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:

Case of Janet Wishart

The case of Janet Wishart, wife of John Leyis, carries us away to the North of Scotland. It presents some peculiar features, and therefore I shall put it before the reader, with no more abridgment than is absolutely needful. It is of much earlier date than the preceding. [From the 'Records of the Burgh of Aberdeen,' printed for the Spalding Club, 1841]

'i In the month of April, or thereabout, in 1591, in the "gricking" of the day, [that is, in the dawn,] Janet Wishart, on her way back from the blockhouse and Fattie, where she had been holding conference with the devil, pursued Alexander Thomson, mariner, coming forth of Aberdeen to his ship, ran between him and Alexander Fidler, under the Castle Hill, as swift, it appeared to him, as an arrow could be shot forth of a bow, going betwixt him and the sun, and cast her "cantrips" in his way. Whereupon, the said Alexander Thomson took an immediate "fear and trembling," and was forced to hasten home, take to his bed, and lie there for the space of a month, so that none believed he would live;--one half of the day burning in his body, as if he had been roasting in an oven, with an extreme feverish thirst, "so that he could never be satisfied of drink," the other half of the day melting away his body with an extraordinarily cold sweat. And Thomson, knowing she had cast this kind of witchcraft upon him, sent his wife to threaten her, that, unless she at once relieved him, he would see that she was burnt. And she, fearing lest he should accuse her, sent him by the two women a certain kind of beer and some other drugs to drink, after which Thomson mended daily, and recovered his former health.'

It is to be noted that Janet flatly denied the coming of Mrs. Thomson on any such errand.

'ii Seven years before, on St. Bartholomew's Day, when Andrew Ardes, webster [weaver], in his play, took a linen towel, and put it about the said Janet's neck, not fearing any evil from her, or that she would be offended, Janet, "in a devilish fury and wodnes" [madness], exclaimed, "Why teasest thou me? Thou shalt die! I shall give bread to my bairns this towmound [twelvemonth], but thou shalt not bide a month with thine to give them bread." And immediately after the said Andrew's departure from her, he took to his bed for the space of eight days: the one half of the day roasting in his whole body as in a furnace, and the other half with a vehement sweat melting away; so that, by her cruel murther and witchcraft, the said Andrew Ardes died within eight days. And the day after his departure, his widow, "contracting a high displeasure," took to her bed, and within a month deceased; so that all their bairns are now begging their meat.'

This was testified to be true by Elspeth Ewin, spouse to James Mar, mariner, but was denied by the accused.

'iii Twenty-four years ago, in the month of May, when she dwelt on the School Hill, next to Adam Mair's, she was descried by Andrew Brabner the younger, John Leslie, of the Gallowgate, Robert Sanders, wright, Andrew Simson, tailor, and one Johnson, who were then schoolboys, stealing forth from the said Adam Mair's yard, at two in the morning, "greyn growand bear;" and instantly, being pointed out by the said scholars to the wife of the said Adam, she, in her fury, burst forth upon the scholars: "Well have ye schemed me, but I shall gar the best of you repent!" And she added that, ere four in the afternoon, she would make as many wonder at them as should see them. Upon the same day, between two and three in the afternoon, the said scholars passed to the Old Watergang in the Links to wash themselves; and after they had done so, and dried, the said John Leslie and Johnson took a race beside the Watergang, and desperately threw themselves into the midst of the Watergang, and were drowned, through the witchcraft which Janet had cast upon them. And thus, as she had promised, she did murder them.'

This was testified by Robert Sanders and Andrew Simson, but was denied by the accused.

'iv Sixteen years since, or thereby, she [the accused] and Malcolm Carr's wife, having fallen at variance and discord, she openly vowed that the latter should be confined to her bed for a year and a day, and should not make for herself a single cake: immediately after which discord, the said Malcolm's wife went to her own house, sought her bed, and lay half a year bed-stricken by the witchcraft Janet had cast upon her, according to her promise; one half of the day burning up her whole body as in a fiery furnace, the other half melting away her body with an extraordinary sweat, with a congealed coldness.'

v She was also accused of lending to Meryann Nasmith a pair of head-sheets in childbed, into which she put her witchcraft: which sheets, as soon as she knew they had taken heat about the woman's head, immediately she went and took them from her; and before she [Janet] was well out of the house, Meryann went out of her mind, and was bound hand and foot for three days.

