Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 47

We will now take a general glance of Scotland, reduced as the country was to temporary submission under Cromwell, whose power there and elsewhere was founded upon military usurpation only. He built strong citadels at Leith, Ayr, Inverness, and Glasgow. Eighteen garrisons were maintained throughout the kingdom, and a standing army of ten thousand men kept the country in subjection. Monk, so often mentioned, commanded this army, and was, besides, member of a Council of State, to whom the executive government was committed. Lord Broghill was President of this body, and out of nine members, two only, Swinton and Lockhart, were natives of Scotland.

To regulate the administration of public justice, four English, and three Scottish judges, were appointed to hear causes, and to make circuits for that purpose. The English judges, it may be supposed, were indifferently versed in the law of Scotland; but they distributed justice with an impartiality to which the Scottish nation had been entirely a stranger, and which ceased to be experienced from the native judges after the Restoration. The peculiar rectitude of the men employed by Cromwell being pointed out to a learned judges, in the beginning of the next century, his lordship composedly answered, “Devil thank them for their impartiality! a pack of kinless loons — for my part, I can never see cousin or friend in the wrong.”

This shameful partiality in the Scottish courts of justice revived, as just noticed, with the Restoration, when the Judges were to be gained, not only by the solicitation of private friends, and by the influence of kinsfolk, but by the interference of persons in power, and the application of downright bribery.

In point of taxation, Oliver Cromwell’s Scottish government was intolerably oppressive, since he appears to have screwed out of that miserable country an assessment of 10,000 peer month, which, even when gradually diminished to 72,000 yearly, was paid with the utmost difficulty. Some alleviation was indeed introduced by the circulation of the money with which England paid her soldiers and civil establishment, which was at one time calculated at half a million yearly, and was never beneath the moiety of that sum.

With regard to the Presbyterian Church, Cromwell prudently foresaw, that the importance of the preachers would gradually diminish if they were permitted to abuse each other, but prevented from stirring up their congregations to arms. They continued to be rent asunder by the recent discord, which had followed upon the King’s death. The majority were Resolutionists, who owned the King’s title, and would not be prohibited from praying for him at any risk. The Remonstrants, who had never been able to see any sufficient reason for embracing the cause, or acknowledging the right, of Charles the Second, yielded obedience to the English government, and disowned all notice of the King in their public devotions. The Independents treated both with contemptuous indifference, and only imposed on them the necessity of observing toleration towards each other.

But though divided into different classes, Presbyterianism continued on the whole predominant. The temper of the Scottish nation seemed altogether indisposed to receive any of the various sects which had proved so prolific in England. The quiet and harmless Quakers were the only sectaries who gained some proselytes of distinction. Independents of other denominations made small progress, owing to the vigilance with which the Presbyterian clergy maintained the unity of the Church.

Even Cromwell was compelled to show deference to the prevailing opinions in favour of Presbytery in Scotland, though contrary to his principles as an Independent. He named a commission of about thirty ministers from the class of Remonstrators, and declared that, without certificates from three or four of these select person, no minister, though he might be called to a church, should enjoy a stipend. This put the keys of the Church (so far as emolument was concerned) entirely into the hands of the Presbyterians; and it many be presumed, that such of the Commissioners as acted (for many declined the office, thinking the duties of the Ecclesiastical Commission too much resembled to domination of Episcopacy) took care to admit no minister whose opinions did not coincide with their own. The sectaries who were concerned in civil affairs were also thwarted and contemned; and on the whole, in spite of the victories of the Independents in the field, their doctrines made little progress in Scotland.

During the four years which ensued betwixt the final cessation of the Civil War, by the dispersion of the royalist army, and the Restoration of Monarchy, there occurred no public event worthy of notice. The spirit of the country was depressed and broken. The nobles, who hitherto had yielded but imperfect obedience to their native monarchs, were now compelled to crouch under the rod of an English usurper. Most of them retired to their country seats, or castles, and lived in obscurity, enjoying such limited dominion over their vassals as the neighbourhood of the English garrisons permitted them to retain. These, of course, precluded all calling of the people at arms, and exercise of the privilege, on the part of the barons, of making open war on each other.

