Witchcraft in Medieval Scotland, part 2

Witchcraft in Medieval Scotland

WitchCraft in Medieval Scotland, Part Two

The flame tuik fast upon her cheik
Tuik fast upon her chin;
Tuik fast upon her faire bodye -
She burn'd like hollins green.

-- Traditional Ballad, Earl Richard

There are many stories and accounts of witches and witchcraft in Scotland. Witchcraft and demonology were major concerns of the nobility and lower classes alike. Superstition abounded and the measure the people went to, are by today's standards, as equally horrifying as the accusations placed on the unfortunate individuals to be called witches themselves. Below are some specific cases.

The Witch of Irongray

"In the reign of James the VI of Scotland, or under the early government of his son Charles, traditions tells of a woman that was burned as a witch in the parish of Irongray, about seven miles west from Dumfries. In a little mud-walled cottage, in the lower end if the Bishop's Forrest, and nigh the banks of the water of Culden, resided a poor widow woman, who earned her bread by spinning with a pole, and by weaving stockings from a clue of yarn depending from her bead-strings. She lived alone, and was frequently seen on a summer's eve, sitting upon a jagged rock, which overhung the Routing burn, or gathering sticks, late in a November evening, among the rowan-tree roots, nigh the dells which signalise the sides of that romantic stream. She had also, sometimes, lying in her window a black-letter Bible, whose boards are covered with the skin of a fumart, and which two grotesque clasps of brass to close it when she chose. Her lips were sometimes seen to be moving when she went to church, and she was observed to predict shower or sunshine at certain periods, which predictions often came to be realised...."

A witch casting spells with her components

[witch casting]
"The Bishop of Galloway was repeatedly urged to punish this witch; and lest it should be reported to the King that he refused to punish witches, he at last caused her to be brought before him, nigh on the spot. She was rudely forced from her dwelling, and several neighbours of middle or of old age were sited to declare all the wicked things she had done."

"She was sentenced to be drowned in the Routing burn, but the crowd insisted she should be shut up in a tar-barrel and hurled into the Culden. Almost against the Bishops consent, this latter death was consummated. The wretched woman was enclosed in a barrel, fire was set to it and it was rolled in a blaze, into the waters of the Culden."

James VI's beliefs were also those of the Presbyterian church and the General Assembly kept the hysteria inflamed by passing their Condemnatory Acts against witches in 1640, 43, 44, 45 and 49 which caused the second peak in Scottish witch-hunting. The third peak commenced a little early in Galloway, when, in 1659, no less than nine witches were strangled and burned in one day on the banks of the Nith at Dumfries. The sentence was that they "...be taen upon Wednesday come eight days to the ordinar place of execution for the burghe of Dumfries and ther, betuing (between) 2 and 4 hours of the afternoon, to be strangled at staikes till they be dead, and thereafter ther bodyes to be burned to ashes, and all ther movable goods to be esheite."

Witch-hunting began to decline everywhere towards the end of the 17th century, but the rate of decline varied from country to country. The last recorded witch-hanging in England was in 1685, but the last recorded case of witch-burning in Galloway, Scotland, was 1698. Elspeth MacEwen was pronounced guilty of "... a compact and correspondence with the devil, and of charms and of accessation to malefices."

The Witch of Bogha

"Elspeth lived in a solitary house in the farm of Cubbox, called Bogha. As appears from the evidence of two gentlemen who visited her in jail at Kirkcudbright, she was a person of superior education. Still, however, her neighbours were tormented with her, and every calamity that befell themselves or their cattle was attributed to Elspeth's witchcraft. If a cow fell ill, it was Elspeth doing. It was, also, currently reported and believed that if eggs were wanted (scarce) at New-Galloway, application had only to be made to the old wife of Bogha, and the market was well supplied. But the worse cantrip that she played on the wights of Balmaclellan was the following. She had a pin in her kipplefoot (part of a roof beam), and when she pleased, could, by taking out that pin, draw milk from her neighbors cows! At length complaint was made to the Sessions, and the Beadle, M'Lambroch, was sent off with the minister's mare to bring her to the session. Elspeth, after expressing great wonder at this usage from the minister, consented to go. Tradition states that the mare was dreadfully frightened, and, at a rising hill near the manse, since called the `Bluidy Brae', sweat great drops of blood.

Witch trial
[Witch trial] After undergoing an examination (with torture), she was sent off to Kirkcudbright, and confined there for about two years. Her imprisonment was rendered so wretched by her tormentors, that the miserable woman implored them to terminate a life so full of suffering. She was condemned, taken to prison, and burned to death in the neighbourhood of Kirkcudbright."

The next two cases in Galloway, in 1703, did not receive the punishment of burning; but in the new and enlightened age of the eighteenth century were banished to Ireland for life. Nevertheless, it was in 1722 that the last witch-burning in Scotland took place. This was in Sutherland, but there may have been later cases in the extreme north where the records are far from complete. It must not be assumed, however, that that was the end of burning people in Britain. Those convicted of Petty Treason -- for example, a woman murdering her husband -- were punished by burning at the stake until 1790 when the Act was repealed.

