Scottish Trials — Earl of Mar — Lady Glammis — William Barton — Witches of Auldearne — Their Rites and Charms — Their Transformation into Hares — Satan’s Severity towards them — Their Crimes — Sir George Mackenzie’s Opinion of Witchcraft — Instances of Confessions made by the Accused, in despair, and to avoid future annoyance and persecution — Examination by Pricking — The Mode of Judicial Procedure against Witches, and nature of the Evidence admissible, opened a door to Accusers, and left the Accused no chance of escape — The Superstition of the Scottish Clergy in King James vi.‘s time led them, like their Sovereign, to encourage Witch–Prosecutions — Case of Bessie Graham — Supposed Conspiracy to Shipwreck James in his Voyage to Denmark — Meetings of the Witches, and Rites performed to accomplish their purpose — Trial of Margaret Barclay in 1618 — Case of Major Weir — Sir John Clerk among the first who declined acting as Commissioner on the Trial of a Witch — Paisley and Pittenweem Witches — A Prosecution in Caithness prevented by the Interference of the King’s Advocate in 1718 — The Last Sentence of Death for Witchcraft pronounced in Scotland in 1722 — Remains of the Witch Superstition — Case of supposed Witchcraft, related from the Author’s own knowledge, which took place so late as 1800.
For many years the Scottish nation had been remarkable for a credulous belief in witchcraft, and repeated examples were supplied by the annals of sanguinary executions on this sad accusation. Our acquaintance with the slender foundation on which Boetius and Buchanan reared the early part of their histories may greatly incline us to doubt whether a king named Duffus ever reigned in Scotland, and, still more, whether he died by the agency of a gang of witches, who inflicted torments upon an image made in his name, for the sake of compassing his death. In the tale of Macbeth, which is another early instance of Demonology in Scottish history, the weird-sisters, who were the original prophetesses, appeared to the usurper in a dream, and are described as volæ, or sibyls, rather than as witches, though Shakspeare has stamped the latter character indelibly upon them.
One of the earliest real cases of importance founded upon witchcraft was, like those of the Duchess of Gloucester and others in the sister country, mingled with an accusation of a political nature, which, rather than the sorcery, brought the culprits to their fate. The Earl of Mar, brother of James III. of Scotland, fell under the king’s suspicion for consulting with witches and sorcerers how to shorten the king’s days. On such a charge, very inexplicitly stated, the unhappy Mar was bled to death in his own lodgings without either trial or conviction; immediately after which catastrophe twelve women of obscure rank and three or four wizards, or warlocks, as they were termed, were burnt at Edinburgh, to give a colour to the Earl’s guilt.
In the year 1537 a noble matron fell a victim to a similar charge. This was Janet Douglas, Lady Glammis, who, with her son, her second husband, and several others, stood accused of attempting James’s life by poison, with a view to the restoration of the Douglas family, of which Lady Glammis’s brother, the Earl of Angus, was the head. She died much pitied by the people, who seem to have thought the articles against her forged for the purpose of taking her life, her kindred and very name being so obnoxious to the King.
Previous to this lady’s execution there would appear to have been but few prosecuted to death on the score of witchcraft, although the want of the justiciary records of that period leaves us in uncertainty. But in the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries, when such charges grew general over Europe, cases of the kind occurred very often in Scotland, and, as we have already noticed, were sometimes of a peculiar character. There is, indeed, a certain monotony in most tales of the kind. The vassals are usually induced to sell themselves at a small price to the Author of Ill, who, having commonly to do with women, drives a very hard bargain. On the contrary, when he was pleased to enact the female on a similar occasion, he brought his gallant, one William Barton, a fortune of no less than fifteen pounds, which, even supposing it to have been the Scottish denomination of coin, was a very liberal endowment compared with his niggardly conduct towards the fair sex on such an occasion. Neither did he pass false coin on this occasion, but, on the contrary, generously gave Burton a merk, to keep the fifteen pounds whole. In observing on Satan’s conduct in this matter, Master George Sinclair observes that it is fortunate the Enemy is but seldom permitted to bribe so high (as £15 Scots); for were this the case, he might find few men or women capable of resisting his munificence. I look upon this as one of the most severe reflections on our forefathers’ poverty which is extant.
In many of the Scottish witches’ trials, as to the description of Satan’s Domdaniel, and the Sabbath which he there celebrates, the northern superstition agrees with that of England. But some of the confessions depart from the monotony of repetition, and add some more fanciful circumstances than occur in the general case. Isobel Gowdie’s confession, already mentioned, is extremely minute, and some part of it at least may be quoted, as there are other passages not very edifying. The witches of Auldearne, according to this penitent, were so numerous, that they were told off into squads, or covines, as they were termed, to each of which were appointed two officers. One of these was called the Maiden of the Covine, and was usually, like Tam o’ Shanter’s Nannie, a girl of personal attractions, whom Satan placed beside himself, and treated with particular attention, which greatly provoked the spite of the old hags, who felt themselves insulted by the preference.65 When assembled, they dug up graves, and possessed themselves of the carcases (of unchristened infants in particular), whose joints and members they used in their magic unguents and salves. When they desired to secure for their own use the crop of some neighbour, they made a pretence of ploughing it with a yoke of paddocks. These foul creatures drew the plough, which was held by the devil himself. The plough-harness and soams were of quicken grass, the sock and coulter were made out of a riglen’s horn, and the covine attended on the operation, praying the devil to transfer to them the fruit of the ground so traversed, and leave the proprietors nothing but thistles and briars. The witches’ sports, with their elfin archery, I have already noticed (page 136). They entered the house of the Earl of Murray himself, and such other mansions as were not fenced against them by vigil and prayer, and feasted on the provisions they found there.
65 This word Covine seems to signify a subdivision or squad. The tree near the front of an ancient castle was called the Covine tree, probably because the lord received his company there.
“He is lord of the hunting horn,
And king of the Covine tree;
He’s well loo’d in the western waters,
But best of his ain minnie.”
As these witches were the countrywomen of the weird sisters in Macbeth, the reader may be desirous to hear some of their spells, and of the poetry by which they were accompanied and enforced. They used to hash the flesh of an unchristened child, mixed with that of dogs and sheep, and place it in the house of those whom they devoted to destruction in body or goods, saying or singing —
“We put this intill this hame,
In our lord the Devil’s name;
The first hands that handle thee,
Burn’d and scalded may they be!
We will destroy houses and hald,
With the sheep and nolt into the fauld;
And little sall come to the fore,
Of all the rest of the little store!”
Metamorphoses were, according to Isobel, very common among them, and the forms of crows, cats, hares, and other animals, were on such occasions assumed. In the hare shape Isobel herself had a bad adventure. She had been sent by the devil to Auldearne in that favourite disguise, with some message to her neighbours, but had the misfortune to meet Peter Papley of Killhill’s servants going to labour, having his hounds with them. The hounds sprung on the disguised witch, “and I,” says Isobel, “run a very long time, but being hard pressed, was forced to take to my own house, the door being open, and there took refuge behind a chest.” But the hounds came in and took the other side of the chest, so that Isobel only escaped by getting into another house, and gaining time to say the disenchanting rhyme:—
“Hare, hare, God send thee care!
I am in a hare’s likeness now;
But I shall be a woman even now —
Hare, hare, God send thee care!”
Such accidents, she said, were not uncommon, and the witches were sometimes bitten by the dogs, of which the marks remained after their restoration to human shape. But none had been killed on such occasions.
The ceremonial of the Sabbath meetings was very strict. The Foul Fiend was very rigid in exacting the most ceremonious attention from his votaries, and the title of Lord when addressed by them. Sometimes, however, the weird sisters, when whispering amongst themselves, irreverently spoke of their sovereign by the name of Black John; upon such occasions the Fiend rushed on them like a schoolmaster who surprises his pupils in delict, and beat and buffeted them without mercy or discretion, saying, “I ken weel eneugh what you are saying of me.” Then might be seen the various tempers of those whom he commanded. Alexander Elder, in Earlseat, often fell under his lord’s displeasure for neglect of duty, and, being weak and simple, could never defend himself save with tears, cries, and entreaties for mercy; but some of the women, according to Isobel Gowdie’s confession, had more of the spirit which animated the old dame of Kellyburn Braes. Margaret Wilson, in Auldearne, would “defend herself finely,” and make her hands save her head, after the old Scottish manner. Bessie Wilson could also speak very crustily with her tongue, and “belled the cat” with the devil stoutly. The others chiefly took refuge in crying “Pity! mercy!” and such like, while Satan kept beating them with wool cards and other sharp scourges, without attending to their entreaties or complaints. There were attendant devils and imps, who served the witches. They were usually distinguished by their liveries, which were sad-dun, grass-green, sea-green, and yellow. The witches were taught to call these imps by names, some of which might belong to humanity, while others had a diabolical sound. These were Robert the Jakis, Saunders the Red Reaver, Thomas the Feary, Swein, an old Scandinavian Duerg probably; the Roaring Lion, Thief of Hell, Wait-upon-Herself, MacKeeler, Robert the Rule, Hendrie Craig, and Rorie. These names, odd and uncouth enough, are better imagined at least than those which Hopkins contrived for the imps which he discovered — such as Pyewacket, Peck-in-the-Crown, Sack-and-Sugar, News, Vinegar–Tom, and Grizell Greedigut, the broad vulgarity of which epithets shows what a flat imagination he brought to support his impudent fictions.
