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Witch, Warlock, and Magician

Historical Sketches of Magic and Witchcraft in England and Scotland

Book II: Witches and Witchcraft

Chapter IV: The Witches of Scotland

By W. H. Davenport Adams (published 1889)

Among the people of Scotland, a more serious-minded and imaginative race than the English, the superstition of witchcraft was deeply rooted at an early period. Its development was encouraged not only by the idiosyncrasies of the national character, but also by the nature of the country and the climate in which they lived. The lofty mountains, with their misty summits and shadowy ravines--their deep obscure glens--were the fitting homes of the wildest fancies, the eŽriest legends; and the storm crashing through the forests, and the surf beating on the rocky shore, suggested to the ear of the peasant or the fisherman the voices of unseen creatures--of the dread spirits of the waters and the air. To men who believed in kelpie and wraith and the second sight, a belief in witch and warlock was easy enough. And it was not until the Calvinist reformers imported into Scotland their austere and rigid creed, with its literal interpretation of Biblical imagery, that witchcraft came to be regarded as a crime. It was not until 1563 that the Parliament of Scotland passed a statute constituting 'witchcraft and dealing with witches' a capital offence. It is true that persons accused of witchcraft had already suffered death--as the Earl of Mar, brother of James III, who was suspected of intriguing with witches and sorcerers in order to compass his brother's death, and Lady Glamis, in 1532, charged with a similar plot against James V--but in both these cases it was the treason which was punished rather than the sorcery.

In the Scottish criminal records the first person who suffered death for the practice of witchcraft was a Janet Bowman, in 1572. No particulars of her offence are given; and against her name are written only the significant words, 'convict and byrnt.'

A remarkable case, that of Bessie Dunlop, belongs to 1576. [Pitcairn, 'Criminal Trials,' i 49-58. This chapter is mainly founded on the reports in Pitcairn.] She was the wife of an Ayrshire peasant, Andrew Jack. According to her own statement, she was going one day from her house to the yard of Monkcastle, driving her cows to the pasture, and greeting over her troubles--for she had a milch-cow nigh sick to death, and her husband and child were lying ill, and she herself had but recently risen from childbed--when a strange man met her, and saluted her with the words, 'Gude day, Bessie!' She answered civilly, and, in reply to his questions, acquainted him with her anxieties; whereupon he informed her that her cow, her two sheep, and her child would die, but that her gude man would recover. She described this stranger in graphic language as 'an honest, wele-elderlie man, gray bairdit, and had ane gray coat with Lumbart slevis of the auld fassoun; ane pair of gray brekis and quhyte schankis, gartaurt above the knee; ane black bonnet on his heid, cloise behind and plane before, with silkin laissis drawin throw the lippis thairof; and ane quhyte wand in his hand.' He told Bessie that his name was Thomas Reid, and that he had been killed at the Battle of Pinkie. Extraordinary as was this information, it did not seem improbable to her when she noted the manner of his disappearance through the yard of Monkcastle: 'I thocht he gait in at ane narroware hoill of the dyke [wall], nor ony erdlie man culd haif gaun throw; and swa I was sumthing fleit [terrified].'

Thomas Reid's sinister predictions were duly fulfilled. Soon afterwards, he again met Bessie, and boldly invited her to deny her religion, and the faith in which she was christened, in return for certain worldly advantages. But Bessie steadfastly refused.

This visitor of hers was under no fear of the ordinance which is supposed to limit the mundane excursions of 'spiritual creatures' to the hours between sunset and cockcrow; for he generally made his appearance at mid-day. It is not less singular that he made no objection to the presence of humanity. On one occasion he called at her house, where she sat conversing with her husband and three tailors, and, invisible to them, plucked her by the apron, and led her to the door, and thence up the hill-end, where he bade her stand, and be silent, whatever she might hear or see. And suddenly she beheld twelve persons, eight women and four men; the men clad in gentlemen's clothing, and the women with plaids round about them, very seemly to look at. Thomas was among them. They bade her sit down, and said: 'Welcome, Bessie; wilt thou go with us?' But she made no answer, and after some conversation among themselves, they disappeared in a hideous whirlwind.

When Thomas returned, he informed her that the persons she had seen were the 'good wights,' who dwell in the Court of FaŽry, and he brought her an invitation to accompany them thither--an invitation which he repeated with much earnestness. She answered, with true Scotch caution: 'She saw no profit to gang that kind of gates, unless she knew wherefore.'

'Seest thou not me,' he rejoined, 'worth meat and worth clothes, and good enough like in person?'

