Home eBooks Index eBooks by Author Glossary Search eBooks

The Witches of Scotland

The following is from The Witches of Scotland by W. H. Davenport Adams:

James VI and the Witches

These, and other cases of witchcraft which, as the mania extended, occurred in various parts of the country, attracted the attention of King James, and made a profound impression upon him. Taking up the study of the subject with enthusiasm, he inquired into the demonology of France and Germany, where it had been matured into a science; and this so thoroughly that he became, as already stated, an expert, and was really entitled to pronounce authoritative decisions. His example, however, had a disastrous effect, confirming and deepening the popular credulity to such an extent that the common people, for a time, might have been divided into two great classes--witches and witch-finders. That in such circumstances many acts of cruelty should be perpetrated was inevitable. So complete was the demoralization, that the most trivial physical or mental peculiarity was held to be an indubitable witch-mark, and young and old were hurried to the stake like sheep to the slaughter.

In August, 1589, King James was married, by proxy, to Princess Anne of Denmark; and the impatient monarch was eagerly awaiting the arrival of his bride from Copenhagen, when the unwelcome intelligence reached him that the vessels conveying her and her suite had been overtaken by a storm, and, after a narrow escape from destruction, had put into the port of Upsal, in Norway, with the intention of remaining there until the following spring. The eager bridegroom, summoning up all his courage--he had no love for the sea--resolved to go in search of his queen, and, having found her, to conduct her to her new home. At Upsal the marriage was duly solemnized; and husband and wife then voyaged to Copenhagen, where they spent the winter. The homeward voyage was not undertaken until the following spring; and it was on May Day, 1590, that James and his Queen landed at Leith, after an experience of the sea which confirmed James's distaste for it.

The political disorder of the country, and the hold which the new superstition had obtained upon the minds of the people, encouraged the circulation of dark mysterious rumours in connection with the King's unfavourable passage; and a general belief soon came to be established that the tempestuous weather which had so seriously affected it was due to the intervention of supernatural powers, at the instigation of human treachery. Suspicion fixed at length upon the Earl of Bothwell, who was arrested and committed to prison; but in June, 1591, contrived to make his escape, and conceal himself in the remote recesses of the Highlands. Not long afterwards, some curious circumstances attending certain cures which a servant girl--Geillis, or Gillies, Duncan--had performed, led to her being suspected of witchcraft; and this suspicion opened up a series of investigations, which revealed the existence of an extraordinary conspiracy against the King's life.

Geillis Duncan was in the employment of David Seton, deputy-bailiff of the small town of Tranent, in Haddingtonshire. Unlike the witch of English rural life, she was young, comely, and fair-complexioned; and the only ground on which the idea of witchcraft was associated with her was the wonderful quickness with which she had cured some sick and diseased persons, the fact being that she was well acquainted with the healing properties of herbs. When her master severely interrogated her, she at once denied all knowledge of the mysteries of the black art. He then, without leave or license, put her to the torture; she still continued to protest her innocence. It was a popular conviction that no witch would confess so long as the devil-mark on her body remained undiscovered. She was subjected to an indecent examination--the stigma was found (said the examiners) on her throat; she was again subjected to the torture. The outraged girl's fortitude then gave way; she acknowledged whatever her persecutors wished to learn. Yes, she was a witch! She had made a compact with the devil; all her cures had been effected by his assistance--quite a new feature in the character of Satan, who has not generally been suspected of any compassionate feeling towards suffering humanity. That she had done good instead of harm availed the unfortunate Geillis nothing. She was committed to prison; and the torture being a third time applied, made a fuller confession, in which she named her accomplices or confederates, some forty in number, residing in different parts of Lothian. Their arrest and examination disclosed the particulars of one of the strangest intrigues ever concocted.

The principal parties in it were Dr. Fian, or Frain, a reputed wizard, also known as John Cunningham; a grave matron, named Agnes Sampson; Euphemia Macalzean, daughter of Lord Cliftonhall; and Barbara Napier. Fian, or Cunningham, was a schoolmaster of Tranent, and a man of ability and education; but his life had been evil--he was a vendor of poisons--and, though innocent of the preposterous crimes alleged against him, had dabbled in the practices of the so-called sorcery. When a twisted cord was bound round his bursting temples, he would confess nothing; and, exasperated by his fortitude, the authorities subjected him to the terrible torture of 'the boots.' Even this he endured in silence, until exhausted nature came to his relief with an interval of unconsciousness. He was then released; restoratives were applied; and, while he hovered on the border of sensibility, he was induced to sign 'a full confession.' Being remanded to his prison, he contrived, two days afterwards, to escape; but was recaptured, and brought before the High Court of Justiciary, King James himself being present. Fian strenuously repudiated the so-called confession which had been foisted upon him in his swoon, declaring that his signature had been obtained by a fraud. Whereupon King James, enraged at what he conceived to be the man's stubborn wilfulness, ordered him again to the torture. His fingernails were torn out with pincers, and long needles thrust into the quick; but the courageous man made no sign. He was then subjected once more to the barbarous 'boots,' in which he continued so long, and endured so many blows, that 'his legs were crushed and beaten together as small as might be, and the bones and flesh so bruised, that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever.'

As ultimately extorted from the unfortunate Fian, his confession shows a remarkable mixture of imposture and self-deception--a patchwork of the falsehoods he believed and those he invented. Singularly grotesque is his account of his introduction to the devil: He was lodging at Tranent, in the house of one Thomas Trumbill, who had offended him by neglecting to 'sparge' or whitewash his chamber, as he had promised; and, while lying in his bed, meditating how he might be revenged of the said Thomas, the devil, clothed in white raiment, suddenly appeared, and said: 'Will ye be my servant, and adore me and all my servants, and ye shall never want?' Never want! The bribe to a poor Scotch dominie was immense; Fian could not withstand it, and at once enlisted among 'the Devil's Own.' As his first act of service, he had the pleasure of burning down Master Trumbill's house. The next night Beelzebub paid him another visit, and put his mark upon him with a rod. Thereafter he was found lying in his chamber in a trance, during which, he said, he was carried in the spirit over many mountains, and accomplished an aërial circumnavigation of the globe. In the future he attended all the nightly conferences of witches and fiends held throughout Lothian, displaying so much energy and capacity that the devil appointed him to be his 'registrar and secretary.'