The devil, who commanded the fair sisterhood, being fond of mimicking the forms of the Christian church, used to rebaptize the witches with their blood, and in his own great name. The proud-stomached Margaret Wilson, who scorned to take a blow unrepaid, even from Satan himself, was called Pickle-nearest-the-Wind; her compeer, Bessie Wilson, was Throw-the-Cornyard; Elspet Nishe’s was Bessie Bald; Bessie Hay’s nickname was Able-and-Stout; and Jane Mairten, the Maiden of the Covine, was called Ower-the-Dike-with-it.
Isobel took upon herself, and imputed to her sisters, as already mentioned, the death of sundry persons shot with elf-arrows, because they had omitted to bless themselves as the aerial flight of the hags swept past them.66 She had herself the temerity to shoot at the Laird of Park as he was riding through a ford, but missed him through the influence of the running stream, perhaps, for which she thanks God in her confession; and adds, that at the time she received a great cuff from Bessie Hay for her awkwardness. They devoted the male children of this gentleman (of the well-known family of Gordon of Park, I presume) to wasting illness, by the following lines, placing at the same time in the fire figures composed of clay mixed with paste, to represent the object:—
“We put this water amongst this meal,
For long dwining67 and ill heal;
We put it in into the fire,
To burn them up stook and stour.68
That they be burned with our will,
Like any stikkle69 in a kiln.”
66 See p. 136.
68 We should read perhaps, “limb and lire.”
Such was the singular confession of Isobel Gowdie, made voluntarily, it would seem, and without compulsion of any kind, judicially authenticated by the subscription of the notary, clergymen, and gentlemen present; adhered to after their separate diets, as they are called, of examination, and containing no variety or contradiction in its details. Whatever might be her state of mind in other respects, she seems to have been perfectly conscious of the perilous consequence of her disclosures to her own person. “I do not deserve,” says she, “to be seated here at ease and unharmed, but rather to be stretched on an iron rack: nor can my crimes be atoned for, were I to be drawn asunder by wild horses.”
It only remains to suppose that this wretched creature was under the dominion of some peculiar species of lunacy, to which a full perusal of her confession might perhaps guide a medical person of judgment and experience. Her case is interesting, as throwing upon the rites and ceremonies of the Scottish witches a light which we seek in vain elsewhere.
Other unfortunate persons were betrayed to their own reproof by other means than the derangement of mind which seems to have operated on Isobel Gowdie. Some, as we have seen, endeavoured to escape from the charge of witchcraft by admitting an intercourse with the fairy people; an excuse which was never admitted as relevant. Others were subjected to cruel tortures, by which our ancestors thought the guilty might be brought to confession, but which far more frequently compelled the innocent to bear evidence against themselves. On this subject the celebrated Sir George Mackenzie, “that noble wit of Scotland,” as he is termed by Dryden, has some most judicious reflections, which we shall endeavour to abstract as the result of the experience of one who, in his capacity of Lord Advocate, had often occasion to conduct witch-trials, and who, not doubting the existence of the crime, was of opinion that, on account of its very horror, it required the clearest and most strict probation.
He first insists on the great improbability of the fiend, without riches to bestow, and avowedly subjected to a higher power, being able to enlist such numbers of recruits, and the little advantage which he himself would gain by doing so. But, 2dly, says Mackenzie, “the persons ordinarily accused of this crime are poor ignorant men, or else women, who understand not the nature of what they are accused of; and many mistake their own fears and apprehensions for witchcraft, of which I shall give two instances. One, of a poor weaver who, after he had confessed witchcraft, being asked how he saw the devil, made answer, ‘Like flies dancing about the candle.’ Another, of a woman, who asked seriously, when she was accused, if a woman might be a witch and not know it? And it is dangerous that persons, of all others the most simple, should be tried for a crime of all others the most mysterious. 3rdly, These poor creatures, when they are defamed, become so confounded with fear and the close prison in which they are kept, and so starved for want of meat and drink, either of which wants is enough to disarm the strongest reason, that hardly wiser and more serious people than they would escape distraction; and when men are confounded with fear and apprehension, they will imagine things the most ridiculous and absurd” of which instances are given. 4thly, “Most of these poor creatures are tortured by their keepers, who, being persuaded they do God good service, think it their duty to vex and torment poor prisoners delivered up to them as rebels to heaven and enemies to men; and I know” (continues Sir George), “ex certissima scientia, that most of all that ever were taken were tormented in this manner, and this usage was the ground of all their confession; and albeit the poor miscreants cannot prove this usage, the actors being the only witnesses, yet the judge should be jealous of it, as that which did at first elicit the confession, and for fear of which they dare not retract it.” 5thly, This learned author gives us an instance how these unfortunate creatures might be reduced to confession by the very infamy which the accusation cast upon them, and which was sure to follow, condemning them for life to a state of necessity, misery, and suspicion, such as any person of reputation would willingly exchange for a short death, however painful.
“I went when I was a justice-deput to examine some women who had confessed judicially, and one of them, who was a silly creature, told me under secresie, that she had not confest because she was guilty, but being a poor creature who wrought for her meat, and being defamed for a witch, she knew she would starve, for no person thereafter would either give her meat or lodging, and that all men would beat her and hound dogs at her, and that therefore she desired to be out of the world; whereupon she wept most bitterly, and upon her knees called God to witness to what she said. Another told me that she was afraid the devil would challenge a right to her, after she was said to be his servant, and would haunt her, as the minister said, when he was desiring her to confess, and therefore she desired to die. And really ministers are oft times indiscreet in their zeal to have poor creatures to confess in this; and I recommend to judges that the wisest ministers should be sent to them, and those who are sent should be cautious in this particular.”70
70 Mackenzie’s “Criminal Law,” p. 45.
As a corollary to this affecting story, I may quote the case of a woman in Lauder jail, who lay there with other females on a charge of witchcraft. Her companions in prison were adjudged to die, and she too had, by a confession as full as theirs, given herself up as guilty. She therefore sent for the minister of the town, and entreated to be put to death with the others who had been appointed to suffer upon the next Monday. The clergyman, however, as well as others, had adopted a strong persuasion that this confession was made up in the pride of her heart, for the destruction of her own life, and had no foundation in truth. We give the result in the minister’s words:—
“Therefore much pains was taken on her by ministers and others on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday morning, that she might resile from that confession which was suspected to be but a temptation of the devil, to destroy both her soul and body; yea, it was charged home upon her by the ministers, that there was just ground of jealousy that her confession was not sincere, and she was charged before the Lord to declare the truth, and not to take her blood upon her own head. Yet she stiffly adhered to what she had said, and cried always to be put away with the rest. Whereupon, on Monday morning, being called before the judges, and confessing before them what she had said, she was found guilty and condemned to die with the rest that same day. 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 lifted 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. Which lamentable story, as it did then astonish all the spectators, none of which could restrain themselves from tears; so it may be to all a demonstration of Satan’s subtlety, whose design is still to destroy all, partly by tempting many to presumption, and some others to despair. These things to be of truth, are attested by an eye and ear witness who is yet alive, a faithful minister of the gospel.”71 It is strange the inference does not seem to have been deduced, that as one woman out of very despair renounced her own life, the same might have been the case in many other instances, wherein the confessions of the accused constituted the principal if not sole evidence of the guilt.
71 Sinclair’s “Satan’s Invisible World Discovered,” p. 43.
One celebrated mode of detecting witches and torturing them at the same time, to draw forth confession, was by running pins into their body, on pretence of discovering the devil’s stigma, or mark, which was said to be inflicted by him upon all his vassals, and to be insensible to pain. This species of search, the practice of the infamous Hopkins, was in Scotland reduced to a trade; and the young witchfinder was allowed to torture the accused party, as if in exercise of a lawful calling, although Sir George Mackenzie stigmatises it as a horrid imposture. I observe in the Collections of Mr. Pitcairn, that at the trial of Janet Peaston of Dalkeith the magistrates and ministers of that market town caused John Kincaid of Tranent, the common pricker, to exercise his craft upon her, “who found two marks of what he called the devil’s making, and which appeared indeed to be so, for she could not feel the pin when it was put into either of the said marks, nor did they (the marks) bleed when they were taken out again; and when she was asked where she thought the pins were put in, she pointed to a part of her body distant from the real place. They were pins of three inches in length.”