The prospect, however, could not beguile her; and she continued firm in her simple resolve to dwell with her husband and bairns, whom she had no wish to abandon. Off went Thomas in a storm of anger; but before long he recovered his temper, and resumed his visits, showing himself willing to 'fetch and carry' at her request, and always treating her with the deference due to a wife and mother. The only benefit she derived from this friendship was, she said, the means of curing diseases and recovering stolen property, so that her witchcraft was of the simplest, innocentest kind. There was no compact with the devil, and it injured nobody--except doctors and thieves. Yet for yielding to this hallucination--the product of a vivid imagination, stimulated, we suspect, by much solitary reverie--Bessie Dunlop was 'convyct and byrnt.' Mayhap, as she was led to the death-fire, she may have dreamed that she had done better to have gone with Thomas Reid to the Court of FaŽry!

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The combination of the fairy folklore with the gloomier inventions of witchcraft occurs again in the case of Alison Pierson (1588). There was a certain William Simpson, a great scholar and physician, and a native of Stirling. While but a child, he was taken away from his parents 'by a man of Egypt, a giant,' who led him away to Egypt with him, 'where he remained by the space of twelve years before he came home again.' On his return, he made the acquaintance of Alison, who was a near relative, and cured her of certain ailments; but soon afterwards, less fortunate in treating himself, he died. Some months had passed when, one day as Alison was lying on her bed, sick and alone, she was suddenly addressed by a man in green clothes, who told her that, if she would be faithful, he would do her good. In her first alarm, she cried for help, but no one hearing, she called upon the Divine Name, when her visitor immediately disappeared. Before long, he came to her again, attended by many men and women; and compelling her to accompany them, they set off in a gay procession to Lothian, where they found puncheons of wine, with drinking-cups, and enjoyed themselves right heartily. Thenceforward she was on the friendliest terms with the 'good neighbours,' even visiting the Fairy Queen at her court, where, according to her own account, she was made much of, was treated, indeed, as 'one of themselves,' and allowed to see them compounding wonderful healing-salves in miniature pans over tiny fires.

It would seem that this woman had acquired a considerable knowledge of 'herbs and simples,' and that the medicines she made up effected remarkable cures. No doubt it was for the purpose of enhancing the value of her concoctions that she professed to have obtained the secret of them from the fairies. So great was her repute for medicinal skill, that the Archbishop of St. Andrews sought her advice in a dangerous illness, and, by her directions, ate 'a sodden food,' and at two draughts absorbed a quart of good claret wine, which she had previously medicated, greatly benefiting thereby.

Alison had a fertile fancy and a fluent tongue, and told stories of the fairies and their doings which did credit to her invention. It does not appear that she injured anybody, except, perhaps, by her drugs, but, then, even the faculty sometimes do that! But, like Bessie Dunlop, she was convicted of witchcraft, and burned. The surprising thing about this and similar cases is, that the poor woman should have assisted in her own condemnation by devising such extraordinary fictions. What was the use of them? A prisoner on a charge which, if proved against her, meant a terrible death, what object did she expect to gain? Was it all done for the sake of the temporary surprise and astonishment her tale created? that she might be the heroine of an hour?--Men have, we know, their strange ambitions, but if this were Alison Pierson's, it was one of the very strangest.

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In the next case I shall bring forward, that of Dame Fowlis, we come upon the trail of actual crime. Dame Fowlis, second wife of the chief of the clan Munro, was by birth a Roise or Ross, of Balnagown. To effect the aggrandisement of her own family, she plotted the death of Robert, her husband's eldest son, in order to marry his wealthy widow to her brother, George Roise or Ross, laird of Balnagown; but as he, too, was married, it was necessary to get rid of his wife also. For this 'double event,' she employed, with little attempt at concealment, three 'notorious witches'--Agnes Roy, Christian Roy, and Marjory Nayre MacAllister, alias Loskie Loncart--besides one William MacGillivordam, and several other persons of dubious reputation. About Midsummer, 1576, Agnes Roy was despatched to bring Loskie Loncart into Dame Fowlis' presence. The result of this interview was soon apparent. Clay images of the two doomed individuals were made, and exposed to the usual sorceries; while MacGillivordam obtained a supply of poison from Aberdeen, which the cook was bribed to put into a dish intended for the lady of Balnagown's table. It did not prove mortal, as anticipated, but afflicted the unfortunate lady with a long and severe illness. Dame Fowlis, however, felt no remorse, but continued her plots, gradually widening their scope until she resolved to kill all her husband's children by his first wife, in order to secure the inheritance for her own. In May, 1577, she instructed MacGillivordam to procure a large quantity of poison. He refused, unless his brother was made privy to the transaction. I suppose this was done, as the poison was obtained, and proved to be so deadly in its nature that two persons--a woman and a boy--were killed by accidentally tasting of it.

