What do you think of when you hear the words ‘Scottish witches’? The three from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, hunched round their cauldron? The ones who chase Tam O’ Shanter in Robert Burns’s poem? Scotland is a country rich with tales of witches. Some are legends that have grown with the telling, some are completely made up, and some of them actually happened.
Why do witches fascinate me? They always have, ever since I was a little girl. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I read my first ‘scary’ witch story when I was about seven. I never bought into the good witch, bad witch thing. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ wasn’t a favourite of mine. (I much prefer ‘Wicked’). Even when I was young, I understood that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are often subjective. When I read books and watched films, I always thought the wicked witch character was a lot more interesting than the simpering heroine. I still do. Witches appeal to my dark side. There are as many aspects to witchcraft as there are to life: witches are people and the same ones can be good or bad depending on what they’re doing and who’s describing them. I love that.
In my home of Scotland I have spent a lot of time visiting spooky sites and absorbing local stories, many of which go back before written records. We have a great ‘oral tradition’ of folk tales. A few forward-thinking writers captured some of them on paper before they were lost forever. Witches, fairies (NOT the fluttery pretty kind), ghosts…they are everywhere. Dark, forbidding mountains and crags, wild weather, dense forest – even the landscape conspires with the legends.
One of my earliest memories of a ‘real’ witch (or in this case, warlock) story comes from a school trip to Edinburgh, again when I was about seven or eight. On this trip to Scotland’s capital city, we went to the waxworks museum. When we got to the inevitable ‘chamber of horrors’ you could choose whether to go through or not. Guess which I did? I thought it was BRILLIANT. I bought the guidebook and devoured it when I got home. One of the characters I was particularly taken with was Major Weir.
Major Thomas Weir was born in 1599 and lived in the street called the West Bow, between Edinburgh Castle and the Grassmarket. He attended his local Protestant prayer meetings and was a respected pillar of the community. Then the Major fell sick, and decided, in his feverish state of mind, to divulge his secret life to his fellow worshippers.
He admitted ‘crimes against man and God’, including necromancy and other supernatural activities that resulted from witchcraft. He was taken into custody, along with his sister Jean, who was his partner in these arts. Both were tried on April 9, 1670 and sentenced to death. While Jean was hanged in the Grassmarket, Major Weir was burned alive somewhere between Edinburgh and Leith. He fervently refused to repent his sins. There is a popular legend that his staff was cast into the flames after him, where it twisted and writhed due to ‘whatever incantation was in it’.
The house where Weir and his sister lived and practiced their witchcraft stands to this day, and neighbours have confirmed sightings of his ghost and strange lights from within; also the sounds of laughter and revelry – a macabre sign that ‘The Wizard of West Bow’ and his cohorts still enjoy their distractions!
With this story I was hooked. I moved to Edinburgh when I was seventeen and found out more about the history of the city. During the reign of King James VI, more ‘witches’ were put to death on Castlehill than anywhere else in Scotland. From 1590 onwards, hundreds of women were executed. Of course, it is doubtful that most of these were witches at all, and even those that were, mostly used their arts to cure illness, heal wounds, and provide the occasional love potion.
The idea of ‘black’ and ‘white’ witches can be traced back to Roman times and beyond. But James VI considered himself an expert on witchcraft, and adopted the theory that all witches had made a deliberate pact with the devil, leading to a wholesale persecution of witches. They were often accused of plotting treason and trying to bring about the King’s downfall by using black arts. I’ll tell the story of one such coven in a future post.
So far it doesn’t sound as though witches had a very happy time in Scotland! But there were plenty of places where they could practise their arts undisturbed. Abandoned ‘Kirks’ (churches) were a favoured spot. One of these is a few miles from my home. Logie Old Kirk, just outside the town of Stirling, was the meeting place for a coven in the 1700s – more on them next time…