Besides the fact that the persons of old people especially sometimes contain spots void of sensibility, there is also room to believe that the professed prickers used a pin the point or lower part of which was, on being pressed down, sheathed in the upper, which was hollow for the purpose, and that which appeared to enter the body did not pierce it at all. But, were it worth while to dwell on a subject so ridiculous, we might recollect that in so terrible an agony of shame as is likely to convulse a human being under such a trial, and such personal insults, the blood is apt to return to the heart, and a slight wound, as with a pin, may be inflicted without being followed by blood. In the latter end of the seventeenth century this childish, indecent, and brutal practice began to be called by its right name. Fountainhall has recorded that in 1678 the Privy Council received the complaint of a poor woman who had been abused by a country magistrate and one of those impostors called prickers. They expressed high displeasure against the presumption of the parties complained against, and treated the pricker as a common cheat.72
72 Fountainhall’s “Decisions,” vol. i. p. 15.
From this and other instances it appears that the predominance of the superstition of witchcraft, and the proneness to persecute those accused of such practices in Scotland, were increased by the too great readiness of subordinate judges to interfere in matters which were, in fact, beyond their jurisdiction. The Supreme Court of Justiciary was that in which the cause properly and exclusively ought to have been tried. But, in practice, each inferior judge in the country, the pettiest bailie in the most trifling burgh, the smallest and most ignorant baron of a rude territory, took it on him to arrest, imprison, and examine, in which examinations, as we have already seen, the accused suffered the grossest injustice. The copies of these examinations, made up of extorted confessions, or the evidence of inhabile witnesses, were all that were transmitted to the Privy Council, who were to direct the future mode of procedure. Thus no creature was secure against the malice or folly of some defamatory accusation, if there was a timid or superstitious judge, though of the meanest denomination, to be found within the district.
But, secondly, it was the course of the Privy Council to appoint commissions of the gentlemen of the country, and particularly of the clergymen, though not likely, from their education, to be freed from general prejudice, and peculiarly liable to be affected by the clamour of the neighbourhood againt the delinquent. Now, as it is well known that such a commission could not be granted in a case of murder in the county where the crime was charged, there seems no good reason why the trial of witches, so liable to excite the passions, should not have been uniformly tried by a court whose rank and condition secured them from the suspicion of partiality. But our ancestors arranged it otherwise, and it was the consequence that such commissioners very seldom, by acquitting the persons brought before them, lost an opportunity of destroying a witch.
Neither must it be forgotten that the proof led in support of the prosecution was of a kind very unusual in jurisprudence. The lawyers admitted as evidence what they called damnum minatum, et malum secutum— some mischief, that is to say, following close upon a threat, or wish of revenge, uttered by the supposed witch, which, though it might be attributed to the most natural course of events, was supposed necessarily to be in consequence of the menaces of the accused.
Sometimes this vague species of evidence was still more loosely adduced, and allegations of danger threatened and mischief ensuing were admitted, though the menaces had not come from the accused party herself. On 10th June, 1661, as John Stewart, one of a party of stout burghers of Dalkeith appointed to guard an old woman called Christian Wilson from that town to Niddrie, was cleaning his gun, he was slyly questioned by Janet Cocke, another confessing witch, who probably saw his courage was not entirely constant, “What would you think if the devil raise a whirlwind, and take her from you on the road to-morrow?” Sure enough, on their journey to Niddrie the party actually were assailed by a sudden gust of wind (not a very uncommon event in that climate), which scarce permitted the valiant guard to keep their feet, while the miserable prisoner was blown into a pool of water, and with difficulty raised again. There is some ground to hope that this extraordinary evidence was not admitted upon the trial.
There is a story told of an old wizard, whose real name was Alexander Hunter, though he was more generally known by the nickname of Hatteraick, which it had pleased the devil to confer upon him. The man had for some time adopted the credit of being a conjurer, and curing the diseases of man and beast by spells and charms. One summer’s day, on a green hill-side, the devil appeared to him in shape of a grave “Mediciner,” addressing him thus roundly, “Sandie, you have too long followed my trade without acknowledging me for a master. You must now enlist with me and become my servant, and I will teach you your trade better.” Hatteraick consented to the proposal, and we shall let the Rev. Mr. George Sinclair tell the rest of the tale.
“After this he grew very famous through the country for his charming and curing of diseases in men and beasts, and turned a vagrant fellow like a jockie,73 gaining meal, and flesh, and money by his charms, such was the ignorance of many at that time. Whatever house he came to none durst refuse Hatteraick an alms, rather for his ill than his good. One day he came to the yait (gate) of Samuelston, when some friends after dinner were going to horse. A young gentleman, brother to the lady, seeing him, switcht him about the ears, saying —‘You warlock carle, what have you to do here?’ Whereupon the fellow goes away grumbling, and was overheard to say, ‘You shall dear buy this ere it be long.’ This was damnum minatum. The young gentleman conveyed his friends a far way off, and came home that way again, where he supped. After supper, taking his horse and crossing Tyne water to go home, he rides through a shady piece of a haugh, commonly called Allers, and the evening being somewhat dark, he met with some persons there that begat a dreadful consternation in him, which for the most part he would never reveal. This was malum secutum. When he came home the servants observed terror and fear in his countenance. The next day he became distracted, and was bound for several days. His sister, the Lady Samuelston, hearing of it, was heard say, ‘Surely that knave Hatteraick is the cause of his trouble; call for him in all haste.’ When he had come to her, ‘Sandie,’ says she, ‘what is this you have done to my brother William?’ ‘I told him,’ says he, ‘I should make him repent of his striking me at the yait lately.’ She, giving the rogue fair words, and promising him his pockful of meal, with beef and cheese, persuaded the fellow to cure him again. He undertook the business. ‘But I must first,’ says he, ‘have one of his sarks’ (shirts), which was soon gotten. What pranks he played with it cannot be known, but within a short while the gentleman recovered his health. When Hatteraick came to receive his wages he told the lady, ‘Your brother William shall quickly go off the country, but shall never return,’ She, knowing the fellow’s prophecies to hold true, caused the brother to make a disposition to her of all his patrimony, to the defrauding of his younger brother, George. After that this warlock had abused the country for a long time, he was at last apprehended at Dunbar, and brought into Edinburgh, and burnt upon the Castlehill.”74
73 Or Scottish wandering beggar.
74 Sinclair’s “Satan’s Invisible World Discovered,” p. 98.
Now, if Hatteraick was really put to death on such evidence, it is worth while to consider what was its real amount. A hot-tempered swaggering young gentleman horsewhips a beggar of ill fame for loitering about the gate of his sister’s house. The beggar grumbles, as any man would. The young man, riding in the night, and probably in liquor, through a dark shady place, is frightened by, he would not, and probably could not, tell what, and has a fever fit. His sister employs the wizard to take off the spell according to his profession; and here is damnum minatum, et malum secutum, and all legal cause for burning a man to ashes! The vagrant Hatteraick probably knew something of the wild young man which might soon oblige him to leave the country; and the selfish Lady Samuelston, learning the probability of his departure, committed a fraud which ought to have rendered her evidence inadmissible.
Besides these particular disadvantages, to which the parties accused of this crime in Scotland were necessarily exposed, both in relation to the judicature by which they were tried and the evidence upon which they were convicted, their situation was rendered intolerable by the detestation in which they were held by all ranks. The gentry hated them because the diseases and death of their relations and children were often imputed to them; the grossly superstitious vulgar abhorred them with still more perfect dread and loathing. And amongst those natural feelings, others of a less pardonable description found means to shelter themselves. In one case, we are informed by Mackenzie, a poor girl was to die for witchcraft, of whom the real crime was that she had attracted too great a share, in the lady’s opinion, of the attention of the laird.
Having thus given some reasons why the prosecutions for witchcraft in Scotland were so numerous and fatal, we return to the general history of the trials recorded from the reign of James V. to the union of the kingdoms. Through the reign of Queen Mary these trials for sorcery became numerous, and the crime was subjected to heavier punishment by the 73rd Act of her 9th Parliament. But when James VI. approached to years of discretion, the extreme anxiety which he displayed to penetrate more deeply into mysteries which others had regarded as a very millstone of obscurity, drew still larger attention to the subject. The sovereign had exhausted his talents of investigation on the subject of witchcraft, and credit was given to all who acted in defence of the opinions of the reigning prince. This natural tendency to comply with the opinions of the sovereign was much augmented by the disposition of the Kirk to the same sentiments. We have already said that these venerable persons entertained, with good faith, the general erroneous belief respecting witchcraft — regarding it indeed as a crime which affected their own order more nearly than others in the state, since, especially called to the service of heaven, they were peculiarly bound to oppose the incursions of Satan. The works which remain behind them show, among better things, an unhesitating belief in what were called by them “special providences;” and this was equalled, at least, by their credulity as to the actual interference of evil spirits in the affairs of this world. They applied these principles of belief to the meanest causes. A horse falling lame was a snare of the devil to keep the good clergyman from preaching; the arrival of a skilful farrier was accounted a special providence to defeat the purpose of Satan. This was, doubtless, in a general sense true, since nothing can happen without the foreknowledge and will of Heaven; but we are authorized to believe that the period of supernatural interference has long passed away, and that the great Creator is content to execute his purposes by the operation of those laws which influence the general course of nature. Our ancient Scottish divines thought otherwise. Surrounded, as they conceived themselves, by the snares and temptations of hell, and relying on the aid of Heaven, they entered into war with the kingdom of Satan, as the crusaders of old invaded the land of Palestine, with the same confidence in the justice of their cause and similar indifference concerning the feelings of those whom they accounted the enemies of God and man. We have already seen that even the conviction that a woman was innocent of the crime of witchcraft did not induce a worthy clergyman to use any effort to withdraw her from the stake; and in the same collection75 there occur some observable passages of God’s providence to a godly minister in giving him “full clearness” concerning Bessie Grahame, suspected of witchcraft. The whole detail is a curious illustration of the spirit of credulity which well-disposed men brought with them to such investigations, and how easily the gravest doubts were removed rather than a witch should be left undetected.
