; if he lived, she still had
used sorcery, so that in either case she was blamed. If she pled knowledge
of some old family concoction of herbs which she guaranteed had effected
the cure, she was laughed at: she had cured by mysterious and unlawful
means: she was a witch, and so must die. It was all one to be a witch or
to be counted one.
Witches shod with dead mens bones
which they transported to desert places, passed through the air on
broom-sticks. They stole children from the grave to secure their bones for
making ointments for enchantments. They cast the evil eye on animals. When
a dog or cat became thin, the evil was easily found: the animal had been
bewitched. If the cows did not yield a sufficiency of milk it was thanks
to the same cause. A witch could change herself or himself into any form;
the favourites were hares, cats and goats. A witch could change an object
into something pleasing or the reverse.
An experienced and artful witch was
a person of consequence who:
"Had much of glamour might;
Could make a lady seem a knight;
The cobwebs on a dungeon wall
Seem tapestry in lordly hall;
A nutshell seem a gilded barge.
A shieling seem a palace large;
And youth seem age, and age seem youth;
All was delusion, naught was truth."
The devils followers met their
master on Saturday; that day was known as the Witches Sabbath.
According to the confessions wrung
out of them by torture or fear of the same, the devil met them and
initiated them into the Society of Witches. They renounced baptism and
swore to follow their new master.
The confessions throw much curious
light on what people believed and upon their credulity. At Auldearn, in
Nairnshire, the notable witch case of Isobel Gowdie [Criminal Trials.
Pitcairn.] came before a tribunal. She was a married woman, who had
given herself over to the devil, and had been by him baptized in the
parish church. She became penitent and made a clean breast of her guilt.
She belonged to a witch company, consisting, as was customary, of thirteen
women like herself. They had frequent meetings with the devil. Each had a
nicknameas Pickle nearest the wind, Over the dike with it, Able and
Stout, and each had a spirit to attend her; they, too, had names, as, the
Red Riever, the Roaring Lion, and so on. The devil, she declared, was "a
very mickle, black, rough man."
At their "covens" or meetings, the
foul sisterhood were borne through the air; they would sit down to meat;
the maiden of the covenas he had a preference for young womensat next
the Evil One. One would repeat the following grace:
We eat this meat in the devils
With sorrow and sich (sighs) and mickle shame,
We shall destroy house and hold,
Both sheep and nowt into the fold;
Little good shall come to the fore
Of all the rest of the little store."
When the meal was concluded, they
looked at their host and said to him, "We thank thee, our lord, for this."
He could be very cruel to his
"He would be beating us all up and
down with cords and other sharp scourges, like naked ghosts, and we would
be crying : Pity, pity, mercy, mercy, our lord. But he would have
neither pity nor mercy. When angry he would girn at us like a dog, as if
he would swallow us up. Sometimes he would be like a stirk, a bull, or a
The coven were empowered to take the
shapes of hares, cats and crows. On assuming the first of these forms, it
was necessary to say:
"I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow, sich and mickle care;
And I shall go in the devils name,
Ay till I come home again."
"I was one morning," says Isobel,
"about the break of day, going to Auldearn in the shape of a hare, and
Patrick Papleys servants going to their labour, his hounds being with
them, ran after me. I ran very long, but was forced, being weary, at last
to take my own house. The door being left open, I ran in behind a chest,
and the hounds followed in, but they went to the other side of the chest,
and I was forced to run forth again and won into another house, and there
took leisure to say:
"Hare, hare, God send thee care!
I am in a hares likeness just now,
But I shall be in a womans likeness even now!
Hare, hare, God send thee care!"
"And so I returned to my own shape
again. The dogs," she added, "will sometimes get bites of us, but they
will not get us killed."
Isobel and her companions could
"He is lying in his bed, he is
lying, sick and sore,
Let him lie into his bed two months and three days more."
She told how they could take away
the cows milk. "We pull the tow (rope) and twine it and plait it the
wrong way in the devils name, and we draw the tether, so made, in betwixt
the cows hinder feet, and out betwixt the cows forward feet in the
devils name; and thereby takes with us the cows milk."
They had a charm to reduce the
strength of ale. They could impoverish the land by robbing the manure of
all its productive qualities. If they desired fish, they went to the shore
before the boats came home and said three times:
"The fishers are gone to the
And they will bring home fish to me,
They will bring them home into the boat,
But they shall get of them but the smaller sort."
They thus secured the fish.