Foiled in her scheme, Dame Fowlis resorted to the practices of witchcraft, and bought, in June, for five shillings, 'an elf arrow-head'--that is, a rude flint implement--belonging to the neolithic age. On July 2, she and her accomplices met together in secret conclave; and having made an image of butter to resemble Robert Munro, they placed it against the wall; and then, with the elf arrow-head, Loskie Loncart shot at it for eight times, but each time without success, a proof that the familiars of the devil, like their master, could not always hit the mark. Meeting a second time for the same purpose, they made an image of clay, at which Loskie shot twelve times in succession, invariably missing, to the great disappointment of all concerned. The failure was ascribed to the elf arrow-head, and in August another was procured; two figures of clay were also made, for Robert Munro and for Lady Balnagown, respectively; at the latter Dame Fowlis shot twice, and at the former Loskie Loncart shot thrice; but the shooting was no better than before, and the two images being accidentally broken, the charm was destroyed. It was proposed to try poison again, but by this time the authorities had gained information of what was going on, and towards the end of November, Christian Roy, who had been present at the third meeting, was arrested. Being put to the torture, she confessed everything, and, together with some of her confederates, was convicted of witchcraft and burnt. Dame Fowlis, who assuredly was not the least guilty person, escaped to Caithness, but, after remaining in concealment for nine months, was allowed to return to her home. In 1588, her husband died, and was succeeded in his estates by Robert Munro, who revived the charge of witchcraft against his step-mother, and obtained a commission for her examination and that of her surviving accomplices. Dame Fowlis was put on her trial on July 22, 1590; but she had money and friends, and contrived to obtain a verdict of acquittal.

It is one of the most remarkable features of this remarkable case that, as soon as her acquittal was pronounced, a new trial was opened, in which the defendant was her other stepson, Hector Munro [Pitcairn, ut ante, i 192, 202, 285], who had been, only an hour before, the principal witness against her. The allegations against him were: first, that, during the sore sickness of his brother, in the summer of 1588, he had consulted with 'three notorious and common witches' respecting the best means of curing him, and had sheltered them for several days, until compelled by his father to send them about their business; and, second, that falling ill himself, in January, 1559, he had caused a certain Marion MacIngaruch, 'one of the most notorious and rank witches in the whole realm,' to be brought to him, and who, after administering three draughts of water out of three stones which she carried with her, declared that his sole chance of recovery lay in the sacrifice of 'the principal man of his blood.' After due consultation, they decided that this vicarious sufferer must be George Munro, his step-brother, the eldest son of Dame Fowlis. Messengers were accordingly sent in search of him. Apprehending no evil, he obeyed the call, and five days afterwards arrived at the house of Hector Munro. Following the directions of the witch, Hector received his brother in silence, giving him his left hand, and taking him by the right hand, and uttering no word of greeting until he had spoken. George, astounded by the chillness of his reception, which he could not but contrast with the warmth of the invitations, remained in his brother's sick-room an hour without speaking. At last he asked Hector how he felt. 'The better that you have come to visit me,' replied Hector, and then was again silent, for so the witch had ordained. An hour after midnight appeared Marion MacIngaruch, with several assistants; and, arming themselves with spades, they repaired to a nook of ground at the sea-side, situated between the boundaries of the estates of the two lairds, and there, removing the turf, they dug a grave of the size of the invalid.

Marion returned to the house, and gave directions to her confederates as to the parts they were to play in the startling scene which was yet to be enacted. It was represented to her that if George died suddenly suspicions would be aroused, with a result dangerous to all concerned; and she thereupon undertook that he should be spared until April 17 next thereafter. Hector was then wrapped up in a couple of blankets, and carried to the grave in silence. In silence he was deposited in it, and the turf lightly laid upon him, while Marion stationed herself by his side. His foster-mother, one Christiana Neill Dayzell, then took a young lad by the hand, and ran the breadth of nine ridges, afterwards inquiring of the witch 'who might be her choice,' and receiving for answer, 'That Hector was her choice to live, and his brother George to die for him.' This ceremony was thrice repeated, and the sick man was then taken from the grave, and carried home, the most absolute silence still being maintained.

Such an experience on a bitter January night might well have proved fatal to the subject of it; but, strange to say, Hector Munro recovered--probably from the effect on his imagination of rites so peculiar and impressive; whereas, in the month of April, George Munro was seized with a grievous illness, of which, in the following June, he died. Grateful for the cure she had effected, Hector received the witch Marion into high favour, installing her at his uncle's house of Kildrummadyis, entertaining her 'as if she had been his spouse, and giving her such pre-eminence in the county that none durst offend her.' But it is the nature of such unhallowed confederacies to surrender, sooner or later, their dark, dread secrets. Whispers spread abroad, gradually shaping themselves into a connected story which invited judicial investigation. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Marion MacIngaruch; but for some time Hector Munro contrived to conceal her, until Dame Fowlis discovered and made known that she was lying in the house at Fowlis. She was arrested; and, making a full confession of her actions, was sentenced to death, and burnt. Hector Munro, however, was more fortunate, and obtained his acquittal.

James VI and the Witches

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