Saturday, 19 January 2013

Orkney Witches

This article was originally published in SPIN issue 65 Winter 2012/13.

At the top of Clay Loan, amidst a housing estate and with a magnificant view over the city of Kirkwall, there is a bare patch of green land, mysteriously undeveloped (HY453104).  This is Gallowha, the site for public executions in Orkney, but unmarked as such.  A few of us have begun the process to install a small memorial to the victims of the witch-trials which mainly took place between the 1590s and the 1650s.

Most of the stories of Orkney witches and their associated witch trials date from the early seventeenth century; a period in which there was a genuine and widespread belief in the existence of witches and when no one seemed to expect God to do good in compensation.  These beliefs were fuelled by superstition, high mortality, and poor access to health care and propelled by a particularly twisted Christian theology and a judicial system that was constructed around it.

Folk beliefs and magical practices were abundant at this time and appear to have been widely practiced.  Many of the Orkney charms and rituals seem to have their counterparts with those from the rest of the British Isles and may have been imported and adapted, but Orkney has always had a close relationship with Norway and the Norse traditions also contributed.  In Norse mythology, death and disaster were caused by malevolent spiritual beings working magic against humans.  Only by working a more powerful magic could these influences be countered.  Most Norse witches used magical formulae or rituals – in the Christian period, these often including the sign of the Cross or the name of Christ.  Another influence upon the Orkney variant of witchcraft may have been the vagabonds known throughout Scotland at this time as “the Egyptians”; they were infamous for using magic to take the “profit” from other’s crops and livestock for themselves.

Witches were believed to derive their supernatural powers from the devil or from evil spirits such as the fairies, and it is this association which was the issue upon which witches were tried, whether that was in a theological or legal proceedings.  Any mysterious happenings, or coincidences, could be used to infer this relationship, or witches could have been seen in the devil’s or fairies’ company or might confess to it.

For example, Marion Richart (tried 1633) was seen with the devil “in likeness of a black man”.  And the devil apparently taught Jonet Irving (tried 1616) “if she bore ill-will to anybody” to look on them “with open eyes and pray evil for them in his name so that she should get her heart’s desire”.  Issobell Sinclair (tried 1633) was accused that during seven years “six times at the quarters of the year, she has been controlled by the fairies; and that by them, she has the second sight”.

Orkney witches were not often associated with familiars, although there are many folk stories about witches shape-shifting into cats and cats were often an integral element of a spell.  Marion Richart (as before, tried 1633) was accused of washing a cat’s head and feet in the water in which a fisherman kept his bait, then pouring this water over the man and his baskets – presumably as a spell to increase his catch. 

The main allegations against witches were causing or curing death and disease in humans and in livestock.  Some of the magical formulae, charms and rituals that were used have been preserved and many of them have actions that are carried out three times or contain a number of lines or words that are divisible by three.  This charm was for curing sprains:
Oor Saviour rade (= rode),
His foal slade (= slid);
Oor Saviour lichtit doon (= alighted).
Sinew tae sinew,
Vein tae vein,
Joint tae joint,
Bane tae bane,
                Mend du i’ Geud’s neem (= God’s name)!

Many of these charms have references to Christianity, such as this one used by Christian Gow (tried 1624) to cure a bewitched or forspoken horse:
                                                                Thrie things hath the forspoken,
                                                                Heart, tung, and eye almost;
                                                                Thrie things sall the mend agane,
                                                                Father, Sone, and Holie Ghost.

Stones, water and sea-water are often used alongside these charms.  For example, Margaret Sandieson (tried 1635) touched her patient’s head three times with each of three small stones which cured the patient.  Katherine Grant (tried 1623) pushed a distempered cow backwards into the sea until it was washed by nine surges.  Three handfuls of each wave were then washed over its back and it was brushed with a bunch of burnt malt straw.

