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PERSECUTIONS IN SCOTLAND
THE influence of longitude upon national tendencies in superstition is far too wide a subject to be here discussed in any detail, but speaking generally, it may be said that the superstitions of a people as their religion are largely a matter of climate milder and more genial in temperate districts, carried to fiercer and more terrible lengths amid extremes of heat and cold. The man whose gods are based upon his conceptions of the thunderstorm, the grim northern winter or the tropical sun, evokes sterner and more dreadful images than he whose lot is cast amid mild skies and gentle breezes. How wide is the difference between the grim gods who ruled the inhospitable heavens of Scandinavian and Teuton from the tolerant Bohemians who tenanted the classical Olympus. The gentle dryads and light-hearted fauns of Italy would have perished in the first snows of a Baltic winter, just as the hungry ravens of Woden would have been metamorphosed into Venus' doves in one Italian generation.
Nowhere is the influence of climate upon national temperament more clearly typified than in the island of Great Britain. The Viking, settling amid the lush meadows and pleasant woodlands of England, laid aside his heathen sacrifices for the more climatically appropriate religion of Christ with scarcely a regret. Thor and Woden long held their own in the bare northern fastnesses, not to be finally driven out until they had tinged the Christianity which took their place with something of their own hopelessness and gloom. Just as the gods of Valhalla ever looked forward to the day of their destruction, so Hell rather than Heaven has always held the leading place in the Scottish imagination. So it came about that the superstitions of the Scot were gloomier than were those of his neighbour over the Border. The conviction of his own sinfulness was always with him; how much deeper and more certain that of his neighbours. And because he had a more imminent sense of sin, his belief in witches and their malignancy was more intimate and more resentful. The Englishman, again, feared the witch chiefly on his own personal account; the Scotsman took up the cudgels on behalf of his Creator as well. The Devil seemed so much more powerful to the dwellers of a bleak Highland glen than to the stout yeoman walking amid his opulent English pastures. In Scotland he was on terms almost of equality with God; it is scarcely too much to say that to the majority he was even more powerful, and his earthly agents all the more to be feared and hated.
As in Rome and Greece, the witch was firmly settled in Scotland centuries before the coming of Christianity. But she was of another breed, as befitted her sterner ancestry. She and her demoniacal coadjutors held all the land under a grip of blood and iron. There was nothing amiable, nothing whimsical, nothing human about the spirits, of one kind or another, that lorded it among the mists and heather. Even the fairies had more in common with Logi than with Oberon. Elfame, their dwelling-place, resembled rather Hell than Fairyland. In place of a Lob-lie-by-the-Fire, who found his highest pleasure in the helping of good housewives without fee, of a Queen Mab, who tormented no one but the idle or the wicked, you had a Kelpie, lurking in lonely places intent upon your murder, or a Banshee, prophesying your coming death or ruin. When at last Christianity came, it had a long, stern struggle against such antagonists nor, indeed, could it ever altogether overcome them, even though it forced them to adopt new names and new disguises. The missionary saints found their task of conversion increased tenfold by the strenuous opposition of the witches and other evil spirits. St. Patrick, in particular, so enraged them and their master the Devil, by his pertinacity, that he was forced, for a time, to flee before their assaults back to Ireland. One of their most famous exploits was the bombardment with a mountain-top of the vessel in which he was embarked. It is true that their aim, like that of Polyphemus, a member of their own family, was bad, and the mountain-top fell into the sea instead of drowning the saint. But by this very mischance they provided permanent proof of their exploit; for the mountain-top remains to this day to testify unto it, being that upon which Dumbarton Castle was subsequently built.
Among the many legends dealing with these same early Scots witches, I am tempted to quote from one, taken down verbatim from the lips of an old Highland woman, by the late Dr. Norman Macleod and related by him in his "Reminiscences of a Highland Parish." In its modern form it was woven around the imaginary misadventures of a Spanish Princess and the real shipwreck of the Florida, one of the vessels forming the Spanish Armada, sunk near Tobermory, in Mull, in 1588. Actually, however, the magical passages have some much more ancient history, probably, as we may judge from incidental reference to Druidism, from pre-Christian days. The first part of the legend relates how the Spanish Princess came to Mull, there had a love affair with Maclean of Duart, and was murdered by his jealous wife. The King of Spain, hearing of his daughter's fate, fitted out a war-vessel and despatched it to Tobermory to take summary vengeance. Maclean and his people, feeling unequal to resisting it by ordinary means, sought aid from magic (Druidism, in fact) and by powerful spells and charms gathered all the witches of Mull, the Doideagan Muileack, together. He explained the position and begged them to raise a tempest and sink the Spanish vessel, pointing out at the same time that her commander, one Captain Forrest, was himself a magician. The chief witch asked if the Spaniard, when declaring his unfriendly intentions, had said, "With God's help!" On learning that he had omitted that precaution she professed herself ready to undertake the task. This passage is so unsuggestive of the pagan witch's usual attitude that I take it to be a pious interpretation of later date.
