Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Forfar Witches

The most famous Angus trials were those women put to trial in Forfar in the early 1660s.  The trials may have been prompted by an argument between a woman named Isobell Shyrie  and an official named George Wood, prompting rumours that she had cursed him.  Suspected witches were rounded up and imprisoned.  They were questioned and tortured, and the burgh even invited an ‘expert’ to discover witches.  John Kincaid of Tranent found a witch by spotting ‘Devil’s Marks’ on her body.  His services earned him a large fee and the freedom of Forfar.   On the 25th September 1661 a young woman named Helen Guthrie gave a remarkable confession, which effectively dragged in many other women into the witch hunt. She may have come to the attention of the authorities because she was conspicuously ill behaved.  The first item in her confession is an admission that she was a very ‘drunkensome’ woman, giving to cursing and wickedness in her actions and conversation. She said that she was taught witchcraft by a woman named Joanet Galloway, residing near Kirriemuir.  Helen had the skills to curse anyone effectively, she said, and she boasted she could tell if anyone was a witch by magical means.  Then she related the evil acts done by other local witches, both men and women, though she denied being privy to their actions.  While she was in prison, on the 15th of September, the Devil came to her and attempted to spirit her away.  He only succeeded in levitating her three or four feet in the air.  Three watchmen found her in this position, making her fall to the ground with swipes of their swords. 
    Another confession was made in the same month by Joanet Huit.  She stated that Isobell Shyrie had carried her to the island in Forfar Loch and presented her to the Devil, who was less than impressed, and asked what should he do with such a little bairn as this?  Isabell answered, ‘shoe is my maiden take hir to you’.  There were around thirteen witched there with the Devil and Joanet’s revels with them earned her the nickname the Pretty Dancer.  She named the four witches she recognised. Four weeks later she was taken by Isobell to a meeting with around twenty witches at Muryknowes, where they danced and consumed beef, bread and ale.  here the Devil kissed her and pinched her hard on the shoulder, so she was in pain for some time thereafter.  Six weeks after this there was another meeting, at a place named Lapiedub, where the Devil called her his ‘bony bird’ and kissed her again, stroken the shoulder where he had previously pinched her, and the pain disappeared.  Another time she was at Newmanhill at saw the Devil having sex with her own mother.  Afterwards he galloped away on a black horse and Joanet followed him, until Satan ordered her to return to her mother.  Her mother forbade her to tell her father what she had seen that night.
    John Tailzour also made his confession in Forfar that month.  His short confession detailed encountering the Devil at Halcarton.  He was on a brown horse, and the plough beats in the fields were terrified by his appearance.  Satan said he knew John was going to market and offered to lend him money, but he refused to ‘medle with his money’.  The figure also appeared to him another time at Petterden, but John refused to have anything to do with him.
    Isobell Shyrie appeared before the authorities on the same day that Satan visited Helen Guthrie, confessing that she was a witch and that she had been at several meetings when the Devil was present, among them one ‘at the green hill’ near the Loch of Forfar, within the last month, and she named six others she knew were also there.  She stated she copulated with the Devil there.  Another confession was that she poisoned Baillie Wood by using a concoction made from toads, part of a human skull and ‘ane peece dead man’s flesh which the divill perfumed’.  The price for this Satanic co-operation was that she should herself die within twenty days.
   Two days later, Elspet Alexander confessed.  She said she had met the Devil three and a half years ago at a gathering at Petterden, where they danced and  received nicknames from Him.  She was marked on the shoulder by Satan.  One month later was another meeting, at the Muryknowes, and at a third meeting near Kirriemuir, Satan gave her a cold kiss.  Joanet Stout, in her confession on the same day, also detailed the coven’s gathering at the three places (she had sex with Him at Petterden), and said the Devil used to appear to her at Drumgley well, ‘and told hir that shoe sould not want’.  Next in the records is Ketheren Portour, who first met Satan in a quarry, along with two other women, though she was scared and ran away, even though she was a blind woman.  At another time, in the same company , the Devil appeared at a bleaching green, though she was displeased.  The Devil restored her sight temporarily on another occasion, at Ferytounfields, so she could describe Him wrapped in a black plaid.
