Sunday, 4 April 2010

The Scottish Witch Trials - Part Three - Trials

In parts one and two I have generally mentioned the witch in the feminine. It is true that most witches accused were women, but certainly not all. I say accused, for no one knows if there might have been just as many men practising the art but not accused, simply because of their gender. No one knows, but it is worth considering. As a generalisation, the witches accused were middle-aged women with one or more reasons for those in the community to single her out. A small percentage of cases were for those under thirty or over sixty. Probably because of the social standing of women at the time it was thought more likely for a female to resort to underhand methods to solve her problems, particularly if she were single or widowed and did not have a husband to fight her battles. Interestingly, most of the males convicted were husbands of accused witches rather than wizards in their own right. Sometimes even the children of the accused were included, it being assumed they would have been brought up to worship the Devil and not be worth trying to ‘save’. In ‘A Discourse on the Damned Art of Witchcraft’ published in 1610 it states “Women, being the weaker sexe is sooner intangled by the deuills illusions with this damnable art, than the man. And in all ages it is found true by experience, that the deuill hath more easily and oftner prevailed with women then with men, hense it was, that the Hebrues of ancient times, vsed it for a prouerb The more women the more witches: His first temptation in the beginning was with Eue a woman and since he pursueth his practice accordingly, as marketh most for his advantage.”

It could be argued that men feared these women in a time when men held all the power in politics and law, but women had the power over life and death, the power of child-baring and healing. You can go a long way back in history and mythology where examples can be found of women controlling men with their powers of seduction and persuasion. Men cursed with a weakness for the female form and women exploiting this, their singular and favoured method of manipulation. Sex has always been a source of spiritual power and it was perhaps easier for a man to accept that a women got her skills of manipulation from cavorting with the Devil rather than admitting that women were in anyway equal in terms of intelligence and moral strength. Of course there were times when a fear was quite justified in the male mind, as illustrated in a case in 1597/8. On this occasion a witch, Ellen Grey, was found guilty of bewitching one Thomas Riddell so that “his wand lay nevir doune”. It is reported that the poor fellow died of this somewhat uncomfortable affliction. Reasonably perhaps men generally feared the opposite curse, that of impotence – a very personal message between witch and victim; more so in times when families needed to make the most of a fertile wife simply because of the difficulties in getting all her children to adulthood.

As the years of the hunts peaked and began to become more infrequent for the witches accused they became no less devastating. Infact some of the most tragic and cruel cases are found in the latter stages of the craze. It was in 1704 (only 23 years before the last execution for the crime) that the harbour village of Pittenween in Fife saw one of the most violent exhibitions of public hysteria toward an accused woman. It had begun when the apprentice to the blacksmith had got it into his head that a local girl, Beatrix Lang, had bewitched him. She had asked him to make some nails and when he had said he would see to it later she apparently muttered to herself as she left. This sparked the notion in him that she was muttering a curse against him. Whether his intention was just mischievous or whether he, at this stage, believed her evil intent it soon progressed out of all control. He saw her again and once more thought he was being bewitched. Shortly afterward he lost his appetite and as his body became weak he suffered fevers and even believed the Devil visited his bedroom. What started as a rather insubstantial suspicion soon turned to the more serious accusations of witchcraft, seemingly encouraged by the local minister. With the Reverend Cowper relating tales of the Devil and spell casting to the boy he soon went as far as naming others in the village. The accused were rounded up and thrown into gaol, where they were subjected to the tortures common in the extraction of confessions. Beatrix was subjected to many public indignities by both the minister and the local inhabitants. She was then subjected to five months in solitary confinement in the gaol’s dungeon. But this was not the worst of the punishments handed out. The others were tortured into various confessions. One of them just starved to death while incarcerated. A glimmer of light briefly shone through when a few of the erudite members of the community set about releasing Beatrix and her companions. Eventually, on the payment of a five shilling fine Beatrix and just two others were released. Sadly the villagers as a whole were under the influence of the obsessive minister and as soon as the three prisoners were released they were chased from the village by a mob. On seeing the public will in action the minister brought fresh charges on those he still had captive. One of these, Janet Cornfoot, managed to escape, taking refuge with a family in the village. Before she could move on a mob had formed and came looking for her. In their shared madness they went house to house until they found her. The tormented and already beaten woman was dragged to the beach where her limbs were bound. She was tied around the waist with a long rope, one end of which was tied to a ship off shore and the other held tight by the men of the village. She was swung back and forth into the sea until nearly drowned. When this cruelty did not ease their rage the crowd dragged her onto the sands where anyone who could get near enough beat her, each raining blows on her broken body. From somewhere a heavy wooden door was produced and placed upon her. It was weighed down with rocks and boulders as could be collected. This she did not survive, having had the life simply pressed out of her. As a final indignity the villagers then had a horse and sledge driven back and forth over the body – as a final spiritual indignity the minister would not allow a Christian burial. The authorities did not intervene and no punishments were ever brought upon her murderers. The blacksmith’s apprentice eventually confessed that his accusations were false – but who knows what he felt when he considered that all this horror had come because of the quiet mutterings of a frustrated customer…

The last execution is often stated as being in 1722, though contemorary writing suggests it may have been in 1727. Either way, it refers to the same woman. Janet Horne, who ‘suffered that cruel death in a pitch barrel’. The statutes against witchcraft in Scotland were repealed in 1736, but the legends go on. It was known for some time that relatives and decedents of condemned men and women still suffered prejudice because of their associations for some time.


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