Border Life: 17th Century witches

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Agnes Fynnie

On the 11 July 1644 Agnes Fynnie was arrested and sent to the Tolbooth in Edinburgh. There were twenty charges of witchcraft and sorcery on the court dittay.

That whereas by the eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomyand the twentieth of Leviticus, and the seventy third act of the ninth parliament of Queen Marie, all sorcerie is prohibit; yet the said Agnes has committed the crymes following:

First: having Threatened Mr Willian Fairlie’s son to send him halting home, , he within twenty-four languished in so incurable a disease, that he died.

Second: that she laid upon Beatrix Nisbet a fearfull disease, so that she lost the power of her tongue!

Third: that she laid a grievous sickness upon  Jonet Grinton, whom ye threatened that she should never eat more in this world  and of which she died.

Fourth: that ye came in to visit John Buchannan’s bairne, being sick of a palsie, and that by your devilrie he died within eight days.

Fifth: following a scolding with Bessie Currie, the said bairne’s mother, ye, in great rage threattned that ye gar the devill tack a bite of hir.

Sixth: that ye laid a grievous sickness on hir husband, John Buchannan, that he brant a whole night as if he had been in a fure, for taking his wife Bessie Currie’s part against you.

Seventh: that the said John being offended at you he streight contracted a long and grievous sicknesse, whereof he was lyke to melt away in sweiting.

Eighth: that in your scolding with Euphame Kincaid a gret just fell on the said Euphame’s daughter’s leg, being playing near your house, and crushed the same.

Ninth: ye ended a compt with Isobell Atchesone, andwhereupon the nixt day she brak hir leg by ane fall from a horse.

Tenth: Robert Wat, deacon of the cordiners, having fyned  your sone-in-law, ye cursed him most outrageously, since which tyme he fell away in his worldly means.

Eleventh: the laying on of a grievous sickness on Christian Harlaw.

Twelfth: that Christian Sympson being owing you some money ye threatened, in great rage, ‘that she should have a sore heart or that day eight days:’ according whereto, the said Christian’s husband broke his leg within the said eight days.

Thirteenth: that John Robieson having called you a witch, you in malice, laid a flux on him by your sorcerie.

Fourteenth: for appearing to John Cockburn in the night, when bothe doors and windows were fact closed, and terrifying him in his sleep, because he had discorded with your daughter the day before.

Fifteenth: for causing all William Smith’s means evanish, to the intent he might never be able to relieve some cloaths he had panded besude you.

Sixteenth: for onlaying a grievous sickness on Janet Walker, lying in childbed; and then ye being sent for ye assented, and she recovered of hir sicknesse presently by your sorcerie.

Seventeenth: that ye being disappointed of not having Alexander Johnstoune’s bairne’s name, whereon he tooke a strange sickness and languished long.

Eighteenth: having fallin in a controversie with Margaret Williamsone after which, she, by your sorcerie, took a grievous sicknesse, whereof she went blind.

Nineteenth: for laying a madness on Andrew Wilson, conforme to your threatening, wishing the devil to ryve the saul out of him and that because he had fallen in a brauling with your daughter.

Twentieth: for beiring companie with the devil these twenty-eight years bypast/

Agnes denied all charges

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Kelso, 1662

On 12 June 1662, Sir Archibald Douglas of Kelso obtained a Commission from the Privy Council to try four accused witches: Bessie Thomson, Malie Jonstoun, Agnes Quarie and Malie Turnbull. Douglas was a fervent Covenanter and was extremely outspoken in his condemnation of, as he saw it, any form of religious belief that was not strictly Calvinist. Being a child was no protection from Douglas. Arrested by Douglas, all four accused were imprisoned and immediately interrogated under torture.

  Several court records list the methods used to extract confessions:[i]

‘bound her armes with towes and so threw the same about that they disjoynted and mutilat both her armes’

‘tying their thumbs behind them and then hanging them up by them… set lighted candles to their feet and between their toes and in their mouths and burned their heads.’

‘the women were tortured by hanging them up by the thombes and burning the soles of their feet at the fyre.’

During all of these practices the suspects would be being constantly berated by the local Kirk minister and elders. Harangued and bullied, they would be told that they were evil and wicked and would go straight to hell for all eternity for their crimes; told how they were a disgrace and a source of shame and loathing to their families; how everybody hated and feared them, their filthy practices were known, their heresies had been exposed. Castigated as the Devil’s whores and followers, they were ridiculed and humiliated. This psychological abuse was heaped on them continuously in a tirade of anger and disgust. Those who refused to co-operate could also be threatened that their families would be arrested and also tortured. This was often used where a suspect had a teenage daughter or son.

