Witchcraft and the Kirk.


By the Rev. R. Wilkins Rees.


For centuries belief in witchcraft was an article of faith with dour and brooding Scots. The Scot was made by Scotland; the country stamped an indelible impress on every characteristic of its inhabitants. With much truth it has been said, “From the cradle to the grave the Scotch peasant went his way attended by the phantoms of this mysterious world; always recognising its warnings, always seeing the shadows which it cast of coming events, and so burdening himself with a weight of grim and eëry superstition, that we marvel he did not stumble and grow faint, seeing that his dreary Calvinistic creed could have brought him little hope or comfort. Nay, it is a question whether his superstition did not partly grow out of, or was fostered by, his hard, cold religion. Superstition is the shadow of Religion, and from the shadow we may infer the nature of the substance or object that casts it.”

There are traditions concerning witchcraft, even earlier than that of the fourth century which credits his Satanic Majesty with such a hatred of St. Patrick’s sterling piety that he roused the whole tribe of witches against him. St. Patrick fled from the determined assault, and finding, near the mouth of the Clyde, a boat, set off in haste for Ireland. But running water being ever an insuperable barrier in the path of a witch’s progress, these emissaries of Satan tore up a huge rock and hurled it after the departing saint. With the proverbial inaccuracy of feminine aim they missed their mark, but the mass itself ultimately became the fortress of Dumbarton. In those early days the marvels of witchcraft were great and many—Holinshed, among others, has chronicled the same—and, at the close of the seventh century, King Kenneth, fearful of his own safety and the stability of his throne, decreed that jugglers, wizards, necromancers, and such as call up spirits, “and use to seek upon them for helpe, let them be burnt to death.”

That persons accused of witchcraft suffered death is unquestionably true, as in the cases of the Earl of Mar in 1479, and Lady Janet Douglas in 1537, the executions of whom are foul blots on the pages of history. But it can hardly be said that it was witchcraft as an offence against religion or as mere superstition that was so punished. It was rather witchcraft in its political bearings—generally, in fact, as connected with treason and not with sorcery—that received condemnation.

But with the advent of Calvinism—the natural turn of the Scottish nation for metaphysical discussion induced them to receive the doctrines of the Reformation with general interest and favour—it would seem that the “crime” of witchcraft was looked upon in a somewhat different light. In 1563 the Scottish Parliament by statute, for which John Knox was a chief agitator, formally constituted witchcraft and dealing with witches a capital offence. “That all who used witchcraft, sorcery, necromancy, or pretended skill therein, and all consulters of witches and sorcerers, should be punished capitally” (Erskine’s “Institutes,” p. 706). And henceforth the irreligion of witchcraft caused it to be regarded as an offence against the law of the country, and the Kirk and its connections played an important part in the stern measures adopted for its suppression, doing their work with resolute determination and fanatical zeal. The authority of the ministry was great; its influence preponderated. Its friends were the allies, its opponents the enemies, of heaven. The theocracy which the clergy asserted on behalf of the Kirk was not so distinctly understood, or so prudently regulated, but that its administrators too often interfered with the civil rule. Old Mellvin’s words were suggestive of much when, grasping King James the Sixth’s sleeve, he told him that in Scotland there were two kingdoms—that in which he was acknowledged monarch, and that in which kings and nobles were but God’s silly vassals; and the clergy were but too apt to assert the superiority of the latter, which was visibly governed by the assembly of the Kirk in the name of their unseen and omnipotent Head. To disobey the king might be high treason, but to disobey the kirk, acting in the name of the Deity, was a yet deeper crime, and was to be feared as incurring the wrath which is fatal both to body and soul. With severity the Presbyterian teachers inflicted church penances, and with rigour they assumed dominion over the laity in all cases in which religion could be possibly alleged as a motive or pretext, that is to say, in almost all cases whatever.

