The Forfar witch hunts of the 1660's
1563 the newly created Church of Scotland made it illegal to either
be a witch or to consult a witch in an attempt to stamp out pagan
practices. This Act of Parliament was not abandoned until 1736.
In between 1563 and 1736 is known from documentary evidence that
at least 1,500 people were executed for the crime of being a witch.
During the time the act was on the statute books there were 3
periods of intense witch hunting. One witch hunt took place in
the reign of James VI in the 1590's, the second during the Civil
War of the 1640's and the third after Charles II was restored
to the throne in 1660. During this last witch hunt of 1660-1663
it is believed that 300 people were executed as witches. In 1663
alone it is thought that 150 people were executed. This does not
count those people who died in jail after they were tortured or
who killed themselves in despair. To this total Forfar contributed
42 people suspected of being witches, of whom at least 9 were
executed. Only 3 were men.
Forfar's witch hunt of 1661-1666
was a typical small Scottish burgh in the seventeenth century.
It was quite isolated as it was surrounded by marsh or loch on
3 sides. It was also a market town for the area where meat and
fresh fish were sold plus manufactured goods such as the shoes
for which Forfar was famous. It was made up of 2 streets, the
High Street and Castle Street. At the crossroads sat the tolbooth
and the market cross. The population was probably around 1000
people. It was crowded, dirty and smelly. There was no running
water or modern conveniences. The contents of the chamber pot,
animal dung and household rubbish were all dumped on the street.
It was a small town where everyone knew everyone else's business
and grudges were held for generations.
Who were the witches?
were generally accepted to be women. They were usually poor women
with no family to offer protection. They were widows like Katherine
Porter or young women such as Elspeth Bruce. Any women who was
a little different and who lived on the fringes of respectable,
church going society could find herself accused if the climate
was right. This would include anyone who had a squint, regarded
as the evil eye, or who suffered from epilepsy, considered to
be possession by the devil. Midwives were often accused. If they
could bring life into the world, they might decide to take life
out of this world. The same applied to women with a knowledge
of herbal medicine.
The importance of the minister
of witchcraft would have been brought to the attention of Forfar's
young and enthusiastic minister, Alexander Robertson. Ministers
were the key to witch hunts. If the minister held no truck with
the notion, then witch hunts simply did not happen. If he did
accept that witches existed and should be eradicated then he took
the matter to the Town Council who would set the ponderous forces
of 17th century justice into motion.
The role of Helen Guthrie
one woman, Helen Guthrie, the Forfar witch hunts would not have
lasted so long or encompassed so many. She played a vital role
in this story of prejudice and intolerance. Helen was by her own
admission a drunken and very wicked woman who had murdered her
own step-sister when they were both children. Helen and her 13
year old daughter Janet Howat were accused of being witches along
with 11 others including Isobel Shyrie, Helen Alexander, Girsel
Simpsone, Agnes Spark, Katherine Porter, John Tailyeour and Janet
Stout. Helen helped the witch hunters identify more witches. She
did this by claiming to be able to identify another witch simply
by seeing her. She agreed to help the witch hunters but only if
they did not hurry her. She became the star witness for the prosecutors.
She gave them plenty of material. She told stories of drunken
midnight parties held in Forfar Kirkyard, desecration of graves,
cannibalism, ship sinking at Carnoustie and destruction of bridges
at Cortachy. She boasted of her prowess as a witch claiming the
devil tried to rescue her from the tolbooth by levitating her
up through the rafters. She would have escaped but for the vigilance
of the watchmen. Helen's motivation for assisting the witch hunters
can only be a matter for speculation. As long as she was alive,
so was her young daughter. Perhaps Helen aimed to make herself
indispensable to the witch hunters to protect Janet.
How to identify a witch
1563 Act making witchcraft illegal simply made it unlawful to
be a witch. Witch hunters believed that there were four ways in
which a witch could be identified. A witch confessed to meeting
with the devil. Witches were believed to meet with the devil to
drink and dance and to confess their evil deeds. Sabbats were
traditionally held on Friday evenings in churchyards, at crossroads
or other out of the way places.
witch renounced her baptism. This meant she was commonly known
by a name other than the one which she received at her baptism.
