The Forfar witch hunts of the 1660's
1563 the newly created Church of Scotland made it illegal to
either be a witch or to consult a witch in an attempt to stamp
out pagan practices. This Act of Parliament was not abandoned
until 1736. In between 1563 and 1736 is known from documentary
evidence that at least 1,500 people were executed for the crime
of being a witch. During the time the act was on the statute
books there were 3 periods of intense witch hunting. One witch
hunt took place in the reign of James VI in the 1590's, the
second during the Civil War of the 1640's and the third after
Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. During this last
witch hunt of 1660-1663 it is believed that 300 people were
executed as witches. In 1663 alone it is thought that 150 people
were executed. This does not count those people who died in
jail after they were tortured or who killed themselves in despair.
To this total Forfar contributed 42 people suspected of being
witches, of whom at least 9 were executed. Only 3 were men.
Forfar's witch hunt of 1661-166
was a typical small Scottish burgh in the seventeenth century.
It was quite isolated as it was surrounded by marsh or loch
on 3 sides. It was also a market town for the area where meat
and fresh fish were sold plus manufactured goods such as the
shoes for which Forfar was famous. It was made up of 2 streets,
the High Street and Castle Street. At the crossroads sat the
tolbooth and the market cross. The population was probably around
1000 people. It was crowded, dirty and smelly. There was no
running water or modern conveniences. The contents of the chamber
pot, animal dung and household rubbish were all dumped on the
street. It was a small town where everyone knew everyone else's
business and grudges were held for generations.
Who were the witches?
were generally accepted to be women. They were usually poor
women with no family to offer protection. They were widows like
Katherine Porter or young women such as Elspeth Bruce. Any women
who was a little different and who lived on the fringes of respectable,
church going society could find herself accused if the climate
was right. This would include anyone who had a squint, regarded
as the evil eye, or who suffered from epilepsy, considered to
be possession by the devil. Midwives were often accused. If
they could bring life into the world, they might decide to take
life out of this world. The same applied to women with a knowledge
of herbal medicine.
The importance of the minister
of witchcraft would have been brought to the attention of Forfar's
young and enthusiastic minister, Alexander Robertson. Ministers
were the key to witch hunts. If the minister held no truck with
the notion, then witch hunts simply did not happen. If he did
accept that witches existed and should be eradicated then he
took the matter to the Town Council who would set the ponderous
forces of 17th century justice into motion.
The role of Helen Guthrie
one woman, Helen Guthrie, the Forfar witch hunts would not have
lasted so long or encompassed so many. She played a vital role
in this story of prejudice and intolerance. Helen was by her
own admission a drunken and very wicked woman who had murdered
her own step-sister when they were both children. Helen and
her 13 year old daughter Janet Howat were accused of being witches
along with 11 others including Isobel Shyrie, Helen Alexander,
Girsel Simpsone, Agnes Spark, Katherine Porter, John Tailyeour
and Janet Stout. Helen helped the witch hunters identify more
witches. She did this by claiming to be able to identify another
witch simply by seeing her. She agreed to help the witch hunters
but only if they did not hurry her. She became the star witness
for the prosecutors. She gave them plenty of material. She told
stories of drunken midnight parties held in Forfar Kirkyard,
desecration of graves, cannibalism, ship sinking at Carnoustie
and destruction of bridges at Cortachy. She boasted of her prowess
as a witch claiming the devil tried to rescue her from the tolbooth
by levitating her up through the rafters. She would have escaped
but for the vigilance of the watchmen. Helen's motivation for
assisting the witch hunters can only be a matter for speculation.
As long as she was alive, so was her young daughter. Perhaps
Helen aimed to make herself indispensable to the witch hunters
to protect Janet.
How to identify a witch
1563 Act making witchcraft illegal simply made it unlawful to
be a witch. Witch hunters believed that there were four ways
in which a witch could be identified. A witch confessed to meeting
with the devil. Witches were believed to meet with the devil
to drink and dance and to confess their evil deeds. Sabbats
were traditionally held on Friday evenings in churchyards, at
crossroads or other out of the way places.
witch renounced her baptism. This meant she was commonly known
by a name other than the one which she received at her baptism.
