WITCHCRAFT AND SUPERSTITIOUS RECORDS in the South-Western District of Scotland.
By J Maxwell Wood, M.B. Dumfries
The extract following was quoted from a letter to the author by John Copland Esq., The Studio, Dundrennan. It relates four ‘witches’ who used to live in the area surrounding Kirkcudbright.
“Many years ago there lived near Whinnieliggate, on a somewhat lonely part of the road which leads from Kirkcudbright to Dumfries, an old woman with the reputation of being a witch. She was feared to such an extent that her neighbours kept her meal-chest full, and furnished her with food, clothes, and all she required. An old residenter in Kelton Hill or Rhonehouse, now passed away, remembered her well, and has left a very minute description of her appearance. He told how she was of small spare build, wizened of figure and face, squinted outward with one eye, the eyes themselves being small, but of peculiar whitish green colour, her nose hooked and drooping over very ugly teeth. She swathed her straggling grey locks in a black napkin or handkerchief, wore grey drugget, and a saffron-tinted shawl with spots of black and green darned into the semblance of frogs, toads, spiders, and jackdaws, with a coiled adder or snake roughly sewn round the border.
Her shoes or bauchles were home-made from the untanned hides of black Galloway calves, skins not difficult for her to get. The cottage in which she lived was as quaint as herself, both inside and out. A huge bed of orpine (stone crop) grew over one of its thatched sides, the thatch being half straw and half broom at each end grew luxuriantly long wavering broom bushes, and a barberry shrub, densely covered with fruit in its season. A row of hair ropes draped the lintel of the small windows at the front of the cottage, from which was suspended the whitened skulls of hares, and ravens, rooks or corbies. The interior was also garnished with dried kail-stocks, leg and arm bones, no doubt picked up in the churchyard, all arranged in the form of a star, and over her bed-head hung a roughly drawn circle of the signs of the zodiac. She was often to be seen wandering about the fields in moonlight nights with a gnarled old blackthorn stick with a ram’s horn head, and was altogether generally regarded as uncanny.
The old man who thus describes her person and surroundings told of two occasions in which he suffered at her hands. He was at one time engaged with a farmer in the parish of Kelton, and one day he and a son of the farmer set out for the town of Kirkcudbright with two heavily laden carts of hay, the farmer in a jocular way calling after them as they left, ‘Noo J ohnie, yer cairts are a’ fair and square the noo, and let’s see ye reach Kirkcudbright without scathe, for ye maun mind ye hae tae pass auld Jean on the wey. Dinna ye stop aboot her door or say ocht tae her, tae offend her. Gude kens hoo she may tak’ it.’ Johnie was of a very sceptical nature about such characters as Jean, and replied, ‘ Man, Maister M’C -, dae ye ken a wudna care the crack o’ a coo’s thumb gin a’ the wutches ooten the ill bit war on the road,’ and so they set out. When passing the cottage, sure enough, the old woman appeared at the door, and, as was her wont, had to ask several questions as to where cam’ they frae? and whar wur they gaun? who owned the hay and the horses? and so on.
The lad, who was a bit of a ‘limb,’ recklessly asked her what the deil business it was of hers, and John said, ‘Aye, deed faith aye, boy that’s just true. Come away. And so they lumbered away down through the woods by the Brocklock Burn, when suddenly a hare banged across the road, right under the foremost horse’s nose, crossed and recrossed several times, till both the horses became so restless and unmanageable that they backed and backed against the old hedge on the roadside, and in a few minutes both carts went over the brow into the wood, dragging the horses with them. The harness fortunately snapped in pieces, saving them from being strangled. Johnie and the boy were compelled to walk into the town for help, where they told the story of Jean’s malevolence. Johnie’s second adventure took place some years afterwards. On passing with a cart of potatoes to be shipped from Kirkcudbright to Liverpool by the old Fin M’Coul Johnie refused to give Jean two or three potatoes for seed, with the result that his horse backed his cart right into the then almost unprotected harbour, and they were with great difficulty rescued.”
“The parish of Twynholm in days gone by had its witch. ‘Old Meg,’ (as the reputed witch was called by the neighbours) had for some years got her supply of butter from one of the farms quite close to the village of Twynholm, and the goodwife, to safeguard her very fine dairy of cows, always gave old Meg a small print, or pat, extra for luck. All went well until one day a merchant came to the farm seeking a large quantity of butter for the season, and offering such a good price that a bargain was at once struck. The farmer’s wife was obliged to tell her small customers, Meg among the number, that she ‘would not be able tae gie them ony mair butter as she had a freen in the trade who would need all she could spare, and more if she had it.’
Meg was the only one to murmur at the information, and did so in no unmistakable terms. ‘Aye, woman,’ said she, ‘y’er getting far ower prood and big tae ser’ a puir bodie. Folk sood na’ seek tae haud their heeds ower high ower puir folk. There’s aye a doonfa’ tae sic pridefu’ weys.’ ‘Weel, Margaret,’ said the farmer’s wife, ‘ye’re no a richt-thinkin’, weel-mindet buddy or ye wudna turn on me the wey yer daen efter a’ my kindness tae ye; sae I wad juist be as weel pleased if ye’d pass my door and try somebody else tae gie ye mair than I hae ony guid wull tae gie ye.’ Meg left in great anger, and before a week was ended three of the farmer’s cows died, and one broke its leg.”
