Witches of Brechin
While the records of 17th century witchcraft in Forfar have become the most famous records of a dark period in local history (and have been successfully marketed as such), other less known records are also fascinating.
Brechin Prebytery conducted a number of trials in 1649 and 1650. On 2nd January 1649, it heard that David Crystie had sworn on his deathbed to the minister and others 'that he thought he had gotten wrang be Marat Merchant'. Trouble between neighbours seems to have swiftly led to accusations of supernatural threats and slander, as in many other cases. Here the matter began when Marat and her husband James Clark, who lived at Balfield of Clochie, decided to leave their home at the end of their feeing time. They moved next door and the first house was given to David Crystie. Bad feeling began when they changed their min and wanted to move back to their original house, but were unable to do so. Marat allegedly made David ill by blowing in his face, and when he apologised for occupying their house, the couple shouted curses at him.
The dispute possibly led to more widespread unpopularity for the couple, fuel for their future downfall. When the local miller refused to grind the couple's corn he found that suddenly he could not lift up the millstone, not even when he enlisted the help of four others. When a man named David Bellie saw Marat grazing her sheep on his hillside, the grass dramatically caught fire and he rushed towards her. His brother, who was standing nearer Marat (and who had possibly first seen her), was frozen to the spot until David arrived.
Other accusations accumulated. Marat caused the death of cattle and sheep, sometimes by employing a magic cloth, and she caused ewe's milk to turn bloody. John Webster of Barnyards said that he saw his cows transfixed all day outside the woman's house. When David Mudie's wife left the house one day, she reminded him to let out the cows. But soon afterwards Marat came to the door and said she had come to put out the cattle. David called her a common thief, but he was struck with paralysis and unable to rise out of bed. Eight days later he died 'in a high rage'.
John Mertain, who was a herdsman in Craigendowie, Glen Lethnot, unwisely struck Marat's daughter. The witch informed him, 'Because ye have struck my daughter, I shall keep thee. You shall not thrive this year, nor win your fie.' John subsequently became careless in his work, letting the cattle feed in the cornfield, and he began striking the animals. His master beat him up and sent him away between terms, without his fee.
Marat Merchant made her confession at Menmuir on the 19th March:
1st. She confessed...that at a certyn tym, when shee was going to...
Brechin with chopins of milk, she met with the Divell in the
common muir...at the LucifersLogh, and that he lay with her their.
2nd. Confessed that the Divell bade her meet him there agan.
3rd...that he caused her renounce her baptisme, and called her by
name Jonat Archbald.
4th...that the Divell promised that at the naming of Peter and Paul
milk should come from other Kye to her Kowe's Edder.
5th...that shee practised the same by taking away John Archbald
and Thomas Trotter's kye's milk, both in the muir of Balrounie;
nixt, John Mertin and John Brand's key's milk, both in Dykehead.
6th...that shee was David Crystie's death by spitting in his face;
and when shee was askd what evil that would doe, shee answerd
much ill if ye knew it.
The seven witnesses against Elspit Gray, a suspect from Balwyllo, came before the Presbytery in September 1650. It was said that Elspit lit four fires in her barn and 'did cast sum great salt' in them as part of a magic ritual. A man who argued with her became ill and died, as did a miller who accused her of stealing. A man whom she had employed went off to work for the Laird of Dun. He afterwards suffered hot and cold flushes and someone assured him that his illness was caused by the witch roasting his image. The Prebytery was told that Elspit Gray had been under a 'reigneing brute', or demon, for twelve years.
A witch called Finlayson lived at Auchmull in Glen Esk. A Mearns man, named Robert Bruce, suspected that fatalities in his cattle were caused by her. He threatened that he would have her burnt as a witch. There were no more deaths in his herd.
Isobel Reany, of Magdalen Chapell, confessed that she had brought 'South-running watter' to Marat Forbes, but denied seeking any 'secret thing' from her in return. She was referred back to the session of Brechin. On 11th April 1649, Thomas Humball, Navar, was cited for consulting the witch Marat Gold in order to charm his animals. He was ordained to appear in the kirks of Navar and Lethnot. Isobel Fordell also consulted the same witch.
Some victims fought back. Janet Coupar complained to the Presbytery on 25th November 1649, that some people were calling her a witch. This complaint led to her destruction. She was asked if she objected to any witnesses saying anything they knew to be true: she said she did not. Isobel Kidd claimed that Janet had come to her house three years ago on Holy Rood Day (the old Celtic Beltane) and made her ill through a ritual which involved stroking her thigh. When Isobel Murison had her side stroked by the accused, her new born infant lived only a further eight days. Catherine Davidson's ale went sour, and Bessie Stiel's milk turned bloody. One witness saw 'a branded dog meet Jonat Coupar whill shee was going alongst the bridge of Brechin, and that he lap upon her, but culd not tell if shee kissed the Dog or not'. Helen Kerr also saw Janet with the dog in the same place, and heard Janet ask the beast, 'What now, gossop?' When Janet was asked who owned the dog, she replied cryptically, 'He would get a maister after noone.'