Witches also had the power to transfer disease from person to person, person to animal, or from animal to animal.  For example, Katherine Grieve (tried 1633) took sickness from her patient and cast it onto a calf, whereupon the calf died.  Katherine Bigland (tried 1615) cast a sickness on her master, then transferred it to his servant, and then back to her master.  Cirstane Leisk (tried 1643) spread her hand over a man’s back to make him sick and repeated the action to make him well again.

Doing anything withershins or witherways was malevolent behaviour.  For example, Marion Cumlaquoy (tried c.1630) “turned herself three times witherways around the fire” in a farmer’s house and that year his crops were rotten.

Witches often used items from the deceased as a talisman or a cure.  For example, Katherine Craigie (tried 1643) used a dead woman’s snood (=a ribbon used to tie a woman’s hair) around a man’s waist to cure abdominal pain.  The same Katherine Craigie was also accused of killing Annabell Murray by binding three grasses in a knot and hiding them in a cloth.  Rarely are Orkney witches accused of using herbs although James Knarstoun (tried 1633) rubbed the arms and legs of a woman with an “oyle, made of mekillwort” (=deadly nightshade) as a cure for sciatica.

The cause and effect of magic working could be even more subtle than this as Orkney witches were believed to be able to hex and to heal simply by looking, ganting (=yawning or blowing breath) and touching.  They might also issue vague threats, sometimes quite specific ones, or loosen their hair to fortify their workings.

Many witches were believed to have second sight or the ability to see into the future.  The men of the southern island of Hoy would ask Bessie Skebister (tried 1633) if the fishing boats would come safely home or not.  There was a proverb on Hoy that “Giff Bessie say it is weill, all is weill”.  The Orkney Storm Witches, made famous by Sir Walter Scott, mainly flourished in Stromness later in the nineteenth century.

Whilst considering the type of magic being performed, a large proportion of it appears to be what Terry Pratchet would label “headology”.  It appears to consist of some basic hypnotism and suggestion, augmented by an individual’s reputation for power, and a pervading belief in the supernatural that thrived at this time.  There also seems to be an ability, or perceived ability, to transfer energies.  In such a climate, it was probably only the coincidences that gullible people remembered, the many threats that did not come to pass were probably conveniently forgotten.

But were they witches?  Possibly not in the modern sense; although there are parallels with some of the practices performed by present Pagans, the accused almost certainly would have considered themselves to be Christians, as would have almost everyone at that time.  They seem to be operating within a mental framework structured around a Christian cosmology, as evidenced by the references to Christian deity within their charms.  They may well have tried to “sell their soul” to the devil in some way, perhaps in a desperate bid for earthly power, but the charms they were using and their magical practices seem, from the trial records, to have been part of a tradition of folk magic that was in common usage – indeed, this argument is often presented as part of their “defence” at trial.

Once accused of witchcraft, a couple of witches in Orkney had “justice” meted out to them immediately by their neighbours, but usually they were tried first before a minister and a Kirk session as there was a special injunction placed upon the Kirk to seek out witches.  Civil Court was subsequently held in St Magnus Cathedral, with the accused being held in Marwick’s Hole – St Magnus Cathedral has the dubious honour of being the only cathedral in the British Isles with its own dungeon!  15 men were chosen as jurors.

Torture was used to extract confessions but the psychological stress of the judicial process and the discomfort of being held in Marwick’s Hole would probably have been enough to break anyone of a nervous disposition.  Many of the accused were brought to Kirkwall for trial from some of the remote northern islands, the whole experience for them must have been terrifying and confusing.  On some of the trial indictments are annotations such as “The panel denyet not, scho said scho was vncouth, and wist not quhat to say” (=The accused denied not, she said she was uncouth, and did not know what to say).  The only victim whose torture is known in detail is Alysoun Balfoure (tried 1594) who was accused of being involved in a plot to murder Earl Patrick Stewart.  Alysoun was kept in the caschielawes (=torture involving weights) whilst her husband, son and daughter (only aged 7) were tortured in front of her.  Most witches were sentenced to be strangled and burnt at Gallowha.

