‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ says the Bible (Exodus 22:18) and two hundred years of witch hunters ensured that The Word was spread. In Scotland thousands of men and women stood accused before their Kirk Sessions for the ‘horrid sinne of witchcraft’ and, just over three hundred years ago, Dumfries and Galloway saw the very last witch trial in the United Kingdom.
AGNES Commes, Janet McGowane, Jean Tomson, Margaret Clerk, Janet McKendrig, Agnes Clerk, Janet Corsane, Helen Moor head and Janet Callon — the names as they would appear today could all belong to the members of a local rural.
These unrelated women with the unremarkable titles, however, suffered the same brutal fate in 1659 — they were strangled and burned at the stake on Dumfries Whitesands for ‘the horrid sinne of witchcraft.’
For over a two-hundred year period, political and religious conviction was responsible for the torture and death of many innocent people across Europe.
In Scotland, during the time of the witch trials, 3,867 formal accusations of witchcraft were made.
Of those, roughly half of the defendants were executed. In this region 128 of those cases came before our Kirk Sessions.
In 1514, the Steward of Kirkudbright was commissioned to apprehend and try named subjects who were suspected of witchcraft.
In 1563 the newly established Church of Scotland made it illegal to be a witch or to consult a witch. An Act of Parliament followed that year making the crime a capital offence.
The coming of James VI marked a very dark and terrifying time for all who lived on the fringes of society.
His treatise entitled ‘Daemonology’ in 1597 passionately denounced the practice of witchcraft and instigated a brutal rampage of slaughter that would last for the remainder of his reign.
Later, the General Assembly continued this work by passing a decade of Condemnatory Acts against witches in the 1640s.
The third peak began in Galloway when nine women were strangled and burned on the Whitesands in 1659.
More and more witch finders came forward, demanding their fees for rounding up suspects and torturing confessions from them.
All methods of inhumanity were utilised to extract a statement of guilt. Witch hunters were also known to torture the suspect’s family in front of them in an effort to exchange confession for coin.
Those found with a ‘witch mark’ would be pricked with 3’ needles through the spot. If the accused cried out in pain, he or she would be deemed innocent of the ‘sinne’. If nothing was felt or it did not bleed, she would certainly be a witch.
Throughout Europe men and (mainly) women were either brandished, banished, jailed or burned for their allegedly evil deeds.
Galloway boasts the last recorded witch burning in Scotland, taking place in 1698 when Elspeth MacEwen was found guilty of, amongst other things, ‘a compact and correspondence with the devil.’
The last witchcraft trial in the United Kingdom took place in Dumfries in 1708 when Elspeth Rule was branded on her cheek with a hot iron and banished from Scotland.
Dr Lizanne Henderson, lecturer in History at Glasgow University’s Crichton Campus, Dumfries, is an authority on European folklore and Scottish history.
She said: ‘Scotland was later in persecuting witches than England, Germany, France, etc, but not by much. Other European countries, such as Hungary, were still persecuting witches well into the 18th century.
‘The Kirk in this part of Scotland very rarely employed witch finders. There were, however, some individual ministers who were reluctant to give up belief in witches as they thought it was linked to atheism and an erosion of Christian belief and values.’
But who were these enemies of God and king?
Dr Henderson explained that there was no evidence to suggest that witches actually performed the feats they were accused of.
‘The average person accused of witchcraft generally would have been mainly female — males made up about 15 per cent of cases,’ she said.
‘This was no an attack on a particular gender nor was it founded upon superstition. Witchcraft was part of the belief system at the time and very real to everyone. When bad things happened — like a cow would stop
milking, a hen refused to lay, crops failed or milk curdled in the churn — the victim would look for a logical explanation for his misfortunes.
‘The practice of witchcraft was a logical explanation at the time and the remedy would be to find the person who was causing it.’
Midwives, people with squints, herbalists, those with deformities and those living on society’s social margins were all deemed suspects.
Many of the victims were elderly women who relied on the local landowner or farmer for charitable donations of food to maintain a meagre existence.
In Lanarkshire in 1612, Alison Devise was sentenced to public execution for practising witchcraft. She was 11 years old.
‘What people were fighting against was “the witch”, Dr Henderson explained, ‘and people would look for the most likely suspect.
‘This was normally an older person who was perhaps unpopular in the village; or particularly ill-tempered; or had behaved in a certain way over a period of time that would give him or her a bad reputation amongst the villagers.’
It was this reputation, built up over the years, that would brand them as suspicious. But it was the establishment of the day that would eventually condemn them.
‘The legal system and the clergy were not concerned with the actual result of the alleged witchcraft. They were more interested in how the witch was performing her feats and put this down to a relationship with the devil.
‘Witches were accused of denouncing their Christianity and entering into a pact with the devil. This was a far more serious crime and one that imposed most severe penalties.’
The Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1736.
‘After this date it was no longer possible to legally prosecute someone for the crime of witchcraft,’ said Dr Henderson, ‘though you could still prosecute for ‘pretended witchcraft’ which actually happened to Jean Maxwell from Kirkcudbright in 1805. She was sent to prison for one year.’
Today, it is difficult to believe that eminent members of the church and state could actually entertain the notion that a human being could turn into a beetle, speak with the devil or cause lameness in a horse by just looking at it, let alone fly across oceans on a broomstick.
Some of these individuals could indeed have practised witchcraft as we know it today, but most of them were simply innocent victims of their time.
In a modern society where human rights and individual liberty are sacrosanct, certain factions of the pagan religion are now safe to call themselves ‘witches’ without fear of a painful combustion, yet the stigma remains and our need for the existence of the anti-hero feeds it.
Five hundred years on we carry the same perception of ‘the witch’ as people did then — only we no longer kill them.
Instead many of us erroneously acknowledge their existence with a certain amount of trepidation and sometimes even ridicule.
It takes a very courageous individual to admit to being a witch. The link with Satanism and black magic certainly makes for a bad public image, but the majority of witches are gentle environmentalists and the colour of their magic is normally white and often very green.