In due time the witches began their work of ubag, obag and gisreag (charm, incantation and chanting), but with little initial effect. Stronger measures becoming necessary the chief witch tied a straw rope to a quern-stone, passed it over a rafter, and raised the stone as high as she was able. As it rose the wind rose with it, but she could not get it very high owing to the counter-spells of the Spanish captain with the English name. Accordingly she called her sister-witches to help her witches with very much finer names, by the way, than their English colleagues could boast of. They were nine in all, and the names of five were Luideag (which is to say "Raggie"), Agus Doideag (or "Frizzle Hair"), Agus Corrag Nighin Jain Bhain ("The Finger of White John's Daughter"), Cas a'mhogain Riabhaich Gleancomham ("Hogganfoot from Glencoe") and Agus Gormshuil mhor bharr na Maighe ("Great Blue-Eye from Moy"). All pulled together at the rope, but could not raise the quern-stone. Some of them then flew through the air and climbed about the ship's rigging in the shape of cats, spitting and swearing. But Captain Forrest only laughed at them. So he did when their number increased to fifteen. At last the Doideag got a very strong man, Dondinull Dubh Laidir, to hold the rope and prevent the stone from slipping down again, while she flew off to Lochaber to beg the assistance of Great Garmal of Moy, the doyenne of Scotch witchcraft, whose powers were more developed than those of all the others put together. Garmal accepted the flattering invitation, and set out for the scene of action. No sooner was she in the air than a tempest began, and by the time she reached Tobermory Captain Forrest realised that he had better retire. But before his cable could be cut Great Garmal had reached the ship, had climbed to the top of the mast in the shape of the largest black cat that ever was seen, and uttered one spell, whereupon the Spanish man-o'-war with all her crew sank to the bottom of the sea.
Against witches of such prowess he must be a powerful man saint or king who would gainsay them. Many if not most of the earlier Scottish kings had passages with witchcraft, mostly to their own detriment. Leaving aside Macbeth, quite as credible an historic character as the rest, we have King Duff, who, towards the end of the tenth century, narrowly escaped a lingering death at the hands of the witches they employing the old-fashioned, even in those days, but eminently dependable "waxen image." By good luck only he was enabled to discover the witches and, having burned them and broken up the magic before it was quite melted before their fire, to recover his usual health and spirits.
Not only for its long line of eminent witches does Scotland claim an important place in the annals of the arts magical. In Michael Scot she had one of the most famous wizards known to history, far superior in prowess to the great bulk of his successors, if tradition may be credited, and every whit as eminent, while a great deal more probable, than the British Merlin of Arthurian legend. Thomas the Rhymer, he of Escildonne, chosen lover of the Fairy Queen, was another wizard of repute.
It is an indirect testimony to the high, if evil, place held by magic in Scotland that so many of its followers and practitioners were men and women of the first ranks of life. We have the dread figure of William, Lord Soulis, boiled to death as the only fit punishment for the crimes committed in his feudal stronghold, such as put him on an evil parity with the Marshal de Retz, the French Bluebeard. Or again, in 1479, by which time we are on firm ground, the Earl of Mar, with a whole band of male and female abettors of humbler rank, was burned in Edinburgh for attempts on the King's life by aid of waxen images and spells. Indeed, the whole family of this peccant nobleman proved, on investigation, to be tarred with the same magical brush. Lady Glammis again, burned in 1536 as a witch, was one of the proud Douglasses, granddaughter of Archibald Bell-the-Cat, widow of "Clean the Causeway" Lord Glammis, whom, inter alia, she was accused of murdering young, beautiful, and wealthy. It is true that her death was very necessary to one of the contemporary political parties, though that may have been only a coincidence. Another aristocratic witch was Lady Katherine Fouliss, who, with her stepson, was tried in 1590 for "witchcraft, incantation, sorcery, and poisoning." She, although she seems to have gone about her questionable business with an open-hearted publicity that arouses our admiration, was acquitted through family influence, and her stepson with her, though several of their humble accomplices paid the penalty in the usual way.