vi Three years since, or thereby, James Ailhows, having been a long time in her service, Janet desired him to continue with her, and on his refusing, 'Gang where you please,' she said, 'I will see that you do not earn a single cake of bread for a year and a day.' And as soon as he quitted her service, he was seized with an extremely heavy sickness and (wodnes) delirium, with a continual burning heat and cold sweating, and lay bedfast half a year, according to her promise, through the devilish witchcraft she had cast upon him. So that he was compelled to send to Benia for another witch to take the witchcraft from him: who came to this town and washed him in water running south, and put him through a girth, with some other ceremonies that she used. And he paid her seventeen marks, and by her help recovered health again.

vii For twenty years past she continually and nightly, after eleven o'clock, when her husband and servants had gone to their beds, put on a great fire, and kept it up all night, and sat before it using witchcraft, altogether contrary to the nature of well-living persons. And on those nights when she did not make up the fire, she went out of the house, and stayed away all night where she pleased.

viii She caused ...., then in her service, and lately shepherd to Mr. Alexander Fraser, to take certain drugs of witchcraft made by her, such as old shoon, and cast them in the fire of John Club, stabler, her neighbour; since which time, through her witchcraft, the said John Club has become completely impoverished.

ix She and Janet Patton having fallen into variance and discord, Janet Patton called the witch 'Karling,' to whom she answered that she would give her to understand if she was a witch, and would try her skill upon her. And immediately afterwards, Janet Patton [like everybody else concerned in these mysterious doings] took to her bed, with a vehement, great, and extraordinary sickness, for one half the day, from her middle up, burning as in a fiery furnace, with an insatiable drought, which she could not slake; the other half-day, melting away with sweat, and from her middle down as cold as ice, so that through the witchcraft cast upon her she died within a month.

x The particulars given of the case of James Lowe, stabler, are almost the same. He refused to lend his kill and barn, and on the same

day he was seized with this remarkable sickness--half a day burning hot, and half a day ice-cold. On his death-bed he accused Janet Wishart of being the cause of his misfortune, saying, "That if he had lent to her his kill and kilbarn, he wald haf bene ane lewand man." His wife and only son died of the same kind of disease, and his whole gear, amounting to more than 3,000, was altogether wracked and thrown away, so that there was left no memory of the said James, succession of his body, nor of their gear.

xi John Pyet, stabler, is named as another victim.

xii There is an air of novelty about the next case, that of John Allan, cutler, Janet Wishart's son-in-law. Quarrelling with his wife, he 'dang' her, 'whereupon Mistress Allan complained to her mother, who immediately betook herself to her son-in-law's house, 'bostit' him, and promised to gar him repent that ever he saw or kent her. Shortly afterwards, either she or the devil her master, in the likeness of a brown tyke, came nightly for five or six weeks to his window, forced it open, leaped upon the said John, dang and buffeted him, while always sparing his wife, who lay in bed with him, so that the said John became half-wod and furious.' And this persecution continued, until he threatened to inform the ministry and kirk-session.

xiii The next case must be given verbatim, it is so striking an example of ignorant prejudice:

'Four years since, or thereby, she came in to Walter Mealing's dwelling-house, in the Castlegate of Aberdeen, to buy wool, which they refused to sell. Thereafter, she came to the said Walter's bairn, sitting on her mother's knee, and the said Walter played with her. And she said, "This is a comely child, a fine child," without any further words, and would not say "God save her!" And before she reached the stair-foot, the bairn, by her witchcraft, in presence of both her father and mother, "cast her gall," changed her colour like dead, and became as weak as "ane pair of glwffis," and melted continually away with an extraordinary sweating and extreme drought, which that same day eight days, at the same hour, she came in first, and then the bairn departed. And for no request nor command of the said Walter, nor others whom he directed, she would not come in again to the house to "visie" the bairn, although she was oft and divers times sent for, both by the father and mother of the bairn, and so by her witchcraft she murdered the bairn.'