Thus far the subjection of the country was of advantage to the tenantry and lower classes, who enjoyed more peace and tranquillity during this period of national subjugation, than had been their lot during the civil wars. But the weight of oppressive taxes, collected by means of a foreign soldiery, and the general sense of degradation, arising from the rule of a foreign power, counterbalanced for the time the diminution of feudal oppression.

In the absence of other matter, I may here mention a subject which is interesting, as peculiarly characteristic of the manners of Scotland. I mean the frequent recurrence of prosecutions for witchcraft, which distinguishes this period.

Scripture refers more than once to the existence of witches; and though divines have doubted concerning their nature and character, yet most European nations have, during the darker periods of their history, retained in their statutes laws founded upon the text of Exodus, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” The Reformers, although rejecting the miracles of the Catholic Church, retained with tenacity the belief of the existence of such sorceresses, and zealously enforced the penalties against all unfortunate creatures whom they believed to fall under the description of witches, wizards, or the like. The increase of general information and common sense, has, at a later period, occasioned the annulling of those cruel laws in most countries of Europe. It has been judiciously thought, that, since the Almighty has ceased to manifest his own power, by direct and miraculous suspension of the ordinary laws of nature, it is inconsistent to suppose that evil spirits should be left at liberty in the present day to form a league with wretched mortals, and impart to them supernatural powers of injuring or tormenting others. And the truth of this reasoning has been proved by the general fact, that where the laws against witchcraft have been abolished, witches are rarely heard of, or thought of, even amongst the lowest vulgar.

But in the seventeenth century, the belief in this imaginary crime was general, and the prosecutions, especially in Scotland, were very frequent. James VI, who often turned the learning he had acquired to a very idle use, was at the trouble to write a treatise against witchcraft, as he composed another against smoking tobacco; and the Presbyterian clergy, however little apt to coincide with that Monarch’s sentiments, gave full acceptation to his opinion on the first point of doctrine, and very many persons were put to death as guilty of this imaginary crime.

I must, however, observe, that some of those executed for witchcraft well deserved their fate. Impostors of both sexes were found, who deluded credulous persons, by pretending an intercourse with supernatural powers, and furnished whose who consulted them with potions, for the purpose of revenging themselves on their enemies, which were in fact poisonous compounds, sure to prove fatal to those who partook of them.

Among many other instances, I may mention that of a lady of high rank, the second wife of a northern earl, who, being desirous of destroying her husband’s eldest son by the former marriage, in order that her own son might succeed to the father’s title and estate, procured drugs to effect her purpose from a Highland woman, who pretended to be a witch or sorceress. The fatal ingredients were mixed with ale, and set aside by the wicked countess, to be given to her victim on the first fitting opportunity. But Heaven disappointed her purpose, and, at the same time, inflicted on her a dreadful punishment. Her own son, for whose advantage she meditated this horrible crime, returning fatigued and thirsty from hunting, lighted by chance on this fatal cup of liquor, drank it without hesitation, and died in consequence. The wretched mixer of the poison was tried and executed; but, although no one could be sorry that the agent in such a deed was brought to punishment, it is clear she deserved death, not as a witch, but as one who was an accomplice in murder by poison.

But most of the poor creatures who suffered death for witchcraft were aged persons, usually unprotected females, living alone, in a poor and miserable condition, and disposed, from the peevishness of age and infirmity, to rail against or desire evil, in their froward humour, to neighbours by whom they were abused or slighted. When such unhappy persons had unwittingly given vent to impotent anger in bad wishes or imprecations, if a child fell sick, a horse became lame, a bullock died, or any other misfortune chanced in the family against which the ill-will had been expressed, it subjected the utterer instantly to the charge of witchcraft, and was received by judges and jury as a strong proof of guilt. If, in addition to this, the miserable creature had, by the oddity of her manners, the crossness of her temper, the habit of speaking to herself, or any other signs of the dotage which attends comfortless old age and poverty, attracted the suspicions of her credulous neighbours, she was then said to have been held and reputed a witch, and was rarely permitted to escape being burnt to death at the stake.

