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The Witches of Fife: Witch-hunting in a... Scottish Shire, 1560-1710.




























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Fife Witchcraft

St. Monans
Warlocks and all them sort of elves have no shadow. Jack, p. 94.

Witches are the warst kind of devils, they mak use of cats to ride upon, or kail-kebbers [cabbage­stumps], and besoms, and sail over seas in cockle-shells, and witch lads and lasses, and disable bridegrooms.
Graham, p. 236.

I have myself conversed with an old woman who accounted for the lameness of an ancient crone, whom she had in her childhood seen, by an injury she had received when returning from one of her witch journeys. The form she had assumed was that of a black cat; and when she was about to enter her house, through a broken pane, a man passing with a hedge-bill in his hand, struck the animal on the leg, and the witch was lame ever afterwards.
Ross, p. 327.

At Loanside lived a witch noted for calling up the spirits of the dead, and prophesying the movements of the living, transforming herself at will into inconceivable shapes, such as a March-hare. As an illustration of the Gled’s power, a cow was grazing on the Clune road, and, slipping her hand over its back as she passed, it was observed from that hour its udder withered and ceased yielding any more milk. If she happened to spy a kirning it would yield or not yield butter as she “wished.” Adam Dale, a well-to-do farmer of Bal, actually consulted and obeyed her as to remedies for ills that cattle and folk are heir to, and like “Endor” of old, could hold the cat and play kitlin. On his
last visit, a cinder sparked out of her fire in the form of a coffin, and he never again returned, but died shortly after.
Allan, pp. 29, 30

Auld Bessie Bittern was regarded as one who was “no very canny,” and whom it was unsafe to disagree or to meddle with, and whose curses or prayers were equally to be dreaded. Even her big black cat did not escape suspicion. One day Bessie appeared at the side of Johnnie K.’s loom, and said to him, “Johnnie, will ye’ll gang the morn and howk my wee pickle tatties—eh?"
“Deed an’ he’ll do naething o’ the kind,” shouted Kirsty, his wife from the kitchen, “ he has mair need to dad awa’ at his loom, an’ get his cut oot.”
Bessie replied, “He’ll may be no get his cut oot ony the sooner for no howkin’ my wee pickle tatties.”
“Ye’ll better let me gang,” said Johnnie to his wife, in a submissive tone.
“ Ye’ll no gang your tae length,” said Kirsty.
“Ye auld neer-be-gaun jade, an’ ye’ll no let him howk a wee pickle tatties for a puir auld body’ like me I Ye’ll no be ony the richer for’t, I weell a wat! Noo mind ye, I’m tellin’ ye I “ shouted Bessie, as she toddled out of the shop, followed by her black cat.

Johnnie had scarcely resumed his work, when out flew his shuttle, and fell on the floor. He got off his loom and lifted it up, and then tried again, but with a like result. Out it sprang once more, giving him the trouble and delay of going for it, and lifting it with a sad, sorrowful heart, and a deep sigh. He considered himself bewitched, and it appeared as if a ” judgment “ had come upon him sooner than he expected. He then, as his only resource, took the shuttle to the kitchen, and sitting down before the fire in order to break, if possible, the spell that hung over him, he began by solemnly drawing the shuttle three times through the smoke, dolefully saying as he did so,
“I kent hoo it wad be, I kent hoo it wad be I “
He then turned to his wife and said, “ 0 Kirsty! ye micht hae mair sense than contrar’ that auld witch Bessie Bittem.”
Stewart, pp. 143.

Interior of Fife
An aged woman, bearing the character of a witch, lived alone in a miserable hovel, situated on an extensive, moor in the centre portion of Fife. Besides bearing the notoriety of being an “uncanny wife,” she was celebrated in the district for a wonderful breed of “doos” (pigeon’ which she reared. On a certain day a boy made his appearance at the old woman’s hut, and desired to purchase one of these pigeons. Being supplied according to his wishes, he turned his steps homewards, but had scarcely gone a mile when he discovered that the pigeon had disappeared. Scarcely knowing what he did, he returned to the old hag’s hovel, where on entering he beheld his own bird sitting amongst its kin. An altercation immediately ensued betwixt him and the old woman, but he eventually regained possession of the bird, which this time he carried home in safety. Next morning, however, it was nowhere to be seen, and, after a search, was again discovered in the witch’s hut. The boy’s parents, by this time becoming suspicious that there had been some supernatural agency employed in this miraculous disappearance, applied to another old woman for aid, who advised them to send their boy to the witch’s habitation, who, unseen, should cut off a small portion of her petticoat, which, on the boy’s return, should be thrown into the fire. This was done. No sooner had the rag caught fire than a great noise was heard, and .the old witch appeared at the doorway. Exclaiming that they were burning her heart, she rushed forward, seized the flaming fragment from the hearth, disappeared, and was never again seen in that district.
D. D. A., p. 83.