The first convention at which he was present assembled in the parish church of North Berwick, a breezy, picturesque seaport at the mouth of the Forth, about sixteen miles from Preston Pans. Satan occupied the pulpit, and delivered 'a sermon of doubtful speeches,' designed for their encouragement. His servants, he said, should never want, and should ail nothing, so long as their hairs were on, and they let no tears fall from their eyes. He bade them spare not to do evil, and advised them to eat, drink, and be merry: after which edifying discourse they did homage to him in the usual indecent manner. Fian, as I have said, was an evil-living man, and needed no exhortation from the devil to do wicked things. In the course of his testimony he invented, as was so frequently the strange practice of persons accused of witchcraft, the most extravagant fictions--as, for instance: One night he supped at the miller's, a few miles from Tranent; and as it was late when the revel ended, one of the miller's men carried him home on horseback. To light them on their way through the dark of night, Fian raised up four candles on the horse's ears, and one on the staff which his guide carried; their great brightness made the midnight appear as noonday; but the miller's man was so terrified by the phenomenon that, on his return home, he fell dead.

Let us next turn to the confession of Agnes Sampson, 'the wise wife of Keith,' as she was popularly called. She was charged with having done grave injury to persons who had incurred her displeasure; but she seems, when all fictitious details are thrust aside, to have been simply a shrewd and sagacious old Scotchwoman, with much force of character, who made a decent living as a herb-doctor. Archbishop Spottiswoode describes her as matronly in appearance, and grave of demeanour, and adds that she was composed in her answers. Yet were those answers the wildest and most extraordinary utterances imaginable, and, if they be truly recorded, they convict her of unscrupulous audacity and unfailing ingenuity.

She affirmed that her service to the devil began after her husband's death, when he appeared to her in mortal likeness, and commanded her to renounce Christ, and obey him as her master. For the sake of the riches he promised to herself and her children, she consented; and thereafter he came in the guise of a dog, of which she asked questions, always receiving appropriate replies. On one occasion, having been summoned by the Lady Edmaston, who was lying sick, she went out into the garden at night, and called the devil by his terrestrial or mundane alias of Elva. He bounded over the stone wall in the likeness of a dog, and approached her so close that she was frightened, and charged him by 'the law he believed in' to keep his distance. She then asked him if the lady would recover; he replied in the negative. In his turn he inquired where the gentlewomen, her daughters, were; and being informed that they were to meet her in the garden, said that one of them should be his leman. 'Not so,' exclaimed the wise wife undauntedly; and the devil then went away howling, like a whipped schoolboy, and hid himself in the well until after supper. The young gentlewomen coming into the bloom and perfumes of the garden, he suddenly emerged, seized the Lady Torsenye, and attempted to drag her into the well; but Agnes gripped him firmly, and by her superior strength delivered her from his clutches. Then, with a terrible yell, he disappeared.

Yet another story: Agnes, with Geillis Duncan and other witches, desiring to be revenged on the deputy bailiff, met on the bridge at Fowlistruther, and dropped a cord into the river, Agnes Sampson crying, 'Hail! Holloa!' Immediately they felt the end of the cord dragged down by a great weight; and on drawing it up, up came the devil along with it! He inquired if they had all been good servants, and gave them a charm to blight Seton and his property; but it was accidentally diverted in its operation, and fell upon another person--a touch of realism worthy of Defoe!

Euphemia Macalzean, a lady of high social position, daughter and heiress of Lord Cliftonhall (who was eminent as lawyer, statesman, and scholar), seems to have been involved in this welter of intrigue, conspiracy, and deception, through her adherence to Bothwell's faction, and her devotion to the Roman communion. Her confession was as grotesque and unveracious as that of any of her associates. She was made a witch (she said) through the agency of an Irishwoman 'with a fallen nose,' and, to perfect herself in the craft, had paid another witch, who resided in St. Ninian's Row, Edinburgh, for 'inaugurating' her with 'the girth of ane gret bikar,' revolving it 'oft round her head and neck, and ofttimes round her head.' She was accused of having administered poison to her husband, her father-in-law, and some other persons; and whatever may be thought of the allegations of sorcery and witchcraft, this heavier charge seems to have been well-founded. Euphemia said that her acquaintance with Agnes Sampson began with her first accouchement, when she applied to her to mitigate her pains, and she did so by transferring them to a dog. At her second accouchement, Agnes transferred them to a cat.

As a determined enemy of the Protestant religion, Satan was inimical to King James's marriage with a Protestant princess, and to break up an alliance which would greatly limit his power for evil, he determined to sink the ship that carried the newly-married couple on their homeward voyage. His first device was to hang over the sea a very dense mist, in the hope that the royal ship would miss her course, and strike on some dangerous rock. When this device failed, Dr. Fian was ordered to summon all the witches to meet their master at the haunted kirk of North Berwick. Accordingly, on All-Hallow-mass Eve, they assembled there to the number of two hundred; and each one embarking in 'a riddle,' or sieve1, they sailed over the ocean 'very substantially,' carrying with them flagons of wine, and making merry, and drinking 'by the way.' After sailing about for some time, they met with their master, bearing in his claws a cat, which had previously been drawn nine times through the fire. Handing it to one of the warlocks, he bade him cast it into the sea, and shout 'Hola!' whereupon the ocean became convulsed, and the waters seethed, and the billows rose like heaving mountains. On through the storm sailed this eerie company until they reached the Scottish coast, where they landed, and, joining hands, danced in procession to the kirk of North Berwick, Geillis Duncan going before them, playing a reel upon her Jew's-harp, or trump--formerly a favourite musical instrument with the Scotch peasantry--and singing:

'Cummer, go ye before; cummer, go ye;
Gif ye will not go before, cummer, let me!'

