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Scottish 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 oppression—suppression and cruelty—days in which the strong bullied the weak—days 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 man—father, husband or brother— and if a woman failed in that, she was one of the world’s 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 neighbour’s 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 Knox’s 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 serpent’s 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 unfortunates—mostly destitute old women—was 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 burning.

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 devil’s mark on the witch’s body could be punctured without causing pain. "Prickers", or "witch-finders ", were appointed—all men, and to them were accorded municipal honours, and their fees were increased as their labour increased. The pricker’s 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 witch’s 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 minute’s 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 confession.

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 Satan’s 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 aloof—but 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 God’s 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 things—a 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 men’s 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 devil’s 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 nickname—as 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 coven—as he had a preference for young women—sat next the Evil One. One would repeat the following grace:

‘We eat this meat in the devil’s name
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 devotees sometimes.

"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 deer."

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 devil’s 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 Papley’s 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 hare’s likeness just now,
But I shall be in a woman’s 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 cause illnesses.

"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 cow’s milk. "We pull the tow (rope) and twine it and plait it the wrong way in the devil’s name, and we draw the tether, so made, in betwixt the cow’s hinder feet, and out betwixt the cow’s forward feet in the devil’s name; and thereby takes with us the cow’s 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 sea,
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 devil’s 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 devil’s 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 devil’s 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 Isabel’s 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 apprehended.

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 condemned.

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 Paisley—W. 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 Bargarran’s daughter, which is a great evidence of the Lord’s displeasure, being provoked by the sins of the land—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 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 Satan’s 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 irrevocably doomed.

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 green.

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. Chambers.]

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 nature—that 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 days—the 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 disease;
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 free,
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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