Friday, 4 December 2015

Grissel Jaffray, Last Dundee Witchcraft Execution

The sad case of Dundee’s last known witch to be executed rests on reputable but slight historical record.  The Privy Council records, under the date 11th November 1669 (a significant date, being Old Hallowmas, equating to the Celtic festival of Samain), that Grissel Jaffray was a prisoner in the Tolbooth in Dundee (which stood at the corner of the Overgate and High Street), who had been accused of witchcraft and an order was issued for her trial.  It instructed Dundee’s minister and town council that ‘if by her own confession, without any sort of torture or other indirect means used, it shall be found she hath renounced her baptism, entered into paction with the devil, or otherwise that malefices be legally proven against her, that then and no otherwise they cause the sentence of death to be executed upon her.’
   Grissel’s supposed crimes and the circumstances of her trial are unknown, but her fate is confirmed by the Privy Council Minute book entry which states that she accused several others before her own death:

Dundie, the twentie third day of Novr.,
1669 years.
   Anent such as were delated for witchcraft. – The minirs having also repnted to the Counsell, that Grissel Jaffray, witch, at her execution, did delate seal psons as being guiltie of witchcraft to ye, and therefore desired yt for yr exoneraon some course might be taken wt those belated:  The counsel, in order thervnto, therefore noiats the provost, the pnt baillzies, the old baillzies, deane of gild, .t ther, to meet wt the minirs .t to common wt ym on the sd matter, and to consider of ye best ways may be takin wt the delated.

   The actual fate of those people that she accused is not recorded, but the Privy Council agreed, on 8th February 1670, that the Dundee ministers could employ a ‘prover’ or witch-finder to discover witches by finding marks on their bodies. It was noted that ‘the Counsill approves, and consents the minrs send for the partie when they please.’  Who the finder was and who he managed to torment are mysteries, but there may well have been more deaths, directly or indirectly as a result.
   Very little is actually known about Grissel Jaffray herself.  A.H. Miller, in Haunted Dundee (1923), reports that he found in the records of Dundee the name of a brewer named James Butchart, born in 1594, who was made a burgess of the burgh in 1615 and who married Grissel Jaffray, probably an Aberdonian.  The couple had one son, a ship’s captain.  Although Butchard’s family was of French origin, they had been prominent in Dundee for several generations previously, as there is a record of Thomas Butchart, a baker, was a burgess of the city in 1526.  By the time of her execution, Grissel must have been advancing in years.  Miller  poignantly notes that the couple must have counted themselves fortunate to have survived the harrowing English siege of Dundee in 1651, only to have met a later nightmare at the hands of the authorities.  The three ministers who would have acted against the accused were Henry Scrygeour of St Mary’s, John Guthrie of the South Church, and William Rait of the Third Charge.  The latter was described as being ‘of known repute both for learning and piety’.
   The scene of the execution was supposed to have been in the Seagate, where the original Market Cross of Dundee once stood.  A large pile of ashes was excavated nearby in Victorian times, but Miller doubted the tradition that it was associated with the execution.  Grizzel’s house also survived into the late 19th century, in Calendar Close, a long narrow court on the south side of the Overgate, just east of Long Wynd (once called Seres Wynd) .  Miller also records the pathetic record of Jaffray’s widower James Butchart begging entry to the town’s hospital, which the minister’s graciously agreed to.
   As far as tradition is concerned, the couple’s son had the ill-luck to arrive back in Dundee on the day of the execution, and when he was informed of the cause of the black smoke billowed up from the Seagate he sailed away immediately and never came back to his home port again. William Marshall, in Historic Scenes in Forfarshire (1875), says that the arriving sailor was a close relative of Grissel. Shocked by the event, he set sail for India immediately, accompanied by his young son. They made a substantial fortune in India and returned to Scotland and purchased the estate of Murie in the Carse of Gowrie.  The captain may not have been the poor woman's son, because the name of the owners of Murie were Yeaman.  One of the most famous members of this family was the merchant and politician George Yeaman, who was a bailie and provost of Dundee in the early 18th century and later became a member of parliament.  When the estate was sold off in 1849, among the contents of the house were the the original chest in which the Indian treasure was transported back to Scotland and a portrait of the Dundonian sailor himself, which sold for 130 guineas.  Other sources suggest that the Jaffrays of Aberdeen were prominent Quakers who were persecuted for religious reasons.

   Whatever the truth behind all of this, a craving for facts is unlikely to unearth any other significant details now.  The ‘last witch of Dundee’ enjoyed a renaissance of fame in the 20th century, possibly due to Miller’s book.  The BBC’s Scottish regional wireless service broadcast a play about her on 15th January 1936, written by Philip Blair.  William Blain published his novelisation of the events, Witch’s Blood, in 1946, subsequently adapted for the stage by Dundee Rep.  Grissel’s fame has continued into this new century.  A mosaic in Peter Street, leading off the Seagate, plus a commemorative blue plaque now remember her.  There has been a further work of fiction, The CureWife, written by Claire-Marie Watson.  And there is a curious, false tradition incidentally associated with Grissel in the form of a ‘Witch’s Stone’ in the old Howff cemetery.  Coins and other relics have been left ere in recent years, although this seems like a modern phenomenon, possibly begun accidentally, and the place in fact marks the meeting place of one of Dundee’s old trade associations, with no link to the supernatural.


  1. Another example of the evil that organized religion has brought to the world. What a wonderful place our world would be if there were no such thing as religion.

  2. Hoping to compile a more comprehensive e-book about Angus/Dundee witches next year.