Having arrived at their rendezvous, they danced round it 'withershins'--that is, in reverse of the apparent motion of the sun. Dr. Fian then blew into the keyhole of the door, which opened immediately, and all the witches and warlocks entered in. It was pitch-dark; but Fian lighted the tapers by merely blowing on them, and their sudden blaze revealed the devil in the pulpit, attired in a black gown and hat. The description given of the fiend reveals the stern imagination of the North, and is characteristic of the 'weird sisters' of Scotland, who form, as Dr. Burton remarks, so grand a contrast to 'the vulgar grovelling parochial witches of England.' His body was hard as iron; his face terrible, with a nose like an eagle's beak; his eyes glared like fire; his voice was gruff as the sound of the east wind; his hands and legs were covered with hair, and his hands and feet were armed with long claws. On beholding him, witches and warlocks, with one accord, cried: 'All hail, master!' He then called over their names, and demanded of them severally whether they had been good and faithful servants, and what measure of success had attended their operations against the lives of King James and his bride--which surely he ought to have known! Gray Malkin, a foolish old warlock, who officiated as beadle or janitor, heedlessly answered, That nothing ailed the King yet, God be thanked! At which the devil, in a fury, leaped from the pulpit, and lustily smote him on the ears. He then resumed his position, and delivered his sermon, commanding them to act faithfully in their service, and do all the evil they could. Euphemia Macalzean and Agnes Sampson summoned up courage enough to ask him whether he had brought an image or picture of the King, that, by pricking it with pins, they might inflict upon its living pattern all kinds of pain and disease. The devil was fain to acknowledge that he had forgotten it, and was soundly rated by Euphemia for his carelessness, Agnes Sampson and several other women seizing the opportunity to load him with reproaches on their respective accounts.

On another occasion, according to Agnes Sampson, she, Dr. Fian, and a wizard of some energy, named Robert Grierson, with several others, left Grierson's house at Preston Pans in a boat, and went out to sea to 'a tryst.' Embarking on board a ship, they drank copiously of good wine and ale, after which they sank the ship and her crew, and returned home. And again, sailing from North Berwick in a boat like a chimney, they saw the devil--in shape and size resembling a huge hayrick--rolling over the great waves in front of them. They went on board a vessel called The Grace of God, where they enjoyed, as before, an abundance of wine and 'other good cheer.' On leaving it, the devil, who was underneath the ship, raised an evil wind, and it perished.

Some of these stories proved to be too highly coloured even for the credulity of King James; and he rightly enough exclaimed that the witches were, like their master, 'extraordinary liars.' It is said, however, that he changed his opinion after Agnes Sampson, in a private conference which he accorded to her, related the details of a conversation between himself and the Queen that had taken place under such circumstances as to ensure inviolable secrecy. It is curious that a very similar story is told of Jeanne Darc--whom our ancestors burned as a witch--and King Charles VI of France.

Despite the machinations of the devil and the witches, King James and Queen Anne, as we know, escaped every peril, and reached Leith in safety. The devil sourly remarked that James was 'a man of God,' and was evidently inclined to let him alone severely; but the Preston Pans conspirators, instigated, perhaps, by some powerful personages who kept prudently in the background, resolved on another attempt against their sovereign's life. On Lammas Eve (July 31, 1590), nine of the ringleaders, including Dr. Fian, Agnes Sampson, Euphemia Macalzean, and Barbara Napier, with some thirty confederates, assembled at the New Haven, between Musselburgh and Preston Pans, at a spot called the Fairy Holes, where they were met by the devil in the shape of a black man, which was 'thought most meet to do the turn for the which they were convened.' Agnes Sampson at once proposed that they should make a final effort for the King's destruction. The devil took an unfavourable view of the prospects of their schemes; but he promised them a waxen image, and directed them to hang up and roast a toad, and to lay its drippings--mixed with strong wash, an adder's skin, and 'the thing on the forehead of a new-foaled foal'--in James's path, or to suspend it in such a position that it might drip upon his body. This precious injunction was duly obeyed, and the toad hung up where the dripping would fall upon the King, 'during his Majesty's being at the Brig of Dee, the day before the common bell rang, for fear the Earl Bothwell should have entered Edinburgh.' But the devil's foreboding was fulfilled, and the conspirators missed their aim, the King happening to take a different route to that by which he had been expected.

It is useless to repeat more of these wild and desperate stories, or to inquire too closely into their origin. Fact and fiction are so mixed up in them, and the embellishments are so many and so bold, that it is difficult to get at the nucleus of truth; but, setting aside the witch or supernatural element, we seem driven to the conclusion that these persons had combined together for some nefarious purpose. Whether they intended to compass the King's death by the superstitious practices which the credulity of the age supposed to be effective, or whether these practices were intended as a cover for surer means, cannot now be determined. Nor can we pretend to say whether all who were implicated in the plot by the confession of Geillis Duncan were really guilty. Dr. Fian, at all events, protested his innocence to the last; and with regard to him and others, the evidence adduced was painfully inadequate. But they were all convicted and sentenced to death. In the case of Barbara Napier, the majority of the jury at first acquitted her on the principal charges; but the King was highly indignant, and threatened them with a trial for 'wilful error upon an assize.' To avoid the consequences, they threw themselves upon the King's mercy, and were benevolently 'pardoned.' Poor Barbara Napier was hanged. So was Dr. Fian, on Castle Hill, Edinburgh (in January, 1592), and burned afterwards. So were Agnes Sampson, Agnes Thomson, and their real or supposed confederates. The punishment of Euphemia Macalzean was exceptionally severe. Instead of the ordinary sentence, directing the criminal to be first strangled and then burnt, it was ordered that she should be 'bound to a stake, and burned in ashes, quick to the death.' This fate befell her on June 25, 1591.