“Away back in the days when the steampacket and railway were almost unknown along the south or Solway shore of Scotland large numbers of sailing craft plied between ports and creeks along the Scottish, Irish, and English coasts, every little port at all safe for landing being the busy scene of arrival and departure, and the discharge of cargo with almost every tide. A small group of houses usually marked these little havens, generally made up of an inn, a few fishermen’s cottages, huts, and sail-lofts. On the Rerwick, or Monkland shore as it was then called, four or five of these little hamlets stood, some on the actual shore, others a short way inland. The incident which follows was founded upon the visit of three young sailors, who had for a day or two been living pretty freely, in a clachan about two miles from where their craft, a handy topsail schooner, lay at Burnfoot. On the rough moor road-side which led down from the clachan to the coast there lived in a small shieling a middle-aged woman, recognised by most of her neighbours and by seafaring men coming to these parts as an unscrupulous and rather vindictive old woman, supposed to be a witch.
The three sailors had to pass this cottage on their way down to join their ship, and before setting out decided to go right past her home rather than take a round-about way to avoid her, which was at first suggested. As they came to her door she was standing watching and evidently waiting for them. ‘Ye’r a fine lot you to gang away wi’ a schooner,’ she called to them as they came up. ‘Ye had a fine time o’t up by at Rab’s Howff, yet nane o’ ye thocht it worth yer while tae look in an see me in the bye-gaun; but ‘am naebody, an’ canna wheedle a boot ye like Jean o’ the How if, an’ wile yer twa-three bawbees frae ooten yer pooches, an’ sen’ ye awa’ as empty as ma meal poke.’ The youngest of the three, being elated and reckless with drink, commenced to mock and taunt the old woman, his companions foolishly joining him also in jeering at her, until soon she was almost beside herself with rage.
Shaking her fist at them as they passed on she pursued them with threat and invective that brought a chill of terror to their young hearts, and made them glad to find themselves at last beyond the range of her bitter tongue. The tragic sequel, coincident or otherwise, now falls to be related. Two nights later they set sail to cross to the Curnberland side of the Solway. The weather was threatening when they left, and a stiff breeze quickly developed into half a gale of wind. The schooner, which was very light, was observed to be making very bad weather of it, and to be drifting back towards the coast they had left. The gathering darkness of the night soon shut them out of sight, but early next morning the vessel lay a broken wreck on the rocky shore, and several weeks afterwards the bodies of her crew were washed ashore.”
“In a somewhat sparsely populated district in the parish of Balmaghie there lived, with a crippled husband, a wrinkled-visaged old woman who was reckoned by all who lived near her as an uncanny character. She dwelt in a small thatched cottage well away from the public road, and had attached to her cottage a small croft or patch, half of which was used as a garden, the remainder as a gang for pigs and poultry. Not far from where she lived abounded long strips of meadow land, liable to be in wet seasons submerged by the backwaters of the Dee. About a mile from the cottage was a farm where a number of cows were kept, the farmer usually disposing of the butter made up every week to small shopkeepers, and in the villages near by. He was always very chary about passing the old woman’s cottage with his basket of butter and eggs, feeling sure of a bad market should she chance to get a glimpse at the contents of the basket.
Moreover, he would gladly have dispensed with the peace-offering he was obliged to make in the form of a pound of butter or a dozen or so of eggs, which was considered a sure safeguard. To avoid her he had taken a new route, crossing a ford higher up the water and going over a hill to another village, where he would have little chance of coming in contact with her. One day however, he found that his plan was discovered, and that to persist in it would be to court disaster Crossing the moor he observed the old woman busily gathering *birns (heather after being burned) and small whin roots. She was undoubtedly watching and waiting for him, and was the first to speak. ‘Aye, aye, man; ye maun reckon me gey blin’ no’ tae see ye stavering oot o’ the gate among moss holes tae get ooten my wey. Ye hae wat yer cloots monie a mornin’ tae keep awa’ frae my hoose, and for nae ither guid reason than tae save twa or three eggs or a morsel o’ butter that ony weel-minded neebor wud at ony time gie an auld donnert cripple tae feed and shelter. Losh, man, but ye hae a puir, mean speerit. Yer auld faither wudna hae din ony sic thing, an’ mony a soup o’ tea a hae geen ‘im when he used to ca’ in on his hame-gaun frae the toon gey weel the waur o’ a dram.’
Annoyed at being challenged the farmer was not quite in a mood to laugh the matter off, and accordingly he, with some degree of temper, told the old woman to go to a place where neither birns nor whin roots were needed for kindling purposes. About a mile further over the moor he met a neighbour’s boy hurrying along, making for his farm to ask him to come over to help his master to pull a cow out of a hole in the peat-moss. He at once went, asking the lad to carry one of his baskets to enable them to get along faster. They left the two baskets at the end of a haystack near the muir farm, and crossed over to the moss where they could see the farmer and his wife doing their utmost to keep the cow’s head above the mire.
Additional strength of arm however, soon brought the cow out of her dangerous position, and they retired for a little to the farm-house for a dram. ‘Dod,’ said the owner of the baskets, ‘I houp nae hairm has come the butter an’ eggs. I left them ower-by at the end o’ the hey-stack yonner.’ ‘0, they’ll be a’ richt,’ said the farmer’s wife; ‘but Johnie’ll gang ower and bring them, sae sit still ’til he fetches them.’ Johnie went as told, and came back with the tidings that ‘the auld soo had eaten nearly all the butter an’ broken maist o’ the eggs, had pit her feet thro’ the bottom o’ the butter-skep, and made a deil o’ a haun o’ everything.’ ‘Aye, aye,’ quoth the farmer; ‘juist what I micht hae expeckit efter the look I got frae that auld deevel in woman’s shape doonbye.’ His neighbour was silent and seemed strangely put out, and when at last he found speech it was to say, ‘Man Sanny, she’s du’n baith o’ us ! Dae ye ken I refused her a pig juist last week, an’ that accoonts for “crummie” in the moss-hole.’ ”