Isle of May
There is a lighthouse upon the isle, on a tower fourty feet high. The unfortunate architect to the tower was drowned on his return from the isle, in a storm supposed to have been raised by some still more unhappy old women, who were in consequence burnt as witches.

A reputed witch named Jean Ford lived in Newburgh. The belief in her occult powers was so strong, that sailors before setting out on a voyage were accustomed to giving her a present to ensure a safe return. Jean in her latter years, was warned to remove from her house by her landlord, who had no dread of her hidden powers; not so, however, his wife. After receiving the notice of removal, Jean went to the landlord’s residence (and taking care to stand where she could be seen by the inmates), she began to make mystical signs on the ground with her staff, muttering all the while some words to herself. The servants who had a wholesome dread of her powers, attracted the attention of their mistress towards her. The spell was successful; the warning was removed, and Jean was allowed to remain in her house all her life. Laing, p. 381.

St. Andrews
In the first half of the nineteenth century it was alleged that a woman in the village of Strathkinness on the last night of the year skipped in the open air swinging a cow-tether made of hair over her head while she repeated:

"Hares’ milk, and mares’ milk,
An’ a’ the beasts that bears milk.
Come to me!”

Her cow’s tail being diseased, she examined that of a neighbour, which afterwards rotted away while hers recovered. A wounded hare took refuge in her garden, and she was afterwards seen with her head bandaged. Somewhat earlier another witch used to enter Clermont Farm during churning, which checked the process. A ploughman put a sixpence in the churn, and when the witch stooped to light her pipe, he pressed the churn-staff hard on it. She could not raise her head till he moved it. [Abstract of note by Dr. D. Hay-Fleming in Folk-Lore, vol. ix. p. 285.)

Sir Michael Scott or Balwearie
Sir Michael Scott of Balwearie was dubbed a knight by King Alexander III. (of Kinghorn memory) for good service done as ambassador at the Court of France. Sir Michael demanded in name of his master, certain concessions which the French King refused. Balwearie desired him to think the matter over, until the black horse which he rode should stamp three times. Stamp number one set all the bells in France a-ringing. Stamp number two of the coal-black steed threw down some towers of the palace. The French King did not wait to see what would be the effect of stamp number three.

Sir Michael had no end of ‘pacts with the devil. One demon he bought with the loss of his shadow. A Fife Laird met Sir Michael out hunting shortly after this little transaction, and said Balwearie’s personal appearance would be much improved were he to bring his shadow along with him. No sooner had the Laird got out his joke, than he felt his sight grow duller. He went homewards alarmed. But he had not gone far before he became stone-blind, and was killed by falling over a precipice.
In a sweet little dell, a short way south-west from the ruined Tower of Balwearie, stands a singular mass of sandstone, a conspicuous object in the landscape known as the Bell Crag. Tradition says that once Sir Michael rode his black steed (his Paris friend) to the top, having occasion to summon his vassals together, and that the infernal animal indented the rock with a deep and distinct hoof mark.
Farnie, pp. 62-63.

Sir Michael occasionally intermitted his severer studies to enjoy the pleasures of the chase. When hares were scarce, or did not sit close, he had recourse to an old woman, who inhabited a cottage on his property, and who in consideration for the protection extended towards her, condescended to become the prey in such emergencies, and give the dogs a turn or two for the amusement of their master. In these diversions, the old lady always eluded their pursuit. It happened, however, one day that a stranger hound belonging to one of the party was in the hunting field; but as he was held in leash, Sir Michael did not hesitate to start the chase as usual. Just as the hare was beginning to gain upon her pursuers some one cut the leash which held the strange dog. Off started the hound fresh from the springs, and soon overtook poor the poor woman. By this time, however, she was close to a hut on the moor, which she was observed to enter, by leaping through a bole, or small open window, in the gable. But she did not effect her escape till she had been slightly wounded by the stranger dog; and it was remarked by the neighbours that she had a limp ever after, which incapacitated her for enacting the part of prey for the amusement of the wizard and his guests.