It was equally fatal for an aged person of the lower ranks, if, as was frequently the case, she conceived herself to possess by peculiar receipt or charm for curing diseases, either by the application of medicines, of which she had acquired the secret, or by repeating words, or using spells and charms, which the superstition of the time supposed to have the power of relieving maladies that were beyond the skill of medical practitioners.

Such a person was accounted a while witch; one, that is, who employed her skill for the benefit, not the harm, of her fellow-creatures. But still she was a sorceress, and, as such, was liable to be brought to the stake. A doctress of this kind was equally exposed to a like charge, whether he patient died or recovered; and she was, according to circumstances, condemned for using sorcery whether to cure or to kill. Her allegation that she had received the secret from family tradition, or from any other source, was not admitted as a defence; and she was doomed to death with as little hesitation for having attempted to cure by mysterious and unlawful means, as if she had been charged, as in the instance already given, with having assisted to commit murder.

The following example of such a case is worthy of notice. It rests on tradition, but is very likely to be true. An eminent English judge was traveling the circuit, when an old woman was brought before him for using a spell to cure dimness of sight, by hanging a clew of yarn round the neck of the patient. Marvellous things were told by the witnesses, of the cures which this spell had performed on patients for beyond the reach of ordinary medicine. The poor woman made no other defence than by protesting, that if there was any witchcraft in the ball of yarn, she knew nothing of it. It had been given her, she said, thirty years before, by a young Oxford student, for the cure of one of her own family, who having used it with advantage for a disorder in her eyes, she had seen no harm in lending it for the relief of others who laboured under similar infirmity, or in accepting a small gratuity for doing so. Her defence was little attended to by the jury; but the judge was much agitated. He asked the woman where she resided when she obtained possession of this valuable relic. She gave the name of a village, in which she had in former times kept a petty alehouse. He then looked at the clew very earnestly, and at length addressed the jury. “Gentlemen,” he said, “we are on the point of committing a great injustice to this poor old woman; and to prevent it, I must publicly confess a piece of early folly, which does me no honour. At the time this poor creature speaks of, I was at college, leading an idle and careless life, which, had I not been given grace to correct it, must have made it highly improbable that ever I should have attained my present situation. I chanced to remain for a day and night in this woman’s alehouse, without having money to discharge my reckoning. Not knowing what to do, and seeing her much occupied with a child who had weak eyes, I had the meanness to pretend that I could write out a spell that would mend her daughter’s sight, if she would accept it instead of her bill. The ignorant woman readily agreed; and I scrawled some figures on a piece of parchment, and added two lines of nonsensical doggerel, in ridicule of her credulity, and caused her to make it up in that clew which has so nearly cost her her life. To prove the truth of this, let the yearn be unwound, and you may judge of the efficacy of the spell.” The clew was unwound accordingly; and the following pithy couplet was found on the enclosed bit of parchment —

“The devil scratch out both thine eyes,

And spit into the holes likewise.”

It was evident that those who were cured by such a spell, must have been indebted to nature, with some assistance, perhaps, from imagination. But the users of such charms were not always so lucky as to light upon the person who drew them up; and doubtless many innocent and unfortunate creatures were executed, as the poor alewife would have been, had she not lighted upon her former customer in the unexpected character of her judge.

Another old woman is said to have cured many cattle of the murrain, by a repetition of a certain verse. The fee which she required, was a loaf of bread and a silver penny; and when she was commanded to reveal the magical verses which wrought such wonders, they were found to be the following jest on the credulity of her customers:—

“My leaf in may lap, and my penny in my purse,

Thou art never the better, and I never the worse.”

