The village of Stow tends to be a little over-looked, I think. In histories and anthologies of the Scottish Borders and in books about sacred places, haunted spaces and witchcraft, it often doesn’t feature at all. Imagine, then, how chuffed I was (chuffed to bits, in fact), when I happened across the name of our village in a book about spirits and witchcraft. And not, just any old book.
Satan’s Invisible World Discovered is a wonderfully odd read, written in 1684-5 by George Sinclair, sometime Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow. His Satan’s Invisible World is perhaps, now, the writing he is best remembered for, although his name lives on in the George Sinclair Chair of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow.
A staunch Protestant, eager to swear allegiance to William of Orange following that king’s overthrowing of the Stuart king, James VII in 1688, Sinclair wrote the book as proof of the Devil, evil spirits and witches which, therefore, proved the existence of God in the face of a growth in atheism. It is interesting that some sources claim Sinclair was born in East Lothian, which, some decades earlier, had been at the heart of some of the worst witch-hunts in Scotland, most famously including the North Berwick witch panic of 1590. Had something in his childhood struck the young George with fear, which manifested itself in later life as his unshakable belief in the supernatural? He was also a scientist, attracting much fame for exploring the wreck of an Armada ship in a large diving bell, among other things.
The book was immensely popular, said to be second only to the Bible in the humble cottages of Scotland, and contains a curious mixture of ancient and recent tales, which give a flavour of folk belief and superstition of the late 1600s. The most famous incidents, told through a serious of Relations, include the hauntings of Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh, the infamous Major Weir and Wigtownshire’s Glenluce Devil – one of Scotland’s earliest alleged poltergeist hauntings.
Relation IX was one that immediately caught my attention a few nights ago, as I sat in my study reading late at night. According to Sinclair, in the ancient and royal burgh of Lauder in the year 1649, Robert Grieve – also known as Hob Grieve or Hob Grier in other sources – was arrested on charges of witchcraft. He was, says Sinclair,
“…an eminent warlock…”
His wife, unnamed in this account, had apparently been burned as a witch some twenty years previously, so perhaps the taint of magic and devilry had surrounded him like a mist for all those years. It was his wife, the story gained through his interrogation stated, who had introduced him to the Dark Arts as a means of escaping their poverty. If he agreed to meet a Gentleman he would learn how to become rich…
He had travelled with her to “a haugh on Gallawater near to the Stow” where the story begins. Here, then, in STOW! Sleepy, little over-looked Stow!
Following the sudden appearance of a fearful great black hound
“a great mastiff, bigger than any butcher’s dog”
that came and went and was not mentioned again in the story (something that seems to happen a lot in Sinclair’s stories, where weird stuff happens and everyone just moves on to the next weird stuff), the Devil appeared, and made Robert many promises in exchange for Robert’s services.
Robert’s fortunes did, indeed, improve significantly and he went on to become a powerful local warlock with many followers. His luck ran out in 1649, when the Godly society caught up with him. Along with five others he was dispatched as a witch, burnt at the stake – although, interestingly, it does not state where in this version of the tale.
Now, it might be stretching something a little to suggest that he was taken back to the scene of his Diabolical Tryst, to the haugh at Stow and dispatched with the five named Stow ‘witches’. Of course, there are many scholars and more learned folk than I who will scoff at this, but I like the thought that the story can be completed by the inclusion of poor Hob Grieve in the story of our little village. It can’t be proved at all and there may be no truth in it , but it’s possible, perhaps? Interestingly, Robert Grieve does not feature at all in the University of Edinburgh’s Scottish Witch-hunt Survey or its excellent interactive map (fascinating and horrifying – have a look!), but a Jon Grieve is listed as accused some thirteen years later. Could he be the son of Robert? Or, has the tale of a warlock called Grieve simply bound splinters of fact together? Maybe none of this occurred at all.
I mentioned in a previous post that Stow currently has no pub in the village. Wouldn’t it be great, if ever one is opened in the future, if it is called The Black Hound – a memory of a terrible injustice that once gripped the locals with fear and saw six innocents put to the fire in the name of the Godly?