Isobel Shyrie was known as the Horse and Helen Guthrie was called
the White Witch, perhaps indicating a knowledge of healing herbs.A
witch received a mark from the devil which was not painful or
did not bleed when pricked with a needle.
was taken as conclusive proof that a witch had renounced her Christian
baptism. Lastly, a witch performed malefice, evil deeds by supernatural
means. Witches were accused of causing destruction of crops, cows
to stop giving milk and making people ill.
of the witch suspects have left confessions behind. The prosecutors
required confessions before they could execute a witch. But what
did the witch suspects actually confess to doing? They confessed
to meeting a man in black that they believed was the devil. Few
of them confess to anything supernatural except for Helen Guthrie
and Isobel Shyrie, who claimed she murdered Bailie George Wood
by giving him a drink containing powder dead man's skull and flesh.
Elspeth Bruce, singled out as a pretty woman, admitted to preparing
a roast goose for the devil.
Imprisonment and torture
witch suspects were held in Forfar's tolbooth in appalling conditions.
They were arrested at the start of winter and yet were kept in
cold dark conditions. They were deprived of sleep, warmth and
light for weeks if not months on end. They were also prodded all
over their bodies with long thin pins to discover their witches
mark. John Kincaid from Tranent was hired to conduct the proddings.
Forfar presented him with an honorary burgess-ship as a reward
for his work. Some witch prodders were discovered to be charlatans
who used retractable pins in order to "manufacture"
a witch. One Mr Paterson from Inverness was actually a woman.
were not freely obtained from witch suspects. It was common to
use what we would now call torture to get confessions of guilt
from the accused. Any museum in any Scottish burgh will have thumbscrews
and a branks, or scold's bridle as it is also known, a device
for depressing the tongue and keeping suspects quiet. There were
also a number of more subtle torture's used on Scottish witch
suspects such as waking and light deprivation. In "waking"
or sleep deprivation witch suspects were deliberately kept from
sleeping. Local guards took turns to stay in the tolbooth with
the suspects. If the women fell asleep it was the job of the guards
to march the women up and down the prison to keep them from sleeping.
This process continued until they made a confession. After a number
of nights without rest people would do anything to be allowed
to sleep. It can also cause hallucinations. Light deprivation
can have much the same effect. Although it was winter the women
were not allowed a candle to see by or a fire to warm themselves.
If they had access to a naked flame the witch hunters believed
that they would use their magical powers to summon the devil to
set them free.
A just trial?
a confession was obtained a trial could be held. Trials were swift,
perfunctory affairs with a guilty verdict almost inevitable. The
convicted witch was lucky if she was merely banished such as Helen
Alexander and Janet Bertie. The less fortunate ones were executed
by the more "merciful" method employed in Scotland.
A witch would be first strangled and her body burnt in a barrel
of tar. Isobel Shyrie was the first to suffer this fate in Forfar.
The execution of Helen Guthrie
Guthrie finally outlasted her usefulness to the witch hunters
in late 1662. Witch hunting ceased quite abruptly in the burgh.
Its demise coincided with Alexander Robertson's removal as ministers
by the Privy Council for too much zeal in his witch hunting. Helen
Guthrie was the last witch to be executed in Forfar in December
1662. By that time 8 women had been executed and at least 2 had
been whipped to the burgh gate and exiled from the town.
The last witches
few were still imprisoned in the tolbooth, including Elspeth Bruce
and Helen's teenage daughter Janet. The last that is known of
Janet is a plea that appears in the records of the Privy Council
begging that they order the Town Council to let her go free. They
had held a trial and no one had spoken against her. The Privy
Council orders the Town Council to hold another trial or release
her. This plea is dated 1666, 4 years after her initial arrest.
Her final fate is unknown.
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