The Devil Comes Calling… Part Two.

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.

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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!

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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?

Maybe, maybe.

The Devil comes calling… Part One.

It’s been a while since my last post and it’s been a busy year.  Recently, I’ve been reading and researching more about this strange, wonderful corner of Scotland and I was pleased to find some more startling stories from Wedale and round about.

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The old and new Parish Kirks in Stow of Wedale.

I mentioned below that six people were executed in Stow in 1649, a horrific year in which mass panic about witchcraft erupted throughout many parts of the kingdom.  Scotland would have five mass witchcraft panics:

  • 1590-91
  • 1597
  • 1628-30
  • 1649
  • 1661-2

There were witch-hunts, interrogations and executions at other times, of course, but in these five periods, the panics and executions intensified in scale and terror.  Localised panics could often break out at times when other parts of the country were relatively peaceful, as occurred, for example, in Renfrewshire in 1697-1700 in Bargarran.

1649 was one of the worst peaks.  In The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (1959), Rossell Hope Robbins noted that

Scotland is second only to Germany in the barbarity of its witch trials.

Witchcraft in Scotland became a crime in 1563, only three years after the Protestant Reformation, during the reign of the absent Queen, Mary.  The Witchcraft Act formally made the Biblical offence of suffering a witch to live, a legal reality.  By making witchcraft illegal, Scotland was setting the scene for accusations, recriminations and mob rule.   The land was in the grip of religious vervour, the revolutionary Reformers determined to create a GODLY kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven.

Belief in witchcraft was nothing new, and tales of witches and warlocks stretch back through history.  What was different after 1563, was that the State now could act upon superstition, suspicion and finger-pointing, legally.  And it did.

witches circle

The causes of the major witch panics are still discussed and reinterpreted.  Scotland during the period would be wracked by religious and political conflict and wars.   Famine through poor weather and crop failure, disease and plague are also contributing factors.

Recently, more attention has been given to the misogyny and sexism of the witch-hunts.  Doctor Julian Goodare, in The Scottish Witch-hunt in Context (Manchester, 2009) notes that some 85% of the recorded witch trials involved women.  These trials centred on accusations involving fornication.  In the Godly State the Reformers hoped to set up, all aspects of the lives of the Parish were under increased scrutiny.  The Kirk Sessions records note all misdemeanours and punishments and sexuality features strongly.  The Reformers’ revolutionary zeal and enthusiasm for making sure their neighbours obeyed the laws of God ,added to ages-old superstitions and a need to blame, provided a heady mix which would peak five times.

Sex, sexuality and fornicating with the Devil are common themes in the records that survive and, presumably, took centre stage in the accusations and executions which were not recorded.  The Devil, surprisingly conservative in his sexual choices, seems to have limited his lust for the female of the species.  Homosexuality and Devilish fornication does not feature with the Godly menfolk, but if this is misogyny and control in play, that’s hardly surprising.  The righteous were definitely wearing the trousers in the seventeenth century.

But men, were accused of witchcraft.  In my last post, I mentioned that one of the six accused of witchcraft was described as a Man of Lauder.   I’ve been wondering about this man ever since.  Our wonderful Parish archivist and author Mary W Craig (whose excellent Border Witch Hunt book came out last  year) has suggested that he was of wealthier stock that the others, whose family could pay to have his –  their – name removed from the records.  Sounds likely.  Doubtful they had enough money to save him from the stake, though.

Witch!

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“.

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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.

Jonet Henrison

Marion Henrison

James Henrison

Isobel Thompson

Margaret Dunholme

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.

Witch-pricking_Needles00

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.

Intolerance and Fear. The witch hunts begin. Again.

The village of Stow was once a place of Sanctuary, centred on the ancient well and chapel of Saint Mary that, according to legend, was founded by King Arthur himself.    By the mid-seventeenth century, however, this Sanctuary was a thing of the past.

The 1600s can be seen as a century of trauma in the history of Scotland.  The ancient royal house of Stewart, ruling the land since 1371, had become absentee Heads of State, when King James VI inherited the throne of England after Elizabeth Tudor’s death and toddled off to his new palaces in London as quickly as he could.  Promising to come back regularly – he came back once – it soon became evident that Scotland’s ancient crown would not be worn much any more.  James’ son, Charles – born in Dunfermline, Fife – would inherit the crowns of Scotland and England and Ireland from his father in addition to an unshakeable belief in his divine right to rule, answerable only to God and not his Parliaments.