Led by their clergy, and believing fully as they did in the literal interpretation of all Biblical imagery and the personal appearances of the devil, the people of Scotland waged a fierce unresting war against a great number of ill-fated individuals, whose only ground for being attacked was some physical or mental peculiarity, or who suffered simply because of the malice or ignorance of their accusers. At one time, stupid justices, instigated by foolish clergymen, consigned to torture and the stake almost every old woman dragged before them, even though brought only by the spite of malicious neighbours. In his preface to the Bibliotheque de Carabas edition of Robert Kirk’s “Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies,” Mr Andrew Lang says: “Some of the witches who suffered at Presbyterian hands were merely narrators of popular tales about the state of the dead. That she trafficked with the dead, and from a ghost won a medical recipe for the cure of Archbishop Adamson of St. Andrews, was the charge against Alison Pearson.... ‘She was execut in Edinbruche for a witch.’” On several occasions, commissions were issued by King James for the purpose of “haulding Justice Courtis on Witches and Sorceraris.” The commissioners gave warrants in their turn to the minister and elders of each parish in the shire to examine suspected parties and to frame an indictment against them. And as a rule the accused were overwhelmed by a huge heap of rumoured or concocted evidence, composed of exaggeration, prejudice, and credulity, wellnigh incredible. Even Sir George Mackenzie, Lord Advocate of Scotland during the time of the greatest fury, admitted the indiscretion of ministerial zeal, and recommended that the wisest ministers should be chosen, and that those selected should proceed with caution. “I own,” says the Rev. John Bell, Minister of the Gospel at Gladsmuir, in his MS., “Discourse of Witchcraft,” 1705, “there has been much harm done to worthy and innocent persons in the common way of finding out witches, and in the means made use of for promoting the discovery of such wretches, and bringing them to justice; that oftentimes old age, poverty, features, and ill fame, with such like grounds, not worthy to be represented to a magistrate, have yet moved many to suspect and defame their neighbours, to the unspeakable prejudice of Christian charity; a late instance whereof we had in the west, in the business of the sorceries exercised upon the Laird of Bargarran’s daughter, anno 1697, a time when persons of more goodness and esteem than most of their calumniators were defamed for witches, and which was occasioned mostly by the forwardness and absurd credulity of diverse otherwise worthy ministers of the gospel, and some topping professors in and about the city of Glasgow.”

In the last forty years of the sixteenth century, we have the astounding aggregate of no less than eight thousand persons who suffered, almost invariably by burning, for witchcraft. For about the first decade, not more, perhaps, than forty were so punished in a year, but towards the close of the period alluded to, the annual death-roll probably reached five hundred. The total number of victims, strange to say, represented even a larger proportion than those of the Holy Office, during a corresponding space of time. That during one period the Kirk should have been more disposed to kindle the pile than was the Inquisition, is, without doubt, a startling fact.

For a time, at any rate, the population seemed divided into only two great classes, witches and witchfinders. The dark tales of witchcraft were not even relieved by fairy folk-lore. There was, perhaps, no little truth in what Cleland said in his “Effigies Clericorum,” when he attributed the disappearance of Scottish fairies to the Reformation. In writing of Parnassus, he proceeds:—

“There’s als much virtue, sense, and pith,
In Annan, or the Water of Nith,
Which quietly slips by Dumfries,
Als any water in all Greece.
For there, and several other places,
About mill-dams, and green brae faces,
Both Elrich elfs and brownies stayed,
And green-gown’d fairies daunc’d and played:
When old John Knox, and other some,
Began to plott the Haggs of Rome;
Then suddenly took to their heels,
And did no more frequent these fields;
But if Rome’s pipes perhaps they hear,
Sure, for their interest they’ll compear
Again, and play their old hell’s tricks.”

As far as fairydom survived, however, it was regarded as under the same guilt as witchcraft.

