‘From Covens to Covenanters’ (Witchcraft and Religious Persecution), the subject for the DiG History Conference in Dumfries on 12th May, 2002 has particular significance for South West Scotland, for here during the 17th Century there was great suffering spawned by cruel fanaticism and religious persecution.
COVENS … Life was short and precarious, lived on the poverty line, and ignorance of scientific cause and effect encouraged deep-held belief in omens, lucky or unlucky, and the black arts. The vagaries of weather and the health of people, animals and crops were vital matters of chance which might be cajoled by rituals, charms and incantations to ward off the malevolence of evil spirits – ghosts, witches, and devils. Herbal concoctions were chancy medicines. Rowan branches were fixed to doorposts to ward off the Evil Eye, and witches’ stanes hung in byres to ensure a good milk yield. There was belief in ‘white magic’, too - brownies, benevolent spirits at night performed domestic tasks, spinning, churning, or winnowing corn. In such a culture of insecurity it was easy for petty squabbles to escalate, to seek to wreak revenge by making damaging accusations of witchcraft.
The Reformation came to Scotland in 1560 and, seeking to sweep away all the corroding influences of the medieval church, including superstition and belief in magical powers of relics, an Act was passed in 1563 making sorcery a capital crime. Informing, sleuthing, torturing to extract confessions, and the agonising deaths which ensued epitomise the shameful cruelty of the times.
By the end of the 17th Century over 1000 ‘witches’ in Scotland had been tortured then hanged, drowned, or burned at the stake, 70 of them in Dumfries & Galloway. Mostly women, often old, poor, lonely, vulnerable, victims of dementia, slander or revenge, these were the scapegoats in times of plague, pestilence and poor harvests.
The history of Kirkpatrick Irongray, a Kirkcudbrightshire parish 5 miles west of Dumfries, in many ways reflects events common elsewhere in the South West. In 1650 Elizabeth Maxwell, along with five other women and a man, was charged with practising witchcraft, hanged and burnt at Dumfries. Accused of working magic around a great fire, it was claimed Elizabeth Maxwell had deployed such sorcery that those displeasing her had died, bairns failed to thrive, cattle and horses expired, and when Herbert Sinclair at Irongray rented a plot of land she coveted, all his stock sweated to death. William Gladstone claimed to have seen her riding a cat at night.
Was she ‘the sorceress at Routingbridge in Irongray’ blamed for raising a poltergeist at Ringford after a young man, dogged by ill fortune, had consulted her? The Routin’ Brig in its spectacular setting over a deep fall of water would certainly provide an impressive background to nefarious acts.
Although the Court of Justiciary held the last trial for witchcraft in Dumfries in 1700, Kirk Sessions long afterwards were dealing with accusations of sorcery, and in a more charitable way. Kirk Session minutes in Irongray commence in 1691 not long after the Revolution Settlement when Presbyterianism was restored, and though various cases of psychical phenomena came up before the Kirk Session, all were found not guilty or not proven: invariably the protagonists were cautioned to repent and to keep the peace.
Thus in 1691 David Muirhead of Drumpark and his wife were called before the Session with Janet Sinklar, the latter being rebuked before the congregation for saying she ‘doubted Drumpark’s wife of murder and witchcraft’. In the same year Drumpark’s neighbours, William Anderson and his wife in Hall of Forest, were rebuked for ‘bringing a child to a smith to be charmed with ane forge hammer at the instigation of a travelling woman, whose name they knew not’. The smith also confessed ‘and promised never to do the like again.’
In 1692 John Charters in Barncleugh, nominated as a witness by James Wright to prove witchcraft against Janet Kirk when she was ‘brought in to Elizabeth Jonston, being grievously tormented with sickness to distraction’ ‘denied he knew anything of witchcraft in her.’
At Ingleston Jean Grier was accused by Jean Stot and Agnes Patton of uttering unchancy prayers and Jean Kirkpatrick of gathering ‘root grown briers on a Saboth day’ – the Session found ‘wrath and malice among the inhabitants of Ingleston’ and the minister was sent as peace-maker.
In Irongray Kirk Session Minutes of June 19 1715 ‘Margret Oliver being called in and interrogat if she called Jo. Curran’s wife a lyar. Ans: She did & well it might be got proofs to prove it.
But Time brings a different perspective. By the 1780s Robert Burns in his narrative poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ could portray carlins and witches and the De’il as humorous figments of Tam’s over-indulgence. Red keel or chalk patterns drawn on doorsteps were believed to protect the occupants from witchcraft. As folk art this continued in Irongray until at least the 1970s, its original intention quite forgotten.
… and COVENANTERS
The Reformation, the great religious and political movement of the 16th Century, established Protestantism in Scotland in 1560, bringing a fundamental change of doctrine, discipline and worship. Rejected were the doctrine of transubstantiation, adoration of Virgin and saints, and the headship of Rome. Jesus Christ alone was acclaimed King and Head of the Church, and salvation (‘justification’) was achieved by faith alone, the gift of grace.
Unity was guaranteed by a hierarchy of church courts where ruling elders and teaching elders were all of equal rank. The reformers saw the value of a highly trained ministry, of universal education and the exercise of discipline whereby vice was repressed and virtue nourished. The parish church, ‘a system for a free people’, was a blueprint for democracy: the people had the right to worship as they chose.
Democracy, however, did not accord with the monarchy of the day, and for almost the whole of the 17th Century there was resistance by the Kirk in Scotland against the power of the ill-fated Stewart kings. The imposition of episcopacy was the catalyst which saw thousands - ‘Covenanters’ - sign the National Covenant drawn up to pledge support for Presbyterianism. Civil war was inevitable, and so began half a century of bitter conflict and suffering. More than 300 ministers were outed from their parishes, most of them in Southern Scotland. Hunted and harried, fined, tortured, imprisoned or banished to slavery on the Plantations, many Covenanters nevertheless flocked to hear the outed ministers at Conventicles (field preachings) in secluded sites. Parish churches served by curates were all but deserted though drastic penalties were imposed for non-attendance, for hearing outed ministers or giving them shelter. Sir James Turner was sent to the South West quartering his mercenaries on those in the offending areas where the trail of destruction and torture served only to confirm the resolve of those with Covenanting sympathies.
The first open opposition to the settlement of the curates was in Kirkpatrick Irongray. The minister, John Welsh, great grandson of John Knox, had been outed in 1662 and the Bishop of Glasgow imposed a ‘King’s curate’, Bernard Sanderson, on the parish. His parishioners ‘did not allow him peaceful access’, hurling stones when he tried to enter the kirk: Margaret Smith was sentenced to banishment to Barbardos, and James Arnott was fined 400 merks. In 1666 an incident at Dalry sparked off the Pentland Rising, but it was outside Irongray Kirk that the Covenanters assembled with 400 horse before marching on Dumfries with John Welsh at their head to take Sir James Turner prisoner. The ensuing strife cost Irongray dear - it was declared treasonable to harbour the leaders of the rebellion, including Welsh of Scarr and Welsh of Cornlee. On 12th December John Gordon and John Neilson of Irongray were hanged in Edinburgh without trial. In January William Welsh and John Grierson were hanged in Dumfries without trial. James Welsh of Little Clouden had life and property forfeited. Of four sons of Biggar of Barbuie engaged in Covenanting skirmishes, two escaped to the Borders and two to Ireland. Many others unsung were hunted and persecuted but remained determined witnesses to their faith.