xiv On Yule Eve, in '94, at three in the morning, Janet, remaining in Gilbert Mackay's stair in the Broadgate, perceived Bessie Schives, spouse of Robert Blinschell, going forth of her own house to the dwelling-house of James Davidson, notary, to his wife, who was in travail. She came down the stair, and cast her cantrips and witchcraft in her way, and the said Bessie being in perfect health of body, and as blithe and merry as ever she was in her days, when she went out of the same James Davidson's house, or ever she could win up her own stair, took a great fear and trembling that she might scarcely win up her own stair, and immediately after her up-coming, went to her naked bed, lay continually for the space of eighteen weeks fast bed-sick, bewitched by Janet Wishart, the one half-day roasting as in a fiery furnace, with an extraordinary kind of drought, that she could not be slaked, and the other half-day in an extraordinary kind of sweating, melting, and consuming her body, as a white burning candle, which kind of sickness is a special point of witchcraft; and the said Bessie Schives saw none other but Janet only, who is holden and reputed a common witch.

xv At Midsummer was a year or thereby, Elspeth Reid, her daughter-in-law, came into her house at three in the morning, and found her sitting, mother naked as she was born, at the fireside, and another old wife siclike mother naked, sitting between her shoulders[!], making their cantrips, whom the said Elspeth seeing, after she said 'God speed,' immediately went out of the house; thereafter, on the same day, returned again, and asked of her, what she was doing with that old wife? To whom she answered, that she was charming her. And as soon as the said Elspeth went forth again from Janet Wishart's house, immediately she took an extraordinary kind of sickness, and became 'like a dead senseless fool,' and so continued for half a year.

xvi She [Janet] and her daughter, Violet Leyis, desired ... her woman to go with her said daughter, at twelve o'clock at night, to the gallows, and cut down the dead man hanging thereon, and take a part of all his members from him, and burn the corpse, which her servant would not do, and, therefore, she was instantly sent away.

xvii The following deposition is, however, the most singular of all:

Twelve years since, or thereby, Janet came into Katherine Rattray's, behind the Tolbooth, and while she was drinking in the said Katherine's cellar, Katherine reproved her for drinking in her house, because, she said, she was a witch. Whereupon, she took a cup full of ale, and cast it in her face, and said that if she were indeed a witch, the said Katherine should have proof of it; and immediately after she had quitted the cellar, the barm of the said Katherine's ale all sank to the bottom of the stand, and no had abaid [a bead] thereon during the space of sixteen weeks. And the said Katherine finding herself 'skaithit,' complained to her daughter, Katherine Ewin, who was then in close acquaintance with Janet, that she had bewitched her mother's ale; and immediately thereafter the said Katherine Ewin called on Janet, and said, 'Why bewitched you my mother's ale?' and requested her to help the same again. Which Janet promised, if Katherine Ewin obeyed her instructions ... to rise early before the sun, without commending herself to God, or speaking, and neither suining herself nor her son sucking on her breast; to go, still without speaking, to the said Katherine Rattray's house, and not to cross any water, nor wash her hands; and enter into the said Katherine Rattray's house, where she would find her servant brewing, and say to her thrice, 'I to God, and thou to the devil!' and to restore the same barm where it was again; 'and to take up thrie dwattis on the southt end of the gauttreyis, and thair scho suld find ane peice of claithe, fowr newikit, with greyn, red, and blew, and thrie corss of clewir girss, and cast the same in the fyir; quhilk beand cassin in, her barm suld be restorit to hir againe, lyik as it was restorit in effect.' And the said Katherine Ewin, when cracking [gossiping] with her neighbours, said she could learn them a charm she had gotten from Janet Wishart, which when the latter heard, she promised to do her an evil turn, and immediately her son, sucking on her breast, died. And at her first browst, or brewing, thereafter, the whole wort being played and put in 'lumes,' the doors fast, and the keys at her own belt, the whole wort was taken away, and the haill lumes fundin dry, and the floor dry, and she could never get trial where it yird to. And when the said Katherine complained to the said Janet Wishart, and dang herself and her good man both, for injuries done to her by taking of her son's life and her wort [which Katherine seems to have thought of about equal value], she promised that all should be well, giving her her draff for payment. And the said Katherine, with her husband Ambrose Gordon, being in their beds, could not for the space of twenty days be quit of a cat, lying nightly in their bed, between the two, and taking a great bite out of Ambrose's arm, as yet the place testifies, and when they gave up the draff, the cat went away.