75 “Satan’s Invisible World,” by Mr. George Sinclair. The author was Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow, and afterwards minister of Eastwood, in Renfrewshire.
Bessie Grahame had been committed, it would seem, under suspicions of no great weight, since the minister, after various conferences, found her defence so successful, that he actually pitied her hard usage, and wished for her delivery from prison, especially as he doubted whether a civil court would send her to an assize, or whether an assize would be disposed to convict her. While the minister was in this doubt, a fellow named Begg was employed as a skilful pricker; by whose authority it is not said, he thrust a great brass pin up to the head in a wart on the woman’s back, which he affirmed to be the devil’s mark. A commission was granted for trial; but still the chief gentlemen in the county refused to act, and the clergyman’s own doubts were far from being removed. This put the worthy man upon a solemn prayer to God, “that if he would find out a way for giving the minister full clearness of her guilt, he would acknowledge it as a singular favour and mercy.” This, according to his idea, was accomplished in the following manner, which he regarded as an answer to his prayer. One evening the clergyman, with Alexander Simpson, the kirk-officer, and his own servant, had visited Bessie in her cell, to urge her to confession, but in vain. As they stood on the stair-head behind the door, they heard the prisoner, whom they had left alone in her place of confinement, discoursing with another person, who used a low and ghostly tone, which the minister instantly recognised as the Foul Fiend’s voice. But for this discovery we should have been of opinion that Bessie Grahame talked to herself, as melancholy and despairing wretches are in the habit of doing. But as Alexander Simpson pretended to understand the sense of what was said within the cell, and the minister himself was pretty sure he heard two voices at the same time, he regarded the overhearing this conversation as the answer of the Deity to his petition, and thenceforth was troubled with no doubts either as to the reasonableness and propriety of his prayer, or the guilt of Bessie Grahame, though she died obstinate, and would not confess; nay, made a most decent and Christian end, acquitting her judges and jury of her blood, in respect of the strong delusion under which they laboured.
Although the ministers, whose opinions were but two strongly on this head in correspondence with the prevailing superstitions of the people, nourished in the early system of church government a considerable desire to secure their own immunities and privileges as a national church, which failed not at last to be brought into contact with the king’s prerogative; yet in the earlier part of his reign, James, when freed from the influence of such a favourite as the profligate Stuart, Earl of Arran, was in his personal qualities rather acceptable to the clergy of his kingdom and period. At his departing from Scotland on his romantic expedition to bring home a consort from Denmark, he very politically recommended to the clergy to contribute all that lay in their power to assist the civil magistrates, and preserve the public peace of the kingdom. The king after his return acknowledged with many thanks the care which the clergy had bestowed in this particular. Nor were they slack in assuming the merit to themselves, for they often reminded him in their future discords that his kingdom had never been so quiet as during his voyage to Denmark, when the clergy were in a great measure intrusted with the charge of the public government.
During the halcyon period of union between kirk and king their hearty agreement on the subject of witchcraft failed not to heat the fires against the persons suspected of such iniquity. The clergy considered that the Roman Catholics, their principal enemies, were equally devoted to the devil, the mass, and the witches, which in their opinion were mutually associated together, and natural allies in the great cause of mischief. On the other hand, the pedantic sovereign having exercised his learning and ingenuity in the Demonologia, considered the execution of every witch who was burnt as a necessary conclusion of his own royal syllogisms. The juries were also afraid of the consequences of acquittal to themselves, being liable to suffer under an assize of error should they be thought to have been unjustly merciful; and as the witches tried were personally as insignificant as the charge itself was odious, there was no restraint whatever upon those in whose hands their fate lay, and there seldom wanted some such confession as we have often mentioned, or such evidence as that collected by the minister who overheard the dialogue between the witch and her master, to salve their consciences and reconcile them to bring in a verdict of guilty.
The execution of witches became for these reasons very common in Scotland, where the king seemed in some measure to have made himself a party in the cause, and the clergy esteemed themselves such from the very nature of their profession. But the general spite of Satan and his adherents was supposed to be especially directed against James, on account of his match with Anne of Denmark — the union of a Protestant princess with a Protestant prince, the King of Scotland and heir of England being, it could not be doubted, an event which struck the whole kingdom of darkness with alarm. James was self-gratified by the unusual spirit which he had displayed on his voyage in quest of his bride, and well disposed to fancy that he had performed it in positive opposition, not only to the indirect policy of Elizabeth, but to the malevolent purpose of hell itself. His fleet had been tempest-tost, and he very naturally believed that the prince of the power of the air had been personally active on the occasion.
The principal person implicated in these heretical and treasonable undertakings was one Agnes Simpson, or Samson, called the Wise Wife of Keith, and described by Archbishop Spottiswood, not as one of the base or ignorant class of ordinary witches, but a grave matron, composed and deliberate in her answers, which were all to some purpose. This grave dame, from the terms of her indictment, seems to have been a kind of white witch, affecting to cure diseases by words and charms, a dangerous profession considering the times in which she lived. Neither did she always keep the right and sheltered side of the law in such delicate operations. One article of her indictment proves this, and at the same time establishes that the Wise Woman of Keith knew how to turn her profession to account; for, being consulted in the illness of Isobel Hamilton, she gave her opinion that nothing could amend her unless the devil was raised; and the sick woman’s husband, startling at the proposal, and being indifferent perhaps about the issue, would not bestow the necessary expenses, whereupon the Wise Wife refused to raise the devil, and the patient died. This woman was principally engaged in an extensive conspiracy to destroy the fleet of the queen by raising a tempest; and to take the king’s life by anointing his linen with poisonous materials, and by constructing figures of clay, to be wasted and tormented after the usual fashion of necromancy.
Amongst her associates was an unhappy lady of much higher degree. This was Dame Euphane MacCalzean, the widow of a Senator of the College of Justice, and a person infinitely above the rank of the obscure witches with whom she was joined in her crime. Mr. Pitcairn supposes that this connexion may have arisen from her devotion to the Catholic faith and her friendship for the Earl of Bothwell.
The third person in this singular league of sorcerers was Doctor John Fian, otherwise Cunninghame, who was schoolmaster at Tranent, and enjoyed much hazardous reputation as a warlock. This man was made the hero of the whole tale of necromancy, in an account of it published at London, and entitled, “News from Scotland,” which has been lately reprinted by the Roxburghe Club. It is remarkable that the Scottish witchcrafts were not thought sufficiently horrible by the editor of this tract, without adding to them the story of a philtre being applied to a cow’s hair instead of that of the young woman for whom it was designed, and telling how the animal came lowing after the sorcerer to his schoolroom door, like a second Pasiphaë, the original of which charm occurs in the story of Apuleius.76
76 “Lucii Apuleii Metamorphoses,” lib. iii.
Besides these persons, there was one Barbara Napier, alias Douglas, a person of some rank; Geillis Duncan, a very active witch; and about thirty other poor creatures of the lowest condition — among the rest, and doorkeeper to the conclave, a silly old ploughman, called as his nickname Graymeal, who was cuffed by the devil for saying simply, “God bless the king!”
When the monarch of Scotland sprung this strong covey of his favourite game, they afforded the Privy Council and him sport for the greatest part of the remaining winter. He attended on the examinations himself, and by one means or or other, they were indifferently well dressed to his palate.
Agnes Sampson, the grave matron before mentioned, after being an hour tortured by the twisting of a cord around her head, according to the custom of the Buccaneers, confessed that she had consulted with one Richard Grahame concerning the probable length of the king’s life, and the means of shortening it. But Satan, to whom they at length resorted for advice, told them in French respecting King James, Il est un homme de Dieu. The poor woman also acknowledged that she had held a meeting with those of her sisterhood, who had charmed a cat by certain spells, having four joints of men knit to its feet, which they threw into the sea to excite a tempest. Another frolic they had when, like the weird sisters in Macbeth, they embarked in sieves with much mirth and jollity, the Fiend rolling himself before them upon the waves, dimly seen, and resembling a huge haystack in size and appearance. They went on board of a foreign ship richly laded with wines, where, invisible to the crew, they feasted till the sport grew tiresome, and then Satan sunk the vessel and all on board.
Fian, or Cunninghame, was also visited by the sharpest tortures, ordinary and extraordinary. The nails were torn from his fingers with smith’s pincers; pins were driven into the places which the nails usually defended; his knees were crushed in the boots, his finger bones were splintered in the pilniewinks. At length his constancy, hitherto sustained, as the bystanders supposed, by the help of the devil, was fairly overcome, and he gave an account of a great witch-meeting at North Berwick, where they paced round the church withershinns, that is, in reverse of the motion of the sun. Fian then blew into the lock of the church-door, whereupon the bolts gave way, the unhallowed crew entered, and their master the devil appeared to his servants in the shape of a black man occupying the pulpit. He was saluted with an “Hail, Master!” but the company were dissatisfied with his not having brought a picture of the king, repeatedly promised, which was to place his majesty at the mercy of this infernal crew. The devil was particularly upbraided on this subject by divers respectable-looking females — no question, Euphane MacCalzean, Barbara Napier, Agnes Sampson, and some other amateur witch above those of the ordinary profession. The devil on this memorable occasion forgot himself, and called Fian by his own name, instead of the demoniacal sobriquet of Rob the Rowar, which had been assigned to him as Master of the Rows or Rolls. This was considered as bad taste, and the rule is still observed at every rendezvous of forgers, smugglers, or the like, where it is accounted very indifferent manners to name an individual by his own name, in case of affording ground of evidence which may upon a day of trial be brought against him. Satan, something disconcerted, concluded the evening with a divertisement and a dance after his own manner. The former consisted in disinterring a new-buried corpse, and dividing it in fragments among the company, and the ball was maintained by well-nigh two hundred persons, who danced a ring dance, singing this chant —
“Cummer, gang ye before; Cummer gang ye. Gif ye will not gang before, Cummers, let me.”