Of the many contributing factors which were formalised into witchcraft beliefs from pagan practises there is one which was particularly strong in northern Europe. It began as a magical ritual where the participants dressed up as animals and, through the action of contagious magic, tried to affect the outcome of the hunt. It had the same purpose as the paintings of animals made by primitive man in deep caves and may well have been practised contemporary with the paintings. Arising from this came stories of beings which were part animal, part spirit and part man which were later to be formalised into vampires, werewolves and the like. Perhaps the best known of these in Britain is Hern the Hunter who is still supposed to haunt the Great Park at Windsor Castle, and whose memory is assured continuance by inclusion in a play of Skakespeare's.

This ritual was known as the wild rout or "wilde Jagd" (a term still used for a night of revelry) and the tradition was particularly strong in the area which now may be described as Germanic or Teutonic. Jakob Grimm (of Grimm's fairy tales), wrote, "Down to the latest period we perceive that in the whole of witch-buisness a clear connexion with the sacrifices and spirit world of the ancient Germans."

The wild rout was a weird group or procession of creatures which banded together on certain nights (All Hallow's Eve), and, led by a spirit, careened wildly about the countryside devasting and destroying. Any unfortunate person who met with them was promptly killed, abused and eaten. Could these ideas have had been influenced to or by the story of Sawney Bean? Remenber the incident where the woman is pulled off the horse and attacked and disembowled and eaten before her husband's eyes? This common thread runs throughout the stories of witches and ghouls -- usually with cannabalism at the heart of the stories.

A gathering or Sabat of Witches as conceptualised in medieval times
[Witch trial]

The "Sabat" of the formalised witchcraft beliefs was partially based on the wild rout. In this the witches were supposed to gather together and feast on horrible meats, meet and worship their master the Devil and indulge in licentious revelry. After the 10th century most accounts of a "Sabat" suggested that they were held in one particular spot and that the aspects of "..women travelling long distances to kill Christians and eat them" was practically forgotten. The following traditional tale owes more to the wild rout than the sabat, and indicates that the cultural heritage of the area contained a great deal that was rooted in the beliefs of their forefathers who had immigrated from Scandinavia and northern Germany.

The Glenluce Witches

"An ingleside story of the period, handed down as literally true, is that of a labouring man's wife -- a sensible, descent woman -- having been detained late from home, was returning about the witching hour (midnight); and --

"When the grey howler howlet had three times hoo'ed
When the grimy cat had three times mewed,
When the tod had yowled three times in the wood,
-- at a spot known as `Clay Slap' (near Glenluce), she met face to face with a group of females, as to whose leader being clovenfooted she could not be mistaken. Her consternation was the greater as, one by one, she recognised them all, and among them the ladies of the manor. They stopped her, and in her terror she appealed to one of them by name. Enraged at being known, the party declared that she must die. She pleaded for mercy, and they agreed to spare her life on her taking an awful oath that she would never reveal the names of any as long as they lived. Fear prevented her from breaking her pledge, but as one by one the dames paid the debt of nature, she would mysteriously exclaim, "There's anither o' the gang gone!" She outlived them all and then divulged the secret; adding that on the dreadful night, after getting to her bed, she lay entranced in an agony as if she had been roasting between two fires."

Although, James the VI and I of Scotland and England respectively, did not originate the hysteria, for the belief in witchcraft had been growing until it was necessary for Mary Queen of Scot's Witchcraft Act to be passed; but James encouraged it when it might have been discouraged. The beliefs appear to have originated 100 years before James VI, but, when it is remembered that the story was not written down until a few years after Mary's Witchcraft Act, it is impossible to judge how much of the written version was due to current beliefs at the time of Jame's "Demonologie" writings. It is quite clear, however, that the European line of thought was being followed: cannibals were witches, witches were heretics and burning was the only suitable death for them.

Another factor in the bitter persecution of "witches" was due to the fact that England and Scotland, still very divided on religion, and James, and much of England -- and Scotland for that matter-- were newly Protestant, they were on opposite sides of the Catholic-Protestant struggle as seen from the Protestant point of view and Catholicism was (at the time) regarded as heretic and symbolised by witchcraft and cannibalism as a means of engendering religious hatred.

James, who we know from his letters, wrote to his son that witchcraft practises were "horrible crimes that yee are bound in conscience never to forgive" and wrote in "Demonologie", "In the time of the Papistrie, our fathers erring grosslie, and through ignorance, that mist of errors overshadowed the Devil to walk the more familiarlie amongst them" , was a "natural" for the role. He assumed, unwittingly, the standard by which all future cases of the unexplained, to be based on witchcraft...possibly due to religious bias and in that era of religious hatred among Christians so tragically common at the time.

Witchcraft in Medieval Scotland Menu

1 - The history of Galloway by W. MacKenzie (1841)
2 - Witchcraft in British History by R. Holmes (1974)
3 - Teutonic Mythology by J. Grimm (Dover Press), 1966

İSkye-Net, R. Gunn, 1994/2009

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