    Agnes Spark confessed on the 26th September.  She told how Isobel Shirie took her to a midnight meeting at Littlemiln last summer, where there were a dozen people dancing to sweet music.  Those present called Isobel Shirrie the Devil’s hose, since he always rode upon her, and she was shod like a steed.  The Devil had sex there with Isobel.   Afterwards, Isobel carried her home on her back.  Next day, Isobel was in bed all day, moaning of her painful hands because she had been sorely tossed up and down the previous evening.  Agnes said that Isobel tried to entice her into the Devil’s service, but she refused to listen to her.
    On the 28th October, Helen Guthrie - evidently a star witness, damning others as well as herself - gave a second confession.  She admitted to the murder of her half-sister, Marget Hutchen, aged six or seven, who died a few days after Helen stroked her.  One spring night, she said, her coven had convened in Forfar kirkyard.  When they danced, ‘the ground under them was all fireflaughts’.  A man named Andrew Watsone entertained the gathered witches by singing old ballads, and Isobell Shirrie sang ‘Tinkletum Tankletum’.  Satan was of course present - in the shape of a ‘black, iron-heived man’ - and he led the revels and kissed all the women. Further meetings were held at the ‘pavilione-holl’ and again in the kirkyard.  After dancing they went to Mary Rynd’s house, then went to the brewer Jon Benny and purchased ale from him.  At the first meeting Andrew Watsone dug from beside the church door and the witches ate its hands, feet, head, and buttocks in a pie.  This act of cannibalism, it was supposed, would magically protect them from the having to confess.  The coven collectively tried to destroy Cortachy Bridge during a storm, but only hurt their shoulders as they tried to push it down.  They did, however, sink a ship which was lying off Barry.  Last summer, she said, John Tailzeor went through the corn fields of the miller, William Milne, at Hetherstakes, in the shape of a toad and a pig, destroying the crop.  Helen stated she had been a witch for a long time, even when she had been abroad with the gypsies.
   Helen was brought out again, in July 1662, confronting Elspet Bruice and accusing her of witchcraft.  She said that Elspet was one of the principals who attacked Cortachy Bridge, and she had also caused the death of Lady Isobell Ogilvy, daughter of the Earl of Ogilvy.  Elspet denied the accusations and associated charges, though she had also been accused by Isobell Smith of Oathlaw.  The latter confessed in January 1662, breaking down in  tears and frequently begging for mercy and prayers.  She sold her soul to Satan some years before for the paltry annual fee of three half-pennies.  Many times she met the Devil:  on one occasion it was on top of Finavon Hill, when she was brooding for revenge upon James Gray, a servant of Lord Spynie.  He afterwards died, as did John Dargy, after being touched by her.  Other crimes included magically stealing milk from her neighbour’s cows.
   In early 1662, Isobell Smith, Helen Cothill and Elspet Alexander were ordered to be executed.  The process rolled on into summer, when Marjorie Ritchie gave her testimony.  She confessed the Devil appeared to her three times, in the form of a woman.  She caused a cow to follow her home from Alyth market, and caused sickness and death among her neighbours. 

  Mysteries remain about the fate of some of the accused, but there are also questions about some of their origins, and of course their motivations. The first to die was Girsel Simpsone, who may have been lynched by the inhabitants of the town.  Helen Guthrie was the last one of the half dozen or so witches who were judicially executed, in December1662, put to death in the Playfield, Forfar (on the site of present day Victoria Street).  The women (the first being Isobell Shyrie) were strangled, then burned in barrels of tar.  Others, like Janet Bertie and Helen Alexander, were banished from the burgh.  Margaret Guthrie and Elizabeth Guthrie, unlike the others, were from Montrose, and they were also lucky in that they managed to escape with their lives.  Their freedom was engineered by their brother, James Guthrie, who happened to be a lawyer based in Dundee.  In 1666 James also attempted to liberate the thirteen year old Janet Howatt, who happened to be the daughter of the executed Helen Guthrie. The Privy Council ordered a new trial, but there is no record that it ever took place. One of the most pertinent questions about the matter is whether Helen was related to Margaret and Elizabeth; there is no proof, though perhaps the actions of James Guthrie in trying to help Helen’s daughter would point towards some kinship.  There is also no evidence, sadly, to show whether young Janet was freed from prison.


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