Some fourteen more charges were brought against her. She was tried on February 17, 1596, before the Provost and Baillies of Aberdeen, and found guilty upon eighteen counts of being a common witch and sorcerer. Sentence of death by burning was recorded against her, and she suffered on the same day as another reputed witch, Isabel Cocker. The expenses of their execution are preserved in the account-books of the Dean of Guild, 1596-1597, and prove that witch-burning was a luxury scarcely within the reach of the many.

Janett Wischart and Issbel Cocker

Item For twentie loades of peattes to burne thame xl sh.
Item For ane Boile of Coillis xxiiii sh.
Item For four Tar barrellis xxvi sh. viii d.
Item For fyr and Iron barrellis xvi sh. viii d.
Item For a staik and dressing of it xvi sh.
Item For four fudoms [fathoms?] of Towis iiii sh.
Item For careing the peittis, coillis, and barrellis to the Hill viii sh. iiii d.
Item To on Justice for their execution xiii sh. iiii d.
cliv shillings

 On several occasions commissions were issued by the King, in favour of the Provost and some of the Baillies of the burgh, and the Sheriff of the county, for the purpose of 'haulding Justice Courtis on Witches and Sorceraris.' These commissioners gave warrants in their turn to the minister and elders of each parish in the shire, to examine parties suspected of witchcraft, and to frame a 'dittay' or indictment against such persons. It was an inevitable result that all the scandalous gossip of the community was assiduously collected; while any individual who had become, from whatsoever cause, an object of jealousy or dislike to her neighbours, was overwhelmed by a mass of hearsay or fictitious evidence, and by the conscious or unconscious exaggerations of ignorance, credulity, or malice.

As an example of the kind of stuff stirred up by this parochial inquisition, I shall take the return furnished to the commissioners by Mr. John Ross, minister of Lumphanan:

'i Elspet Strathauchim, in Wartheil, is indicted to have charmed Maggie Clarke, spouse to Patrick Bunny, for the fevers, this last year, with "ane sleipth and ane thrum" [a sleeve and thread]. She is indicted, this last Hallow e'en, to have brought forth of the house a burning coal, and buried the same in her own yard. She is indicted to have bewitched Adam Gordon, in Wark, and to have been the cause of his death, and that because, she coming out of his service without his leave, he detained some of her gear, which she promised to do; and after his death wanted [to have it believed] that she had gotten "assythment" of him. She is indicted to have said to Marcus Gillam, at the Burn of Camphil, that none of his bairns should live, because he would not marry her; which is come to pass, for two of them are dead. She is indicted continually to have resorted to Margaret Baine her company.

'ii Isabel Forbes--She is indicted to have bewitched Gilbert Makim, in Glen Mallock, with a spindle, a "rok," and a "foil;" as Isabel Ritchie likewise testified.

'iii James Og is indicted to have passed on Rud-day, five years since, through Alexander Cobain's corn, and have taken nine stones from his "avine rig" [corn-rick], and cast on the said Alexander's "rig," and to have taken nine "lokis" [handfuls] of meal from the said Alexander's "rig," and cast on his own. He is indicted to have bewitched a cow belonging to the said Alexander, which he bought from Kristane Burnet, of Cloak; this cow, though his wife had received milk from her the first night, and the morning thereafter, gave no milk from that time forth, but died within half a year. He is indicted to have passed, five years since, on Lammas-Day, through the said Alexander's corn, and having "gaine nyne span," to have struck the corn with nine strokes of a white wand, so that nothing grew that year but "fichakis." He is indicted that, in the year aforesaid or thereabouts, having corn to dry, he borrowed fire from his neighbour, haiffing of his avine them presently; and took a "brine" of the corn on his back, and cast it three times "woodersonis" [or "withersonis," ut supra, that is, west to east, in the direction contrary to the sun's course] above the "kill." He is indicted that, three years since, Alexander Cobaine being in Leith, with the Laird of Cors, his "wittual," he came up early one morning, at the back of the said Alexander's yard, with a dish full of water in his hand, and to have cast the water in the gate to the said Alexander's door, and then perceiving that David Duguid, servant to the said Alexander, was beholding him, to have fled suddenly; which the said David also testifies.

