WITCHCRAFT AND SUPERSTITIOUS RECORDS in the South-Western District of Scotland.
By J Maxwell Wood, M.B. Dumfries.
“PROCEEDINGS IN GALLOWAY.”
Presbytery of Kirkcudbright, April, 1662. – A person, named James Welsh, confessed himself guilty of the crime of witchcraft before the Presbytery of Kirkcudbright; but the justices refused to put him upon his trial, because he was a minor when he acknowledged his guilt, and had retracted his extra-judicial confession; but on the 17th of April, 1662, they ordered him to be scourged and put in the correction house, having so grossly “prevaricated and delated so many honest persons.”
Kirkcudbright, 1671 – At an Assize held in the burgh of Dumfries in 1671 eight or more females were charged with witchcraft; five of them were eventually sent for trial to Kirkcudbright.
Dalry Kirk – Session, 1696. – Elspeth M’Ewen, an old woman living alone at a place called Bogha, near the farm of Cubbox, in Balmaclellan, was suspected by the countryside of various acts of “witching.” In particular, she was believed to have at her command a wooden pin that was movable and that could be withdrawn from the base of the rafters resting on the walls of the cottage, which particular part of the building was in these old days called the “kipple foot.”
With this pin Elspeth was supposed to have the supernatural power of drawing an exhaustive milk supply from her neighbour’s cows merely by placing it in contact with the udder, and this it was reported she practised freely. Other cantrips laid to her door included capricious interference with the laying power of her neighbour’s hens, causing them sometimes to fail altogether, at others to produce in amazing plenteousness.
At last complaint was made to the Session, and the beadle, by name M’Lambroch, was sent away with the minister’s mare to bring her before the Session. On the journey there is a tradition that the mare in a panic of fright sweated great drops of blood at the rising hill near the Manse, since known as the “Bluidy Brae.” After being examined she was sent to Kirkcudbright, where she lay in prison for about two years.
Dalry Kirk-Session, October 15th, 1697.- The following entry evidently refers to the expense of her maintenance in prison “Given for alimenting Elspet M’Koun, alledged of witchcraft in prison, £01.01.00.”
Kirkcudbright, 1698. – In Kirkcudbright prison Elspeth M’Ewen was so inhumanely treated that she frequently implored her tormentors to terminate a life which had become a grievous burden to her.
In March, 1698, a Commission was appointed by the Privy Council for her trial, along with another woman, Mary Millar, also accused of witchcraft, “to meet and conveen at Kirkcudbright.” The following is an extract from the said Commission:-
Extract from “Commission for Judging of Elspeth M’Cowen and Mary Millar, alleadged Guilty of Witchcraft, 1698.”
“The Lords of his Majesties privie Councill, being informed that Elspeth M’Cowen and Mary Millar, both within the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, presently prisoners within the tolboth of Kirkcudbright, are alleaged guilty of the horid cryme of witchcraft, and hes committed severall malifices; and considering it will be a great deall of charges and expenses to bring the saids Elspeth M’Cowen and Mary Millar to this place, in order to a tryall before the Lords commissioners of justiciary: Besides, that severall inconveniences may aryse by there transportation. And the saids Lords lykewayes considering that this horid cryme cannot be tryed and judged by any persons in the countrie without a warrant and commission from their Lordships for that effect; And the saids Lords being desyreous to have the said matter brought to a tryall, that the persones guilty may receive condigne punishment, and others may be deterred from committing so horid a cryme in time coming; They do hereby give full power, warrant and commission, to Sir John Maxwell of Pollock, – Maxwell of Dalswintoune, Hugh M’Guffock of Rusco, Adam Newall of Barskeoche, Dunbar of Machrymore, Thomas Alexander, Stewart Depute of Kirkcudbright, Robert M’Clellend of Barmagachan, and Mr Alexander Fergussone of Isle, Advocate; And declare any three of the foresaids persones to be a sufficient quorum, the said Stewart Depute of Kirkcudbright being one of the three, To take tryall off, and to judge and do justice upon the saids Elspeth M’Cowen and Mary Millar, for the cryme of witchcraft. And in order thereto, To meitt and conveen at Kirkcudbright, the second ffryday of Apryle next to come, and there to accept for this present commission, and upon there acceptance to administrate the oath of fidelity to the person whom the Lord Justice Clerk or James Montgomery of Langshare, Clerk to the Justice Court, shall depute and substitute to be clerk to the present Commissione, With power to the saids Commissioners or their said quorum, to choyse their own Clerk for whom they shall be answerable, In caise that the saids Lords Justice Clerk and James Montgomery, shall refuse to nominate a Clerk in this matter, they being first requyred so to doe, With power lykewayes to the saids persones hereby commissionat or their said quorum, To create, make, and constitute Serjants, Dempsters, and other Members of the said court, And to Issue out and cause raise precepts or lybells of indictment at the instance of Samuell Cairnmount, writer in Kirkcudbright, as procurator fiscall for his Majesties interest