It was an unhappy result of this remarkable trial that it confirmed King James in his belief that he possessed a rare faculty for the detection of witches and the discovery of witchcraft. Continuing his investigation of the subject with fanatical zeal, he published in Edinburgh, in 1597, the outcome of his researches in his 'Dæmonologie'--an elaborate treatise, written in the form of a dialogue, the spirit of which may be inferred from its author's prefatory observations: 'The fearful abounding,' he says, 'at this time and in this country, of these detestable slaves of the devil, the witches or enchanters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to despatchin post this following treatise of mine, not in any wise (as I protest) to serve for a show of mine own learning and ingene, but only (moved of conscience) to press thereby, so far as I can, to resolve the doubting hearts of many, both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practised, and that the instrument thereof merits most severely to be punished, against the damnable opinions of two, principally in our age; whereof the one called Scot, an Englishman, is not ashamed in public print to deny that there can be such thing as witchcraft, and so maintains the old error of the Sadducees in denying of spirits. The other, called Wierus, a German physician, sets out a public apology for all these crafts-folks, whereby procuring for them impunity, he plainly betrays himself to have been one of that profession.'

Not only is King James fully convinced of the existence of witchcraft, but he is determined to treat it as a capital crime. 'Witches,' he affirms, 'ought to be put to death, according to the laws of God, the civil and imperial law, and the municipal law of all Christian nations; yea, to spare the life, and not strike whom God bids strike, and so severely punish so odious a treason against God, is not only unlawful, but, doubtless, as great a sin in the magistrate as was Saul's sparing Agag.' Conscious that the evidence brought against the unfortunate victims was generally of the weakest possible character, he contends that because the crime is generally abominable, evidence in proof of it may be accepted which would be refused in other offences; as, for example, that of young children who are ignorant of the nature of an oath, and that of persons of notoriously ill-repute. And the sole chance of escape which he offers to the accused is that of the ordeal. 'Two good helps,' he says, 'may be used: the one is the finding of their marks, and the trying the insensibleness thereof; the other is their floating on the water, for, as in a secret murther, if the dead carcase be at any time thereafter handled by the murtherer, it will gush out of blood, as if the blood were raging to the Heaven, for revenge of the murtherer (God having appointed that secret supernatural sign for trial of that secret unnatural crime), so that it appears that God hath appointed (for a supernatural sign of the monstrous impiety of witches), that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosom that have shaken off them the sacred water of baptism, and wilfully refused the benefit thereof; no, not so much as their eyes are able to shed tears at every light occasion when they will; yea, although it were dissembling like the crocodiles, God not permitting them to dissemble their obstinacy in so horrible a crime.'

*       *       *       *       *

Encouraged by the practice and teaching of their sovereign, the people of Scotland, whom the anthropomorphism of their religious creed naturally predisposed to believe in the personal appearances of the devil, undertook a regular campaign against those ill-fated individuals whom malice or ignorance, or their own mental or physical peculiarities, or other causes, branded as his bond-slaves and accomplices. Religious animosity, moreover, was a powerful factor in stimulating and sustaining the mania; and the Scotch Calvinist enjoyed a double gratification when some poor old woman was burned both as a witch and a Roman Catholic. It has been calculated that, in the period of thirty-nine years, between the enactment of the Statute of Queen Mary and the accession of James to the English throne, the average number of persons executed for witchcraft was 200 annually, making an aggregate of nearly 8,000. For the first nine years about 30 or 40 suffered yearly; but latterly the annual death-roll mounted up to 400 and 500. James at last grew alarmed at the prevalence of witchcraft in his kingdom, and seems to have devoted no small portion of his time to attempts to detect and exterminate it.

In 1591 the Earl of Bothwell was imprisoned for having conspired the King's death by sorcery, in conjunction with a warlock named Richie Graham. Graham was burned on March 8, 1592. Bothwell was not brought to trial until August 10, 1593, when several witches bore testimony against him, but he obtained an acquittal.

In 1597, on November 12, four women were tried by the High Court of Justiciary, in Edinburgh, on various charges of witchcraft. Their names are recorded as Christina Livingstone, Janet Stewart, Bessie Aikin, and Christina Sadler. Their trials, however, present no special features of interest.

Passing over half a century, we come to the recrudescence of the witch-mania, which followed on the restoration of Charles II Mr. R. Burns Begg has recently edited for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland a report of various witch trials in Forfar and Kincardineshire, in the opening years of that monarch's reign, which supplies some further illustrations of the characteristics of Scottish witchcraft. Here we meet with the strange word 'Covin' or 'Coven' (apparently connected with 'Covenant' or 'Convention') as applied to an organization or guild of witches. In 1662 the Judge-General-Depute for Scotland tried thirteen 'Coviners,' who had been detected by the efforts of a committee consisting of the ministers and schoolmasters of the district, together with the 'Laird of Tullibole.' Of these thirteen unfortunate victims only one was a man. All were found guilty by the jury, and sentenced to death. Eleven suffered at the stake; one died before the day of execution, and one was respited on account of her pregnancy. The evidence was of the usual extraordinary tenor, and the so-called 'confessions' of the accused were not less puzzling than in other cases. In Mr. Begg's opinion, which seems to me well founded, there really was in and around the Crook of Devon a local Covin, or regularly organized band of so-called witches who acted under the direction of a person whom they believed to be Satan. He suggests that at this period there would be many wild and unscrupulous characters, disbanded soldiers, and others, who found their profit in the 'blinded allegiance' of the witches and warlocks. The difficulty is, what was this profit? The witches do not seem to have paid anything in money or in kind. There are allusions which point to acts of immorality, and in several instances one can understand that personal enmities were gratified; but on the whole the personators of Satan had scant reward for all their trouble. And how was it that they were never denounced by any of their victims? How was it that the vigilance which detected the witches never tripped up their master? How are we to explain the diversity of Satan's appearances? At one time he was 'ane bonnie lad;' at another, an 'unco-like man, in black-coloured clothes and ane blue bonnet;' at another, a 'black iron-hard man;' and yet again, 'ane little man in rough gray clothes.' Occasionally he brought with him a piper, and the witches danced together, and the ground under them was all fireflaughts, and Andrew Watson had his usual staff in his hand, and although he is a blind man, yet danced he as nimbly as any of the company, and made also great merriment by singing his old ballads; and Isabel Shyrrie did sing her song called 'Tinkletum, Tankletum.' Alas, that no obliging pen has transmitted 'Tinkletum, Tankletum' to posterity! One could point to a good many songs which the world could have better spared. 'Tinkletum, Tankletum'--there is something amazingly suggestive in the words; possibilities of humour, perhaps of satire; humour and satire which might have secured for Isabel Shyrrie a place among Scottish poetesses, whereas now she comes before us in no more attractive character than that of a Coviner--a deluded or self-deluding witch.