After this choral exhibition, the music seems to have been rather imperfect, the number of dancers considered. Geillis Duncan was the only instrumental performer, and she played on a Jew’s harp, called in Scotland a trump. Dr. Fian, muffled, led the ring, and was highly honoured, generally acting as clerk or recorder, as above mentioned.
King James was deeply interested in those mysterious meetings, and took great delight to be present at the examinations of the accused. He sent for Geillis Duncan, and caused her to play before him the same tune to which Satan and his companions led the brawl in North Berwick churchyard.77 His ears were gratified in another way, for at this meeting it was said the witches demanded of the devil why he did bear such enmity against the king? who returned the flattering answer that the king was the greatest enemy whom he had in the world.
77 The music of this witch tune is unhappily lost. But that of another, believed to have been popular on such occasions, is preserved.
“The silly bit chicken, gar cast her a pickle,
And she will grow mickle,
And she will do good.”
Almost all these poor wretches were executed, nor did Euphane MacCalzean’s station in life save her from the common doom, which was strangling to death, and burning to ashes thereafter. The majority of the jury which tried Barbara Napier having acquitted her of attendance at the North Berwick meeting, were themselves threatened with a trial for wilful error upon an assize, and could only escape from severe censure and punishment by pleading guilty, and submitting themselves to the king’s pleasure. This rigorous and iniquitous conduct shows a sufficient reason why there should be so few acquittals from a charge of witchcraft where the juries were so much at the mercy of the crown.
It would be disgusting to follow the numerous cases in which the same uniform credulity, the same extorted confessions, the same prejudiced and exaggerated evidence, concluded in the same tragedy at the stake and the pile. The alterations and trenching which lately took place for the purpose of improving the Castlehill of Edinburgh displayed the ashes of the numbers who had perished in this manner, of whom a large proportion must have been executed between 1590, when the great discovery was made concerning Euphane MacCalzean and the Wise Wife of Keith and their accomplices, and the union of the crowns.
Nor did King James’s removal to England soften this horrible persecution. In Sir Thomas Hamilton’s Minutes of Proceedings in the Privy Council, there occurs a singular entry, evincing plainly that the Earl of Mar, and others of James’s Council, were becoming fully sensible of the desperate iniquity and inhumanity of these proceedings. I have modernized the spelling that this appalling record may be legible to all my readers.
“1608, December 1. The Earl of Mar declared to the Council that some women were taken in Broughton as witches, and being put to an assize and convicted, albeit they persevered constant in their denial to the end, yet they were burned quick [alive] after such a cruel manner that some of them died in despair, renouncing and blaspheming [God]; and others, half burned, brak out of the fire,78 and were cast quick in it again, till they were burned to the death.”
78 I am obliged to the kindness of Mr. Pitcairn for this singular extract. The southern reader must be informed that the jurisdiction or regality of Broughton embraced Holyrood, Canongate, Leith, and other suburban parts of Edinburgh, and bore the same relation to that city as the borough of Southwark to London.
This singular document shows that even in the reign of James, so soon as his own august person was removed from Edinburgh, his dutiful Privy Council began to think that they had supt full with horrors, and were satiated with the excess of cruelty which dashed half-consumed wretches back into the flames from which they were striving to escape.
But the picture, however much it may have been disgusting and terrifying to the Council at the time, and though the intention of the entry upon the records was obviously for the purpose of preventing such horrid cruelties in future, had no lasting effect on the course of justice, as the severities against witches were most unhappily still considered necessary. Through the whole of the sixteenth, and the greater part of the seventeenth century, little abatement in the persecution of this metaphysical crime of witchcraft can be traced in the kingdom. Even while the Independents held the reins of government, Cromwell himself, and his major-generals and substitutes, were obliged to please the common people of Scotland by abandoning the victims accused of witchcraft to the power of the law, though the journals of the time express the horror and disgust with which the English sectarians beheld a practice so inconsistent with their own humane principle of universal toleration.
Instead of plunging into a history of these events which, generally speaking, are in detail as monotonous as they are melancholy, it may amuse the reader to confine the narrative to a single trial, having in the course of it some peculiar and romantic events. It is the tale of a sailor’s wife, more tragic in its event than that of the chestnut-muncher in Macbeth.79
79 A copy of the record of the trial, which took place in Ayrshire, was sent to me by a friend who withheld his name, so that I can only thank him in this general acknowledgment.
Margaret Barclay, wife of Archibald Dein, burgess of Irvine, had been slandered by her sister-in-law, Janet Lyal, the spouse of John Dein, brother of Archibald, and by John Dein himself, as guilty of some act of theft. Upon this provocation Margaret Barclay raised an action of slander before the church court, which prosecution, after some procedure, the kirk-session discharged by directing a reconciliation between the parties. Nevertheless, although the two women shook hands before the court, yet the said Margaret Barclay declared that she gave her hand only in obedience to the kirk-session, but that she still retained her hatred and ill-will against John Dein and his wife, Janet Lyal. About this time the bark of John Dein was about to sail for France, and Andrew Train, or Tran, provost of the burgh of Irvine, who was an owner of the vessel, went with him to superintend the commercial part of the voyage. Two other merchants of some consequence went in the same vessel, with a sufficient number of mariners. Margaret Barclay, the revengeful person already mentioned, was heard to imprecate curses upon the provost’s argosy, praying to God that sea nor salt-water might never bear the ship, and that partans (crabs) might eat the crew at the bottom of the sea.
When, under these auspices, the ship was absent on her voyage, a vagabond fellow, named John Stewart, pretending to have knowledge of jugglery, and to possess the power of a spaeman, came to the residence of Tran, the provost, and dropped explicit hints that the ship was lost, and that the good woman of the house was a widow. The sad truth was afterwards learned on more certain information. Two of the seamen, after a space of doubt and anxiety, arrived, with the melancholy tidings that the bark, of which John Dein was skipper and Provost Tran part owner, had been wrecked on the coast of England, near Padstow, when all on board had been lost, except the two sailors who brought the notice. Suspicion of sorcery, in those days easily awakened, was fixed on Margaret Barclay, who had imprecated curses on the ship, and on John Stewart, the juggler, who had seemed to know of the evil fate of the voyage before he could have become acquainted with it by natural means.
Stewart, who was first apprehended, acknowledged that Margaret Barclay, the other suspected person, had applied to him to teach her some magic arts, “in order that she might get gear, kye’s milk, love of man, her heart’s desire on such persons as had done her wrong, and, finally, that she might obtain the fruit of sea and land.” Stewart declared that he denied to Margaret that he possessed the said arts himself, or had the power of communicating them. So far was well; but, true or false, he added a string of circumstances, whether voluntarily declared or extracted by torture, which tended to fix the cause of the loss of the bark on Margaret Barclay. He had come, he said, to this woman’s house in Irvine, shortly after the ship set sail from harbour. He went to Margaret’s house by night, and found her engaged, with other two women, in making clay figures; one of the figures was made handsome, with fair hair, supposed to represent Provost Tran. They then proceeded to mould a figure of a ship in clay, and during this labour the devil appeared to the company in the shape of a handsome black lap-dog, such as ladies use to keep.80 He added that the whole party left the house together, and went into an empty waste-house nearer the seaport, which house he pointed out to the city magistrates. From this house they went to the sea-side, followed by the black lap-dog aforesaid, and cast in the figures of clay representing the ship and the men; after which the sea raged, roared, and became red like the juice of madder in a dyer’s cauldron.
80 This may remind the reader of Cazotte’s “Diable Amoureux.”
This confession having been extorted from the unfortunate juggler, the female acquaintances of Margaret Barclay were next convened, that he might point out her associates in forming the charm, when he pitched upon a woman called Isobel Insh, or Taylor, who resolutely denied having ever seen him before. She was imprisoned, however, in the belfry of the church. An addition to the evidence against the poor old woman Insh was then procured from her own daughter, Margaret Tailzeour, a child of eight years old, who lived as servant with Margaret Barclay, the person principally accused. This child, who was keeper of a baby belonging to Margaret Barclay, either from terror or the innate love of falsehood which we have observed as proper to childhood, declared that she was present when the fatal models of clay were formed, and that, in plunging them in the sea, Margaret Barclay her mistress, and her mother Isobel Insh, were assisted by another woman, and a girl of fourteen years old, who dwelt at the town-head. Legally considered, the evidence of this child was contradictory and inconsistent with the confession of the juggler, for it assigned other particulars and dramatis personæ in many respects different. But all was accounted sufficiently regular, especially since the girl failed not to swear to the presence of the black dog, to whose appearance she also added the additional terrors of that of a black man. The dog also, according to her account, emitted flashes from its jaws and nostrils to illuminate the witches during the performance of the spell. The child maintained this story even to her mother’s face, only alleging that Isobel Insh remained behind in the waste-house, and was not present when the images were put into the sea. For her own countenance and presence on the occasion, and to ensure her secrecy, her mistress promised her a pair of new shoes.