In the following year occurred a witch-trial of interest in itself, and the cause of the great outburst of persecution which for the next century makes the annals of Scottish justice run red with innocent blood that of Dr. Feane or Fian, as it is variously spelt. The story of the "Secretar and Register to the Devil" has been often told, but it will bear recapitulation. Fian was a schoolmaster at Saltpans, Lothian; he was further, according to his accusers, a wizard. More exactly, perhaps, he should be described as a male-witch, seeing that he had no control over Satan, but, on the other hand, had sworn allegiance to him, received witch-marks under his tongue and otherwise conformed to the etiquette of the lower grade in the profession. This seems, indeed, to have been customary in Scotland, where the distinction which I have endeavoured to lay down between the sorcerer and the witch is often hard to trace. His magic, however, gains its chief interest from its object no less a person than James I. and VI. This learned and Protestant monarch, being on his way to visit his Danish bride in her native land, the Devil and his Secretary laid a plot to drown him. They put to sea, after the vessel, along with a whole regiment of witches, and there cast an enchanted cat into the sea, raising a fierce storm, which could not, however, prevent the Divinely-protected James from reaching Denmark in safety. On his return journey the plotters tried another plan to raise a fog whereby the Royal ship might be driven ashore on the English coast. Towards this end Satan cast a football, or its misty semblance, into the sea, and succeeded in raising what may be accurately described as the Devil's own fog. But angels guided the ship upon its proper course, and again the King escaped the assaults of his enemies. For these and other crimes Dr. Fian, with a number of women-witches, was tried, tortured, forced to confess, and burned on Castle Hill though he withdrew his confession before the end and died like a gentleman and a scholar. It is an interesting point about the trial that in it occurs the first Scottish mention of the Devil's mark.
The effects of this outrage upon the Lord's Anointed were not to end with the death of its presumed concocters. If the tribe of witches had grown so bold, it was high time they were extirpated, and gallantly did the King and his advisers set about it. It was in 1563 that the persecution of the witch was regularised as a distinct branch of crime by an enactment of the Estates, "that nae person take upon hand to use any manner of witchcrafts, sorcery, or necromancy, nor give themselves furth to have ony sic craft or knowledge thereof therethrough abusing the people," and that "nae person seek ony help, response, or consultation, at any sic users or abusers of witch-crafts . . . under pain of death."
Thenceforward, until the last witch-burning in 1727, the fires were seldom allowed to go out, and to be an old and ugly woman was perhaps the most "dangerous trade" in Scottish industry. There was, indeed, one incidental to a witch-burning which may it is at least to be hoped have sometimes moved the economical Scotsman in the direction of toleration the expense. Here, for instance, are the items expended in the execution of one batch of witches in Fife in 1633:
Or a grand total of £4 11s. 2d., no small sum, seen with thrifty eyes, especially if we consider the greater value of money in those days.
It is, perhaps, only characteristic of the national attitude towards the whole subject that the "White," or amiable, witch was held in as great detestation as her "Black," or malignant, sister. Torture and penalty were the same for either. Thus we find that, in 1597, four women were convicted at Edinburgh for curing, or endeavouring to cure, certain of their neighbours' ills by witchcraft, and were in due course strangled and burned. It is true that they did not suffer the greater penalty of being burned alive, which was reserved for witches of unusual malevolence. The dislike and dread of a "White" witch was not, be it noted, due to ingratitude alone, but rather because it entailed the mutilation of the patient at the Resurrection. While the rest of his body would owe its preservation in this world to God Himself, any limb or organ healed by the Devil acting through the "White" witch would belong to him, and thus be unable to rise at the Day of Judgment with the rest. In endeavouring to understand the mental attitude which gave rise to the great persecutions of the seventeenth century, one cannot afford to overlook such points of belief as this. Fear and the instinct of self-preservation, not cruelty, were the driving-power in the witch-murderer. We, who think no shame of shooting partridges for pastime, have little cause to contemn the seventeenth-century Christian who killed witches lest they should destroy him body and soul.