'iv Agnes Frew--She is indicted to have taken three hairs out of her own cow's tail, and to have cut the same in small pieces, and to have put them in her cow's throat, which thereafter gave milk, and the neighbours' none. Also, she is indicted that [she took] William Browne's calf in her axter, and charmed the same, as, also, she took the clins [hoofs] from forefeitt aff it, with a piece of "euerry bing," and caused the said William's wife to "yeird" the same; which the said William's wife confessed, albeit not in this manner. Also, she took up Alexander Tailzier's calf, lately [directly] after it was calved, and carried it three times about the cow. Also, she was seen casting a horse's fosser on a cow.

'v Isabel Roby--She is indicted to have bidden her gudeman, when he went to St. Fergus to buy cattle, that if he bought any before his home-coming, he should go three times "woodersonis" about them, and then take three "ruggis" off a dry hillock, and fetch home to her. Also, that dwelling at Ardmair, there came in a poor man craving alms, to whom she offered milk, but he refused it, because, as he then presently said, she had three folks' milk and her own in the pan; and when Elspet Mackay, then present, wondered at it, he said, "Marvel not, for she has thy farrow kye's milk also in her pan." Also, she is commonly seen in the form of a hare, passing through the town, for as soon as the hare vanishes out of sight, she appears.

'vi Margaret Rianch, in Green Cottis, was seen in the dawn of the day by James Stevens embracing every nook of John Donaldson's house three times, who continually thereafter was diseased, and at last died. She said to John Ritchie, when he took a tack [a piece of ground] in the Green Cottis, that his gear from that day forth should continually decay, and so it came to pass. Also, she cast a number of stones in a tub, amongst water, which thereafter was seen dancing. When she clips her sheep, she turns the bowl of the shears three times in their mouth. Also, James Stevens saw her meeting John Donaldson's "hoggs" [sheep a year old] in the burn of the Green Cottis, and casting the water out between her feet backward, in the sheep's face, and so they all died. Also she confessed to Patrick Gordon, of Kincragie, and James Gordon, of Drumgase, that the devil was in the bed between her and William Ritchie, her harlot, and he was upon them both, and that if she happened to die for witchcraft, that he [Ritchie] should also die, for if she was a devil, he was too.

'There are three of these persons, Elspeet Strathauchim, James Og, and Agnes Frew, whose accusations the Presbytery of Kincardine, within whose bounds they dwell, counted insufficient, having duly considered the whole circumstances, always remitted them to the trial of an assize, if the judges thought it expedient.

'[Signed] Mr. Jhone Ros,
'Minister at Lumphanan'

It would not be easy to find a more painful exhibition of clerical ignorance and incapacity. Probably many of the allegations which Mr. John Ross records are true, as the practice of charms was common enough among the peasantry both of Scotland and England, and is even yet not wholly extinct; but, taken altogether, they did not amount to witchcraft, the very essence of which was a compact with the devil, and in no one of the preceding cases is such a compact mentioned. And one must take the existence of the gross superstition and credulity which is here disclosed to be irrefutable testimony that, as a pastor and teacher, Mr. John Ross was a signal failure at Lumphanan.

*       *       *       *       *

I have already alluded to those pathetic instances of self-delusion in which the reputed witch has been her own enemy, and furnished the evidence needed for her condemnation in her own confession--a confession of acts which she must have known had never occurred; building up a strange fabric of fiction, and perishing beneath its weight. It would seem as if some of these unfortunate women came to believe in themselves because they found that others believed in them, and assumed that they really possessed the powers of witchcraft because their neighbours insisted that it was so. Nor will this be thought such an improbable explanation when it is remembered that history affords more than one example of prophets and founders of new religions whom the enthusiastic devotion of their followers has persuaded into a belief in the authenticity of the credentials which they themselves had originally forged, and the truth of the revelations which they had invented.

From this point of view a profound interest attaches to the official 'dittay' or accusation against one Helen Fraser, who was convicted and sentenced to death in April, 1597, since it shows that she was condemned principally upon the evidence which she herself supplied:

'i John Ramsay, in Newburght, being sick of a consuming disease, sent to her house, in Aikinshill, to seek relief, and was told by her that she would do what lay in her power for the recovery of his health; but bade him keep secret whatever she spake or did, because the world was evil, and spoke no good of such mediciners. She commanded the said John to rise early in the morning, to eat "sourrakis" about sunrise, while the dew was still upon them; also to eat "valcars," and to make "lavrie" kale and soup. Moreover, to sit down in a door, before the fowls flew to their roost, and to open his breast, that when the fowls flew to the roost over him he might receive the wind of their wings about his breast, for that was very profitable to loose his heart-pipes, which were closed. But before his departure from her, she made him sit down, bare-headed, on a stool, and said an orison thrice upon his head, in which she named the Devil.