John Stewart, being re-examined and confronted with the child, was easily compelled to allow that the “little smatchet” was there, and to give that marvellous account of his correspondence with Elfland which we have noticed elsewhere.
The conspiracy thus far, as they conceived, disclosed, the magistrates and ministers wrought hard with Isobel Insh to prevail upon her to tell the truth; and she at length acknowledged her presence at the time when the models of the ship and mariners were destroyed, but endeavoured so to modify her declaration as to deny all personal accession to the guilt. This poor creature almost admitted the supernatural powers imputed to her, promising Bailie Dunlop (also a mariner), by whom she was imprisoned, that, if he would dismiss her, he should never make a bad voyage, but have success in all his dealings by sea and land. She was finally brought to promise that she would fully confess the whole that she knew of the affair on the morrow.
But finding herself in so hard a strait, the unfortunate woman made use of the darkness to attempt an escape. With this view she got out by a back window of the belfry, although, says the report, there were “iron bolts, locks, and fetters on her,” and attained the roof of the church, where, losing her footing, she sustained a severe fall and was greatly bruised. Being apprehended, Bailie Dunlop again urged her to confess; but the poor woman was determined to appeal to a more merciful tribunal, and maintained her innocence to the last minute of her life, denying all that she had formerly admitted, and dying five days after her fall from the roof of the church. The inhabitants of Irvine attributed her death to poison.
The scene began to thicken, for a commission was granted for the trial of the two remaining persons accused, namely, Stewart, the juggler, and Margaret Barclay. The day of trial being arrived, the following singular events took place, which we give as stated in the record:—
“My Lord and Earl of Eglintoune (who dwells within the space of one mile to the said burgh) having come to the said burgh at the earnest request of the said justices, for giving to them of his lordship’s countenance, concurrence and assistance, in trying of the foresaid devilish practices, conform to the tenor of the foresaid commission, the said John Stewart, for his better preserving to the day of the assize, was put in a sure lockfast booth, where no manner of person might have access to him till the downsitting of the Justice Court, and for avoiding of putting violent hands on himself, he was very strictly guarded and fettered by the arms, as use is. And upon that same day of the assize, about half an hour before the downsitting of the Justice Court, Mr. David Dickson, minister at Irvine, and Mr. George Dunbar, minister of Air, having gone to him to exhort him to call on his God for mercy for his bygone wicked and evil life, and that God would of his infinite mercy loose him out of the bonds of the devil, whom he had served these many years bygone, he acquiesced in their prayer and godly exhortation, and uttered these words:—“I am so straitly guarded that it lies not in my power to get my hand to take off my bonnet, nor to get bread to my mouth.” And immediately after the departing of the two ministers from him, the juggler being sent for at the desire of my Lord of Eglintoune, to be confronted with a woman of the burgh of Air, called Janet Bous, who was apprehended by the magistrates of the burgh of Air for witchcraft, and sent to the burgh of Irvine purposely for that affair, he was found by the burgh officers who went about him, strangled and hanged by the cruik of the door, with a tait of hemp, or a string made of hemp, supposed to have been his garter, or string of his bonnet, not above the length of two span long, his knees not being from the ground half a span, and was brought out of the house, his life not being totally expelled. But notwithstanding of whatsoever means used in the contrary for remeid of his life, he revived not, but so ended his life miserably, by the help of the devil his master.
“And because there was then only in life the said Margaret Barclay, and that the persons summoned to pass upon her assize and upon the assize of the juggler who, by the help of the devil his master, had put violent hands on himself, were all present within the said burgh; therefore, and for eschewing of the like in the person of the said Margaret, our sovereign lord’s justices in that part particularly above-named, constituted by commission after solemn deliberation and advice of the said noble lord, whose concurrence and advice was chiefly required and taken in this matter, concluded with all possible diligence before the downsitting of the Justice Court to put the said Margaret in torture; in respect the devil, by God’s permission, had made her associates who were the lights of the cause, to be their own burrioes (slayers). They used the torture underwritten as being most safe and gentle (as the said noble lord assured the said justices), by putting of her two bare legs in a pair of stocks, and thereafter by onlaying of certain iron gauds (bars) severally one by one, and then eiking and augmenting the weight by laying on more gauds, and in easing of her by offtaking of the iron gauds one or more as occasion offered, which iron gauds were but little short gauds, and broke not the skin of her legs, &c.
“After using of the which kind of gentle torture, the said Margaret began, according to the increase of the pain, to cry and crave for God’s cause to take off her shins the foresaid irons, and she should declare truly the whole matter. Which being removed, she began at her former denial; and being of new essayed in torture as of befoir, she then uttered these words: ‘Take off, take off, and before God I shall show you the whole form!’
“And the said irons being of new, upon her faithfull promise, removed, she then desired my Lord of Eglintoune, the said four justices, and the said Mr. David Dickson, minister of the burgh, Mr. George Dunbar, minister of Ayr, and Mr. Mitchell Wallace, minister of Kilmarnock, and Mr. John Cunninghame, minister of Dalry, and Hugh Kennedy, provost of Ayr, to come by themselves and to remove all others, and she should declare truly, as she should answer to God the whole matter. Whose desire in that being fulfilled she made her confession in this manner, but (i.e., without) any kind of demand, freely, without interrogation; God’s name by earnest prayer being called upon for opening of her lips, and easing of her heart, that she, by rendering of the truth, might glorify and magnify his holy name, and disappoint the enemy of her salvation.”—Trial of Margaret Barclay, &c., 1618.
Margaret Barclay, who was a young and lively person, had hitherto conducted herself like a passionate and high-tempered woman innocently accused, and the only appearance of conviction obtained against her was, that she carried about her rowan-tree and coloured thread, to make, as she said, her cow give milk, when it began to fail. But the gentle torture— a strange junction of words — recommended as an anodyne by the good Lord Eglinton — the placing, namely, her legs in the stocks, and loading her bare shins with bars of iron, overcame her resolution; when, at her screams and declarations that she was willing to tell all, the weights were removed. She then told a story of destroying the ship of John Dein, affirming that it was with the purpose of killing only her brother-in-law and Provost Tran, and saving the rest of the crew. She at the same time involved in the guilt Isobel Crawford. This poor woman was also apprehended, and in great terror confessed the imputed crime, retorting the principal blame on Margaret Barclay herself. The trial was then appointed to proceed, when Alexander Dein, the husband of Margaret Barclay, appeared in court with a lawyer to act in his wife’s behalf. Apparently, the sight of her husband awakened some hope and desire of life, for when the prisoner was asked by the lawyer whether she wished to be defended? she answered, “As you please But all I have confest was in agony of torture; and, before God, all I have spoken is false and untrue.” To which she pathetically added, “Ye have been too long in coming.”
The jury, unmoved by these affecting circumstances, proceeded upon the principle that the confession of the accused could not be considered as made under the influence of torture, since the bars were not actually upon her limbs at the time it was delivered, although they were placed at her elbow ready to be again laid on her bare shins, if she was less explicit in her declaration than her auditors wished. On this nice distinction they in one voice found Margaret Barclay guilty. It is singular that she should have again returned to her confession after sentence, and died affirming it; the explanation of which, however, might be either that she had really in her ignorance and folly tampered with some idle spells, or that an apparent penitence for her offence, however imaginary, was the only mode in which she could obtain any share of public sympathy at her death, or a portion of the prayers of the clergy and congregation, which, in her circumstances, she might be willing to purchase, even by confession of what all believed respecting her. It is remarkable that she earnestly entreated the magistrates that no harm should be done to Isobel Crawford, the woman whom she had herself accused. This unfortunate young creature was strangled at the stake, and her body burnt to ashes, having died with many expressions of religion and penitence.
It was one fatal consequence of these cruel persecutions, that one pile was usually lighted at the embers of another. Accordingly in the present case, three victims having already perished by this accusation, the magistrates, incensed at the nature of the crime, so perilous as it seemed to men of a maritime life, and at the loss of several friends of their own, one of “whom had been their principal magistrate, did not forbear to insist against Isobel Crawford, inculpated by Margaret Barclay’s confession. A new commission was granted for her trial, and after the assistant minister of Irvine, Mr. David Dickson, had made earnest prayers to God for opening her obdurate and closed heart, she was subjected to the torture of iron bars laid upon her bare shins, her feet being in the stocks, as in the case of Margaret Barclay.
She endured this torture with incredible firmness, since she did “admirably, without any kind of din or exclamation, suffer above thirty stone of iron to be laid on her legs, never shrinking thereat in any sort, but remaining, as it were, steady.” But in shifting the situation of the iron bars, and removing them to another part of her shins, her constancy gave way; she broke out into horrible cries (though not more than three bars were then actually on her person) of —“Tak aff — tak aff!” On being relieved from the torture, she made the usual confession of all that she was charged with, and of a connexion with the devil which had subsisted for several years. Sentence was given against her accordingly. After this had been denounced, she openly denied all her former confessions, and died without any sign of repentance, offering repeated interruption to the minister in his prayer, and absolutely refusing to pardon the executioner.