It was not medicine only which witchery was supposed to mingle with; but any remarkable degree of dexterity in an art of craft, whether attained by skill or industry, subjected those who possessed it to similar suspicion. Thus it was a dangerous thing to possess more thriving cows than those of the neighbourhood, though their superiority was attained merely by paying greater attention to feeing and cleaning the animals. It was often an article of suspicion, that a woman had spun considerably more thread than her less laborious neighbours chose to think could be accomplished by ordinary industry; and, to crown these absurdities, a yeoman of the town of Malling, in Kent, was accused before a justice of peace as a sorcerer, because he used more frequently than his companions to hit the mark which he aimed at. This dexterity, and some idle story of the archer’s amusing himself with letting a fly hum and buzz around him, convinced the judge, that the poor man’s skill in his art was owing to the assistance of some imp of Satan. So he punished the marksman severely, to the great encouragement of archery, and as a wise example to all justices of the peace.

Other charges, the most ridiculous and improbable, were brought against those suspected of witchcraft. They were supposed to have power, by going through some absurd and impious ceremony, to summon to their presence the Author of Evil, who appeared in some mean or absurd shape, and, in return for the invokers renouncing their redemption, gave them the power of avenging themselves on their enemies; which privilege, with that of injuring and teazing their fellow-creatures, was almost all they gained from their new master. Sometimes, indeed, they were said to obtain from him the power of flying through the air on broom sticks, when the Foul Fiend gave public parties; and the accounts given of the ceremonies practised on such occasions are equally disgusting and vulgar, totally foreign to any idea we can have of a spiritual nature, and only fit to be invented and believed by the most ignorant and brutal of the human species.

Another of these absurdities was, the belief that the evil spirits would attend if they were invoked with certain profane and blasphemous ceremonies, such as reading the Lord’s Prayer backwards, or the like; and would then tell the future fortunes of those who had raised them, as it was called, or inform them what was become of articles which had been lost or stolen. Stories are told of such exploits by grave authors, which are to the full as ridiculous, and indeed more so, than any thing that is to be found in fairy tales, invented for the amusement of children. And for all this incredible nonsense, unfortunate creatures were imprisoned, tortured, and finally burnt alive, by the sentence of their judges.

It is strange to find, that the persons accused of this imaginary crime in most cases paved the way for their own condemnation, by confessing and admitting the truth of all the monstrous absurdities which were charged against them by their accusers. This may surprise you; but yet it can be accounted for.

Many of these poor creatures were crazy, and infirm in mind as well as body; and, hearing themselves charged with such monstrous enormities by those whom they accounted wise and learned, became half persuaded of their own guilt, and assented to all the nonsensical questions which were put to them. But this was not all. Very many made these confessions under the influence of torture, which was applied to them with cruel severity.

It is true, the ordinary courts of justice in Scotland had not the power of examining criminals under torture, a privilege which was reserved for the Privy Council. But this was a slight protection; for witches were seldom tried before the ordinary Criminal Courts, because the Judges and lawyers, though they could not deny the existence of a crime for which the law had assigned a punishment, yet showed a degree of incredulity respecting witchcraft, which was supposed frequently to lead to the escape of those accused of this unpopular crime, when in the management of professional persons. To avoid the ordinary jurisdiction of the Justiciary, and other regular criminal jurisdictions, the trial of witchcraft in the provinces was usually brought before commissioners appointed by the Privy Council. These commissioners were commonly country-gentlemen and clergymen, who, from ignorance on the one side, misdirected learning on the other, and bigotry on both, were as eager in the prosecution as the vulgar could desire. By their commission they had the power of torture, and employed it unscrupulously, usually calling in to their assistance a witch-finder; a fellow, that is, who made money by pretending to have peculiar art and excellence in discovering these offenders, and who sometimes undertook to rid a parish or township of witches at so much a-head, as if they had been foxes, wild-cats, or other vermin. These detestable impostors directed the process of the torture, which frequently consisted in keeping the aged and weary beings from sleep, and compelling them to walk up and down their prison, whenever they began to close their eyes, and in running needles into their flesh, under pretence of discovering a mark, which the witch-finders affirmed the devil had impressed on their skin, in token that they were his property and subjects. It is no wonder that wretched creatures, driven mad by pain, and want of sleep, confessed any thing whatever to obtain a moment’s relief, though they were afterwards to die for it.