Such is the similarity of the various Scottish witch-trials that too-detailed recapitulation would be tedious and unprofitable. Some, however, stand out from the rest by reason of their grotesque horror and exaggeration. Such is the trial of Isobel Grierson, "spous to Johnne Bull, warkman in the Pannis" (Preston Pans), tried at Edinburgh in March, 1607. Grierson, by the way, was a name very prominent in witch-circles at the time. One Robert Grierson had taken a leading part as an accomplice of Dr. Fian, above referred to, his being the hand which cast the enchanted cat into the sea in the endeavour to drown King James. He was also, as shown in the confession of another defendant in the same trial, the cause of much disturbance at a Sabbath held in North Berwick Churchyard. Satan, by an unfortunate slip, addressed him by his real name. As etiquette strictly demanded that Christian names should be ignored, and nick-names in this instance "Rab the Rower" used instead, the mistake appeared an intentional insult on Satan's part, and was so taken by the assembled witches, who expressed their displeasure with uncompromising vigour, even to the extent of running "hirdy girdy" about the churchyard. But to return to John Bull's wife. She was accused, inter alia, of having conceived a cruel hatred and malice against one Adam Clark, and with having for the space of a year used all devilish and unholy means to be revenged upon him. On a November night in 1606, between eleven and midnight, Adam and his wife being in bed, Isobel entered the house in the form of a black cat, accompanied by a number of other cats, and made a great and fearful noise, whereat Adam, his wife, and maid-servant were so frightened as almost to go mad. Immediately afterwards the Devil appeared, in the likeness of a black man, seized the servant's nightcap and cast it on the fire, and then dragged her up and down the house. Who thereby contracted a great sickness, so that she lay bed-fast, in danger of her life, for the space of six weeks. Isobel was further accused of having compassed the death of William Burnet and of laying on him a fearful and uncouth sickness, by casting in at his door a gobbet of raw, enchanted flesh. Whereafter the Devil nightly appeared in poor William's house in the guise of a naked infant child for the space of half a year. Occasionally he varied the performance by appearing in the shape of Isobel herself, but being called by her name would immediately vanish away. As a result of all which, Adam languished in sickness for the space of three years, unable to obtain a cure, and at last, in great "douleur and payne," departed this life. Another of her victims was Robert Peddan, who remained sick for the space of one year and six months, and then suddenly remembering that he owed Isobel nine shilling and fourpence, and that before the time of his sickness, as he had refused to pay it, she had delivered to him certain writings that she kept in MS., and thereafter, with divers blasphemous speeches, told him he should repent it. Remembering this, he sought out Isobel and satisfied her the said sum, at the same time asking his health of her for God's sake, saying, "If ye have done me any wrong or hurt, refrain the same and restore to me my health." And within twenty-four hours he was as well as ever before. Yet again, Margaret, the wife of Robert Peddan, lying in bed, Isobel, or a spirit in her shape, entered his house, seized Margaret by the shoulder and flung her upon the floor, so that she swooned with fright, and was immediately seized with a fearful and uncouth sickness. Isobel, hearing that rumours of her ill-doing were abroad, caused Mrs. Peddan to drink with her, whereupon her sickness left her for eight or ten days. But as Mrs. Peddan, learning nothing from experience, declared hic et ubique that Isobel was a foul witch, she straightway laid another charm upon her, so that the sickness returned. Isobel, being found guilty of all these and other crimes, was ordered by her judges to be "taken to the Castle Hill of Edinburgh, and there to be strangled at the stake until she be dead and her body to be burnt in ashes, as convict of the said crimes; and all her movable goods to be escheat and inbrought to our sovereign lord's use, as convict of the said crimes." Which was done accordingly.
In 1622 Margaret Wallace was executed on the charge of inflicting and causing diseases. The chief count against her was of having consulted with Christiane Graham burned as a witch some time before Margaret's trial how to cure Margaret Muir, "a bairne," of a disorder, "to which end they went about twelve at night to a yard, and there used their devilish charms, whereby the disease was removed from the bairne."
The next twenty years are filled with a monotonous record of witch-trials, similar in essentials to those already quoted. Perhaps the most outstanding is that of Catharine Oswald, who kept many rendezvous with Satan, and cursed the yard of John Clerk so effectually that for four years neither "kaill, hemp, nor other graine would grow therein." Alice Nisbet, also famous in her day, was likewise convicted of having "took paines off a woman in travell, by some charms and horrible words; among which thir ware some, the bones to the fire and the soull to the divill."
In 1633 twenty witches were executed, Sir George Home, of Manderston, being the most zealous persecutor, chiefly, it was said, to spite his wife, with whom he was not on good terms, and who had a taste for Black Magic. Ten years later arose another fierce persecution, so that in Fifeshire alone thirty women were executed the local ministry taking the lead in the prosecution. Two of the accused were domestic servants in service at Edinburgh, and with that love of finery which even now attends their kind. By their own confession they had been introduced to the Devil by Janet Cranston, a notorious witch, and had by him been promised that, if they gave themselves bodies and souls to his allegiance, "they should be as trimlie clad as the best servants in Edinburgh." Janet Barker, one of the twain, admitted having the Devil's mark between her shoulders, and when a pin was thrust therein it remained there for an hour before she noticed it. Needless to say, both were "wirriet" (strangled) at the stake and burned. Agnes Fynnie was convicted on no fewer than twenty counts of different offences, chiefly of harming the health of personal enemies. Her defence was more vigorous than was customary, but although she pleaded that of all the witches already burned not one had mentioned her name, she was found guilty and executed.
