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Dornoch Witches

In the year 1722 the last judicial execution in Scotland for the crime of witchcraft was carried out within the royal burgh of Dornoch. Witchcraft in various forms had been prevalent throughout these isolated northern areas during the 17th century, so much so that John, 12th earl of Sutherland, begged his brother, Sir Robert Gordon, to persuade James VI to help put some of these witches to trial 'or ellis honest peopil can not liue in that contrey'. The king regarded witchcraft as a most heinous crime, so statutes were promptly passed authorising magistrates to impose the severest penalties.

Most forms of witchcraft, as practised by ordinary country people, were fairly harmless, involving simple charms and divination to find lost or stolen goods.  However, 'evildoers' usually ended up before the kirk session, or, in more serious cases, were dealt with by
the presbytery.

In many parishes throughout Sutherland there were old women who were reputed to be in league with the devil and to possess powers which they used against their neighbours, who usually feared and hated them.  Some were simply wicked old hags who played on the
superstitions of their neighbours for personal gain; the majority were merely lonely and decrepit, rendered secretive and peculiar in their habits by virtue of their senility and isolation, easy targets for the ever-watchful witch hunters.

Such a one was Janet Horne, an old woman from Kintradwell in the parish of Loth on the northeast coast of Sutherland. A former lady's maid who had travelled in foreign parts with her mistress, she had a daughter with a deformed hand, and in her old age her neighbours became convinced she was a witch. She was accused of having transformed her daughter into a pony, which she rode to witches' meetings and on Satan's errands. Mother and daughter were arrested and incarcerated in the old tolbooth of Dornoch. The daughter somehow managed to escape, but her deformed hand, which was conveniently seen to be in the shape of a horse's hoof, was eagerly accepted as proof that the mother had failed to restore her completely to human form after some devilish midnight ride. Her fate was sealed when she failed to repeat the Lord's Prayer correctly in Gaelic, unfortunately using the words, 'Our Father who wert in heaven' instead of 'art in heaven'. She was alleged to be praying to the devil, who had been expelled by God from heaven for disobedience.

The trial and subsequent execution of Janet Home were presided over by the sheriff depute, one Captain David Ross of Dean, who, according to Sir Walter Scott in Tales of a Grandfather, 'was an ignorant provincial judge who was later censured by his superiors for the
proceedings'. The censure came too late to save Janet Horne from her cruel fate and a place in history. She was stripped, tarred and feathered and carted around the burgh as a warning to others. The day was a cold one, and when the party arrived at the execution spot,
the pitiful old wretch is said to have warmed her hands at the fire prepared for her burning, saying 'Eh, what a bonnie blaze,' and commented that so many neighbours gathered round made it a cheery sight.

The horror of her eventual demise inside a blazing pitch barrel needs no description. She paid the full, gruesome penalty demanded by the law of the time and became the last of the many who were 'wirriet at the stake and brint in assis'. Her memorial is a stone in a garden on the links and the nearby Witch's Pool.

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