But besides the imbecility of such victims, and the torture to which they were subjected, shame and weariness of life often caused their pleading guilty to accusations in themselves absurd and impossible. You must consider, that the persons accused of witchcraft were almost always held guilty by the public and by their neighbours, and that if the court scrupled to condemn them, it was a common thing for the mob to take the execution into their own hands, and duck the unhappy witches to death, or otherwise destroy them. The fear of such a fate might determine many of the accused, even though they were in their sound mind, and unconstrained by bodily torture, to plead guilty at once, and rather lose their wretched life by the sentence of the law, than expose themselves to the fury of the prejudiced multitude. A singular story is told to this effect.

An old woman and her daughter were tried as witches at Haddington. The principal evidence of the crime was, that though miserably poor, the two females had contrived to look “fresh and fair,” during the progress of a terrible famine, which reduced even the better classes to straits, and brought all indigent people to the point of starving; while, during the universal distress, these two women lived on in their usually way, and never either begged for assistance, or seemed to suffer by the general calamity. The jury were perfectly satisfied that this could not take place by any natural means; and, as the accused persons, on undergoing the discipline of one Kincaid, a witch-finder, readily admitted all that was asked about their intercourse with the devil, the jury, on their confession, brought them in guilty of witchcraft without hesitation.

The King’s Advocate for the time (I believe Sir George Mackenzie is named) was sceptical on the subject of witchcraft. He visited the women in private, and urged them to tell the real truth. They continued at first to maintain the story they had given in their confession. But the Advocate, perceiving them to be women of more sense than ordinary, urged upon them the crime of being accessary to their own death, by persisting in accusing themselves of impossibilities, and promised them life and protection, providing they would unfold the true secret which they used for their subsistence. The poor women looked wistfully on each other, like people that were in perplexity. At length, the mother said, “You are very good, my lord, and I dare say your power is very great, but you cannot be of use to my daughter and me. If you were to set us at liberty from the bar, you could not free us from the suspicion of being witches. As soon as we return to our hut, we shall be welcomed by the violence and abuse of all our neighbours, who, if they do not beat our brains out, or drown us on the spot, will retain hatred and malice against us, which will be shown on every occasion, and make our life so miserable, that we have made up our minds to prefer death at once.”

“Do not be afraid of your neighbours,” said the Advocate. “If you will trust your secret with me, I will take care of you for the rest of your lives, and send you to an estate of mine in the north, where nobody can know any thing of your history, and where, indeed, the people’s ideas are such, that, if they even thought you witches, they would rather regard you with fear and respect than hatred.”

The women, moved by his promises, told him, that, if he would cause to be removed an old empty trunk which stood in the corner of their hut, and dig the earth where he saw it had been stirred, he would find the secret by means of which they had been supported through the famine; protesting to Heaven, at the same time, that they were totally innocent of any unlawful arts, such as had been imputed to them, and which they had confessed in their despair. Sir George Mackenzie hastened to examine the spot, and found concealed in the earth two firkins of salted snails, one of them nearly empty. On this strange food the poor women had been nourished during the famine. The Advocate was as good as his word; and the story shows how little weight is to be laid on the frequent confessions of the party in cases of witchcraft.

As this story is only traditional, I will mention two others of the same kind, to which I can give a precise date.

The first of these instances regards a woman of rank, much superior to those who were usually accused of this imaginary crime. She was sister of Sir John Henderson of Fordel, and wife to the Laird of Pittardo, in Fife. Notwithstanding her honourable birth and connexions, this unfortunate matron was, in the year 1649, imprisoned in the common jail of Edinburgh, from the month of July till the middle of the month of December, when she was found dead, with every symptom of poison. Undoubtedly the infamy of the charge, and the sense that it must destroy her character and disgrace her family, was the cause which instigated her to commit suicide.

The same sentiment which drive this poor lady to her death, was expressed by a female, young and handsome, executed at Paisley in 1697, in the following short answer to some of her friends, who were blaming her for not being sufficiently active in defending herself upon her trial. “They have taken away my character,” she said, “and my life is not worth preserving.”