'ii Item--The said Helen publicly confessed in Foverne, after her apprehension, that she was a common abuser of the people; and that, further, to sustain herself and her bairns, she pretended knowledge which she had not, and undertook to do things which she could not. This was her answer, when she was accused by the minister of Foverne, for that she abused the people, and when he inquired the cause of her evil report throughout the whole country. This she confessed upon the green of Foverne, before the laird, the minister, and reader of Foverne, Patrick Findlay in Newburght, and James Menzies at the New Mills of Foverne.

'iii Item--Janet Ingram, wife to Adam Finnie, dwelling for the time at the West burn, in Balhelueis, being sick, and affirming herself to be bewitched, for she herself was esteemed by all men to be a witch, she sent for the said Helen Frazer to cure her. The said Helen came, and tarried with her till her departure and burial, and at her coming assured the said Janet that within a short time she would be well enough. But the sickness of the said Janet increased, and was turned into a horrible fury and madness, in such sort that she always and incessantly blasphemed, and pressed at all times to climb up the wall after the "heillis" and scraped the wall with her hands. After that she had been grievously vexed for the space of two days from the coming of Helen Frazer, her mediciner, to her, she departed this life. Being dead, her husband went to charge his neighbours to convey her burial, but before his returning, or the coming of any neighbour to the carrying of the corpse, the said Helen Frazer, together with two or three daughters of the said Janet (whereof one yet living, to wit, Malye Finnie, in the Blairtoun of Balhelueis, is counted a witch), had taken up the corpse, and had carried her, they alone, the half of the distance to the kirk, until they came to the Moor of Cowhill; when the said Adam and others his neighbours came to them, and at their coming the said Helen fled away through the moss to Aikinshill, and went no further towards the kirk.

'iv Item--A horse of Duncan Alexander, in Newburcht, being bewitched, the said Helen translated the sickness from the horse to a young cow of the said Duncan; which cow died, and was cast into the burn of the Newburcht, for no man would eat her.

'v Item--The said Helen made a compact with certain laxis fishers of the Newburcht, at the kirk of Foverne, in Mallie Skryne's house, and promised to cause them to fish well, and to that effect received of them a piece of salmon to handle at her pleasure for accomplishing the matter. Upon the morrow she came to the Newburcht, to the house of John Ferguson, a laxis fisher, and delivered unto him in a closet four cuts of salmon with a penny; after that she called him out of his own house, from the company that was there drinking with him, and bade him put the same in the horn of his coble, and he should have a dozen of fish at the first shot; which came to pass.

'vi Item--The said Helen, by witchcraft, enticed Gilbert Davidson, son to William Davidson, in Lytoune of Meanye, to love and marry Margaret Strauthachin (in the Hill of Balgrescho) directly against the will of his parents, to the utter wreck of the said Gilbert.

'vii Item--At the desire of the said Margaret Strauthachin, by witchcraft, the said Helen made Catherine Fetchil, wife to William Davidson, furious, because she was against the marriage, and took the strength of her left side and arm from her; in the which fury and feebleness the said Catherine died.

'viii Item--The said Helen, at the desire of the foresaid Margaret Strauthachin, bewitched William Hill, dwelling for the time at the Hill of Balgrescho, through which he died in a fury [i.e., a fit of delirium].

'ix Moreover, at the desire foresaid, the said Helen by witchcraft slew an ox belonging to the said William; for while Patrick Hill, son to the said William, and herd to his father, called in the cattle to the fold, at twelve o'clock, the said Helen was sitting in the yeite, and immediately after the outcoming of the cattle out of the fold, the best ox of the whole herd instantly died.

'x Item--The said Helen counselled Christane Henderson, vulgarly called mickle Christane, to put one hand to the crown of her head, and the other to the sole of her foot, and so surrender whatever was between her hands, and she should want nothing that she could wish or desire.