Let us next betake ourselves to the East Coast, and make the acquaintance of Isabel Gowdie, whose 'confessions' are among the most extraordinary documents to be met with even in the records of Scottish witchcraft. It is impossible, I think, to overrate their psychological interest. The first is, perhaps, the most curious; and as no summary or condensation would do justice to its details, I shall place it before the reader in extenso, with no other alteration than that of Englishing the spelling. It was made at Auldearn on April 13, 1662, in presence of the parish minister, the sheriff-depute of Nairn, and nine lairds and farmers of good position:

'As I was going betwixt the towns (i.e., farmsteadings) of Drumdeevin and The Heads, I met with the Devil, and there covenanted in a manner with him; and I promised to meet him, in the night-time, in the Kirk of Auldearn2, which I did. And the first thing I did there that night, I denied my baptism, and did put the one of my hands to the crown of my head, and the other to the sole of my foot, and then renounced all betwixt my two hands over to the Devil. He was in the Reader's desk, and a black book in his hand. Margaret Brodie, in Auldearn, held me up to the Devil to be baptized by him, and he marked me in the shoulder, and sucked out my blood at that mark, and spouted it in his hand, and, sprinkling it on my head, said, "I baptize thee, Janet, in my own name!" And within awhile we all removed. The next time that I met with him was in the New Wards of Inshoch.... He was a mickle, black, rough [hirsute] man, very cold; and I found his nature all cold within me as spring-wall-water. [In the Forfarshire reports, alluded to on p. 332, the witches always speak of the devil's body and kiss as deadly cold.] Sometimes he had boots, and sometimes shoes on his feet; but still his feet are forked and cloven. He would be sometimes with us like a deer or a roe. John Taylor and Janet Breadhead, his wife, in Belmakeith, ... Douglas, and I myself, met in the kirkyard of Nairn, and we raised an unchristened child out of its grave; and at the end of Bradley's cornfieldland, just opposite to the Mill of Nairn, we took the said child, with the nails of our fingers and toes, pickles of all sorts of grain, and blades of kail [colewort], and hacked them all very small, mixed together; and did put a part thereof among the muck-heaps, and thereby took away the fruit of his corns, etc., and we parted it among two of our Covins. When we take corns at Lammas, we take but about two sheaves, when the corns are full; or two stalks of kail, or thereby, and that gives us the fruit of the corn-land or kail-yard, where they grew. And it may be, we will keep it until Yule or Pasche, and then divide it amongst us. There are thirteen persons [the usual number] in my Covin.

'The last time that our Covin met, we, and another Covin, were dancing at the Hill of Earlseat; and before that, betwixt Moynes and Bowgholl; and before that we were beyond the Mickle-burn; and the other Covin being at the Downie-hills, we went from beyond the Mickle-burn, and went beside them, to the houses at the Wood-End of Inshoch; and within a while went home to our houses. Before Candlemas we went be-east Kinloss, and there we yoked a plough of paddocks [frogs]. The Devil held the plough, and John Young, in Mebestown, our Officer, did drive the plough. Paddocks did draw the plough as oxen; quickens wor sowmes [dog-grass served for traces]; a riglon's [ram's] horn was a coulter, and a piece of a riglon's horn was a sock. We went two several times about; and all we of the Covin went still up and down with the plough, praying to the Devil for the fruit of that land, and that thistles and briars might grow there.

'When we go to any house, we take meat and drink; and we fill up the barrels with our own ... again; and we put besoms in our beds with our husbands, till we return again to them. We were in the Earl of Moray's house in Darnaway, and we got enough there, and did eat and drink of the best, and brought part with us. We went in at the windows. I had a little horse, and would say, "Horse and Hattock, in the Devil's name!" And then we would fly away, where we would, like as straws would fly upon a highway. We will fly like straws where we please; wild straws and corn-straws will be horses to us, and we put them betwixt our feet and say, "Horse and Hattock, in the Devil's name!" And when any see these straws in a whirlwind, and do not sanctify themselves, we may shoot them dead at our pleasure. Any that are shot by us, their souls will go to Heaven, but their bodies remain with us, and will fly as horses to us, as small as straws. [Pitcairn remarks, with justice, that the above details are, perhaps, in all respects the most extraordinary in the history of witchcraft of this or of any other country. Isabel Gowdie must have been a woman with a powerful and rank imagination, who, had she lived in the present day, might, perhaps, have produced a work of fiction of the school of Zola.]

'I was in the Downie Hills, and got meat there from the Queen of Fairy, more than I could eat. The Queen of Fairy is heavily clothed in white linen, and in white and lemon clothes, etc.; and the King of Fairy is a brave man, well favoured, and broad-faced, etc. There were elf-bulls, routing and skirling up and down there, and they affrighted me.