The harsh forbidding creed of the Kirk had its influence in every direction; and music, instrumental at any rate, fell under its ban. During the sway of the Covenant, indeed, the Scottish minstrels were popularly supposed to be under the special care and protection of the devil. The Reverend Robert Kirk, author of the “Secret Commonwealth,” attributed certain impressions produced by music to diabolical influence. “Irishmen,” says he, “our northern Scottish, and our Athole men are so much addicted to, and delighted with harps and musick, as if, like King Saul, they were possessed with a forrein sport; only with this difference, that musick did put Saul’s play-fellow asleep, but roused and awaked our men, vanquishing their own spirits at pleasure as if they were impotent of its powers, and unable to command it; for wee have seen some poor beggars of them chattering their teeth for cold, that how soon they saw the fire, and heard the harp, leap thorow the house like goats and satyrs.” Without enlarging on the subject, may we not conclude that such an estimate of instrumental music as became common, especially in Covenanting days, had much to do with the prolonged antipathy of the Kirk to its introduction in worship?

But the Presbyterians went even further than this. At one time they declared that the bishops were cloven-footed and had no shadows, and that the curates themselves were, many of them, little better than wizards. The Episcopalians seem to have been regarded by the Presbyterians with little more favour than the Red Indians were by the early Puritan settlers in America. The extraordinary story of Salem witchcraft shows us that the Puritan clergy assured their people that the Red Indians were worshippers and agents of Satan; and we can but faintly imagine the effect of this belief on the minds and tempers of those who were thinking of the Indians at every turn of daily life. The common people, always susceptible to exaggeration, had been preached into such a holy hatred of popery that they saw its type and shadow in everything which approached even to decency in worship; so that, as a satirist expressed it, they thought it impossible they could ever lose their way to heaven, provided they left Rome behind them.

On the other hand, John Knox was deemed a skilful wizard by the Catholics in Scotland; it was even said that in the churchyard of St. Andrews he raised Satan himself, wearing a huge pair of horns on his head, at which blood-curdling sight Knox’s secretary became insane and died. And in old Kirkton’s “Secret and True History,” in his picturesque account of the curious scene which was witnessed in Lithgow upon the anniversary of the King’s restoration, we see that the Episcopal party lost no favourable opportunity of turning the tables on their opponents. In the pageant they had an arch, in the midst of which was a litany:

“‘From Covenants with uplifted hands,
From Remonstrators with associate bands,
From such Committees as govern’d this nation,
From Church Commissioners and their protestation,
Good Lord deliver us.’

“They hade also the picture of Rebellion in religious habit, with the book Lex Rex in one hand, and the causes of God’s wrath in the other, and this in midst of rocks, and reels, and kirk stools, logs of wood, and spurs, and covenants, acts of assembly, protestations, with this inscription, ‘Rebellion is the Mother of Witchcraft.’”

But Episcopacy was abhorrent to the people generally. A contemporary writer—a Presbyterian—candidly remarks, “I have known some profane people that, if they committed an error over night, thought affronting a curate to-morrow a testimony of their repentance.” This religious animosity had no doubt much to do with the belief that witchcraft was common among the Episcopalian clergy. The Reverend James Kirkton (before alluded to), a true son of the Kirk, writing at that time gravely relates, amongst several similar accusations, that one Gideen Penman said grace at the devil’s table as his chaplain; that one Thomson, the curate of Anstruther, was a “diabolic man,” the wench who bore a lantern in front, as he returned from a visit, “affirming that she saw something like a black beast pass the bridge before him;” and that the hated Archbishop Sharp, when assassinated, had “several strange things,” and, in particular, “parings of nails,” about his person. Archbishop Sharp was also charged with entertaining “the muckle black Deil” in his study at midnight, and of being “levitated” and dancing in the air; and of Archbishop Adamson, men of learning like James, nephew and companion of Andrew Melville, believed that, as in the case of other witches, he had a familiar in the form of a hare, which once ran before him down the street.

