Saturday, 21 January 2017

A Last Look at Witches

This is the last look I’ll be having, for a while at least, at the legends and facts about witches found in the records and legends of Angus.  One of the few things which the areas of fact and folklore overlap in is the separation of the seriousness of the witchcraft accusation s of witchcraft and the results from the stories, real or imagined, which have come down to us.  The stories and records which have survived are also patchy.  We are lucky (if that is the right word) to have fairly substantial documentation of the Forfar witchcraft trials and some record of the lesser-known Brechin trials (both from the 17th century, but there are no similar records from Dundee, Arbroath or Montrose.  In Dundee’s case the concentration is on one unfortunate individual, Grizzel Jaffray, though in her case the facts known are few indeed and wrapped up in a blanket of tradition, some of which is dubious and false. 

Marks On The Landscape

If the real lives of those who were accused of – and perhaps actually practised –witchcraft are pathetically vague, then the places where they suffered and died are also were faint now in the 21st century.  Alexander Warden, the historian of Angus, tells us that Dundee’s Grizzel Jaffray was associated with Ballumbie Castle, just to the east of the burgh, in the parish of Murroes. The old castle of the Lovell family may have been ruinous even in Grizzel’s time, but there was a huge ash tree, 15 feet in diameter, just to the west of the building that was said to have been planted by her.  There is no story not known which tells us why she was associated with this place. 

Ballumbie Castle.

   Grimmer locations include those where suspects were swum or executed.  Lunan’s Witch Pool was situated just south of Gallow’s Hill, while the other was just north of Redcastle, making the link between these sites and seats of power and law enforcement clear.  Outside the boundaries of Dundee, to the north-west, there was a hillock named the Witches’ Knowe, situated beside a small loch which used to be used for skating when it froze over in winter time.  On the green mound, close to the Scouringburn and the north-west road to Coupar Angus, women from the town used to dry and bleach their washing.  Previously the land was adjacent to the property of the Grey Sisters and was latterly a market garden.  The actual site was probably lost following the growth of Dundee in the 19th century and the construction of a new turnpike road in the 18th century.  It is likely to have been a spot which witnessed considerable horror in earlier times.  Dundee’s Playfield, also to the west of the burgh, likely also saw executions (as did Forfar’s Playfield), though Grizzel Jaffray was allegedly put to death in the Seagate.  Kirriemuir's Witch Pool was similarly situated near a seat of judgement, the Court Hillock.

Kirrie's Witch Pool.  Excerpt from map reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.  Map Images, National Library of Scotland

   Brechin’s Witchden Road, running between Montrose Street and River Street, also commemorates the historical processing of witches.  The guilty or suspected witches of the town were punished in a hollow named the Witch Den (later the site of a Victorian gas works).  A proprietor of the property found on the site a deposit containing ash and human bones, plus, chillingly, a length of chain, leaving no illusions about what happened here. 

Witchden Road.

Revenge By Water – The Witch of Montrose, Witches of Loch Brandy

A common motif in folklore involving witches is the suggestion that they would revenge themselves on communities that had snubbed or belittled them to some extent.  It may reflect a lingering fear of the supposed mischievous powers of these outcast women, but equally there may be an element of redressing the balance in a folk-fate sense by allowing the poor accused the post mortem, theoretical opportunity to get their own back on society. Also, could their be a link between torture by water and revenge by water?
   Dronner’s Dyke is an artificial construction which sought to artificially alter Montrose Basin.  The dyke was sponsored by the owners of the estate of Dun to drain some 2000 acres of the basin around the year 1670.  A local witch named Meggie Cowie who disapproved of this ‘improvement’ (was she perhaps an early environmentalist?) stuck her finger in the dyke and the whole structure fell down in a storm she raised.  The company formed to complete the work also collapsed.  It did Meggie no good however as she became the last local witch to be burned to death.
   No source seems to name of most of the witches who haunted Loch Brandy above Glen Clova.  James Stirton says that the colony of witches who lived here numbered in the hundreds.  They were apparently split between Cairn Inks (or Cairn o’Inks) and the loch itself. Cairn Inks was reckoned to be a superlative vantage point to view the results of supernatural mischief being played out down in the glen. There was once a dispute who would lead the extended coven and a rivalry was initiated between the witch voted as leader and the one who came second.  The proposed leader carelessly flew above the kirk of Clova one Sunday while a service was in progress.  Unluckily for her a blessing was being uttered at that moment.  She heard it, gave an awful shriek, and plummeted down on to the roof of the kirk.  It was a snowy winter day and the congregation left in a hurry, anxious to get home before their journeys became impossible.  The witch fell down and, lucky for her, found an old besom which had been left behind by the cleaner of the church.  In a flash she was airborne again.  However, he freedom was relatively short-lived and she was detained by the authorities.
   According to Stirton this last glen witch was condemned: 
There to be chained to the Higher Cairn with a chain of adamant, to work all day long in collecting the dew and the rain to supply the dead water, and all night to sit amid the roar of the tempest or the intense solitude, speaking to none and being spoken to by none, lonely, hopeless and despairing, suffering many mortal ills without any of their counter-balancing joystill centuries hence a miserable death will close a miserable and wretched life.
For ages thou’lt have work enow,
And in the end consuming fire,
When the blazing faggots of Witches’ Knowe
Shall avenge the “shot of Bentyre.”

This poor witch may be equated with Marget Adamson who was put to death on 8 June 1662.  Aigain in Clova there is a proximity between places of punishment and witchcraft, there still being a road which connects Gallows Howe and Witches’ Howe.  According to Victorian Ordnance Survey workers in the 19th century the latter place was ‘An irregular piece of rough ground north of the main road & west of Cadham farm house Mr. Lucas the tenant of Cadham states that when excavating at this spot, he found several bones and burned sticks & that the last witch of Clova was burned there.’ (Witches How(e) is at map reference NO331724, at Caddam, and nearby is Witches' Knowe.)-
  Above the glen is a fissure named the Witch’s Crack which is supposed to grow wider every year. (At Red Craigs there is also an area of cliff know as the Witch’s Tooth.) A curse is said to have been placed upon this place, whereby a witch promised that one day the waters of the loch would flood downhill and drown everyone in Clova.  The jougs or witch’s collar from Clova kirk which was used to punish recalcitrant women are now held in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. 

Future Study
A good local, comprehensive study in witchcraft in Angus is yet to be undertaken at an adademic level by someone.  One starting point would be the reformed kirk’s initiative in the area to bring reputed witches to justice in 1568.  Some forty individuals were identified in the area, twelve of them from Arbroath alone.  The story behind these persecuted souls is still to be found. 


Black, David D., The History of Brechin to 1864, Edinburgh, 1867.
Coutts, Walter, Historical Guide to Brechin and Neighbourhood, Brechin, 1889.
Dorward, The Glens of Angus, Names, Places, People, Balgavies, 2001.
Hay, George, History of Arbroath to the Present Time, Arbroath,1876.
McKean, Charles and Whatley, Patricia, Lost Dundee, Dundee’s Lost Architectural Heritage, Edinburgh, 2008.
Maxwell-Stewart, P.G., Satan’s Conspiracy:  Magic and Witchcraft in Sixteenth-century Scotland, Edinburgh, 2004.
Mitchell, David, The History of Montrose, Montrose, 1866.
Myles, James, Rambles in Forfarshire, or Sketches in Town and Country, Dundee, 1850. 
Stirton, James, Thrums and its Glens, 2nd edition, Kirriemuir, 1896.

Warden, Alexander, Angus of Forfarshire, volume 4, Dundee, 1884.

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