'When we take away any cow's milk, we pull the tail, and twine it and plait it the wrong way, in the Devil's name; and we draw the tedder (so made) in betwixt the cow's hinder-feet, and out betwixt the cow's fore-feet, in the Devil's name, and thereby take with us the cow's milk. We take sheep's milk even so [in the same manner]. The way to take or give back the milk again, is to cut that tedder. When we take away the strength of any person's ale, and give it to another, we take a little quantity out of each barrel or stand of ale, and put it in a stoop in the Devil's name, and in his name, with our own hands, put it amongst another's ale, and give her the strength and substance and "heall" of her neighbour's ale. And to keep the ale from us, that we have no power over it, is to sanctify it well. We get all this power from the Devil; and when we seek it from him, we will him to be "our Lord."

'John Taylor, and Janet Breadhead, his wife, in Belmakeith, Bessie Wilson in Aulderne, and Margaret Wilson, spouse to Donald Callam in Aulderne, and I, made a picture of clay, to destroy the Laird of Park's male children. John Taylor brought home the clay in his plaid nook [the corner of his plaid]; his wife broke it very small, like meal, and sifted it with a sieve, and poured in water among it, in the Devil's name, and wrought it very sure, like rye-bout [a stir-about made of rye-flour]; and made of it a picture of the laird's sons. It had all the parts and marks of a child, such as head, eyes, nose, hands, feet, mouth, and little lips. It wanted no mark of a child, and the hands of it folded down by its sides. It was like a pow [lump of dough], or a flayed egrya [a sucking-pig, which has been scalded and scraped]. We laid the face of it to the fire, till it strakned [shrivelled], and a clear fire round about it, till it was red like a coal. After that, we would roast it now and then; each other day there would be a piece of it well roasted. The Laird of Park's whole male children by it are to suffer, if it be not gotten and brokin, as well as those that are born and dead already. It was still put in and taken out of the fire in the Devil's name. It was hung up upon a crock. It is yet in John Taylor's house, and it has a cradle of clay about it. Only John Taylor and his wife, Janet Breadhead, Bessie and Margaret Wilson in Aulderne, and Margaret Brodie, these, and I, were only at the making of it. All the multitude of our number of witches, of all the Covins, kent [kenned, knew] all of it, at our next meeting after it was made. And the witches yet that are overtaken have their own powers, and our powers which we had before we were taken, both. But now I have no power at all.

'Margaret Kyllie, in ... is one of the other Covin; Meslie Hirdall, spouse to Alexander Ross, in Loanhead, is one of them; her skin is fiery. Isabel Nicol, in Lochley, is one of my Covin. Alexander Elder, in Earlseat, and Janet Finlay, his spouse, are of my Covin. Margaret Haslum, in Moynes, is one; Margaret Brodie, in Aulderne, Bessie and Margaret Wilson there, and Jane Martin there, and Elspet Nishie, spouse to John Mathew there, are of my Covin. The said Jane Martin is the Maiden of our Covin. John Young, in Mebestown, is Officer to our Covin.

'Elspet Chisholm, and Isabel More, in Aulderne, Maggie Brodie ... and I, went into Alexander Cumling's litt-house [dye-house], in Aulderne. I went in, in the likeness of a ken [jackdaw]; the said Elspet Chisholm was in the shape of a cat. Isabel More was a hare, and Maggie Brodie a cat, and.... We took a thread of each colour of yarn that was on the said Alexander Cumling's litt-fatt [dyeing-vat], and did cast three knots on each thread, in the Devil's name, and did put the threads in the vat, withersones about in the vat in the Devil's name, and thereby took the whole strength of the vat away, that it could litt [dye] nothing but only black, according to the colour of the Devil, in whose name we took away the strength of the right colours that were in the vat.'

*       *       *       *       *

The second confession, made at Aulderne, on May 3, 1662, is not less remarkable than the foregoing:

'... After that time there would meet but sometimes a Covin [i.e., thirteen], sometimes more, sometimes less; but a Grand Meeting would be about the end of each Quarter. There is thirteen persons in each Covin; and each of us has one Sprite to wait upon us, when we please to call upon him. I remember not all the Sprites' names, but there is one called Swin, which waits upon the said Margaret Wilson in Aulderne; he is still [ever] clothed in grass-green; and the said Margaret Wilson has a nickname, called "Pickle nearest the wind." The next Sprite is called "Rosie," who waits upon Bessie Wilson, in Aulderne; he is still clothed in yellow; and her nickname is "Through the cornyard." ... The third Sprite is called "The Roaring Lion," who waits upon Isabel Nicol, in Lochlors; and [he is still clothed[50]] in sea-green; her nickname is "Bessie Rule." The fourth Sprite is called "Mak Hector," who [waits upon Jane3] Martin, daughter to the said Margaret Wilson; he is a young-like devil, clothed still in grass-green. [Jane Martin is3] Maiden to the Covin that I am of; and her nickname is "Over the dyke with it," because the Devil [always takes the3] Maiden in his hand nix time we damn "Gillatrypes;" and when he would leap from ... 3 he and she will say, "Over the dyke with it!" The name of the fifth Sprite is "Robert the [Rule," and he is still clothed in3] sad-dun, and seems to be a Commander of the rest of the Sprites; and he waits upon Margaret Brodie, in Aulderne. [The name of the saxt Sprite] is called "Thief of Hell wait upon Herself;" and he waits also on the said Bessie Wilson. The name of the seventh [Sprite is called] "The Read Reiver;" and he is my own Spirit, that waits on myself, and is still clothed in black. The eighth Spirit [is called] "Robert the Jackis," still clothed in dun, and seems to be aged. He is a glaiked, glowked Spirit! The woman's [nickname] that he waits on is "Able and Stout!" [This was Bessie Hay.] The ninth Spirit is called "Laing," and the woman's nickname that he waits upon is "Bessie Bold" [Elspet Nishie]. The tenth Spirit is named "Thomas a Fiarie," etc. There will be many other Devils, waiting upon [our] Master Devil; but he is bigger and more awful than the rest of the Devils, and they all reverence him. I will ken them all, one by one, from others, when they appear like a man.