Janet Coupar was imprisoned in Brechin Gaol. When she was there, an unexplained fire broke out in her cell, which had neither hearth nor candle. A fight erupted in the town, during which some local men were injured and a soldier killed. In her confession, Janet claimed that she had known the Devil for around four years. Her first meeting with him happened when she was on her way to the mill. Catherine Skair and Catherine Walker told her to go down a certain lane, where she saw Satan and lay with him. She then went on to the mill, and on her return journey had sex with the Devil again in the same place. She affirmed that the greyhound on Brechin Bridge was actually Satan in disguise. On one occasion it followed her home and slept with her, in the guise of a man. The Devil caused her to renounce her baptism and call herself Nikkie Clerk.
Catherine Skair was brought to trial because of the confession. It was heard that, after an argument with William Young, his son died. She had cast some water from a well on a field at Careston for some, presumably magical purpose. When David Daikens shot his gun over the hear of one of Catherine's sons, she informed him that it would be a 'dair stroke to him'. He soon became ill. A woman she also bewitched became sick on the eve of the Holy Rood.
Catherine said that her familiar spirit appeared to her as a big, round-headed cat. At first she 'boasted it away'. But the creature told her, 'Let me be, ye shall not be the worse of me.' Afterwards this spirits was sometime a cat and sometimes a dog. One night as she was making her bed it appeared, 'and bade her mak that bed weill, and I and ye must lye in it this night'. But a soldier came to the house and the spirit disappeared for three or four nights. When she eventually slept with the demon she found it very cold. She stated that she fed it in her kitchen with bread and drops of milk.
When an ex-soldier, John Tullo, stayed in the house and lent Catherine and her husband £100, they refused to pay it back when Tullo asked for it. The familiar spirit appeared and instructed her to kill the man with 'plumb Damouses' and sugar. Tullo died and the couple kept his money, less the £10 it cost to bury him. The obliging demon also provided Catherine with money. In her confession, Catherine named several 'wyse folk' in her area.
Another accused woman was Catherine Lyall, whose supposed crimes generally follow the pattern of the others: she caused the death of a woman and a horse; a cow produced bad milk at her bidding; the Mill of Dun burned down through her supernatural ill-will. But the most remarkable thing about her case was the sinking of Thomas Scott's ship. A woman named Isobel Simpson saw Catherine on the winter day when the vessel left port. She was sitting within the tidemark - a notorious supernatural border region, being neither land nor sea - and she was staring hard at the waves. When Isobel and her companion enquired what she was doing, Catherine said that she was keeping sheep. This bizarre statement takes a while to comprehend, and is not otherwise explained in the testimony. What could Catherine have meant? To my knowledge, there is no recorded Scottish supernatural tradition explaining why sheep should be living in the sea. But there is a tantalising connection, further down the coast past Dundee, where the famous and prophetic Goors of Gowrie, standing stones which somehow ended up in the River Tay at Invergowrie, had the alternative name of the Yowes - Ewes - of Gowrie. Tradition said that these stones got nearer to land each year.
Catherine was seen again on the shore when a crowd had gathered to watch Alexander Reid bring back Thomas Scott's new ship. Asked what she was doing, Catherine commented, to their confusion, that she was keeping sheep. Shortly afterwards, the ship foundered, drowning everyone on board. Catherine confessed that she had sunk the ship, and said that Satan, the 'Foull Thief', visited her. Her gripped her body unkindly, causing her to pull away from his embrace. When she was asked by officials how a human and a spirit could co-join, she answered that she was strong in nature. In her confession, Catherine also implicated other witches.
The last witch to appear at this time in Brechin Presbytery records was Catherine Walker. It was recorded that she had kicked a man named Beattie in the groin and he afterwards died. Another man received similar treatment, then a child and some cattle also perished. While she was held in prison, a guard stated that she had stared into a corner of her cell and muttered a spell: 'Here I cast a compass, there I cast a compass.' The Devil appeared to her there and lulled her gently to sleep.
Catherine knew that a confession meant her death and she vowed to her friends that she would never give one. She swore that, if she was executed, some people in Brechin would suffer greatly two days later. She remarked, reasonably, that some townsfolk were like swine and should be locked up in prison with her. Several witnesses swore that her prayers brought an infection to the town. One man spoke vaguely that he had seen Satan with her, shaped either like a cat or a dog.
It is highly likely that most, if not all of these women were tortured and killed, though several others examined sometimes survived. One woman, named Janet Sym, had her case examined by a committee who reported that the evidence against her was insufficient. None of the Glen Esk charmers seem to have suffered the ultimate penalty.