The burning of witches on the Whitesands. 1659

The social disease of witch hunting was at its peak in Europe during the 1500s and 1600s. It all hailed back to a quotation in Exodus 22, 18 "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" and to Roman Law which condemned sorcerers to die by fire. Originally the Christian church did not believe in witches but in the later 1400s two Dominican Inquisitors, Kramer and Sprenger, published Malleus Maleficarum which made sorcery appear as a vast organised conspiracy of the devil and his witches against man and the holy church. In 1484 the Pope enjoined the rooting out of witches and the craze took off. Scotland in 1563, three years after the Reformation, passed an Act which made the practice of witchcraft, or consulting with witches, a capital crime. Over 1,000 people, mostly unfortunate old women, were executed in Scotland until the Act was repealed in 1735. The figure is small compared to the 100,000 or so who were executed in Germany over the same period but it is large compared to the 400-500 who were executed in England which of course had a much larger population.

In Scotland the practice was confined to the South of Scotland and the East Coast. The Highlands and Islands were not affected at all, due to the domination of the clan system. Places which regularly supplied witches were fishing villages and ports such as North Berwick, Largs, Ayr and Aberdeen. There were main waves of persecution in 1591, 1597, 1629, 1649 and 1662. The 1597 hunt was stirred up by James VI, a deeply superstitious King. When his wife, Anne of Denmark, was nearly shipwrecked by a storm in the North Sea, he personally supervised the trials of a convention of witches in North Berwick. The other national panics were generated by pronouncements of the Privy Council. The sufferers for this madness were generally women, predominantly poor, middle aged or elderly. About one in ten were men. Women were looked on as more susceptible to the calling of the devil because of the Christian view that women were the source of sin and the fall of Man through the apple in the garden of Eden. Because of this they were intrinsically and innately more prone to malice than man and less capable of reasoning. This made them dangerous. Quite often the victims were solitary people and in a time of bad harvests or plague or animal sickness people did not look for scientific explanations, and scapegoats were an easy solution. About seventy women perished in South-West Scotland in this way, most of them in trials at Dumfries and Kirkcudbright. Usually they were from the countryside and if they were a little ugly or unpleasant - so much the better.

In 1659 ten women were accused of diverse acts of witchcraft by Dumfries Kirk Session although the Kirk Session minutes itself records nine witches. The Justiciary Court found them guilty of the several articles of witchcraft and on the 13th April between 2pm and 4pm in the afternoon they were taken to the Whitesands, strangled at stakes and their bodies burnt to ashes. There are many other instances. In 1650 Elizabeth Maxwell, Marion Corsan, Thomas Paton, Bessie Graham, Ellesone Patersone, Janet Dickson and Marion Sprott were all found guilty at Dumfries and were hanged and burnt. Thomas Anderson and John Crosbie were paid for setting up the gibbet. The town watch was paid 9s 3d for candles for the time he spent with the witches "when the hair gouns was upon them" and Baillie Ferguson was paid for the time he spent with the 'proder'. Wine of course was drunk while the indictments against them were drawn up.

Very often their 'confessions' were extracted under torture. The accused were hung up by their thumbs, lighted candles were set to the soles of their feet, hair shirts dipped in vinegar were put on them to fetch off their skin, needles were thrust to the heads in their fingers. A common instrument was the cashielaw, an iron case for the leg to which fire was gradually applied till it became agonisingly painful. Often the witch's family were tortured in front of her in order to extract the confession. It was the church which inflicted these agonies and it was only after confession had been extracted that the victims were handed over to the magistrates for final disposal. Pricking witches with an iron needle was a favourite method and the Pricker was taught his trade as if it was an ordinary profession. Sleep deprivation or "waking the witch" was also standard practice.

The witchcraft trials are difficult to beat for their inhumanity. In 1612 Alison Devise, aged 11, was put to death in Lanarkshire.