Sir Michael was hunting one day, when, feeling hungry, and spying a house not far off, he sent his servant to ask a cake of bread. The gude wife replied she had no bread in the house, while the blazing fire, the reeking girdle, and peculiar savour of burnt meal, assured him that she had told a falsehood. Quitting the inhospitable mansion, he returned to his master and stated the result of his mission, and the observations he had made. Sir Michael, taking a devil’s buckie ( Whelk ) from his pocket, gave it to his servant, and desired him to return to the farm-house, and place it unobserved above the lintel of the door. No sooner had he done so than the charm began to work. The auld wife “ayont the fire” was seized with an ungovernable fit of dancing, which consisted in rapid gyrations around the chimney, chanting at the same time, as loud as could reasonably be. expected from the lungs attached to members executing the Highland Fling:

“Sir Michael Scott’s man
Came seekin’ bread and gat nane.”

In the meantime, the farmer began to wonder why his spouse had neglected to send the shearers’ dinner to the field, and so dispatched an emissary to ascertain the reason. The girl no sooner, crossed the threshold than she was seized with the spirit of St. Vitus, and began to caper round the cradle chimney on a footing of perfect equality with her mistress, and with a vehemence which made her think a barrel-ride, very gentle exercise compared with it. The messenger not returning, the gudeman resolved solve the mystery himself, and walked towards the homestead. Before entering the kitchen, however, he resolved to reconnoitre through the window, when he beheld his better half and her handmaiden dancing like five-year­aulds. Determined to punish them for such flagrant behaviour heentered the house, but no sooner had the devil’s buckie sounded in his ears than with old-fashioned gallantry he whisked off and joined the ladies. The high dance, commenced by a single performer, had now become, by repeated accessions, a most uproarious threesome reel, enlivened by the inhospitable matron chanting, in a voice now getting feeble from exhaustion:

“Sir Michael Scott’s man
Came seekin’ bread and gat nano.”

The wizard sent his servant back to the enchanted house in the course of the afternoon to remove the charm from the door-head. This being done, the three performers dropped from sheer exhaustion upon the hearth [where they fell into a long slumber]
Gardiner, pp. 65-67.

Sir Michael had dispatched this indiscreet person this serving-man] to the Eildon Hills for his magic book, which had been lent to a potent necromancer who lived in these parts. He was compelled to swear, before he set out on his important mission, that he would not open the clasps of the mystic volume. His curiosity was too powerful, however, to be restrained either by his faith or fears; and when he had reached the Haughmill, which is near his master’s residence, he availed himself of the seclusion of the spot to take, what he had long meditated, a sly peep into the folio, about which
Sir Michael ‘and his brother wizard affected so much mystery. No sooner had he opened the volume than a swarm of fiends started out from between the leaves, and became quite clamorous for employment, crying out to the astonished courier whom they surrounded, “Work, work.” Here seeing the Windygates hill straight before him, and remembering the many toilsome ascents he had made in executing his master’s errands, he conceived the patriotic project of employing the disaffected multitude around him in the task of cleaving the hill in twain. He had scarcely had time to congratulate himself on his ingenious device, by which he had dismissed the infernal legion, when back they sallied, as importunate as ever, exclaiming, “Work, work,” and, on looking east, he observed their task was already finished, and in the most masterly manner. There was no resisting as they very plainly indicated that, in the absence of other employment, they would be under the necessity of falling upon their master, and might make cat’s meat of him, as it was foreign to their nature to be idle. To manufacture ropes out of sand was the next job assigned to the infernal imps: who were accordingly packed off to Kirkcaldy beach, which furnishes a plentiful supply of the raw material. But although they were able to achieve wonders, they could not accomplish impossibilities, and so after an unsuccessful attempt at rope-making with such refractory materials, the demons returned in very bad humour to the terrified valet, and demanded more rational employment.

He now began to repent his temerity; the fiends being about to tear him in pieces merely to relieve their ennui, when Sir Michael himself most opportunely arrived at the scene of action. With a spell he at once inclosed the demons within their vellum receptacle, excluding only one fiend, who was forthwith dispatched through the air to Padua with the faithless messenger, with instructions to deliver him over to the Doctors of the Infernal College, to be punished for presuming to practice diablerie without a diploma.
Gardiner, pp. 67-68.

