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Plotting Wick witches and Thurso warlocks


By David G Scott

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WITH Halloween being celebrated this week, some Caithness kids may be dressing up as witches without realising the grisly reality of being accused of witchcraft hundreds of years ago.

However, a new online map created by Edinburgh University academics highlights cases of people accused of sorcery throughout Scotland and shows that there were witchfinders going about their business in Wick and Thurso and more isolated places such as Reisgill and Broubster.

The research map by Edinburgh University academics show places in Caithness where people were accused of witchcraft.
The research map by Edinburgh University academics show places in Caithness where people were accused of witchcraft.

In a recent article in the Caithness Courier, regular columnist Valerie Forsyth wrote about the curious case of the last witch-burning, which happened in Dornoch in 1727, and how the condemned woman, known as Janet Horne, was born in Caithness near Halkirk.

Neighbours accused Horne of having used her daughter as a pony to ride to the devil, where she had her shod by him. The trial was conducted very quickly – the sheriff had judged both guilty and sentenced them to be burned at the stake.

The daughter managed to escape, but Janet was stripped, smeared with tar, paraded through the town on a barrel and burned alive. Nine years after her death the witchcraft acts were repealed in Scotland.

An etching by Francisco de Goya from 1797 shows an archetypal image of witches riding a broomstick.
An etching by Francisco de Goya from 1797 shows an archetypal image of witches riding a broomstick.

This and many other cases plotted on the map clearly show the true extent of witch persecution that occurred the length and breadth of Scotland from the 1500s to 1700s. By clicking an icon over Thurso on the map, the names Margaret Nin-Gilbert and Margaret Olson are revealed.

Julian Goodacre from Edinburgh University helped create the map and explained how the events began in 1718 when Alexander Fraser, a local landlord in Scrabster, evicted one of his tenants, Margaret Olson, and replaced her with a mason called William Montgomerie. There was evidently bad feeling all round – Fraser said later that he had evicted Olson for her "wickedness".

Both Montgomerie and Fraser were worried, more so when Fraser was informed that Olson had asked a neighbour, Margaret Nin-Gilbert, to "do mischief" to him. Fraser said his horse was spooked by witches one evening but things really ramped up over the autumn of 1718 when he experienced a massive home invasion of hostile cats.

In late November and early December, he claimed to have attacked and injured some of the cats. Unfortunately for Margaret Nin-Gilbert, a neighbour saw her leaving her house and then saw her leg drop off at the knee. The shrivelled leg was brought to the sheriff depute, and he had Nin-Gilbert arrested. It was assumed that the poor woman, along with others from a coven of witches, had assumed feline shape to torment Fraser and had been injured when he hacked at the cats with his sword.

The execution of witches in Scotland was carried out in much the same manner as this image taken from a German 16th century woodcut.
The execution of witches in Scotland was carried out in much the same manner as this image taken from a German 16th century woodcut.

Once in custody, Nin-Gilbert rapidly made a standard confession to witchcraft – presumably under torture. According to her confession, she had made a pact with the devil and was then able to turn into a cat along with several others she accused.

Two weeks later, Nin-Gilbert died in prison. "At some point around this time, Olson was also arrested and searched for the Devil's mark," Mr Goodacre said.

"She was pricked with a pin in her shoulder, where the pin was put in without blood and without her feeling it – this was considered evidence of witchcraft."

The sheriff depute may have intended to hold a criminal trial in his own court but was ordered not to by a higher authority in Edinburgh.

"At that point, the legal case seems to have been dropped. None of the accused witches seem to have been executed, probably because the sheriff depute recognised that he didn't have the jurisdiction to act autonomously, and the central government in Edinburgh wanted to rein in witchcraft prosecutions."

However, there had been one death in prison and one suicide as a result of the case.

David Glass from a local history group points out where the jougs would have been sited on Old St Peter's Kirk in Thurso. The jougs consisted of an iron ring that the offender would be fastened to and publicly shamed. Picture: DGS
David Glass from a local history group points out where the jougs would have been sited on Old St Peter's Kirk in Thurso. The jougs consisted of an iron ring that the offender would be fastened to and publicly shamed. Picture: DGS

Roger Saxon from the Old St Peter’s Kirk Preservation Association points out that St Peter's was where that witch trial took place and where the accused were imprisoned. Volunteers from the association also show where a bygone punishment once took place in which an offender would be chained to a wall of the kirk to be publicly humiliated. "The iron ring was called the jougs and was for minor crimes and not attending kirk," Mr Saxon said.

Valerie Forsyth says that in Scotland the number of accused witches reached four to five times the European average and she lays the blame firmly on King James VI.

This illustration is from James VI's 1597 treatise on witches and shows the king himself conduct an interrogation in Scotland.
This illustration is from James VI's 1597 treatise on witches and shows the king himself conduct an interrogation in Scotland.

"Charms and incantations had been used in folk medicine for centuries but the Church saw it as a threat. It was an old tradition based on heathenism and they wanted total control of the people," she said.

"James became obsessed with 'demonology' thus the witch hunts. Those persecuted included outsiders, old people, but most were probably just healers using the old ways, but if they had fallen out of favour with their neighbours a kind of frenzy happened when the finger pointed at them for being witches or warlocks."



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