It is a curious circumstance, as Pitcairn in his “Criminal Trials” points out, that in almost all the confessions of Scottish witches, their initiation and many of their gatherings were said to have taken place within churches, or at least the surrounding ground, and a certain derisive form of service was carried out. James VI. of Scotland and I. of England was, in the matter of witches, undoubtedly the greatest royal expert that ever lived. His famous dialogue, “Dæmonologie,” in which he carefully classifies witches, describes their ceremonials, and details their various characteristics, did much to encourage popular credulity and the spirit of persecution. “Witches,” he affirms, “ought to be put to death, according to the laws of God, the civil and imperial law, and the municipal law of all Christian nations; yea, to spare the life, and not strike whom God bids strike, and so severely punish so odious a treason against God, is not only unlawful, but, doubtless, as great a sin as was Saul’s sparing Agag.” He even contended that, because the crime was generally abominable, evidence in proof might be received which would be rejected in other offences, and that the only means of escape to be offered was through the ordeal. If we only remember that Luther said he would burn every one of them, urging that there must be witches because the Bible says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” we shall wonder less at the credulity of the witch-hunting king.

The principal witch cases and trials in Scotland may be said to date from the conspiracy of devils to prevent James’s union with the Princess Anne of Denmark. “An overwhelming tempest at sea during the voyage of these anti-papal, anti-diabolic, royal personages was the appointed means of their destruction.” To describe the trial of those who were implicated as the human agents, even though it may be one of the most extraordinary and weirdly fascinating stories in the annals of Scottish witchcraft, would be beyond the scope of this article; it is fully related in an exceedingly scarce black-letter pamphlet—“Newes from Scotland, declaring the damnable Life of Doctor Fian, a notable Sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Januarie last, 1591; which Doctor was Register to the Devill, that sundry times preached at North-Baricke Kirke to a number of notorious Witches, &c.” It may be noted, however, that “Agnis Sampson, which was the elder witch,” at last confessed, “before the king’s majestie and his councell,” “that upon the night of Allhollon-Even, shee was accompanied, as well with the persons aforesaide, as also with a great many other witches, to the number of two hundreth, and that all they together went to sea, each one in a riddle, or cive, and went in the same very substantially, with flaggons of wine, making merrie and drinking by the way in the same riddles, or cives, to the kirke of North-Barrick, in Lowthian, and that after they had landed, tooke handes on the lande, and daunced this reill, or short daunce, singing all with one voice:—

‘Commer, goe ye before, commer, goe ye;
Gif ye will not goe before, commer, let me!’

At which time shee confessed, that this Geillis Duncane (another of those charged) did goe before them, playing this reill or daunce uppon a small trumpe, called a Jewe’s trumpe, untill they entered into the Kerk of North-Barrick.

“These confessions made the king in a wonderful admiration, and sent for the saide Geillis Duncane, who, upon the like trumpe, did play the saide daunce before the kinges majestie, who, in respect of the strangeness of these matters, tooke great delight to be present at their examinations. Item, the said Agnis Sampson confessed that the divell being then at North Barrick Kirke, attending their comming, in the habit or likenesse of a man, and seeing that they tarried over long, hee at their comming enjoyned them all to a penance ... and having made his ungodly exhortations, wherein he did greatly inveigh against the King of Scotland, he received their oathes for their good and true service towards him, and departed; which done, they returned to sea and so home again.

“At which time the witches demanded of the divell, why he did beare such hatred to the king? who answered, by reason the king is the greatest enemie hee hath in the world.”

Spottiswoode also tells a fantastic story in connection with this Agnes Sampson, Dr John Fian, Geillie Duncan, and others, meeting the devil at North Berwick kirk, of black candles round about the pulpit, of the devil calling the roll and preaching a sermon, and of the rifling of three graves for magical cookery. Of Francis, Earl of Bothwell, who was accused of being associated with Dr Fian in his magical conspiracy against the king, and who was also imprisoned for having conspired the king’s death by sorcery, we have this note attached to a curious discourse, from Mr Robert Bruce’s Sermons, preached at Edinburgh, November 9th, 1589—“At the which time the Earle Bothwell made his publicke repentance in the church.” It will not be forgotten that, in “Tam o’ Shanter,” Burns depicts a witches’ meeting in Alloway Kirk:—

“A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.—
Coffins stood round like open presses,
That show’d the dead in their last dresses;
And by some devilish cantraip sleight
Each in its cauld hand held a light.”