Michael Scott, the warlock of Balwearie was troubled with an evil spirit some say the devil himself, who came every night seeking work to do. After performing unheard of exploits and tasks at Sir Michael’s bidding, that afflicted mortal at last got relief by giving the demon a task which proved even too hard for him. If this was the scene, it would be down there on these very Kirkcaldy sands that the demon laboured, and laboured in vain (perhaps still toils), trying to make ropes out of sea-sand.
Kilrounie, pp. 23-24.

The “warlock” doings near Melrose, which were ascribed to Sir Michael are very similar to those which are told of him in Fife. “He cleft Eildon hills in three.” This work of cleavage he also practised in the neighbourhood of Kirkcaldy. That den [ravine] which runs up from the town, and which the railway crosses near Dunnikeir foundry, was produced by Sir Michael. He had offended a fiend, and was pursued by him. To stop the pursuit, or get in advance of his enemy, the wizard caused the earth to yawn at that spot, and its yawning mouth has never since been closed.

Local tradition connects the road which leads up to Balwearie with Sir Michael. It is generally said to have been his making, very likely, in engineering it he had taken advantage of the opening in the Windygate or West Mill Brae, for the sake of having the road easier. But this simple act of engineering skill, popular superstition converted into a work of wizard power, and the intersection is said to have been accomplished by demons.
Taylor, vol. ii. pp. 62-63.

Punishments for Witchcraft

Culross, 1684.— Oct. 18th, 1684.
Sir . . I shall informe you, with three remarkable Stories which may be attested by famous Witnesses, many of which are yet living.

I had the curiosity, when I was a Scholar to pass over from Borrowstonness to Culross, to see a notable Witch burnt. She was carried to the place of Execution in a chair by four men, by reason her Legs, and her Belly were broken, by one of the Devils cunning tricks which he plaid her. This woman was watched one night in the Steeple of Culros, by two men, John Shank a Flesher and one John Drummond, who being weary went to another Room, where there was a Fire, to take a Pipe. But to secure her, they put her Leggs in the Stocks, and locked them, as well as might be. But no sooner were they gone out of the Room, but the Devil came into the Prison, and told her he was obliged to deliver her from the shame she was like to suffer for his sake; and accordingly took her out of the Stocks, and embracing her, carried her out of the Prison. At which she being terrified made this exclamation by the way, " 0 God whither are you taking me! " At which words, he let her fall, at the distance from the Steeple, about the breadth of the street of Edinburgh, where she brake her Leggs and her Belly. I saw the impression and dimple of her heels; as many thousands did, which continued for six or seven years upon which place no Grass would ever grow. At last there was a stone dyke built upon the place.

The Author of this letter is a Person of great honesty and sincerity. From the First Relation of his, we have an evident instance that the Devil can transport the Bodies of men and Women thorow the Air; ‘Tis true, he did not carry her far off, but not for want of skill and power. Neither was he afraied to hear the name of God spoken; but purposing to destroy both the Soul and the body of the poor creature, he has pretended so much, to excuse himself, at her hand.

The first Story puts me in mind of one Craich a Witch put in prison, in the Steeple of Culross, to whom several years agoe, Mr. Alexander Colvil, Justice Depute came, a gentleman of great sagacity and knowledge as to Witches. He asked if she was a Witch. She denyed. Dar you hold up your hand and swear that you are not a Witch. Yes sir said she. But behold, what a remarkable Judgement of God came upon her. While she is swearing with her arm lifted up, it became as stiff as a tree, that she could not pull it in again, to the amazement of all that were present. One person yet living there, was a witness and can attest this. The Gentleman seing the vengeance of God upon her for her wickedness falls down presently upon his knees, and entreated the Lord in her behalf, who was graciously pleased to hear him.
Sinclair, pp. 207-212.

The mark of a witch’s foot is still pointed out on the turret-stair leading to this apartment [on the first floor of the church-steeple], and is reported to have been made by one of these unfortunate women.

The Red Rocks was the place where reputed witches were burnt.
Chapman, p. 27.

The rocks in the middle of the bay are called the Cockstail or Cucks-stool; are said to have got their names from being used as a ducking place for scolds.
Chapman, p. 24.

In regard to the Cross of Mugdrum, even tradition ceases to furnish any information. It continues to preserve the memory of the spot, in the lands belonging to the town of Newburgh, on which more than one unfortunate victim fell a sacrifice to the superstition of former times, intent on punishing the crime of witchcraft.
O.S.A., vol. viii. p. ‘77.

