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November 3rd 1625

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The Castle Law Witches

Stories of witches and warlocks abound in Scottish history. Some are well authenticated, in the main sad stories of women having the power, or believing they had the power to heal the sick or cast a spell upon unruly neighbours. There were others such as Kate McNiven of Crieff or Maggie Wall of Dunning, about whom there are no written records bur plenty of circumstantial evidence of their existence. Finally there are those more shadowy figures in which the facts of their existence shade imperceptibly into myths. Perhaps the Abernethy witches and warlocks fit into this category.

It is said that the Abernethy coven were well known for their evil doings, raising tempests, blasting corn, bringing sickness upon both man and beast together with the other activities of such people. Though they were known about, none could discover their identities until the Laird of Innernethy accomplished the task.

The Laird, whose farm lay between Abernethy and the Earn, had suffered much from the activities of the coven. He was particularly angry that, in spite of the activities of the authorities the witches continued to flourish. He knew that most such gatherings were supposed to take place at midnight in a deserted spot when there was little moonlight. Such a location was Castle Law, a hill above the town which was the site of an old Pictish fort. Innernethy reasoned that this might well be their meeting place and one dark night, dressing himself in the clothes of an old woman, he slowly made his way towards the Castle Law. His guess had been correct and as he approached the Law just before midnight he could make out other figures moving about. He came nearer and moved among them. No one spoke to him and though he peered closely he was unable to recognise any of the faces. Suddenly, there was a scream of welcome and a tall gaunt figure appeared in their midst. He produced a large black book, and with a deep low voice read out the roll -call. The women eagerly responded as their names were called, but they were not names that meant anything to the Laird for each woman upon entering the coven was given a weird, outlandish, secret name.

Suddenly the leader stopped and pointing to Innernethy, proclaimed that there was an enemy in their midst. The women set upon him and would have torn him to pieces had not one of them begged for mercy, that he might be allowed to speak. Quickly the Laird explained that he had come to the gathering because he wished to become a warlock and after some discussion his explanation was accepted. It was agreed that he would return seven days later to be initiated into the coven and the Laird departed well satisfied with his evening’s work. He had a further cause for satisfaction, for he had recognised the voice of the woman who had interceded for him. It was the wife of one of his own cottars.

The next morning he went to see her; they had a long conversation together but she would reveal nothing of the other members. However she told him much of the ritual that he would have to undergo when he was initiated into the coven. In particular she told him of the Book of Names signed by each member with their own blood, containing both their ordinary name and their Satanic nickname. He parted from the woman with pledges of secrecy on both sides.

When the appointed evening arrived the Laird had already laid his plans. He made way to the meeting place mounted on his favourite horse, famous for its speed and sure-footedness, at the stroke of midnight. The women were already there clustered round their Satanic leader who stood on a large boulder with the Book in his hand. Beckoning the Laird forward he handed him the book and a quill pen. “Write,”  he said and his voice was menacing and evil. “write as I shall dictate to you, write your name in blood to seal your contract with our friends, write…..”  but before he could say another word, the Laird with the book in his hand, jumped on his horse and rode down the hillside. There were screams of fury and he was pursued down the hill by the women. He passed by a mill which by good fortune was still working, and as is well known witches are loathe to pass a working mill.

Reaching Innernethy soon afterwards he locked the door, opened the book and copied the names from it. He worked fast, for the storm outside increased in fury by the minute. The rain beat down, the wind howled and thunder and lightening shook the very foundations of the house. Immediately he finished he opened the window and threw the book out. It was never seen again.

Next day Innernethy went to the authorities with his list of names. The women were arrested- all except the cottar wife who had saved his life at the first meeting. Her name appeared on no list. The women were taken to Castle Law and there strangled and burned. Today there are twenty two small hillocks or tumuli by the Law, still known as the Witches Graves.

That, at any rate, is what is supposed to have happened.

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