Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Early Records of Witchcraft

One of the earliest records of witchcraft in Angus comes from Arbroath and gives an insight into the motivation of those who accused others of abusing supernatural powers.  On 26 November 1563 it was recorded that:

                            The qlk day it is found by the buileyeis and court that Richart Brown sall
                             pass to the chapel the morne, and ask Jonat Cary and Jhon Ramsay her
                             son forgyffnes for calling her ane shoe witch, and him ane he witch; and
                             the said Jhon Ramsay sall ask the said Richart forgyffnes for calling him
                             thief carll.

   Another case of probable neighbourly bickering and slander was noted here on 28 July 1564, when George Hallis appeared before the local authorities and  said 'gif there was ony sic thing as ane witch Jonat Lam was ane, and James Davis affirmit the samin'. The matter was passed to an assize due to convene fifteen days later, but there is no surviving record of that meeting.
   The Protestant Parliament of 1563 decided to take more severe action against witches and those who consulted them, so witches now faced the death penalty.  When the Regent of Scotland, the Earl of Moray, visited Dundee in July 1569 he 'causit burn ane company of witches'.  John Erskine of Dun, religious superintendent of Angus, led a witch hunt through the county and neighbouring Mearns  in 1568-9, leading to at least forty accusations.

   Witchcraft accusations increased dramatically in  the 17th century.  Around 1630 several Monifieth women were excommunicated and punished from the parish for 'charming and witchcrafte'.  During the next decade Auchterhouse kirk session noted 'the pregnant scandal of witches in this part of the land', and 'supplicat the Lord therefore that he would enlighten and enclyne ministers and people, and enflame their hearts with more zeal to God and love his truth...'  In Auchterhouse there was another case of domestic, dangerous slander when, on 27 September  1646, Isabel Gall of Leoch declared that a woman named Janet Thomson (who was a servant of Robert Turnbull) had slandered her by calling her a witch and a thief.
   In 1649 local ministers attended 'the committee appointed by the provisional assemblie for the trial of witches and charmers'.  The perceived problem of witchcraft was obviously gathering momentum again.  In this same year the Presbytery of Brechin dealt with a number of male diviners from Glen Esk.  One was the charmer John Donaldson, who had already been punished by Lochlee kirk session.  Called to give evidence he admitted 'charming in casting the Shemfur', which was possibly a form of divination employing shears and a sieve.  Donaldson named others who also used this method:  John Crystison, Thomas Bowman, Johns Shanks, Alexander Davidson.  The Presbytery was unhappy with the depth and quality of his confession, 'because it is not so ample as that given his minister'.
   On 6 June 1650 the 'Lochlie Charmers; Crystison, Shanks and Thomas Kyneir were sharply reprimanded for casting the Shemfur.  They were ordered to appear in sackcloth before the congregation of Lochlee until the minister was satisfied that they had repented.'
   Meanwhile, Auchterhouse continued to root out offenders.  On 2 July 1650:

                                Janet Fyffe  made her public repentance before the pulpit for
                                learning Mrs Robertson to charm her child, and whereas Mrs
                                Mrs Robertson to charm her child, and whereas Mrs Robertson
                                should have done the same, it pleased the Lord before that time to
                                call upon her by death.

   The above action may have been the result of the minister's previous plea, on 6 January 1650, when he asked members of his session 'to make a search everywhere in their own quarters if they know any witches or charmers...and delate them to the next session'.

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