Torture was not allowed to be used against children under 14. Because of this the case against Bessie Thomson, Malie Jonstoun, Agnes Quarie and Malie Turnbull collapsed as Bessie and Malie Jonstoun were underage. Their exact ages are not recorded but both Bessie and Malie were probably as young as eight or nine. In other words, Douglas was torturing children. All four were released but not until after they had suffered imprisonment, interrogation and torture. They would have suffered, at the very least, sleep deprivation, psychological bullying and having been walked for hours on end. They might have been burnt with hot stones, had their skin rasped off with ropes or their fingers broken and crushed. They may well have been beaten by their guards, partly for fun or boredom, or from a genuine hatred of witches. All of this as well as being imprisoned for weeks away from their families and friends. They would have eaten little or poor-quality food, slept on filthy flea-infested straw with only a corner of their cell to relieve themselves. Even on release, they bore the stigma of having been investigated for witchcraft. Douglas may have been thwarted in this particular case but no records exist of any charges brought against him for his illegal ill treatment of Bessie, Malie, Agnes and Malie. In addition, his name appears as a prosecuting Commissioner in several cases over the following ten years.

[i] Register of the Privy Council, 2nd series, vol.3, pp. 41-42

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Tell me more – Midlothian Witches

A short podcast with Lea Taylor and me chatting about witches in Midlothian.

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Weir the Warlock

Thomas Weir was born in Carluke in 1599. He was a signatory to the Solemn League and Covenant. He served in the Covenanter army and in 1650, became commander of the Edinburgh Town Guard. While commander, he began each day by leading the town guard in prayer. A powerful orator, his fame quickly spread and locals soon started to come to his house at the top of the West Bow in Edinburgh to hear him. Before long, Weir was preaching every morning and he was given the title of the Bowhead Saint by the crowds who came to hear him. He was the epitome of God’s Elect and Kirk elders across Scotland held him up as an example of such. Young ministers would travel to Edinburgh just to hear him preach.

            In 1670, Weir fell ill and while in the grip of a wild fever confessed to several crimes. He was arrested along with his spinster sister Jean, known as Grizel. The pair were taken to the Edinburgh tolbooth. Under questioning, Grizel confirmed Weir’s confession admitting to several acts of witchcraft and sorcery. According to Grizel, her brother had been taken to Dalkeith by a stranger in a ‘fiery’ coach who had given Weir a special walking stick. The walking stick had special powers contained in the carved human head that sat atop the shaft. Weir would stroke the carved head when deep in thought. When the authorities confronted Weir with Grizel’s confession he not only confirmed most of what she had said but then added more crimes he had committed aided by evil powers. Most of the crimes involved causing illness on other members of God’s Elect. He also informed his interrogators that he and his sister had been having an incestuous relationship since he had taken up his post as city commander and begun his preaching. He was not, however, ashamed in any way about the relationship.

            The Weirs were both found guilty of witchcraft and consorting with the Devil and sentenced to death.  Weir was sentenced to be worriet and burned and the minister presiding over his execution urged him at the end to pray for forgiveness. Weir replied, saying, ‘Let me alone, I will not, I have lived as a beast, and I must die as a beast.’  The court had ordered that Weir’s walking stick was also to be burnt. Several onlookers noted that it made ‘rare turnings’ in the flames as it burned and the mouth of the carved head appeared to gape open, as if attempting to utter some final diabolical words.

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John Kincaid the witch brodder

Image of John Kincaid from contemporary records. Image © Rhiannon Hunt

Witch brodders or witch prickers were one of the few individuals involved in witchcraft trials that made a living. They were paid for every witch they detected. They were the specialist who could find the ‘Devil’s Mark’ on a suspected witch.

             The most famous witch brodder in Scotland was John Kincaid from Tranent in East Lothian. Working between 1649 and 1662, it is not known how many witches were sent to the flames as a result of his work but the figure may well be in excess of 200.

             In his time, Kincaid travelled between Edinburgh and the Lothians, as far north as Stirling and as far west as Glasgow, but he was most frequently to be found in the various towns of the Lothians and the Borders.  His name is repeated time and time again in trial records right through the 1650s. He was licensed by the Privy Council; at least initially.

             In 1662, accusations were raised against Kincaid and a warrant was issued for his arrest by the Privy Council. It was alleged that he had wrongly found the Devil’s mark on innocent victims and, more importantly, that he had been brodding suspects without having a warrant to do so.  The official report submitted to the Privy Council stated that Kincaid had worked ‘without warrand and order to prick and try these persons’. More damning was the statement that ‘there hath bein great abuses committed by John Kincaid’, concluding that ‘in all probabilitie many innocents have suffered’. The records show several appeals by individuals pleading for release on the grounds that they had been unlawfully brodded and that other than the supposed Devil’s mark found by Kincaid there was no evidence against them. Kincaid was arrested and sent to the tolbooth in Edinburgh.