But the most affecting instance of such a confession being made, and persisted in to the last, by an innocent person, ins recorded by one who was a diligent collector of witch stories, and a faithful believer in them. He says, that in the village of Lauder, there was a certain woman accused of witchcraft, who for a long time denied her guilt. At length, when all her companions in prison had been removed, and were appointed for execution, and she herself about to be left to total solitude, the poor creature became weary of life, and made a false confession, avowing that she was guilty of certain facts, which, in the opinion of the times, amounted to witchcraft. She, therefore, made it her petition that she should be put to death with the others on the day appointed for their execution. Her clergyman and others, on considering this young woman’s particular case, entertained, for once, some doubts that her confession was not sincere, and remonstrated strongly with her upon the wickedness of causing her own death by a false avowal of guilt. But as she stubbornly adhered to her confession, she was condemned, and appointed to be executed with the rest, as she had so earnestly desired. Being carried forth to the place of execution, she remained silent during the first, second, and third prayer, and then perceiving that there remained no more but to rise and go to the stake, she lift up her body, and with a loud voice cried out, “Now, all you that see me this day, know that I am now to die as a witch, by my own confession; and I free all men, especially the ministers and magistrates, of the guilt of my blood. I take it wholly upon myself — my blood be upon my own head; and, as I must make answer to the God of Heaven presently, I declare I am as free of witchcraft as any child; but being delated by a malicious woman, and put in prison under the name of a witch, — disowned by my husband and friends, — and seeing no ground of hope of my coming out of prison, or ever coming in credit again, through the temptation of the devil I made up that confession, on purpose to destroy my own life, being weary of it, and choosing rather to die than live.” — And so died.

It was remarkable that the number of supposed witches seemed to increase in proportion to the increase of punishment. On the 22d of May, 1650, the Scottish Parliament named a committee for enquiry into the depositions of no less than fifty-four witches, with power to grant such commissions as we have already described, to proceed with their trial, condemnation, and execution. Supposing these dreaded sorceresses to exist in such numbers, and to possess the powers of injury imputed to them, it was to be expected, as Reginald Scot expresses himself, that “there would neither be butter in the churn, nor cow in the close, nor corn in the field, nor fair weather without, nor health within doors.” Indeed the extent to which people indulged their horrors and suspicions, was in itself the proof of their being fanciful. If, in a small province, or even a petty town, there had existed scores of people possessed of supernatural power, the result would be, that the laws of nature would have been liable to constant interruption.

The English judges appointed for Scotland in Cromwell’s time saw the cruelty and absurdity of witch-trials, and endeavoured to put a stop to them; but the thanks which they received were only reflections on their principles of toleration, the benefit of which, in the opinion of the Scots, was extended, by this lenity, not only to heretics of every denomination, but even to those who worshipped the devil. Some were still farther, and accused the Sectaries of holding intercourse with evil spirits in their devotions. This was particularly reported and believed of the Quakers, the most simple and moral of all dissenters from the church.

Wiser and better views on the subject began to prevail in the end of the seventeenth century, and capital prosecutions for this imaginary crime were seen to decrease. The last instance of execution for witchcraft took place in the remote province of Sutherland, in 1722, under the direction of an ignorant provincial judge, who was censured by his superiors for the proceeding. The victim was an old woman in her last dotage, so silly that she was delighted to warm her wrinkled hands at the fire which was to consume her; and who, while they were preparing for her execution, repeatedly said, that so good a blaze, and so many neighbours gathered round it, made the most cheerful sight she had seen for many years!

The laws against witchcraft, both in England and Scotland, were abolished; and persons who pretend to fortune-telling, the use of spells, or similar mysterious feats of skill, are now punished as common knaves and impostors. Since this has been the case, no one has ever heard of witches or witchcraft, even among the most ignorant of the vulgar; so that the crime must have been entirely imaginary, since it ceased to exist so soon as men ceased to hunt it out for punishment.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29