As typical of the evidence afforded by parochial inquisitions, and on which death sentences were based, the following may be taken:—

“Isabel Roby.—She is indicted to have bidden her gudeman, when he went to St. Fergus to buy cattle, that if he bought any before his home-coming, he should go three times ‘woodersonis’ about them, and then take three ‘ruggis’ off a dry hillock, and fetch home to her. Also, that dwelling at Ardmair, there came in a poor man craving alms, to whom she offered milk, but he refused it, because, as he then presently said, she had three folks’ milk and her own in the pan; and when Elspet Mackay, then present, wondered at it, he said, ‘Marvel not, for she has thy farrow kye’s milk also in her pan.’ Also, she is commonly seen in the form of a hare, passing through the town, for as soon as the hare vanishes out of sight, she appears.”

“Margaret Rianch, in Green Cottis, was seen in the dawn of the day by James Stevens embracing every nook of John Donaldson’s house three times, who continually thereafter was diseased, and at last died. She said to John Ritchie, when he took a tack (a piece of ground) in the Green Cottis, that his gear from that day forth should continually decay, and so it came to pass. Also, she cast a number of stones in a tub, amongst water, which thereafter was seen dancing. When she clips her sheep, she turns the bowl of the shears three times in her mouth. Also, James Stevens saw her meeting John Donaldson’s ‘hoggs’ (sheep a year old) in the burn of the Green Cottis, and casting the water out between her feet backward, in the sheep’s face, and so they all died.”

These charges were considered sufficient by the Presbytery of Kincardine, and were duly signed by “Mr Jhone Ros, Minister at Lumphanan.”

The following, under date February 8th, 1719, will, however, more clearly illustrate the manner in which an accused person was examined by Kirk authority:—

“The said day, Mr William Innes, minister of Thurso, having interrogat Margaret Nin-Gilbert, who was apprehended Fryday last, on suspicion of witchcraft, as follows:—1mo, Being interrogat, If ever there was any compact between her and the devil? Confessed, That as she was travelling some time bygone, in ane evening, the devill met with her in the way in the likeness of a man, and engaged her to take on with him, which she consented to; and that she said she knew him to be the devil or he parted with her. 2do, Being interrogat, If ever the devil appeared afterwards to her? Confessed, That sometimes he appeared in the likeness of a great black horse, and other times riding on a black horse, and that he appeared sometimes in the likeness of a black cloud, and sometimes like a black henn. 3to, Being interrogat, If she was in the house of William Montgomerie, mason in the Burnside of Scrabster, especially on that night when that house was dreadfully infested with severall catts, to that degree that W. M. foresaid was obliged to use sword, durk, and ax in beating and fraying away these catts? Confessed, That she was bodily present yr, and that the said M. had broke her legg either by the durk or ax, which legg since has fallen off from the other part of her body; and that she was in the likeness of a feltered cat, night forsaid, in the said house; and that Margaret Olsone was there in the likeness of a catt also, who, being stronger than she, did cast her on Montgomerie’s durk when her legg was broken. 4to, Being interrogat, How she could be bodily present and yet invisible? Declares, She might have been seene, but could give no account by what means her body was rendered invisible. She declares, that severall other women were present there that night in the other end of the house. Being interrogat, How they came not to be seene, seeing they were not there in the likeness of catts, as were others condescended on? Declares, The devil did hide and conceall them by raising a dark mist or fog to skreen them from being seen.... 6to, Being interrogat, What brought her and her accomplices to Montgomerie’s house? Answered, They were doing no harm there. To which Mr Innes replyed, that the disturbing and infesting a man’s house with hideous noises, and cryes of catts, was a great wrong done to him, having a natural tendency to fright the family and children. The premisses are attested to be the ingenuous confession of Margaret Nin-Gilbert, alias Gilbertson, by William Innes, minister of Thurso.... Nota, That upon a vulgar report of witches having the devil’s marks in their bodies, Margaret Olsone being tryed in the shoulders, where there were severall small spots, some read, some blewish, after a needle was driven in with great force almost to the eye, she felt it not. Mr Innes and Mr Oswald, ministers, were witnesses to this.” In another case it is recorded that “Mr John Aird, minister, put a prin in the accused’s shoulder (where she carries the devill’s mark) up to the heid, and no bluid followed theiron, nor she shrinking thereat.”