Isobel Shyrie was known as the Horse and Helen Guthrie was called
the White Witch, perhaps indicating a knowledge of healing herbs.A
witch received a mark from the devil which was not painful or
did not bleed when pricked with a needle.
was taken as conclusive proof that a witch had renounced her
Christian baptism. Lastly, a witch performed malefice, evil
deeds by supernatural means. Witches were accused of causing
destruction of crops, cows to stop giving milk and making people
of the witch suspects have left confessions behind. The prosecutors
required confessions before they could execute a witch. But
what did the witch suspects actually confess to doing? They
confessed to meeting a man in black that they believed was the
devil. Few of them confess to anything supernatural except for
Helen Guthrie and Isobel Shyrie, who claimed she murdered Bailie
George Wood by giving him a drink containing powder dead man's
skull and flesh. Elspeth Bruce, singled out as a pretty woman,
admitted to preparing a roast goose for the devil.
Imprisonment and torture
witch suspects were held in Forfar's tolbooth in appalling conditions.
They were arrested at the start of winter and yet were kept
in cold dark conditions. They were deprived of sleep, warmth
and light for weeks if not months on end. They were also prodded
all over their bodies with long thin pins to discover their
witches mark. John Kincaid from Tranent was hired to conduct
the proddings. Forfar presented him with an honorary burgess-ship
as a reward for his work. Some witch prodders were discovered
to be charlatans who used retractable pins in order to "manufacture"
a witch. One Mr Paterson from Inverness was actually a woman.
were not freely obtained from witch suspects. It was common
to use what we would now call torture to get confessions of
guilt from the accused. Any museum in any Scottish burgh will
have thumbscrews and a branks, or scold's bridle as it is also
known, a device for depressing the tongue and keeping suspects
quiet. There were also a number of more subtle torture's used
on Scottish witch suspects such as waking and light deprivation.
In "waking" or sleep deprivation witch suspects were
deliberately kept from sleeping. Local guards took turns to
stay in the tolbooth with the suspects. If the women fell asleep
it was the job of the guards to march the women up and down
the prison to keep them from sleeping. This process continued
until they made a confession. After a number of nights without
rest people would do anything to be allowed to sleep. It can
also cause hallucinations. Light deprivation can have much the
same effect. Although it was winter the women were not allowed
a candle to see by or a fire to warm themselves. If they had
access to a naked flame the witch hunters believed that they
would use their magical powers to summon the devil to set them
A just trial?
a confession was obtained a trial could be held. Trials were
swift, perfunctory affairs with a guilty verdict almost inevitable.
The convicted witch was lucky if she was merely banished such
as Helen Alexander and Janet Bertie. The less fortunate ones
were executed by the more "merciful" method employed
in Scotland. A witch would be first strangled and her body burnt
in a barrel of tar. Isobel Shyrie was the first to suffer this
fate in Forfar.
The execution of Helen Guthrie
Guthrie finally outlasted her usefulness to the witch hunters
in late 1662. Witch hunting ceased quite abruptly in the burgh.
Its demise coincided with Alexander Robertson's removal as ministers
by the Privy Council for too much zeal in his witch hunting.
Helen Guthrie was the last witch to be executed in Forfar in
December 1662. By that time 8 women had been executed and at
least 2 had been whipped to the burgh gate and exiled from the
The last witches
few were still imprisoned in the tolbooth, including Elspeth
Bruce and Helen's teenage daughter Janet. The last that is known
of Janet is a plea that appears in the records of the Privy
Council begging that they order the Town Council to let her
go free. They had held a trial and no one had spoken against
her. The Privy Council orders the Town Council to hold another
trial or release her. This plea is dated 1666, 4 years after
her initial arrest. Her final fate is unknown.
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