'When we raise the wind, we take a rag of cloth, and wet it in water; and we take a beetle and knock the rag on a stone, and we say thrice over:

'"I knock this rag upon this stane,
To raise the wind, in the Devil's name;
It shall not lie until I please again!"

When we would lay the wind, we dry the rag, and say (thrice over):

'"We lay the wind in the Devil's name,
[It shall not] rise while we [or I] like to raise it again!"

And if the wind will not lie instantly [after we say this], we call upon our Spirit, and say to him:

'"Thief! Thief! conjure the wind, and cause it to [lie?...]"

We have no power of rain, but we will raise the wind when we please. He made us believe [...] that there was no God beside him.

'As for Elf arrow-heads, the Devil shapes them with his own hand [and afterwards delivers them?] to Elf-boys, who "whyttis and dightis" [shapes and trims] them with a sharp thing like a packing-needle; but [when I was in Elf-land?] I saw them whytting and dighting them. When I was in the Elves' houses, they will have very ... them whytting and dighting; and the Devil gives them to us, each of us so many, when.... Those that dightis them are little ones, hollow, and boss-backed [humped-backed]. They speak gowstie [roughly] like. When the Devil gives them to us, he says:

'"Shoot these in my name,
And they shall not go heall hame!"

And when we shoot these arrows (we say):

'"I shoot you man in the Devil's name,
He shall not win heall hame!
And this shall be always true;
There shall not be one bit of him on lieiw" [on life, alive].

'We have no bow to shoot with, but spang [jerk] them from the nails of our thumbs. Sometimes we will miss; but if they twitch [touch], be it beast, or man, or woman, it will kill, tho' they had a jack [a coat of armour] upon them. When we go in the shape of a hare, we say thrice over:

'"I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow, and such, and mickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil's name,
Ay, until I come home [again!]."

And instantly we start in a hare. And when we would be out of that shape, we will say:

'"Hare! hare! God send thee care!
I am in a hare's likeness just now,
But I shall be in a woman's likeness even [now]."

When we would go in the likeness of a cat, we say thrice over:

'"I shall go [intill ane cat],
[With sorrow, and such, and a black] shot!
And I shall go in the Devil's name,
Ay, until I come home again!"

And if we [would go in a crow, then] we say thrice over:

'"I shall go intill a crow,
With sorrow, and such, and a black [thraw!
And I shall go in the Devil's name,]
Ay, until I come home again!"

And when we would be out of these shapes, we say:

'"Cat, cat [or crow, crow], God send thee a black shot [or black thraw!]
    I was a cat [or crow] just now,
    But I shall be [in a woman's likeness even now].
Cat, cat" [as supra].

If we go in the shape of a cat, a crow, a hare, or any other likeness, etc., to any of our neighbours' houses, being witches, we will say:

'"[I (or we) conjure] thee go with us [or me]!"

And presently they become as we are, either cats, hares, crows, etc., and go [with us whither we would. When] we would ride, we take windle-straws, or been-stakes [bean-stalks], and put them betwixt our feet, and say thrice:

'"Horse and Hattock, horse and go,
Horse and pellatris, ho! ho!"

And immediately we fly away wherever we would; and lest our husbands should miss us out of our beds, we put in a besom, or a three-legged stool, beside them, and say thrice over:

'"I lay down this besom [or stool] in the Devil's name,
Let it not stir till I come home again!"

And immediately it seems a woman, by the side of our husband.

'We cannot turn in[to] the likeness of [a lamb or a dove?] When my husband sold beef, I used to put a swallow's feather in the head of the beast, and [say thrice],

'"[I] put out this beef in the Devil's name,
That mickle silver and good price come hame!"

'I did even so [whenever I put] forth either horse, nolt [cattle], webs [of cloth], or any other thing to be sold, and still put in this feather, and said the [same words thrice] over, to cause the commodities sell well, and ... thrice over--

'"Our Lord to hunting he [is gone]
.......... marble stone,
He sent word to Saint Knitt ..."

'When we would heal any sore or broken limb, we say thrice over....

'"He put the blood to the blood, till all up stood;
The lith to the lith, Till all took nith;
Our Lady charmed her dearly Son, With her tooth and her tongue,
And her ten fingers--
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!"

'And this we say thrice over, stroking the sore, and it becomes whole. 2ndlie. For the Bean-Shaw [bone-shaw, i.e., the sciatica], or pain in the haunch: "We are here three Maidens charming for the bean-shaw; the man of the Midle-earth, blew beaver, land-fever, maneris of stooris, the Lord fleigged (terrified) the Fiend with his holy candles and yard foot-stone! There she sits, and here she is gone! Let her never come here again!" 3rdli. For the fevers, we say thrice over, "I forbid the quaking-fevers, the sea-fevers, the land-fevers, and all the fevers that God ordained, out of the head, out of the heart, out of the back, out of the sides, out of the knees, out of the thighs, from the points of the fingers to the nibs of the toes; net fall the fevers go, [some] to the hill, some to the heep, some to the stone, some to the stock. In St. Peter's name, St. Paul's name, and all the Saints of Heaven. In the name of the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Ghost!" And when we took the fruit of the fishes from the fishers, we went to the shore before the boat would come to it; and we would say, on the shore-side, three several times over:

'"The fishers are gone to the sea,
And they will bring home fish to me;
They will bring them home intill the boat,
But they shall get of them but the smaller sort!"

So we either steal a fish, or buy a fish, or get a fish from them [for naught], one or more. And with that we have all the fruit of the whole fishes in the boat, and the fishes that the fishermen themselves will have will be but froth, etc.