The foregoing “dittay,” conjointly with the confessions of so many of the accused, inevitably prompts the anxious question—how could it be that these persons declared themselves guilty of an impossible offence when the admission must have sealed their doom? The assumption that the victim preferred being killed at once to living on, subject to suspicion, insult, and ill-will, under the imputation of having dealt with the devil, cannot here, any more than in the astounding cases recorded in connection with Salem witchcraft, cover anything like the whole ground. There can be little doubt now that the sufferers under nervous disturbances, the subjects of abnormal conditions, found themselves in possession of strange faculties, and thought themselves able to do new and wonderful things. When urged to explain how it was, they perhaps could only suppose that it was by some “evil spirit,” and except where there was an intervening agency to be named, the only supposition was that the intercourse between the Evil Spirit and themselves was direct. It is impossible, as an Edinburgh Reviewer has remarked, even now to witness the curious phenomena of somnambulism and catalepsy without a keen sense of how natural and even inevitable it was for similar subjects of the middle ages and in Puritan times to believe themselves ensnared by Satan, and actually endowed with his gifts, and to confess their calamity, as the only relief to their scared and miserable minds. It would also seem as though some of these unfortunate women credited themselves with certain powers because others so credited them, and believed that they could perform deeds of witchcraft because their neighbours declared they could.

But let us turn again to the Kirk Session Records, than which we can find no better sources of information. During the years 1649-1650, for instance, the witch fires seemed never to have ceased burning. In the Lowlands one, John Kincaid, and another, George Cathie, were expert searchers. In 1650 the Presbytery of Biggar called on the Presbytery of Haddington, as well as the civil power, to secure Cathie’s services whenever they were required. In 1649 John Kincaid received from the minister and elders of Stowe for the “broding of Margret Durham, 6lb.” His colleage Cathie once condemned as witches twelve people in Crauford-Douglas on the evidence of a lunatic.

And here are a few significant extracts from the Tyninghame Kirk Session Records:—“January 11, 1629.—This day James Fairlie preichit, the minister being at Edinr., at comand of the presbiterie, to assist Mr Js. Home, minister at Dunbar, anent the tryall of ane woman suspect of witchcraft in the parish of Dunbar—viz., Issbell Yong, in Eist Barns.” She was accused of both inflicting and curing diseases, and was burnt for witchcraft. “17 September 1649.—Janet Nicolson execut and brunt at Hails for witchcraft. 25 November.—Item: According to the ordinance, he intimate out of the pulpit if any had any delations against Agnes Raleigh, in East Barns, suspect of witchcraft, and apprehendit there for that, they come to the session of Dunbar upon Tysday, or the presbyterie on Thursday next. On Monday the witches at Wittinghame brunt, being three in number. 9 December.—Intimation maid from the pulpit anent Patrick Yorston and Christian Yorston, in Wittinghame, if any in this parish either knew or have any delations against both or either of them, that they show it to the kirk-session. 6 January 1650.—Some of our pepell confronted with some witches in Prestonkirk parish. 13 January.—The minister demandit the elders if they knew of any suspect of witchcraft, and shew them that they were to search diligentlie such as are delated be the witches at Prestonkirk parish, when the searchers cam. Upon Tysday ane man in Wittinghame brunt for witchcraft. Upon Wednesday, the 23 of January, six people at Staintoune parish brunt. 3 February.—Item: Reported that the searchers of the witches were not yet returned from the southe, and in the meantime that Agnes Kirkland and David Stewart shall be apprehendit. On Thursday Agnes Kirkland and David Stewart, bothe of this parish, were imprisoned. Wednesday.—I (the minister) went to Dunbar, being ordained thairto, whair ten witches were execut.