This tragedy happened in the year 1613, and recorded, as it is, very particularly and at considerable length, forms the most detailed specimen I have met with of a Scottish trial for witchcraft — illustrating, in particular, how poor wretches, abandoned, as they conceived, by God and the world, deprived of all human sympathy, and exposed to personal tortures of an acute description, became disposed to throw away the lives that were rendered bitter to them by a voluntary confession of guilt, rather than struggle hopelessly against so many evils. Four persons here lost their lives, merely because the throwing some clay models into the sea, a fact told differently by the witnesses who spoke of it, corresponded with the season, for no day was fixed in which a particular vessel was lost. It is scarce possible that, after reading such a story, a man of sense can listen for an instant to the evidence founded on confessions thus obtained, which has been almost the sole reason by which a few individuals, even in modern times, have endeavoured to justify a belief in the existence of witchcraft.
The result of the judicial examination of a criminal, when extorted by such means, is the most suspicious of all evidence, and even when voluntarily given, is scarce admissible without the corroboration of other testimony.
We might here take leave of our Scottish history of witchcraft by barely mentioning that many hundreds, nay perhaps thousands, lost their lives during two centuries on such charges and such evidence as proved the death of those persons in the trial of the Irvine witches. One case, however, is so much distinguished by fame among the numerous instances which occurred in Scottish history, that we are under the necessity of bestowing a few words upon those celebrated persons, Major Weir and his sister.
The case of this notorious wizard was remarkable chiefly from his being a man of some condition (the son of a gentleman, and his mother a lady of family in Clydesdale), which was seldom the case with those that fell under similar accusations. It was also remarkable in his case that he had been a Covenanter, and peculiarly attached to that cause. In the years of the Commonwealth this man was trusted and employed by those who were then at the head of affairs, and was in 1649 commander of the City–Guard of Edinburgh, which procured him his title of Major. In this capacity he was understood, as was indeed implied in the duties of that officer at the period, to be very strict in executing severity upon such Royalists as fell under his military charge. It appears that the Major, with a maiden sister who had kept his house, was subject to fits of melancholic lunacy, an infirmity easily reconcilable with the formal pretences which he made to a high show of religious zeal. He was peculiar in his gift of prayer, and, as was the custom of the period, was often called to exercise his talent by the bedside of sick persons, until it came to be observed that, by some association, which it is more easy to conceive than to explain, he could not pray with the same warmth and fluency of expression unless when he had in his hand a stick of peculiar shape and appearance, which he generally walked with. It was noticed, in short, that when this stick was taken from him, his wit and talent appeared to forsake him. This Major Weir was seized by the magistrates on a strange whisper that became current respecting vile practices, which he seems to have admitted without either shame or contrition. The disgusting profligacies which he confessed were of such a character that it may be charitably hoped most of them were the fruits of a depraved imagination, though he appears to have been in many respects a wicked and criminal hypocrite. When he had completed his confession, he avowed solemnly that he had not confessed the hundredth part of the crimes which he had committed. From this time he would answer no interrogatory, nor would he have recourse to prayer, arguing that, as he had no hope whatever of escaping Satan, there was no need of incensing him by vain efforts at repentance. His witchcraft seems to have been taken for granted on his own confession, as his indictment was chiefly founded on the same document, in which he alleged he had never seen the devil, but any feeling he had of him was in the dark. He received sentence of death, which he suffered 12th April, 1670, at the Gallow-hill, between Leith and Edinburgh. He died so stupidly sullen and impenitent as to justify the opinion that he was oppressed with a kind of melancholy frenzy, the consequence perhaps of remorse, but such as urged him not to repent, but to despair. It seems probable that he was burnt alive. His sister, with whom he was supposed to have had an incestuous connexion, was condemned also to death, leaving a stronger and more explicit testimony of their mutual sins than could be extracted from the Major. She gave, as usual, some account of her connexion with the queen of the fairies, and acknowledged the assistance she received from that sovereign in spinning an unusual quantity of yam. Of her brother she said that one day a friend called upon them at noonday with a fiery chariot, and invited them to visit a friend at Dalkeith, and that while there her brother received information of the event of the battle of Worcester. No one saw the style of their equipage except themselves. On the scaffold this woman, determining, as she said, to die “with the greatest shame possible,” was with difficulty prevented from throwing off her clothes before the people, and with scarce less trouble was she flung from the ladder by the executioner. Her last words were in the tone of the sect to which her brother had so long affected to belong: “Many,” she said, “weep and lament for a poor old wretch like me; but alas! few are weeping for a broken Covenant.”
The Scottish prelatists, upon whom the Covenanters used to throw many aspersions respecting their receiving proof against shot from the devil, and other infernal practices, rejoiced to have an opportunity, in their turn, to retort on their adversaries the charge of sorcery. Dr. Hickes, the author of “Thesaurus Septentrionalis,” published on the subject of Major Weir, and the case of Mitchell, who fired at the Archbishop of St. Andrews his book called “Ravaillac Redivivus,” written with the unjust purpose of attaching to the religious sect to which the wizard and assassin belonged the charge of having fostered and encouraged the crimes they committed or attempted.
It is certain that no story of witchcraft or necromancy, so many of which occurred near and in Edinburgh, made such a lasting impression on the public mind as that of Major Weir. The remains of the house in which he and his sister lived are still shown at the head of the West Bow, which has a gloomy aspect, well suited for a necromancer. It was at different times a brazier’s shop and a magazine for lint, and in my younger days was employed for the latter use; but no family would inhabit the haunted walls as a residence; and bold was the urchin from the High School who dared approach the gloomy ruin at the risk of seeing the Major’s enchanted staff parading through the old apartments, or hearing the hum of the necromantic wheel, which procured for his sister such a character as a spinner. At the time I am writing this last fortress of superstitious renown is in the course of being destroyed, in order to the modern improvements now carrying on in a quarter long thought unimprovable.
As knowledge and learning began to increase, the gentlemen and clergy of Scotland became ashamed of the credulity of their ancestors, and witch trials, although not discontinued, more seldom disgrace our records of criminal jurisprudence.
Sir John Clerk, a scholar and an antiquary, the grandfather of the late celebrated John Clerk of Eldin, had the honour to be amongst the first to decline acting as a commissioner on the trial of a witch, to which he was appointed so early as 1678,81 alleging, drily, that he did not feel himself warlock (that is, conjurer) sufficient to be a judge upon such an inquisition. Allan Ramsay, his friend, and who must be supposed to speak the sense of his many respectable patrons, had delivered his opinion on the subject in the “Gentle Shepherd,” where Mause’s imaginary witchcraft constitutes the machinery of the poem.
81 See Fountainhall’s “Decisions,” vol. i. p. 15.
Yet these dawnings of sense and humanity were obscured by the clouds of the ancient superstition on more than one distinguished occasion. In 1676, Sir George Maxwell, of Pollock, apparently a man of melancholic and valetudinary habits, believed himself bewitched to death by six witches, one man and five women, who were leagued for the purpose of tormenting a clay image in his likeness. The chief evidence on the subject was a vagabond girl, pretending to be deaf and dumb. But as her imposture was afterwards discovered and herself punished, it is reasonably to be concluded that she had herself formed the picture or image of Sir George, and had hid it where it was afterwards found in consequence of her own information. In the meantime, five of the accused were executed, and the sixth only escaped on account of extreme youth.
A still more remarkable case occurred at Paisley in 1697, where a young girl, about eleven years of age, daughter of John Shaw, of Bargarran, was the principal evidence. This unlucky damsel, beginning her practices out of a quarrel with a maid-servant, continued to imitate a case of possession so accurately that no less than twenty persons were condemned upon her evidence, of whom five were executed, besides one John Reed, who hanged himself in prison, or, as was charitably said, was strangled by the devil in person, lest he should make disclosures to the detriment of the service. But even those who believed in witchcraft were now beginning to open their eyes to the dangers in the present mode of prosecution. “I own,” says the Rev. Mr. Bell in his MS. “Treatise on Witchcraft,” “there has been much harm done to worthy and innocent persons in the common way of finding out witches, and in the means made use of for promoting the discovery of such wretches and bringing them to justice; so that oftentimes old age, poverty, features, and ill-fame, with such like grounds not worthy to be represented to a magistrate, have yet moved many to suspect and defame their neighbours, to the unspeakable prejudice of Christian charity; a late instance whereof we had in the west, in the business of the sorceries exercised upon the Laird of Bargarran’s daughter, anno 1697 — a time when persons of more goodness and esteem than most of their calumniators were defamed for witches, and which was occasioned mostly by the forwardness and absurd credulity of diverse otherwise worthy ministers of the gospel, and some topping professors in and about the city of Glasgow.”82
82 Law’s “Memorialls,” edited by C.K. Sliarpe, Esq.: Prefatory Notice, p. 93.
Those who doubted of the sense of the law or reasonableness of the practice in such cases, began to take courage and state their objections boldly. In the year 1704 a frightful instance of popular bigotry occurred at Pittenweem. A strolling vagabond, who affected fits, laid an accusation of witchcraft against two women, who were accordingly seized on, and imprisoned with the usual severities. One of the unhappy creatures, Janet Cornfoot by name, escaped from prison, but was unhappily caught, and brought back to Pittenweem, where she fell into the hands of a ferocious mob, consisting of rude seamen and fishers. The magistrates made no attempts for her rescue, and the crowd exercised their brutal pleasure on the poor old woman, pelted her with stones, swung her suspended on a rope betwixt a ship and the shore, and finally ended her miserable existence by throwing a door over her as she lay exhausted on the beach, and heaping stones upon it till she was pressed to death. As even the existing laws against witchcraft were transgressed by this brutal riot, a warm attack was made upon the magistrates and ministers of the town by those who were shocked at a tragedy of such a horrible cast, There were answers published, in which the parties assailed were zealously defended. The superior authorities were expected to take up the affair, but it so happened; during the general distraction of the country concerning the Union, that the murder went without the investigation which a crime so horrid demanded. Still, however, it was something gained that the cruelty was exposed to the public. The voice of general opinion was now appealed to, and in the long run the sentiments which it advocates are commonly those of good sense and humanity.
