I was working late last night, taking the second-last train home (this seemed important!) and stepping into the village at just before midnight. As I crossed over the bridge that spans the Gala Water river, I could just make out the ruins of the 15th century Kirk in the heart of Stow. There was no-one around. No traffic or movement of any kind and not a sound to be heard. The silence felt loud. I walked to the centre of the village, pausing at the Celtic Cross of the War Memorial, glancing over towards the Parish Church. It was near here, just next to the river, 369 years ago, six people were put to death. Odd to think, in such a tranquil, sleepy location.
Remind me not to think about such things, when standing alone at midnight at the village crossroad!
1649 may have been when the largest number of people were executed for witchcraft in Scotland in any single year. The figure could be around 300. With the passing of time, this seems almost meaningless, so far off from our enlightened times. The impact of such a horrendous figure seems detached from reality. It conjures up thoughts of pointy hats, cackles and cries of “She turned me into a newt… But I got better“.
But, imagine an average double decker bus. Then imagine four of them, full of people. That’s roughly how many people were taken from their homes, interrogated and cruelly put to death. That we know of. Accused by neighbours, relations, clergy, friends. It is horrifying. And are we really so different to the folk back then?
Some years earlier, a woman from Stow, Catherine Watson, was charged with witchcraft, having been a ‘wise woman’ or folk healer. Healers or midwives were among the accused, perhaps if a charm or medicine they had produced had not worked. It’s not known what happened to Catherine, but even if she were not executed, she would be feared and shunned in her community. Many of the accused who were found innocent starved to death, having been unable to maintain a job or seek support. One woman I read about was found dead by the roadside, having starved to death. An old, poor woman, she was tainted by the mere accusation of witchcraft and was denied a Christian burial. Her corpse was thrown into the Gala Water.
A majority of the executed in Scotland were women and many of them were poor. But not all. In Stow in 1649, four of the victims were women.
A ‘Man of Lauder’. Why was his name not recorded? No idea. I’d love to find out.
I hope to find out more about this episode in the history of this village. It wasn’t isolated, of course. Many villages and towns in the Border counties saw similar atrocities, with Peebles seemingly being the most ferocious: 29 people were recorded as executed there, throughout the various Scottish witch hunts.
Many of these witch hunts also involved some of the darkest characters in Scotland’s history: the Witch Prickers. Witch Pricking was a common part of the interrogation of suspected witches in Scotland, with sharp needles or bodkins used to find the so-called Devil’s Mark: a part or spot of the body insensitive to pain – and proof that the ‘witch’ had made a pact with Satan himself, who touched his disciple’s body and left his mark, sealing their demonic pact. Pricking formed part of the torture that could be used to extract the ‘truth’, with victims essentially being repeatedly stabbed. Some Prickers were alleged to use needles with retractable points, thus causing no harm to the accused and ‘proving’ their guilt.
Sleep-deprivation and ‘walking the witch’ were also commonplace. It is little wonder that so many of the accused confessed, often with lurid and elaborate stories of their unGodly practices.
The Devil was thought to be an ever-present threat to the Godly, in a country weakened by disease, famine and religious turmoil. It was easy to spot the ‘hidden enemy’ in the poor, the strange. A barbaric age? Certainly different to our own, but how different? Intolerance and fear of the ‘other‘ is on the rise again in our own time.
Witch Prickers were – horrifically – individuals who made a living out of witch hunting, being paid for every guilty witch they discovered. And who was going to prove them wrong? Around ten individuals operated in Scotland, including one who was supposedly revealed to be a woman in disguise.
Matthew Hopkins may be the most remembered individual in England thanks to Hammer Films, but in Scotland, John Kincaid is perhaps even more repulsive. Possibly from the town of Tranent in East Lothian, Kincaid would earn a lucrative income, ‘discovering’ witches in the Lothians, Fife, southern counties and elsewhere. He was present in the little village of Stow, too.
For Margaret Dunholme’s ‘guilt‘ he was paid £Scots 6. He was also paid £Scots 3 for food and lodgings for himself and his manservant.
Kincaid was feared for his cruelty and, if summoned, there would have been little hope for the accused. In the sight of the Minister of the Kirk, the five people of Stow and the anonymous Man of Lauder, were incarcerated in the Bailie’s House and Church, then taken to a spot next to the Gala Water, strangled or “worryit” at the stake, and burned.
Some of the confessions sound almost comically ridiculous to us now, but at the time were proof for many of the evils abroad. Think Blackadder’s Witchsmeller Persuivant, but real. And very deadly.
There is, currently, no memorial to their fate in the village. Indeed, there are hardly any memorials to these heinous acts in Scotland, although an interesting project in Orkney is currently underway. Maybe, in our age of growing intolerance and rise of the Far Right, more memorials – reminders – would be no bad thing.