They decided, for some unknown
reason, to destroy the male children of the Laird of Park, so they made a
small effigy of clay and, pulling down their hair over their eyes, they
knelt down before the Laird and said:
In the devils name
We pour this water among the meal (mould)
For lang dwining and ill heal,
We put it into the fire,
That it may be burned both stick and stour,
It shall be burnt with our will
As any stickle (stubble) upon a kiln."
"Then in the devils name," she
says, "we did put it in, in the midst of the fire. After it was red like a
coal, we took it out in the devils name. Till it be broken it will be the
death of all the male children that the Laird of Park will ever get. It
was roasted each
other day at the fire; sometimes one
part of it, sometimes another part of it, would be wet with water and then
roasted. The bairn would be burnt and roasted even as it was by us."
[These speeches of Isabels are slightly abbreviated.]
The full confession of Isobel Gowdie
and Janet Breadhead, Pitcairn, in his "Criminal Trials," gives as two of
the worst witch cases on record in Scotland. The poor creatures probably
mixed dreams with facts, and then, encouraged by the notoriety and talk of
witchcraft, desired to be in the fashion and accredited with strange
powers; hence the confessions.
In spite of the vigilance of the
Church, or perhaps in consequence of it, more and more witches were
By the year 1645 the parish of
Dunfermline had become so completely overcome by the agents of the devil
that it had to be divided into districts, and elders and others appointed
to keep watch and ward over them.
On the 22nd May, 1650, the Scottish
Parliament named a committee for inquiry into the depositions of no less
than fifty-four witches, with power to grant such commissions as were
necessary and to proceed with their trials, condemnation and execution.
Lady Pittardo, of Fife, a woman of
birth and position, was accused of witchcraft in 1649, and lay in the
filthy Tolbooth of Edinburgh from July to December, 1649, when she
apparently found means of poisoning herself and thus ending her miseries.
[Tales of a Grandfather.Sir Walter Scott.] A young lady in Paisley
was executed in 1697; some of her friends said she had not exerted herself
sufficiently to defend herself; her answer was short but to the point:
"They have taken away my character, and my life is not worth preserving."
Certainly, with the stigma of being a sorceress attached to it, it would
not have been a life worth living.
In 1599 ten women were tried by
commission at Dumfries on different charges of witchcraft. Nine were
James Reid was burned at Edinburgh
in 1603; he had learnt Satanic arts of healing, Satan coming to him in
"the likeness of a man, sometimes in the likeness of a horse."
Another poor woman, Isobel Grierson,
was burnt because she could change herself into a cat.
In Leith, on October 23rd, 1652, the
Commissioners for the administration of justice met. Two confessed witches
were brought before them, and were asked why they had confessed. They had
been hung up by the thumbs and whipped by two Highlanders; lighted candles
had been set to the soles of their feet and between their toes; finally,
lighted candles were thrust into their mouths. Out of six accused, four
died of torments.
In 1661 there was an order in
Parliament that Justices-depute should go once a week at least to
Musselburgh and Dalkeith to try persons accused of witchcraft.
Scarcely a county escaped. John Ray,
the naturalist, who visited Scotland in 1661, says that in the month of
August alone 120 women were burnt as witches.
There was a local witch-mania in
Inverkeithing, which only abated, according to tradition, when the wives
of the magistrates were accused.
Paisley had a series of witch-hunts
and witch-burnings. [History of PaisleyW. M. Metcalfe, D.D.] One
of the most extraordinary cases was that of the eleven-years-old daughter
of Mr. Shaw of Bargarran. This girl, Christine Shaw, was only eleven years
of age, when she quarrelled with her maid, Catherine Campbell. A few days
later the child was seized with convulsions. She declared she was
bewitched, and Mr. Turner, the minister of Erskine, at once interested
himself in the story, and on the 30th December, 1696, he laid the dreadful
story of the bewitching before the Presbytery. "Mr. Turner," so runs the
minute, "represented the deplorable case of Christine 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 at 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 by past she hath
disgorged a considerable quantity of hair, folded up straw, unclean hay,
wild fowl 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 of which she puts forth during the fore-mentioned fits,
and in the intervals of them is in perfect health, wherein she gives an
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 Katherine
Campbell, her cursing 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 proved ineffectual, either to better or worse, and that they
are ready to declare that they look upon the distemper as toto genere
preternatural, 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 thoroughly
alarmed, but were prepared to act firmly. They issued a manifesto:
"The Presbytery, considering the
great rage of Satan in this corner of the land and particularly in the
continued trouble of Bargarrans daughter, which is a great evidence of
the Lords displeasure, being provoked by the sins of the landto 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 Gods hand, and wrestle with God in prayer, that he may
restrain Satans rage, and relieve that poor afflicted damsel and that
family in their present distress, and that the Lord would break in upon
the hearts of these poor obdurate wretches 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 Satan, and that the Lord
would conduct and clear their way that are to be upon their trial, in
order to the giving of Satans kingdom an effectual stroke. Therefore the
Presbytery appoints Thursday come eight days to be religiously and
solemnly observed upon the accounts foresaid in all the congregations
within their bounds, and the same to be intimate the Sabbath preceding."