             After some two months in gaol without any formal charges being laid against him, Kincaid petitioned the Privy Council for his release. The Privy Council seemed reluctant to formally charge him and he was released after he had posted bail of £1,000 Scots and agreed that he would no longer work as a witch finder without the correct warrant. The situation of the ‘many innocents [that] have suffered’ was quietly forgotten by the Privy Council. It is not recorded if any of those who appealed against Kincaid’s treatment of them won their appeal but if they did not, a single record has survived. What is more probable is that Kincaid’s release with no charges brought against him resulted in any appeals being set aside and the trials for witchcraft continuing as normal.

             The £1,000 Scots Kincaid posted as surety was an extremely large sum of money which may in part answer why he had worked without warrants. To be able to raise £1,000 in a two-month period hints that he was, by this time in his life, a relatively wealthy man. It may well be that part, if not all, of that wealth had been generated by witch-hunting. The temptation to work quickly and without warrant for money had proved a great temptation for other brodders: Kincaid, may have given in to such a temptation.

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Proof in witchcraft cases

The courts in Scotland in the 17th century recognised four ‘proofs’ of witchcraft. Having a bad reputation, being a ‘quarrelsome dame’ or having a history of bad behaviour was the first proof. This proof was the weakest the courts recognised but was all too easily gained. Much of life was lived publicly and an argument in the market place could easily result in a woman being labelled ‘witch.’ The second proof was being delated or named as a witch by another witch was the second proof.  A suspected with could easily name a friend or neighbour when under interrogation. The investigating ministers always wanted more names.

The third proof was confession. Many of those arrested soon confessed. Days of intense interrogation, brutal treatment and, in some cases, torture, soon resulted in an admission of being a witch if for no other reason that being allowed some rest. The fourth proof was that of having the Devil’s Mark on your body. It was believed that the Devil would mark his followers. And just as the Devil was unnatural so the Mark would be unnatural and not bleed if pricked or brodded with a steel bodkin. If a stubborn witch refused to confess the witch pricker or with brodder would be sent for to find the Devil’s Mark.

But there was one more proof that mattered. The Calvinist Kirk of Scotland was obsessed with the Devil. They knew they were God’s Elect and of course who would the Devil attack? Auld Nick had no reason to attack his followers, he was after the souls of the most Godly, the most pious. If a minister found a witch, the handmaiden of the Devil, in his parish this ‘proved’ the minister was Godly. The more Godly you were, the more witches would attack you: the more witches you found the more Godly you were.

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An Edinburgh ‘witch’

I am currently writing the story of an Edinburgh woman who was put on trial in 1645 as a witch. An ordinary woman she was trying to survive in a world of famine, plague and civil war with an absent king and an out of control kirk. The more I research the more fascinating she becomes not least because she was not a typical sweet little old lady gathering herbs to heal a sick child. She was a real person with all the flaws of a real person. But she was a strong character and did not go down without a fight. When she stood up in the court room she was resolute in her defence and had even managed to get two lawyers to represent her. From the tenements of the back streets of Edinburgh she would challenge even the Lord Provost of the city. Her story is one that I feel should be told.

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Florian Poels the Printer

Meet Florian Poels, a printer from my book Beside The Annexe

‘I’m sorry Mr Poels but Mr Frank is not here and left no word about any order with you.’ Florian glared at Miep as she sat calmly behind her desk. This was typical of Jews, just disappear into the night abandoning everything while he was left to pick up the pieces. It had taken him several weeks to persuade Otto Frank to place an order with him for labels and now he had disappeared off to Switzerland of all places. Florian didn’t believe a word of it. People just didn’t disappear like that, they just didn’t. He had met Frank only the previous week and they had discussed the details. They had sat in the café drinking coffee, discussing the war and how their businesses were affected. Frank had been perfectly polite. ‘Come into my office next week, Mr Poels, and we’ll agree the final details and get a contract signed.’ All very nice and polite. Good God they had shaken hands on the matter and now this Miep woman said she knew nothing about it. Florian had even seen Frank on the street with his wife and daughter just a couple of days before. It had been quite early in the morning. He had waved over at them but they seemed distracted and had just hurried on, probably to get out of the rain. And now they had gone. Just like that, up and left everything. He nodded stiffly at Miep and left the office. Bloody Jews.

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Borders Witch Hunt

My talk at the National Library of Scotland about the 17th century witchcraft trials in the Scottish Borders.

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