in the said matter, against the saids Elspeth M’Cowen and Mary Millar, accused of Witchcraft, ffor sumonding and citeing them upon ffyfteen dayes, by delyvering to them a full copie of the lybell or indictment, with the names and designationes of the Assyzers and witnesses subjoined ; And for citeing there assyzers and witnesses in the ordinary and under the usual paynes and certificationes, To compear before the saids Commissioners hereby commissionat …… With power to the saids Commissioners or their said quorums, To decern and Adjudge them to be burned, or otherwise to be execute to death within such space and after such a manner as they shall think fit, and appoints the saids commissioners, there said quorum or Clerk, to transmit the haill process which shall be ledd before them against the said Elspeth M’Cowen and Mary Millar, and severall steps thereof and verdict of the inquest to be given thereupon to the saids Lords of his Majesties privie Councill, betwixt and the ffyfteenth day of June nixt to come.”On the 26th of July the committee of Privy Council reported that they had examined the proceedings of the commissioners in the case of Elspeth M’Ewen (the report signed by the Lord Advocate), who had been pronounced guilty upon her own confession and the evidence of witnesses “of a compact and correspondence with the devil, and of charms and of accession to malefices.” It was ordered that the sentence of death against Elspeth should be executed under care of the Steward of Kirkcudbright and his deputies.
Found guilty by her own confession, a certain means to end a miserable life, Elspeth M’Ewen suffered the extreme penalty of being burned at the stake, the execution taking place in what is now known as Silver Craigs Park, on the 24th day of August, 1698.
The following extracts connected with the trial and execution are taken from some old Kirkcudbright records, which were brought to light by the late Mr James Nicholson:-
It would thus appear that the executioner (William Kirk) had to be kept in jail in order that he should he forthcoming at the execution. He seems to have been an old, infirm man, without relations or friends, and on 8th July, 1699, he addressed the following petition to the Provost and Magistrates:-V”To the Right Honorable my Lord Provest, Baylies, and Cownsell of the Royal Burgh of Kirkcut.-Humbly sheweth, That yor Honors patchioner is in great straits in this dear time and lik to sterv for hwnger, and whan I go to the cowntrie and foks many of them has it not and others of them that hes it say they are overburdened with poor folk that they are not able to stand before them, and they will bid me go hom to the town to maintain me and cast stanes at me. May it therefore please your honors to look upon my indigent condition and help me for the Lord sake, and yor honors pettioner shall ever pray.”VIn answer to the above “earnest cry and prayer” there appears the following entry in the Thessr’s ” account: – V”8th Jully, 1699.V”The sd day the magistrates and Counsell ordains the Thessr. to give the petitioner the next week six shill Scots forby his weekly allowance.”VAnother document, which throws a curious side-light on Elspeth M’Ewen’s trial, is the sentence against one Janet Corbie, who advised Elspeth to plead not guilty. It is as follows:-VKirkcudbright, – day of July, 1698.
“The same day, it being most palpably and cleirly evident and made appear to ye magistrates and Consell yt. Janet Corbie, dauter of Wm. Corbie, hath been and as yet continues in a most scandlous carrige, abusing of her neybors by scandlous expressions, whereffor there hath been fformer ffines put upon her, and that she is a persoun yt leeves by pyckering and stealing as is most justly suspect yrof, and yt she hath been endevouring to harden Elspeth M’Keoun, wha is in ye laigh sellar as ane wich, in endevouring to dissuad her to confess and that people sinned ther sowl wha said she was a wich, and ffor her constant practis in abuse of ye Lord’s Day emploing herselff yrin ofthymes in stealing her neybors guids such as unyuns and bowcaill and taking them to ye countrie and makin sale yr of, and sevll oyr thing yt upon just grownds could be mayd appere so yt to long she hath been suffered to resyde in this place; yrfor, and yt ye place may be troubled with such a miscrent, and scandlous person nae langer in tym coming, ye magistrates and consell out of a due sens of yr dutie and of ye justice of her sentens, ordains the said Janet Corbie to remain in prison while Monday morning neist att ten o’clock and then to be taken ffurth of the tolboth by ye officers and wt tuck of drum to be transported over the ferry bote, to be exported in all tyme coming from ye sosiety or convercacioune of all guid Christians and indwellers in ye place, and never to return yrto, prohibiting and discharging all inhabitants, qur parents, relaciouns, or any oyrs wtin ye toun’s bouns, to harbor, reset, convers, commune with, or entertane the said Janet or receve her to their society or company at any place or tyme in all tyme coming, and yt under ye pain of fforty pounds Scots money to be peyd by ilk transgressor, toties quoties to ye toun’s Thessr. atower whatever oyer punishment the magistrets and consell sall think fit further to impose, and ordains thir presents to be publish at ye Mercat Cross yt non may pretend ignorans in tyme coming, and the magistrats ordane to see the sentence put in execution.”