St. Andrews
Near where the Martyrs’ Monument now stands, there was formerly a small knoll known as Methven’s Tower. This knoll, it was believed, was haunted by the fairies; and on it, too, witches are said to have been burned.
According to tradition, the suspected witches were thrown into the Witch Lake, to see whether they would float or sink. A real witch would not drown, and was therefore burned. Before being cast into the water, the right thumb of the suspected was tied to the great toe of the left foot, and the left thumb to the big toe of the right foot, otherwise the proof was not canonical, the accused not being crossed.

St. Monans
The tradition respecting Witch Grizzie of the fifteenth century; who, having been found guilty of a fatal incantation, was condemned to expiate her guilt in the
midst of the flaming faggots. But, during the interval which preceded the execution of the sentence, she was incautiously permitted to fall under the drowsy dominion of Morpheus; and the very instant that her eyelids came in contact with each other, she vanished, with a sonorous noise, in the shape of a droning beetle ; and that insect is known by the title of the Deil’s Horse to this day. Though Grizzie never after rendered herself visible in human shape, yet those who were mainly instrumental in procuring her condemnation were constantly infested with a droning noise in their ears, whilst every action of their subsequent lives is said to have been governed by enchantment. And since this untoward event, no witch, after condemnation, was suffered to fall asleep.
Jack, pp. 62, 63.

Trials For Witchcraft

1563. Dunfermline.—Jun. 26 Agnes Mulikine, alias Bessie Boswell, in Dunfermeling, wes Banist and exilit for Wichecraft.
Pitcairn, p. 432.

1572. The 28th of Apryle thair was ane witche brunt in St Androis, wha was accused of mony horrible thingis, which scho denyed; albeit they were sufficientlie proven. Being desyred that scho wold forgive a man, that had done hir some offence (as scho alledged), refused; then when ane vtlier that stude by said, gif scho did not forgive, that God wald not forgive hir, and so scho suld be dampned. Bot scho not caren for hell nor heawin, said opinlie, I pas Ill not whidder I goe to hell or heawin, with dyvers vtheris execrable wordis. Efter hir handis were bound, the provest causeth lift vp hir claithis, to see hir mark that scho had, or to sic gif scho had ony thing vpon hir I can not weill tell, hot thair was a white claith like a collore craig CII with stringis in betuene hit leggis, whairon was mony knottis vpon the stringis of the said collore craig, which was taken from hir sore gainst hir will; for belyke scho thought that scho suld not have died that being vpon her, for scho said, when it was taken from hir, “Now I have no hoip of myself.”
Bannatyne, p. 339.

August 29th 1704.
Lillias Adie declared some hours before her death, in audience of the minister, precentor, George Pringle and John Paterson, that what she had said of Elspeth Williamson and Agnes Curie was as true as the Gospel; and added, it is as true as the sun shines on that floor, and dim as my eyes are I see that. Lillias Adie died in prison and was buried within the sea mark at Torryburn.
Webster , pp. 27-34.

1597. Margaret Aitken, the Witch of Balwearie.
This summer there was a great business for the trial of witches. Amongst others one Margaret Aitken, being apprehended on suspicion, and threatened with torture, did confess herself guilty. Being examined touching her associates in that trade, she named a few, and perceiving her delations find credit, made offer to detect all of that sort, and to purge the country of them, so she might have her life granted. For the reason of her knowledge, she said “That they had a secret mark all of that sort, in their eyes, whereby she could surely tell, how soon she looked upon any, whether they were witches or not,” and in this she was so readily believed, that for the space of three or four months she was carried from town to town to make discoveries in that kind. Many were brought in question by her delations, especially at Glasgow, where divers innocent women through the credulity of the minister Mr John Cowper, were condemned and put to death. In the end she was found to be a mere deceiver (for the same persons that the one day she had declared guilty the next day being presented in another habit she cleansed), and sent back to Fife, where first she was apprehended. At her trial she affirmed all to be false that she had confessed, either of herself or others, and persisted in this to her death; which made many forthink their too great forwardness that way, and moved the King to recall the commissions given out against such persons, discharging all proceedings against them, except in case of voluntary confession till a solid order should be taken by the Estates touching the form that should be kept in their trial.
Chambers, p. 291.

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