When you think of witches, you probably think of Boston, right? Think again!
Since the beginning of tribal life in Scotland, there were women and men who worked with nature, the elements, herbs, and as seers. They were known as soothsayers, healers, magicians, witches and wizards, and they lived and worked peacefully among all peoples long. By about 750AD Scotland was inhabited by many different tribes, including the Scots, Picts, Britons, and English, who eventually supported and followed a Christian tradition to the detriment of the Pagan and Wiccan communities.
In the 2nd century, there was a famous Witch living on the Isle of Iona. Such was her renown that the king sent a trusted messenger to her to find out what was going to be the result of a rebellion then building in him kingdom. The Witch said that the king would soon be murdered, not by an enemy, but by one of his most trusted friends. When the messenger demanded who it was, she said it was him. After thinking it over, not wanting to report what the Witch had said, and perhaps be killed by the king in anticipation, the messenger did stab the king to death.
Scottish history and legend is replete with stories of magickal workings, spells and charms. A lot of this reflects the very forms of the "airt" used by the "PectiWita", or Pict Witches.
~ In Orkney, there is a charm performed to bring a good supply of butter.
~ To ensure a favourable breeze, fishermen and seamen at Gourock Bay would pace seven times around a large monolith standing on the cliffs. Some still do it today.
~ In Moray, Pechts would cut down woodbine in the waxing of the March moon. These they would twist into wreaths and preserve for a year and a day. After that time young children suffering from fever could be passed through three times and be cured.
~ Even today, throughout the highlands many people carry a lucky penny or "peighinn pisich". This has to be turned over three times, at the first glimpse of the full moon. These go on and on, and as mentioned earlier, many are still practised today.
In the 16th and 18th centuries, Scotland became concerned with crimes of witchcraft. The witchcraft act of 1563 made the practice of witchcraft and even consulting with witches a capital offense. In 1735, a new Witchcraft Act was introduced. A person who claimed to have the power to call up spirits, or foretell the future, or cast spells was to be subject to fines and imprisonment. The Act applied to all of Great Britain. This Act remained in place until 1951.
Between 4,000-6,000 Scots were tried for witchcraft. Over 1,500 were executed, most by strangulation, then burnt. Here are a few of their stories….
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
"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 7 miles west from Dumfries. In a little mud-walled cottage, in the lower end of 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...."
"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."
Bessie Dunlop was known as the witch of Dalry (Ayrshire), or the ‘Witch o’ Dalry’, she was burned at the stake in 1576 although she was seen as a white witch. Her story is interesting because it outlines some of the folk beliefs at the time.
According to testimony she helped local people with herbal cures for animals and children, and offered all sorts of oracular information, including finding stolen and lost property. In her confession (no doubt extracted under torture) she describes how she came to her powers. While she was taking her cow out to a field, she came across an elderly man with a grey beard wearing a grey coat. He wore a black bonnet on his head, and carried a white wand in his hand. She is also purported to have met the queen of the faeries who was the mistress of Thomas.
On their next meeting, the strange apparition offered her material goods in the form of horses and cows if she would denounce Christianity. She refused, and said that she would rather be riven with horse's tails (a form of whip) He was angered by her reply and promptly disappeared.
On his next meeting he introduced her to the faerie realm. Swearing secrecy and telling her that she could not speak in their presence, he introduced her to the faerie realm of Elfame. They were dressed as humans but very smartly, the men like gentlemen, and the women had 'all plaids about them'. They were very friendly towards Bessie, and asked her to travel with them to Elfame. She did not return their questions, and eventually they departed with a "hideous ugly blast of wind" leaving Bessie lying sick on the ground.
It was from her strange mentor that she got all of her knowledge about how to cure cattle and children. People were now coming to her for advice on a regular basis and her reputation was beginning to spread. She was even consulted by some of the gentry of the day including Lady Johnstone, Lady Thirdpart in the Barony of Renfrew.
Thomas had predicted that she would be called to account for her dealings with the spirit world, but that the assizes of her neighbours would save her from evil. Unfortunately for her, on November 8th 1576 she was arraigned at the bar of the High Court of Judiciary, accused of sorcery, witchcraft and incantation, dealing with charms, and abusing the people with devilish craft of sorcery. She was found guilty and sentenced to be burned at the stake.
It seems that she can really be seen as a white witch or wise woman, who used her abilities for the good of the community. Her reputation suggests that at least some of her cures and advice worked. She was never accused of doing any harm to any of her neighbours, but she fell victim to a time when witchcraft hysteria was just about to take a firmer hold.