Elspeth Thomsone and Janet McMuldroche were tried in May 1671. Elspeth Thomsone lived just out of Dalbeattie. The charge against her was the standard one that she had "Shaken off all fear of god and reverence, she had betaken herself to the service of Satan, that she had taken his marks upon her body, had practised diverse and sundrie devilish charms, witchcraft and sorcerie, that she had carnal dealings with the devil and has hereby hurt and damnified his majesties subjects in their goods and persons".

The evidence against her is circumstantial to say the least. One Elsbeth Coupland said that William McKghie, husband of Elspeth Thomsone, had confessed to her that a great heaviness had come upon him and that the "devil had come like a rat and bit his left arme". James Corkry in Bankend said that William McKghie confessed to him that one morning he saw the devil looking at his face and that his wife had told him "not to be feared as she was not feared at all". Richard Corkry in Glenshinnoch said that he had heard Donald McKghie say that he " blamed no-one for all the evil that come upon him but Elspeth Thomsone". John Raphel declared the same. McKghie said that 21 hours after his brother Donald died, Rosina McKghie asked Elspeth Thomsone to touch the body and it sprang blood from all its passages.

Magistrats of drumfreis

fforsamuch as un ane court of Justiciarie holden be us within the Tolbuithe of drumfreis upon the fyftein day of May instant Jonet McMuldroche and Elspeth Thomsone were found guiltie be ane ascyse of the seall (severall) articles of witchcraft speit (speciafeit) in the verdict given against them theiranent were decerned and adjudged be us the Lords Comrs (commissioners) of Justiciarie to be tane upon Thursday next the eightein day of May instant Betuixt two and foure houres in the afternoone to the ordinare place of axe cu.une. (executioune) for the toune of drumfreis. And their to be wirried (worried, strangled) at ane Stake till they be dead. And theirafter their bodies to be brunt to ashes. And all their moveable goods and geir to be esheat (escheat, forfeited), You shall thairfoir cause put the said sentence to due ececu.une (executioune) Wheiranent thir presents shall be youre warrant Given at drumfreis the Sextein day of May 1671
Ro Nairne
Jhone Burns

John Shennan of Potterland said that he knew all of Elspeth Thomsone's neighbours were afraid of her. John Crosbie said that there was a great contest between his wife and Elspeth Thomsone because she was not invited to come to the baptism of their new baby and that afterwards his wife had become ill. He went to Elspeth Thomsone's house and brought three rugs (pulls) of thatch from above her door home to his wife and burnt them before her whereupon she recovered but a little while later the baby died "with nobody seeing him".

Rosina McKghie said Elspeth Thomsone came to her house to borrow a heckill (a flax hackle or come) which was lying at the beside. She saw her grope the bed with her hands and when she left she was afraid that her servant would put the baby into the bed and it would come to some harm. Whereupon she instantly cast a whelp in the bed three time and immediately the dog lost the power of his hind quarters and her husband was forced to hang him.

The verdict was guilty. On the 18th May 1671 Elspeth Thomsone was wirried (strangled) and burnt at the stake and her goods and geir inbrought into his majesty's use". Although what use her "geir" would be to his majesty is anyone's guess. Janet McMuldroche suffered the same fate.

From the 1680s onwards, however, convictions became more and more difficult to obtain, although executions still occurred. Dumfries held the last trial for witchcraft by the Court of Justiciary in Scotland in 1709 when Elizabeth Rule was found guilty and burned on the cheek with a hot iron. The town's executioner carried out the sentence so effectively that smoke was seen to come out of her mouth. The last execution for witchcraft in Scotland was at Dornoch in 1727 when the senile victim, Janet Horne, is said to have thought that the peats under her feet were only there to warm her. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 repealed the former Act and admitted only the crime of pretended witchcraft. No one was ever prosecuted under its provisions and by the 1780s witches and devils were a joke, not a threat - witness Burns "Tam O'Shanter".

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