Extracts from Minute Book of the Kirk-Session of Kirkcudbright.
“Janet M’Robert in Milnburn is delated to the Session for Witchcraft, the signs and instances qrof (whereof) are afterwards recorded. The Session therefor recommends to the Magistrates to apprehend and incarcerate her till tryall be had of that matter.”
“Feb. 6, 1701.
“As to Janet M’Robert in Milnburn, it is delated by Elizabeth Lauchion, lawfull daughter to John Lauchlon yr., (there) that the sd. (said) Elizabeth went to Janet’s house, when she was not within, and looking in at the door saw a wheel going about and spinning without the help of any person seen by her, and she went in and essayed to lay hold of the said wheel, but was beat back to the door and her head was hurt, though she saw nobody. And yt. (that) after she was in the said Janet’s House (being at school with her) the Devil appeared to her in the likeness of a man, and did bid her deliver herself over to him, from the crown of her head to the sole of her foot, which she refused to do, saying she would rather give herself to God Almighty. After the Devil went away the sd. (said) Janet, who was present with her, laid bonds on her not to tell. And yr after he came a second time to her, being in Janet’s house alone, in the likeness of a gentleman, and desired her to go with him, and yr after disappeared, seeming not to go out at the door.
“Robert Crichton’s wife farther delates, that when she was winnowing corn in Bailie Dunbar’s barn, the said Janet came in to her and helped her, tho’ not desired, till she had done, and desired of her some chaff for her cow. She gave her a small quantity in her apron, with which she seemed not to be satisfied, so upon the morrow thereafter, the said Robert Crichton’s wife’s breast swelled to a great height, which continued for about the space of five weeks, so that the young child who was then sucking decayed and vanished away to a shadow, and immediately yr after their cow took such a distemper that her milk had neither the colour nor taste that it used to have, so yt no use could be made of it, all which happened about three years ago.
“It is further delated by Howell, that being one day in John Robertson’s s in the Milnburn, he desired to buy two hens. They said they had none, but perhaps Janet M’Robert would do it, and accordingly he asked Janet, who answered she had none to sell to him. He replied, ‘you have them to eat my goodmother’s bear when it is sown ; but (said he), my rough lad (meaning his dog) will perhaps bring them to me.’ She answered, ‘your rough lad will bring none of my hens this two days;’ and before that he went to the town, the dog went mad to the beholding of many.
“Further, it is delated, that a friend of the said Janet’s living in Rerwick, whose wife was lying on childbed, did send his daughter to Janet to borrow some money which she refused to give at the first, yet upon a second consideration she gave her two fourteens, but still assured the Lass that she would lose them. ‘What (says the Lass) ‘am I a child yet?’ and for the mare security she took a purse out of her pocket in which there were no holes, and took out some tumour (turmerick) which she had in it, and did put in the two fourteens and threw the neck of her purse (as she used perhaps to do) assuring herself that she should not lose them now, and went home, and when she came there, she opened the purse to take out the two fourteens, and she had nothing.
“Further, it is delated by John M’Gympser’s wife, Agnes Kirk, that the said Janet came one day there, and desired a hare’s bouk (carcase) which she refused, and since that time their dog hath neither been able to run or take ane hare.”
“Feb. 12th, 1701.
“As to Janet M’Robert, John Bodden in Milnburn delates, that at the laik wake of his child three years ago, Patrick Linton’s son heard a great noise about Janet’s house, so yt he was afraid to go out at the door, and John Bodden himself going to the door heard it also, at which he was greatly affrighted. Upon the morrow yr after, the said Janet went into John’s house, and they told her what they heard the night before about her house. Janet answered, ‘It is nothing but my clocken hen’; but John declared that ‘all the hens within twenty miles would not have made such a noise.
“The sd. John further delates that, upon the Wednesday after Janet was incarcerated, he did see about cock-crow a candle going through the said Janet’s house, but saw nothing holding it.”
April 10th, 1701.
“As to Janet M’Robert, an extract of the delations against her being sent to Edinburgh, and a commission written for to pursue her legally it was denyed in regard they judged the delations not to be sufficient presumptions of guilt, so as to found a process of that nature. Notwithstanding thereof the said Janet consented to an act of banishment, and went hence to Ireland.”