The day of humiliation duly took
place, but Catherine "still continued afflicted in the same strange
manner." Visiting her in her own room, the Sheriff made "precognitions"
whence the Privy Council issued a special commission. Among the
commissioners were the Lords Blantyre, Sir John Maxwell, and Sir John Shaw
of Greenock and many more gentlemen.
The sittings commenced in January
and the report made its appearance in March. Christine Shaw by this time,
carried away by the attention she was creating, had widened her
accusation. In addition to Catherine Campbell, she had now denounced
twenty-three persons of both sexes, including a boy of her own age.
The Commission reported to the Privy
Council, and they with several lawyers from Edinburgh were instructed to
judge and do justice.
The trial lasted many days; much
strange evidence was advanced; the members of the Presbytery were ever
ready with suggestions, or to ply the accused with questions. Some of the
accused were found to have on them "invisible marks ", so they were
The advocate for the prosecution, in
addressing the jury, declared that if they acquitted the prisoner, "they
would be accessory to all the blasphemies, apostasies, murders, and
seductions of which these enemies of heaven and earth should hereafter be
guilty." He admonished those willing to be guided. The jury had no
intention of incurring risks; they found seven of the accused, three men
and four women, guilty as labelled and they were condemned to the flames.
The Presbytery appointed two of its members to preach to them in the
Tolbooth on the day preceding their execution. During the last night the
whole of the Presbytery were ordered to spend some time with the
condemned, and on the day of execution they "did allot to each one or two
of the brethren one of the sentenced persons to be dealt with by them and
waited upon to the fire." One of the men died before the fatal day,
probably by his own hand, but the rest were duly executed on the Gallows
The horrible tales continue. In
1670, Jean Weir confessed to intercourse with evil spirits. The devil had
supplied her with her lint to her wheel, and when she lived at Dalkeith
she had had a familiar spirit who used to spin extraordinary quantities of
yarn for her in a shorter time than three or four women could have done
the same. She and her brother were apprehended; she desired the guards to
keep him from laying hold of a certain staff, which, she said, if he
chanced to get into his hands, he would certainly drive them out of doors,
notwithstanding all the resistance they could make. This marvellous staff
was all of one piece of thornwood, with a crooked head; she said he
received it of the devil and did many wonderful things with it.
In June, 1677, five or six women of
the west were burned at Dunbarton. [Domeslic Annals of Scotland.
The last person who was prosecuted
before the Lords of Justiciary for witchcraft was Elspeth Rule, " who was
tried before Lord Anstruther at the Dumfries circuit on 3rd May, 1709. No
special act of witchcraft was charged against her; the indictment was of a
general naturethat the person was by habit and repute a witch, and that
she had used threatening expressions against persons at enmity with her,
who were afterwards visited with the loss of cattle, or the death of
friends, one of whom ran mad. The jury, by a majority of voices, found
these articles proved, and the judge ordained the prisoner to be burned in
the cheek and to be banished Scotland for life."
More humane views prevailed in the
end of the seventeenth century, and capital prosecutions decreased. The
last instance of execution for witchcraft took place in Scotland in 1722
under a provincial judge, who was later censured by his superiors for the
proceeding. [Tales of a Grandfather. Sir Walttr Scott.] The victim
was a poor old woman bereft of her wits.
"So doited was she that when the
fire was lit which was to consume her, she approached it to warm her
wrinkled hands; as the flames leapt up she said it was a good blaze, and
so many neighbours gathered round it made the most cheerful sight she had
seen for many years!" Poor old woman!
The stories of witchcraft, and the
horrors appertaining to it, are a terrible blot upon our civilization.
Good old days, nay, terrible daysthe days of ignorance, superstition, and
cruelty. Conditions are not perfect to-day. Justice may seem long delayed,
but they are glorious days compared to the past. The best of the old days
were black compared to the worst of the present. The natural conscience,
strangled and kept down, is to-day awake; the universal element in the
soul of man is burning-dimly, yet burning.
"Ring out old shapes of foul
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant men and
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be."
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