It must not be supposed that Satan did not make occasional efforts to befriend his own. Thus we may learn from Sinclair's "Invisible World Discovered" that he directly interfered, endeavouring to save the wife of one Goodail, "a most beautiful and comely person," for whom he had a particular regard, much to the jealousy of less well-favoured witches. He even visited her prison and endeavoured to carry her off through the air, so that "she made several loups upwards, increasing gradually till her feet were as high as his breast." But James Fleming, the gaoler, was a man of might. He caught hold of her feet, so that it was a case of "Pull Devil, pull Gaoler," and the better man which is to say Mr. Fleming won, and the prisoner was saved for subsequent execution. On another occasion Satan actually released a witch from the church-steeple of Culross, where she was confined. Unfortunately for her, before they had gone far upon their aerial flight, she happened, in the course of conversation, to mention the name of the Deity whereupon he dropped her.
Political ups and downs, whomever else they might affect, made no difference in the hard lot of the witch save, indeed, that she was regarded as belonging to the opposite party by that in power. That did not, however, gain for her the sympathy of the defeated. Thus the death of Charles I., according to many, could only have been compassed by the Powers of Darkness themselves. Even the brute creation seemed to have realised this, if we may judge from the reputed fact that some of the lions in the Tower of London died from the smell of a handkerchief dipped in the martyred monarch's blood. Old Noll" was declared, by Royalists anxious to explain away their defeats, to be Satan's direct agent, if not the Devil incarnate, the Commonwealth representing his Kingdom upon Earth. Thus although the Republicans had done their utmost in the way of witch-harrying, their efforts were but feeble compared to those of the Royalists upon the glorious Restoration. Obviously a witch must be a friend to crop-eared Roundheads and fearfully did she pay the penalty. Somewhere about 120 were executed in the year 1661, immediately following the King's entering upon his own again the majority owing their arrest to the exertions of John Kincaid and John Dick, witch-finders as eminent, though less famous, than Matthew Hopkins himself. And now it was the turn of the victorious Cavaliers to be regarded, by Presbyterian and Parliamentarian, as owing their success to the help of Satan and his agents. Their Bishops were reported to be cloven-footed and shadowless, their military commanders to be bullet-proof by enchantment, and to possess horses that could clamber among inaccessible rocks like foxes; the justices who put fugitives on trial for treason were seen in familiar converse with the Fiend, and one of them was known to have offered up his first-born son to Satan.
A representative example of the trials held in the latter part of the seventeenth century is that consequent upon the death of Sir George Maxwell, of Pollock, slain, as was supposed, by the malice of "some haggs and one wizard." A full account of it is given in the "Memorialls" of Robert Law, writer, edited from his MS. by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe. To put it briefly, Sir George, having been ill for some time, having great pain in his side and shoulder, a dumb girl called at the house and explained by signs that his waxen "picture" was being melted before the fire in a certain woman's house, who had a grudge against him. Search being made, his image was found up the chimney. Two pins being found stuck in the figure's shoulder were removed, whereupon Sir George recovered, and the woman was laid by the heels and found to have several witch-marks. But very soon the baronet was again taken ill. The witch's house, now inhabited by her son, was again searched, and a second "portraitour," this time of clay, found under the man's bolster. Arrested, he confessed that the Devil had visited him, in company with four witches, had made the image himself, and stuck pins in the appropriate limbs. The four witches were apprehended, and, with the young man, burnt at Paisley; but this did not prevent their victim's death. A few months later he died, "being worn to a shadow," owing, according to the dumb girl, to the existence of yet another "picture" which his friends had "slighted."
The last Scottish execution of a witch took place in 1722. The prisoner was accused of having turned her daughter into a pony, shod by the Devil and so ridden upon her whence the girl was ever afterwards lame. Found guilty, this last of a long line of martyrs was burned at Dornoch, and scandalised the spectators the weather being chilly by composedly warming her hands at the fire that was to consume her.
In 1735, English and Scottish statutes against witchcraft were alike repealed, much to the horror of the seceders from the Established Kirk, who, in their annual confession of National and Personal Sins, gave a prominent place to "The Penal Statutes against Witches having been repealed by Parliament contrary to the express Law of God."