“10 February.—This day the session sett doon orders aboot the watching of those that are apprehendit for witchcraft nichtlie, appointing ane roll of all the parishe to be taken up and six to watch everie nicht, and twa everie day thair, tyme aboot in order, qlk accordinglie was done. Upon the 20 of February the searcher in Tranent cam and found the mark on those that were suspect of witchcraft, and shortlie thairafter they confessit. 3 Mairch.—Item: Ordains the watch to be keipit preceisely, and ane elder to watch everie nicht in turn with them, qlk they did, and promeisit to continue. The minister shew his diligence in going to those suspect of witchcraft, both in the day and nicht-time, in examining of them, and in praying for them, both privatelie and publiklie, and performing all the other duties recognisit or practised in such cases, qlk the session heartilie and unanimouslie acknowledge and approved. Upon Tysday, the 1st Mairch, the pepell given up be Agnes Kirkland and David Stewart, both in this parish and Prestonkirk parish, confronted with them, and did pass from some and stand by others. 29 Mairch.—Appoints the watch to be better keipit, qlk they promeisit to do. 31 Mairch.—Item: Because the commission anent the witches was not as yet come, it was thocht gude to have ane cair of them still. The elders shew it was hard to get pepell to watch all the day, albeit the watch was preceisly keipit all the nicht; and thairfor it behoved them to tak something out of the box, or rather to borrow it, to give to some wha had watched this eight days byegane—viz., Robert Nisbet and George Ker, given to them 3lbs., and efter the burning of the witches. 7 April.—Item: The minister shew to the elders anent David Stewart and Agnes Kirkland, that now the commission to put them to assize had come eist to our hands, and that some that were appointed and put in the same did meet heir on Setterday, and appointed all things to be done, and in what manner; and Tysday next to be the day wherin to put them to an assize; and thairfor to appoint the watch to be well observed this twa nichts to come, and all the elders and honest men to be present on Tysday, wherunto they consentit. 9, Tysday, 1650.—David Stewart and Agnes Kirkland were execut. 14 April.—George Shorthous intromits with what belongs to Agnes Kirkland; promeisit to the session 12lbs. out of Agnes Kirkland’s readiest gudes and gear, and find the box lykwys, if by any means he culd.” There is no necessity to add anything to the ghastly simplicity of such sentences as these.

The expenses incurred in these matters by the Kirk cannot be considered trifling. There are significant entries like the following: “21 July 1661.—Given for candle to watch the witch, 11s.;” but much fuller statements are also given. In 1633 two poor victims, “William Coke and Alison Dick, witches,” were burned, as the Kirk Session Records testify, on the sands at Kirkcaldy. And in connection with that event these were the “Extraordinary Disbursements”:—

In primusTo Mr John Millar when he went to Prestoun for a man to try them,  £2  7  0
 To the man of Culross when he went away the first time,  0  12  0
Item—For cales for the witches,  1  4  0
Item—For purchasing the commission,  0  3  0
Item—For one to go to Finmouth for the Laird to sit upon their assize as judge,  0  6  0
Item—For harden to be jumps to them,  3  10  0
Item—For making of them,  0  6  0
 Summa, Kirk’s part,  £17  10  0
In primusFor 10 loads of coal to burn them,  £3  6  8
Item—For a tar barrel,  0  14  0
Item—For towes,  0  6  0
Item—To him that brought the executioner,  2  18  0
Item—To the executioner for his pains,  8  14  0
Item—For his expenses here,  0  16  4
Item—For one to go to Finmouth for the Laird,  0  6  0
 Summa, Toun’s part,  £17    0

The other items, the cost of which would bring the “Summa, Kirk’s part,” to £17, 10s., are not supplied.