'The first voyage that ever I went with the rest of our Covins was [to] Ploughlands; and there we shot a man betwixt the plough-stilts, and he presently fell to the ground, upon his nose and his mouth; and then the Devil gave me an arrow, and caused me shoot a woman in that field; which I did, and she fell down dead. [These, it is needless to say, were pure inventions, and by no means amusing ones.] In winter of 1660, when Mr. Harry Forbes, Minister at Aulderne, was sick, we made a bag of the galls, flesh, and guts of toads, pickles of barley, parings of the nails of fingers and toes, the liver of a hare, and bits of clouts. We steeped all this together, all night among water, all hacked (or minced up) through other. And when we did put it among the water, Satan was with us, and learned us the words following, to say thrice over. They are thus:

'1st. "He is lying in his bed; he is lying sick and sore;
      Let him lie intill his bed two months and [three] days more!

'2nd. "Let him lie intill his bed; let him lie intill it sick and sore;
      Let him lie intill his bed months two and three days more!

'3rd. "He shall lie intill his bed, he shall lie in it sick and sore;
      He shall lie intill his bed two months and three days more!"

'When we had learned all these words from the Devil, as said is, we fell all down upon our knees, with our hair down over our shoulders and eyes, and our hands lifted up, and our eyes [upon] the Devil, and said the foresaid words thrice over to the Devil, strictly, against [the recovery of] Master Harry Forbes [from his sickness]. In the night time we came in to Mr. Harry Forbes's chamber, where he lay, with our hands all smeared out of the bag, to swing it upon Mr. Harry, when he was sick in his bed; and in the daytime [one of our] number, who was most familiar and intimate with him, to wring or swing the bag [upon the said Mr. Harry, as we could] not prevail in the night time against him, which was accordingly done. Any of ... comes in to your houses, or are set to do you evil, they will look uncouth--like, thrown ... hurly-like, and their clothes standing out. The Maiden of our Covin, Jane Martin, was [.... We] do no great matter without our Maiden.

'And if a child be forespoken [bewitched], we take the cradle ... through it thrice, and then a dog through it; and then shake the belt above the fire [... and then cast it] down on the ground, till a dog or cat go over it, that the sickness may come [... upon the dog or cat].'

*       *       *       *       *

With these extended quotations the reader will probably be satisfied, and in concluding my account of Isabel Gowdie, I must now adopt a process of condensation.

Among other freaks and fancies of a disordered imagination, Isabel declared that she merited to be stretched upon a rack of iron, and that if torn to pieces by wild horses, the punishment would not exceed the measure of her iniquities. These iniquities comprehended every act attributed by the superstition of the time to the servants of the devil, which had been carefully gathered up by this monomaniac from contemporary witch-tradition. The cruellest thing was, that she involved so large a number of innocent persons in the peril into which she herself had recklessly plunged, naming nearly fifty women, and I forget how many men, as her associates or accomplices. She affirmed that they dug up from their graves the bodies of unbaptized infants, and having dismembered them, made use of the limbs in their incantations. That when they wished to destroy an enemy's crops, they yoked toads to his plough; and on the following night the devil, with this strange team, drove furrows into the land, and blasted it effectually. The devil, it would seem, was so long and so incessantly occupied with high affairs in Scotland, that surely the rest of the world must have escaped meanwhile the evils of his interference! Witches, added Isabel, were able to assume almost any shape, but their usual choice was that of a hare, or perhaps a cat. There was some risk in either assumption. Once it happened that Isabel, in her disguise of a hare, was hotly pursued by a pack of hounds, and narrowly escaped with her life. When she reached her cottage-door she could feel the hot breath of her pursuers on her haunches; but, contriving to slip behind a chest, she found time to speak the magic words which alone could restore her to her natural shape, namely:

'Hare! hare! God send thee care!
I am in a hare's likeness now;
But I shall be a woman e'en now.
Hare! hare! God send thee care!'

If witches, while wearing the shape of hare or cat, were bitten by the dogs, they always retained the marks on their human bodies. When the devil called a convention of his servants, each proceeded through the air--like the witches of Lapland and other countries--astride on a broomstick [or it might be on a corn or bean straw], repeating as they went the rhyme:

'Horse and paddock, horse and go,
Horse and pellatris, ho! ho!'

They usually left behind them a broom, or three-legged stool, which, properly charmed and placed in bed, assumed a likeness to themselves until they returned, and prevented suspicion. This seems to have been the practice of witches everywhere. Witches specially favoured by their master were provided with a couple of imps as attendants, who boasted such very mundane names as 'The Roaring Lion,' 'Thief of Hell,' 'Ranting Roarer,' and 'Care for Nought'--a great improvement on the vulgar monosyllables worn by the English imps--and were dressed, as already described, in distinguishing liveries: sea-green, pea-green, grass-green, sad-dun, and yellow. The witches were never allowed--at least, not in the infernal presence--to call themselves, or one another, by their baptismal names, but were required to use the appellations bestowed on the devil when he rebaptized them, such as 'Blue Kail,' 'Raise the Wind,' 'Batter-them-down Maggie,' and 'Able and Stout.' The reader will find in the reports of the trial much more of this grotesque nonsense--the vapourings of a distempered brain. The judges, however, took it seriously, and Isabel Gowdie, or Gilbert, and many of her presumed accomplices, were duly strangled and burned (in April, 1662).

1 So the witch in 'Macbeth' (Act I, sc. 3) says:

'In a sieve I'll thither sail.'

2 It is a singular circumstance, as Pitcairn remarks, that in almost all the confessions of witches, or at least of the Scottish witches, their initiation, and many of their meetings, are said to have taken place within churches, churchyards, and consecrated ground; and a certain ritual, in imitation, or mockery, of the forms of the Church, is uniformly said to have been gone through.

3 There are mutilations in the original manuscript, and the bracketed words are conjectural.

Case of Janet Wishart

Copyright © Scotland from the Roadside 2019