There has been some research carried out into the type of persons who were alleged to be witches in Orkney.  They were predominantly women (of the 70 known trials in Orkney, only 12 are of men), usually poor and on the margins of society, but it was not unusual for them to be married or widowed with surviving children.  Many of them were vagabonds and were labelled as “wanderer” in the Court records.  This was because some alleged witches, who had escaped a sentence of execution, perhaps on insufficient evidence, had been subsequently banished from their native county and had to survive on their wits whilst being hounded from place to place.  Perhaps it is not unreasonable that, given their lack of options, such women may have pretended to or cultivated supernatural power as their only viable means of livelihood.  Thus they would have lived by exploiting the credulous through either conferring favours for bribes or running a “protection racket”.  For example, Jonet Rendall (tried 1629) asked Gilbert Sandie for “ane plack (=sum of money) of silver in almis fra him for his mearis (=mares), that they might be weill over the year”. 

Prior to trial, these witches may even have been tolerated by their communities and been allowed to build a reputation for power, until such time as their community no longer needed them, or needed to be rid of them.  It is particularly tragic that many of those who bear witness against these women were the same people who benefitted from their healing.  Often there is a 10 to 15 year gap between the events that indict them and the trial, yet there is never any Court reference as to why there is such a long delay between the events and the accusation, there is never any questioning of the witnesses’ memories or their motivations.  The accusation, trial and execution of these victims are a direct result of a collusion of community, church and state to institutionally abuse individuals.  The accused never stood a chance.

And that is why Orkney needs a memorial to these victims of the witch-trials, not as a religious Pagan monument, nor to seek apology from any other parties, but rather to construct a positive memorial with the message of "never again" and to commemorate an important episode in Orkney's history.  Our intention is to look ahead together to teh future, in thanks that such cruelty no longer occurs at an institutional level and to mark an intention that it should never do so again.  The suggestion has been made that a fitting memorial might be a small stone ornament such as a sun dial, perhaps appropriately engraved with details of what it commemorates.  And ornament of this type would be fairly cheap to install, be unobtrusive, be decorative and useful, yet also would not be macabre or offensive, nor would it need maintenance (an important consideration given Orkney's weather!).  Symbolically too, the combination idea of sunlight as a natural positive image and time as a healer is particularly apt.  Given that we plan for it to be located in the middle of a housing estate, our intention is to be sensitive to the current residents - many of whom don't know the sad history of their little patch of grass! - and install something that will attract no more attention than, say, a memorial to the fallen of WWII currently does.  We hope, however, that some sort of inauguration ceremony might take place when the installation is first opened. 

The following sources were used as reference for this article:
Marwick E W (1991) “Northern Witches” in “An Orkney Anthology – Selected Works”. Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh
Rendall J (2012) notes taken from her lecture “The Orkney Witchcraft Trials” given as part of the “Women’s Things” Conference to mark International Women’s Day, Stromness


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  2. in short waht affect did the witch trails have on the actual village and the people, where they stubborn about it or some were kind and understanding or what

    1. Sorry for my delay in replying, William, I have found nothing on the response of the communities - although I think the executions were times when the community would come together and "party". It would appear that these women (and their practices) were often tolerated for years (10-20 years in some cases) and then suddenly, their friends and neighbours turn against them. Whether this is for economic reasons to or save themselves, I don't know. Or just some petty chance to get revenge - we can all carry a need for revenge with us for years, can't we?

  3. Fascinating. A relative of mine, Drever, was convicted of talking to the little people and sent into exile. The same judicial mindset is at work in Australia where the tyrants are enacting draconian anti-terrorism laws.

    1. Sorry for delay in replying - the witch-hunt modern equivalent in UK is against the disabled and long-term sick. We seem to always turn upon the most volunerable in society. Drever is an Orkney surname!