With this political uncertainty in the background, climate was also to have a detrimental effect on the Scots.  Periods of bad weather had contributed to crop failures and lack of food and many of the people suffered from starvation.  In 1644 this was exacerbated by the arrival of the Black Death, or Plague, which was to wreak havoc on the population for over four years.

Charles I’s reign had, for a variety of reasons, sparked civil wars in each of his three kingdoms and, in 1649, he would lose his head like his granny, Mary.

To many ordinary folk, it would have appeared that the End Times were upon them.

Looking for salvation or for causes of this terrible era with a seemingly angry God, it’s unsurprising that ordinary folk began to look close to home for something or someone to blame.  A new Scottish witch hunt would begin.  Again. There had been previous witch hunts and hysteria, notably only twenty years before, but the 1649 outbreak would be ferocious.  Belief in witches was centred on the belief that witches caused harm to people, their crops or animals.  Catastrophic weather, illness and famine, or the loss of invaluable cows or crops, could easily be seen through the prism of suspicion and intolerance.  That witches could cause you harm was widely believed in Scotland, by rich and poor alike.

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James VI, before his relocation south, would take a fanatical interest in witchcraft, even writing a book in 1597 – Daemonologie – and apparently interrogating alleged witches himself in the Canongate adjacent to his Palace of Holyroodhouse. His interest would wain in England, where many of the Scots’ beliefs were mocked as the superstitions of the parochial bumpkins.  To many Scots, though, witches were a real and terrifying danger and would remain so, some forty years after the King’s book was published.

Witchcraft had been illegal since the passing of the Witchcraft Act of 1563, passed by the Parliament of Scotland in the reign of Mary.  This made it illegal to practice witchcraft or consult witches – on pain of death.   A new law would pass, reiterating the main thrust of this Act, in 1649.

With God and the Law on their side, the fearful and Godly alike, would look to within their own communities for someone to blame…

 

It’s, like, really, really old…

The village of Stow, or, to use it’s Sunday name, Stow of Wedale, is really, really old.  Quite how old seems to be a subject of debate, but, you can be sure it is OLD.   It is, without doubt, a phenomenally pretty little place, with a ruined auld kirk – only 15th century – and the ruins of a house where a Bishops’ Palace once stood.  According to some, there’s been a church here since the 7th century.  Yes, since the 600s! Like I say, really, really old.  Most of the buildings in the village are 18th or 19th century following the removal of the village’s medieval past by an ‘improving’ landowner.  The same landowner built the fancy Town Hall – part of a grand vision to make the village into a smart weaving town, that never happened.

Stow

So we have an over-sized Town Hall, one wonderful local shop (also a Post Office) and a great little cafe / gallery.  And that’s pretty much it.  And it couldn’t be better!  Except, perhaps, for a pub.  Currently, there isn’t one.  The last, The Royal Hotel, burnt down with seeming irony, on the day of the royal wedding in 2011.  The plot stands empty still.  The other pub and hotel have long-since closed, meaning a trek into Galashiels or Clovenfords, the nearest places with taverns and the like.

There’s a rare 17th century bridge, which now stands a little isolated in a field, but once was the entry to the village over the local river, the Gala Water.  It was near this bridge that, in 1649, five Stow villagers were strangled at the stake and burnt.  Their crime?  Witchcraft.  Until moving here, and reading the great book on witchcraft in the Borders by Stow’s own Parish Archivist, Mary W. Craig, I had no idea of how ferocious the witchhunts were in the Borderlands.  Yes, I knew that Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife had large numbers of innocent people burnt as witches, but not the counties that line the border with England.  Sadly, Mary’s book, Border Burnings seems out of print now, but I managed to borrow a copy to read, keen to discover more about the place we’ve decided to call home.  I’d like to learn more still, so will go back to the Parish Archive when I find some time.

You’d never guess, when you take a stroll around this beautiful, tranquil space, of the terrible scene that would have been witnessed 369 years ago, by the river…

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