The severity with which the witches were sometimes treated during imprisonment is sufficiently indicated by the following entries, 1597:—

Item.To Alexander Reid, smyth, for twa pair of scheckellis to the Witches in the Stepill, xxxiish.
Item.To John Justice, for burning upon the cheik of four seurerall personis suspect of witchcraft and baneschit, xxvish. viiid.
Item.Givin to Alexander Home, for macking of joggis, stapillis, and lockis to the witches, during the haill tyme forsaid, xlvish. viiid.
 Expense on witches, aucht-score,xliili. xviish. iiiid.

It could not be supposed that ministers, who were so zealous in attacking witchcraft, would be permitted by the supernatural powers to go scot-free. In the evidence given in the Mohra witch commission, held in Sweden in 1670, the minister of the district testified that having been suffering from a painful headache, he could account for the unusual severity of the attack only by supposing that the witches had celebrated one of their infernal dances upon his head while asleep in bed; and one of them, in accordance with this conjecture, acknowledged that the devil had sent her with a sledgehammer to drive a nail into the temples of the obnoxious clergyman, but the hardness of his skull mercifully saved him. And in Scotland the Renfrewshire witches were charged with roasting the effigy of a Rev. Mr Hardy, after having dipped it into a decoction composed of ale and water; while, in 1622, one of the accusations against Margaret Wallace, burnt for witchcraft, was “that being conveined before the Kirk Session of Glasco 5 or 6 years since, by Mr Archibald Glen, minister at Carmunnock, for killing Robert Muir, his good brother, by witchcraft; she, to be revenged, laid on him ane uncouth sickness, whereof the said Mr Archibald, sweating, died; to which it was answered, that in truth the said Mr Archibald died of a consumption of his lights.” In a curious sheet, “Endorism, or a strange Relation of Dreamers or Spirits that trouble the Minister’s House of Kinross,” we read how a minister was molested in 1718. For some time “they could eat no meat but what was full of pins”; “a stone thrown down the chimney wambled a space in the floor, and then took a flight out at the window. Also there was thrown in the fire the minister’s Bible, which would not burn; but a plate and two silver spoons thrown in, melted immediately; also what bread is fired, were the meal never so fine, it’s all made useless; and many other things, which are both needless and sinful to mention. Now, is it not very sad that such a good and godly family should be so molested, that employ their time no other way but by praying, reading, and serious meditation, while others, who are wicked livers all their lifetime, and avowedly serve that wicked one, are never troubled.”

And let it not be inferred that Kirk Sessions were, without exception, quick to condemn. We find in the records of the Kirk Session at Eastwood that a woman, who was delated for using charms at Hallow-even and who confessed, was sentenced to be rebuked before the congregation; and in the records of Lanark Presbytery (1630), that another woman, charged with consulting with charmers and “burying a child’s clothes betwixt three lairds’ lands for health,” was saved by penitence from punishment. And sometimes the consideration of cases, far more serious than these in the eyes of the grave Kirk Session, was wisely postponed, and postponed for ever, for we hear no more of the matter.

But in 1735 the reaction, which had long made itself felt, found something like adequate expression in the repeal of the statutes against witchcraft, and, notwithstanding the action of such as the Seceders from the Established Church of Scotland, who inveighed against this repeal as iniquitous, prosecutions for witchcraft entirely ceased. These “Seceders,” who claimed to be the real representatives of the Church’s teaching, were so offended that, in the annual Confession of National and Personal Sins, printed in an act of their Associate Presbytery at Edinburgh, 1743, the Penal Statutes against witches are specially mentioned as having been repealed by Parliament, contrary to the express Law of God!

And with this reference the consideration of witchcraft and the Kirk may conveniently and appropriately end.