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As you step into your costume this Hallow’s Eve spare a thought for the poor souls accused of witchcraft in centuries gone past...

From The Mitchell Library’s occult section on the 4th Floor, read about the prominent part King James VI played in one of the most notorious witch trials in Scotland: the North Berwick Trials of 1590. Or uncover the gruesome details of how the ‘confession’ of Agnes Tompson was extracted. It relates how 200 witches met with the Devil on Hallowe’en1589. Their instructions? Throw a cat he had baptised into the sea and create a storm to wreck the king's ship as he returned from Denmark with his new wife, Anne. These strange tales of witchcraft can be found in Scottish witches and wizards.

Our Special Collections department on Level 5 holds material relating to the Bargarran Witches (see below), including a contemporary manuscript of the trial itself (and a transcript for those who don’t read Old English). There is also a copy, published in 1924, of King James VI's, Daemonologie (1597) book on witchcraft in our Edwin Morgan collection and a rare first edition of The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, which so outraged King James VI that he ordered every copy destroyed.

And you can take a look at original confessions held within the archives (also on level 5). The documents describe how several women sold their soul to the Devil ("the blake man...with black cloths and white handcuffs") to practice sorcery against Sir George Maxwell of Pollok. He became dangerously ill during the winter of 1676-7 and a clay figure impaled by pins was found at the home of one of the accused. The punishment for witchcraft at this time was death and five of the group were burned for their crime.


Bargarran Witches

Witchcraft was a crime punishable by death in Scotland from 1563 until 1735 with the last execution in 1727. Bargarran now is a small suburb near Erskine in Renfrewshire but in 1696, it was the centre of a witch hunt. At the centre of this was Christian Shaw, the 11 year old daughter of John Shaw, the Laird of Bargarran. During one of her 'turns', which began suddenly on 22nd August 1696, she would throw herself on the floor in contortions, acting as though she had completley taken leave of her senses. During the strange attacks she appeared deaf, mute and blind. But the most alarming symptom of all was that she vomited during her fits items including hay, small animal bones, hair, coal, candles and pins. She was diagnosed as having 'hypochondriac melancholy' and she was treated for such with little result. It was remarked that Miss Shaw appeared to have been bewitched and deduced that there must be an enemy within, living in the household.

The Shaws determined that it was a young maid called Catherine Campbell who had cursed Christian. The Laird turned to the minister of Erskine who brought up the case at a meeting of the Paisley Presbytery on 30th December, 1696 and the result was a far reaching witch hunt. Questioned closely, Christian named names, people employed by her father, those who had scolded or complained about her. Imprisoned, tortured, sleep-deprived and shaven-headed (in the case of the women) they implicated others. Witch pickers became involved and in due course, 21 people were brought to trial in Paisley, before a Special Commission of 17 judges. Of the accused, 14 were declared not guilty and released but seven, including Catherine Campbell, were condemned to be burned at the stake on Paisley's Gallow Green on 10th June 1697. Their number was reduced to six, after one committing suicide in his cell. It is probable that Christian Shaw was a witness to the burning of the witches as her symptoms cleared up on 28th March 1697. The question remains if she was suffering from a form of epilepsy or truly believed she was bewitched. 

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