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July 15th 1623

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The witches seal their own fate

It is easy to feel horror reading the accounts of the trials of witches in Scotland. Once these women were in the hands of the Kirk Session there was little likelihood of a not guilty verdict whatever the circumstances.

The general state of ignorance was such that any misfortune as for instance a yeld cow (a cow not giving milk) was immediately assumed to have been due to the baleful influence of a witch. Similarly, an illness was all too often laid at the door of some fairly harmless old woman. These self same women did receive money for their so-called cures. Since these cures involved various magical potions and rituals it is not altogether surprising that many persons believed that the women could also invoke magic for less creditable ends.

The trial of Margaret Harmscleugh illustrates the point. She was summoned by a Christina Mason who “sent for Margaret as she thought she was on the point of death and craved her help. Margaret said to the messenger ‘Truth she shall not die of that ill,’ and promised to cure her. She came over and ordered south running water from the Tay; the bearer to be dumb going and returning, and to hold the mouth of the vessel to the north. She washed her with this water and afterwards made a bath of gril meal. After this the fire that was burning without any visible means, vanished in a black smoke. The woman Mason immediately recovered, arose and supped with the said Margaret but gave her no pay.” 

This was obviously a mistake for the woman became sick again. Next day Margaret returned and this time received a shirt and a pair of shoes and Christina Mason made a permanent recovery. This was probably acceptable behaviour for the neighbours though not perhaps for the Kirk Session. There was, however, a less attractive side to Margaret. “Harry Drummond and his wife deponed that after a quarrel with Margaret she did them skaith (injury). One morning the new ale was working and Margaret arrived to request some draft. They refused and she went out muttering some words and then immediately the ale sank to the bottom and was all as black as pitch and as bitter as soot.”  This continued with the subsequent brewings until they were forced to go on their knees and crave pardon.

Isobel Haldane who was tried with Margaret also apparently demonstrated some of the less attractive attributes of such women. “Stephen Roy in Muirton deponed that Isobel Haldane having stolen some bere (a coarse form of barley) from the Mill of Balhousie, he followed her and brought her back again. She clapped him on the shoulder saying ‘ Go thy way, thou shalt not win thyself a bannock of bread for a year and a day,’ and so it came to pass for he dwined away and was heavily diseased.” /I>

The evidence brought out by various witnesses against the two women was probably in itself sufficient, taking account of the public and religious prejudices of the time, to result in the verdicts of guilty, but both Margaret and Isobel seemed prepared to make public confessions of their guilt. Margaret declared that “many years since there came a man to her clad in gold and put his thumb in her hand and bid her ask what she would and it would be granted her.”  Isobel’s confession was even more damning. She was asked if she had any conversation with the fairies and replied that “ten years since, when she was lying in bed she was taken forth, whether it was by God or the Devil she knew not. She was carried to a hillside. The hill opened and she entered. She stayed there three days when a man with a grey beard came to her and brought her forth again.” 

She was accused of coming to Margaret Buchanan who was “well in health and at her ordinary work and said ‘Make you ready for death, for before Fastens ‘een you shall be taken away’. And so it happened.”  When Isabel was asked how she knew the term of the woman’s life she “replied that she enquired at the man with the grey beard and he told he.” 

with such confessions of trafficking with magic or satanic powers their guilt was sealed. The two women were convicted and later burned on the South Inch.

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