|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
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
Kindly contributed by Kelly d. Whittaker
MacLeod's History of
By Malcolm MacLeod D.D. (1793) (pdf)
A History of
the Witches of Renfrewshire
A New Edition with an Introduction embodying extracts hitherto unpublished
from the records of the Presbytery of Paisley. (1877) (pdf)