Camping in the Outer Hebrides
Two people and a dog in the Outer Hebrides, trekking from hostel to beach to hostel.…
Imagine a household maid, two beggars, a tenant farmer, a midwife, the town drunk and his daughter, all living in the region of Renfrewshire on the brink of the 18th century, all of them having one thing in common that would seal their fates: they were condemned for the spiritual torment of a young girl.
A Short History of Scottish Witchcraft
Superstition, spells, prophecies…they have all been integral to Scottish myth and folklore for millennia, but in the years between 1550 and 1700 the response to these mystical practices took on a very different flavor than in times past. No longer was witchcraft merely a pastime for a few uneducated peasants—it was a serious theological issue that involved forces of supernatural evil too great to imagine.
Witchcraft was made illegal in Scotland in 1563, but apparently that was not enough to stop men and women who were “in league with the devil.” In 1591 witch hunting became a matter of national importance when six women confessed to disturbing the king’s sea voyages, and what followed was the deadliest witch hunt in British history. One hundred years later, near the town of Paisley, that story would be repeated when a complex combination of religious fervor, political unrest, ancient superstitions, and perhaps hypochondria, produced one of the most striking pieces of Renfrewshire’s history—the execution of seven people for witchcraft.
It started with an eleven year old girl named Christian Shaw who accused her family’s maid of torturing her, not by normal physical means but by supernatural ones. The girl was thrown into violent fits, and even coughed up straw, coal, gravel, dung, chicken feathers, and warm cinders out of her mouth. The maid was the first to be accused, but certainly not the last. Next it was an old beggar woman, then one of her father’s tenants. For 10 months the accusations continued and the suspects (22 in all) went to trial.
The trials resulted in the conviction and execution of seven men and women: John and James Lyndsay, Agnes Naismith, Margaret Fulton, Katherine Campbell, Margaret Lang and John Lyndsay of Barloch. The convictions were made with little if any proof besides the testimony of a young girl, but that held enough weight (or enough fear) to galvanize the community.
I find that the most fascinating thing about witch hunts is the incredibly outlandish accusations and admissions. For example, one of the accused witches, Elizabeth Anderson, seemed eager to admit her own guilt and incriminate members of her own family, despite the horrific death that often followed accusations of witchcraft. In a warped kind of “state’s evidence,” Elizabeth told the members of a special Commission all about the practices of local witches and admitted to cursing, torturing, murdering babies, and flying through the sky. Ironically, she was not hanged and burned on Paisley’s Gallow Green, but the seven who staunchly protested their innocence were not so fortunate.
Remembering the Dead
These seven people are remembered today by a quirky little event called the The Renfrewshire Witch Hunt 1697 project. This festival, celebrated on June 9 by elaborate costumes and re-enactments, commemorates the witch trials and educates the community about this vital piece of Paisley history. In 2012 the ceremony involved the replacing of a horseshoe over the graves of the dead. You see, little Christian Shaw grew up to become a great figure in the textile industry, part of Paisley’s early industrial success. Local legend had a warning, though, that the town’s prosperity would crumble if a certain horseshoe placed over the witches’ grave was ever removed. The horseshoe was removed in the 1960s. Could that little horseshoe be the reason for Paisley’s boom and bust? It’s an intriguing thought.
Are We Really So Different?
Were episodes like the Renfrewshire Witch Hunt the result of hysteria, illness, Freudian anxiety, religious fanaticism, or real spiritual forces? This is usually the question that stumps historians, physicians, and psychologists, but I want to take things one step further. It is so easy to condemn the ancient Scots for their ignorance and self-righteous judgment, but I’ll leave you with a thought-provoking quote from the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis:
…one man said to me, “three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?” But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did–if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather–surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did?
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