'xi Item--The said Christane Henderson, being henwife in Foverne, the young fowls died thick; for remedy whereof, the said Helen bade the said Christane take all the chickens or young fowls, and draw them through the link of the crook, and take the hindmost, and slay with a fiery stick, which thing being practised, none died thereafter that year.

'xii Item--When the said Helen was dwelling in the Moorhill of Foverne, there came a hare betimes, and sucked a milch cow pertaining to William Findlay, at the Mill of the Newburght, whose house was directly afornent the said Helen's house, on the other side of the Burn of Foverne, wherethrough the cow pined away, and gave blood instead of milk. This mischief was by all men attributed to the said Helen, and she herself cannot deny but she was commonly evil spoken of for it, and affirmed, after her apprehension at Foverne, that she was so slandered.

'xiii Item--When Alexander Hardy, in Aikinshill, departed this life, it grieved and troubled his conscience very mickle, that he had been a defender of the said Helen, and especially that he, accompanied with Malcolm Forbes, travailed, against their conscience, with sundry of the assessors when she suffered an assize, and especially with the Chancellor of the Assize, in her favour, he knowing evidently her to be guilty of death.

'xiv Item--The said Helen being a domestic in the said Alexander Hardy's house, disagreed with one of the said Alexander's servants, named Andrew Skene, and intending to bewitch the said servant, the evil fell upon Alexander, and he died thereof.

'xv Item--When Robert Goudyne, now in Balgrescho, was dwelling in Blairtoun of Balheluies, a discord fell out betwixt Elizabeth Dempster, nurse to the said Robert for the time, and Christane Henderson, one of the said Helen's familiars, as her own confession aforesaid purports, and the country well knows. Upon the which discord, the said Christane threatened the said Elizabeth with an evil turn, and to the performing thereof, brought the said Helen Frazer to the said Robert's house, and caused her to repair oft thereto. After what time, immediately both the said Elizabeth and the infant to whom she gave suck, by the devilry of the said Helen, fell into a consuming sickness, whereof both died. And also Elspet Cheyne, spouse to the said Robert, fell into the selfsame sickness, and was heavily diseased thereby for the space of two years before the recovery of his health.

'xvi Item--By witchcraft the said Helen abstracted and withdrew the love and affection of Andrew Tilliduff of Rainstoune, from his spouse Isabel Cheyne, to Margaret Neilson, and so mightily bewitched him, that he could never be reconciled with his wife, or remove his affection from the said harlot; and when the said Margaret was begotten with child, the said Helen conveyed her away to Cromar to obscure the fact.

'xvii Item--Wherever the said Helen is known, or has repaired there many years bygone, she has been, and is reported by all, of whatsoever estate or sex, to be a common and abominable witch, and to have learned the same of the late Maly Skene, spouse to the late Cowper Watson, with whom, during her lifetime, the said Helen had continual society. The said Maly was bruited to be a rank witch, and her said husband suffered death for the same crime.

'xviii Item--When Robert Merchant, in the Newbrucht, had contracted marriage, and holden house for the space of two years with the late Christane White, it happened to him to pass to the Moorhill of Foverne, to sow corn to the late Isabel Bruce, the relict of the late Alexander Frazer, the said Helen Frazer being familiar and actually resident in the house of the said Isabel, she was there at his coming: from the which time forth the said Robert found his affection violently and extraordinarily drawn away from the said Christane to the said Isabel, a great love being betwixt him and the said Christane always theretofore, and no break of love, or discord, falling out or intervening upon either of their parts, which thing the country supposed and spake to be brought about by the unlawful travails of the said Helen.

'[Signed] Thomas Tilideff,
'Minister, at Fovern, with my hand.

' Item--A common witch by open voice and common fame.'

*       *       *       *       *

I have given this 'dittay' in full, from a conviction that no summary would do justice to its terrible simplicity. Upon the evidence which it afforded, Helen Frazer was brought before the Court of Justiciary, in Aberdeen, on April 21, 1597, and found guilty in 'fourteen points of witchcraft and sorcery.'