The officers in the higher branches of the law dared now assert their official authority and reserve for their own decision cases of supposed witchcraft which the fear of public clamour had induced them formerly to leave in the hands of inferior judges, operated upon by all the prejudices of the country and the populace.
In 1718, the celebrated lawyer, Robert Dundas of Arniston, then King’s Advocate, wrote a severe letter of censure to the Sheriff-depute of Caithness, in the first place, as having neglected to communicate officially certain precognitions which he had led respecting some recent practices of witchcraft in his county. The Advocate reminded this local judge that the duty of inferior magistrates, in such cases, was to advise with the King’s Counsel, first, whether they should be made subject of a trial or not; and if so, before what court, and in what manner, it should take place. He also called the magistrate’s attention to a report, that he, the Sheriff-depute, intended to judge in the case himself; “a thing of too great difficulty to be tried without very deliberate advice, and beyond the jurisdiction of an inferior court.” The Sheriff-depute sends, with his apology, the precognition83 of the affair, which is one of the most nonsensical in this nonsensical department of the law. A certain carpenter, named William Montgomery, was so infested with cats, which, as his servant-maid reported, “spoke among themselves,” that he fell in a rage upon a party of these animals which had assembled in his house at irregular hours, and betwixt his Highland arms of knife, dirk, and broadsword, and his professional weapon of an axe, he made such a dispersion that they were quiet for the night. In consequence of his blows, two witches were said to have died. The case of a third, named Nin–Gilbert, was still more remarkable. Her leg being broken, the injured limb withered, pined, and finally fell off; on which the hag was enclosed in prison, where she also died; and the question which remained was, whether any process should be directed against persons whom, in her compelled confession, she had, as usual, informed against. The Lord Advocate, as may be supposed, quashed all further procedure.
83 The precognition is the record of the preliminary evidence on which the public officers charged in Scotland with duties entrusted to a grand jury in England, incur the responsibility of sending an accused person to trial.
In 1720, an unlucky boy, the third son of James, Lord Torphichen, took it into his head, under instructions, it is said, from a knavish governor, to play the possessed and bewitched person, laying the cause of his distress on certain old witches in Calder, near to which village his father had his mansion. The women were imprisoned, and one or two of them died; but the Crown counsel would not proceed to trial. The noble family also began to see through the cheat. The boy was sent to sea, and though he is said at one time to have been disposed to try his fits while on board, when the discipline of the navy proved too severe for his cunning, in process of time he became a good sailor, assisted gallantly in defence of the vessel against the pirates of Angria, and finally was drowned in a storm.
In the year 1722, a Sheriff-depute of Sutherland, Captain David Ross of Littledean, took it upon him, in flagrant violation of the then established rules of jurisdiction, to pronounce the last sentence of death for witchcraft which was ever passed in Scotland. The victim was an insane old woman belonging to the parish of Loth, who had so little idea of her situation as to rejoice at the sight of the fire which was destined to consume her. She had a daughter lame both of hands and feet, a circumstance attributed to the witch’s having been used to transform her into a pony, and get her shod by the devil. It does not appear that any punishment was inflicted for this cruel abuse of the law on the person of a creature so helpless; but the son of the lame daughter, he himself distinguished by the same misfortune, was living so lately as to receive the charity of the present Marchioness of Stafford, Countess of Sutherland in her own right, to whom the poor of her extensive country are as well known as those of the higher order.
Since this deplorable action there has been no judicial interference in Scotland on account of witchcraft, unless to prevent explosions of popular enmity against people suspected of such a crime, of which some instances could be produced. The remains of the superstition sometimes occur; there can be no doubt that the vulgar are still addicted to the custom of scoring above the breath84 (as it is termed), and other counter-spells, evincing that the belief in witchcraft is only asleep, and might in remote corners be again awakened to deeds of blood. An instance or two may be quoted chiefly as facts known to the author himself.
84 Drawing blood, that is, by two cuts in the form of a cross on the witch’s forehead, confided in all throughout Scotland as the most powerful counter charm.
In a remote part of the Highlands, an ignorant and malignant woman seems really to have meditated the destruction of her neighbour’s property, by placing in a cow-house, or byre as we call it, a pot of baked clay containing locks of hair, parings of nails, and other trumpery. This precious spell was discovered, the design conjectured, and the witch would have been torn to pieces had not a high-spirited and excellent lady in the neighbourhood gathered some of her people (though these were not very fond of the service), and by main force taken the unfortunate creature out of the hands of the populace. The formidable spell is now in my possession.
About two years since, as they were taking down the walls of a building formerly used as a feeding-house for cattle, in the town of Dalkeith, there was found below the threshold-stone the withered heart of some animal stuck full of many scores of pins — a counter-charm, according to tradition, against the operations of witchcraft on the cattle which are kept within. Among the almost innumerable droves of bullocks which come down every year from the Highlands for the south, there is scarce one but has a curious knot upon his tail, which is also a precaution lest an evil eye or an evil spell may do the animal harm.
The last Scottish story with which I will trouble you happened in or shortly after the year 1800, and the whole circumstances are well known to me. The dearth of the years in the end of the eighteenth and beginning of this century was inconvenient to all, but distressing to the poor. A solitary old woman, in a wild and lonely district, subsisted chiefly by rearing chickens, an operation requiring so much care and attention that the gentry, and even the farmers’ wives, often find it better to buy poultry at a certain age than to undertake the trouble of bringing them up. As the old woman in the present instance fought her way through life better than her neighbours, envy stigmatized her as having some unlawful mode of increasing the gains of her little trade, and apparently she did not take much alarm at the accusation. But she felt, like others, the dearth of the years alluded to, and chiefly because the farmers were unwilling to sell grain in the very moderate quantities which she was able to purchase, and without which her little stock of poultry must have been inevitably starved. In distress on this account, the dame went to a neighbouring farmer, a very good-natured, sensible, honest man, and requested him as a favour to sell her a peck of oats at any price. “Good neighbour,” he said, “I am sorry to be obliged to refuse you, but my corn is measured out for Dalkeith market; my carts are loaded to set out, and to open these sacks again, and for so small a quantity, would cast my accounts loose, and create much trouble and disadvantage; I dare say you will get all you want at such a place, or such a place.” On receiving this answer, the old woman’s temper gave way. She scolded the wealthy farmer, and wished evil to his property, which was just setting off for the market. They parted, after some angry language on both sides; and sure enough, as the carts crossed the ford of the river beneath the farm-house, off came the wheel from one of them, and five or six sacks of corn were damaged by the water. The good farmer hardly knew what to think of this; there were the two circumstances deemed of old essential and sufficient to the crime of witchcraft —Damnum minatum, et malum secutum. Scarce knowing what to believe, he hastened to consult the sheriff of the county, as a friend rather than a magistrate, upon a case so extraordinary. The official person showed him that the laws against witchcraft were abrogated, and had little difficulty to bring him to regard the matter in its true light of an accident.
It is strange, but true, that the accused herself was not to be reconciled to the sheriffs doctrine so easily. He reminded her that, if she used her tongue with so much license, she must expose herself to suspicions, and that should coincidences happen to irritate her neighbours, she, might suffer harm at a time when there was no one to protect her. He therefore requested her to be more cautious in her language for her own sake, professing, at the same time, his belief that her words and intentions were perfectly harmless, and that he had no apprehension of being hurt by her, let her wish her worst to him. She was rather more angry than pleased at the well-meaning sheriffs scepticism. “I would be laith to wish ony ill either to you or yours, sir,” she said; “for I kenna how it is, but something aye comes after my words when I am ill-guided and speak ower fast.” In short, she was obstinate in claiming an influence over the destiny of others by words and wishes, which might have in other times conveyed her to the stake, for which her expressions, their consequences, and her disposition to insist upon their efficacy, would certainly of old have made her a fit victim. At present the story is scarcely worth mentioning, but as it contains material resembling those out of which many tragic incidents have arisen.
So low, in short, is now the belief in witchcraft, that perhaps it is only received by those half-crazy individuals who feel a species of consequence derived from accidental coincidences, which, were they received by the community in general, would go near, as on former occasions, to cost the lives of those who make their boast of them. At least one hypochondriac patient is known to the author, who believes himself the victim of a gang of witches, and ascribes his illness to their charms, so that he wants nothing but an indulgent judge to awake again the old ideas of sorcery.
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