The burning of witches went merrily on, so that the authorities of Aberdeen were compelled to get in an adequate stock of fuel. We note in the municipal accounts, under the date of March 10, that there was 'bocht be the comptar, and laid in be him in the seller in the Chappell of the Castel hill, ane chalder of coillis, price thairof, with the bieing and metting of the same, xvilib. iiiish.' As is usually the case, the frequency of these sad exhibitions whetted at first the public appetite for them; it grew by what it fed on. One of the items of expense in the execution of a witch named Margaret Clerk, is for carrying of 'four sparris, to withstand the press of the pepill, quhairof thair was twa broken, viiis. viiid.'

Among the victims committed to the flames in 1596-97, we read the names of 'Katherine Fergus and [Sculdr], Issobel Richie, Margaret Og, Helene Rodger, Elspet Hendersoun, Katherine Gerard, Christin Reid, Jenet Grant, Helene Frasser, Katherine Ferrers, Helene Gray, Agnes Vobster, Jonat Douglas, Agnes Smelie, Katherine Alshensur, and ane other witche, callit ....'--seventeen in all. That during their imprisonment they were treated with barbarous rigour, may be inferred from the following entries:

Item To Alexander Reid, smyth, for twa pair of scheckellis to the Witches in the Stepill xxxiish.
Item To John Justice, for burning vpon the cheik of four seurerall personis suspect of witchcraft and baneschit xxvish. viiid.
Item Givin to Alexander Home for macking of joggis, stapillis, and lockis to the witches, during the haill tyme forsaid xlvish. viiid.
Expense on Witches     aucht-score xliili. xviish. iiiid.

On September 21, 1597, the Provost, Baillies and Council of Aberdeen considered the faithfulness shown by William Dun, the Dean of Guild, in the discharge of his duty, 'and, besides this, his extraordinarily taking pains in the burning of the great number of the witches burnt this year, and on the four pirates, and bigging of the port on the Brig of Dee, repairing of the Grey Friars kirk and steeple thereof, and thereby has been abstracted from his trade of merchandise, continually since he was elected in the said office. Therefore, in recompense of his extraordinary pains, and in satisfaction thereof (not to induce any preparative to Deans of Guild to crave a recompense hereafter), but to encourage others to travail as diligently in the discharge of their office, granted and assigned to him the sum of forty-seven pounds three shillings and fourpence, owing by him of the rest of his compt of the unlawis [fines] of the persons convict for slaying of black fish, and discharged him thereof by their presents for ever.'

At length a wholesome reaction took place; the public grew weary of the number of executions, and, encouraged by this change of sentiment, persons accused of witchcraft boldly rebutted the charge, and laid complaints against their accusers for defamation of character. In official circles, it is true, a belief in the alleged crime lingered long. As late as 1669, 'the new and old Councils taking into their serious consideration that many malefices were committed and done by several persons in this town, who are mala fama, and suspected guilty of witchcraft upon many of the inhabitants of this town, several ways, and that it will be necessary for suppressing the like in time coming, and for punishing the said persons who shall be found guilty; therefore they do unanimously conclude and ordain that any such person, who is suspect of the like malefices, may be seized upon, and put in prisoun, and that a Commission be sent for, for putting of them to trial, that condign justice may be executed upon them, as the nature of the offence does merit.' No more victims, however, were sacrificed; nor does it appear that any accusation of witchcraft was preferred.

According to Sir Walter Scott, a woman was burnt as a witch in  Scotland as late as 1722, by Captain Ross, sheriff-depute ofSutherland; but this was, happily, an exceptional barbarity, and for some years previously the pastime of witch-burning had practically been extinct. It is a curious fact that educated Scotchmen, as I have already noted, retained their superstition long after the common people had abandoned it. In 1730, Professor Forbes, of Glasgow, published his 'Institutes of the Law of Scotland,' in which he spoke of witchcraft as 'that black art whereby strange and wonderful things are wrought by power derived from the devil,' and added: 'Nothing seems plainer to me than that there may be and have been witches, and that perhaps such are now actually existing.' Six years later, the Seceders from the Church of Scotland, who professed to be the true representatives of its teaching, strongly condemned the repeal of the laws against witchcraft, as 'contrary,' they said, 'to the express letter of the law of God.' But they were hopelessly behind the time; public opinion, as the result of increased intelligence, had numbered witchcraft among the superstitions of the past, and we may confidently predict that its revival is impossible.

The Witches of Scotland

Copyright Scotland from the Roadside 2019