« PreviousContinue »
previously to suffer twelve months' imprisonment, and every fourteen days each of them was to be taken from prison, stripped naked to the waist, and flogged by the common hangman at five different places, all duly set forth, in the streets of Paisley, the younger prisoner in addition to be burnt on the face. The flogging in this case was officially authorised to be administered with “a lash of small cords, consisting of five lashes knit at the ends.” For the sake of humanity, one is glad to be able to state that not even a hangman could be found to carry out the merciless decree, and the prisoners were liberated on promising to banish themselves from the county, Thanks to that progress of knowledge based on experience which has led in modern times to the necessity of tempering justice with mercy and punishment with decency, it is no longer necessary to rely on the sensitive feelings of the common executioner for avoiding such outrages on nature.
THE RENFREWSHIRE WITCHES.
In his now forgotten play of “The Drummer," Addison unconsciously anticipates by way of a joke a sentiment which a few years later than his time continued to be widely and sincerely entertained. When Truman explains that poor Dobbin is bewitched neither by Goody Crouch nor Goody Flye, “Then, exclaims the coachman, it must be by Goody Gurton, for she is the next oldest woman in the parish.” The great humourist makes Sir Roger himself a sort of half believer in the popular superstition. He would apparently have committed Mother White for trial had his chaplain not been present, and though he openly acquitted her of any concern in the wind which blew down his barn a month after her death, he still betrayed by his manner a lurking suspicion that it was she after all who brewed the blast. The reprint of a once popular West Country tract (Gardner, 1877)
affords an excuse for referring to a tragedy in which it is hard to say whether superstition or imposture played the most prominent part. A small old mansion in Erskine parish, known as Bargarran, has earned the evil reputation of being the scene of one of the maddest of all the mad delusions concerning witchcraft which stain the judicial annals of Scotland. At Bargarran, in the summer of 1696, resided John Shaw, a man of moderate landed estate, with his wife and a few young children--one in particular, Christian by name, being noticed as of an unusual lively and open disposition. While the “True Narrative of the Sufferings and Relief” of this young girl makes reference to occurrences in August of the above year, its composition is of date many months subsequent, and among the few really contemporary documents bearing on the case which have been saved, it is satisfactory to find a series of minutes so complete and official as is furnished by the records of the local Presbytery. The Kirk, as was usual in such cases, took the earliest steps to set the civil law in motion. The first note sounded openly in the case came from the Rev. Andrew Turner, minister of Erskine parish, who at Paisley, on the 30th December, 1696, represented to the Presbytery the “deplorable case" of Christian Shaw, with details so minute as almost to supersede the necessity of referring to the pretended experiences of the girl herself as made in the so-called “Narrative." Since the beginning of September last (it was reported) she had been under a very sore and unnatural distemper, “frequently seized with strange fits, sometimes blind, sometimes deaf and dumb, the several parts of her body sometimes violently extended, and other parts as violently contracted, and for several weeks past she hath disgorged a considerable quantity of hair, folded up straw, clean hay, wild-fowl feathers, with divers kinds of bones of fowls and others, together with a number of coal cinders burning hot, candle grease, gravel stones, &c., all which she puts forth during the forementioned fits, and in the intervals of them is in perfect health, wherein she gives an account of several persons—both men and women_that appear to her in her fits tormenting her, all which began with her upon the back of one
Kathrine Campbell, her cursing of her; and though her father hath called physicians of the best note to her during her trouble, yet the application of medicine to her hath proven ineffectual, either for better or worse, and that they (the Presbytery) are ready to declare that they look upon this distemper as toto-genere preternatural.” Failing the powers of physicians to do anything in the way of alleviating the “distressed damsel,” fasting and prayer was now enjoined by the Presbytery; and with a view of ulterior proceedings, a deputation was appointed on the same day to proceed to Edinburgh, in order that the whole affair might be laid before the Lords of His Majesty's Privy Council.
Soon after this date a portion of Christian Shaw's “Narrative ” is likely to have been put together; but whatever she may have said was shaped and influenced so much by different members of Presbytery, that it may be said to be rather the production of the reverend court than a genuine account of personal experiences. In due course the Privy Council granted a Commission to Lord Blantyre and other gentlemen in the neighbourhood for the taking of evidence, and so preparing matters that a formal trial, if necessary, might be made of any alleged to be concerned in the mysterious visitation. In the course of their sittings at Renfrew during February, 1697, the Commissioners obtained the “confession” of three people—two lads named Lindsay and an Elizabeth Anderson—as accessories with at least seven others in the bewitching of Christian Shaw. The Lindsays, who testified against their grandmother, were only striplings of twelve or fourteen years of age, while Anderson, who implicated her own father, was but seventeen. The testimony of these witnesses was judged to be of such importance that on the last day of meeting the Commissioners desired they should be severally kept by turns in the houses of members of Presbytery, that the ministers might have an opportunity of dealing with their conscience till further steps could be taken by the authority. A report, to be afterwards referred to, was presented to the Privy Council, and a commission appointed for trial in March. Meanwhile spiritual efforts were not neglected. On the 24th of that month the Presbytery of Paisley, “considering the great rage of Satan in this corner of the land, and
particularly the continued trouble of Bargarran's daughter, which is a great evidence of the Lord's displeasure so to let Satan loose among us,” the Presbytery therefore judge it necessary to set apart a day of solemn humiliation and fasting
"Wrestle with God in prayer, that he may restrain Satan's rage, and relieve that poor afflicted damsel.” The new Commission, made up of the best known gentlemen in the West Country, with the accomplished Sir James Stuart as King's Advocate, commenced their sittings at Paisley in April, when business was preceded with a sermon by the Rev. Mr. Hutcheson from the suggestive text, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” An illegal deputation from the Presbytery was also associated with the Commissioners for “dealing with the conscience of those on whom the insensible marks are found, in order to their being brought to confession, as they shall with the Commissioners concert the method of the same.” Following the course usually observed on such occasions, the Commission would send a report of the evidence taken to the Privy Council, but no trace of the document has been found in recent years. Some help as to the nature of its contents may be found in an informal “Abbreviate of the Precognition and Report,” made by the first or preliminary Commission for taking evidence. The occurrences there spoken to were of the usual marvellous and impossible description. The deluded inaid Anderson affirmed that she had seen Satan speak to her grandmother in the likeness of “a black, grim man,” with a very cold hand; that she had been repeatedly at witch-gatherings on Kilmalcolm Moor, above the village of Kilpatrick, and in the manse garden at Dumbarton, Satan being always present, and engaging freely in conversation. In particular, Anderson confessed to being present in Bargarran orchard when the destruction of Christian Shaw was contrived. Some, she said, were for stabbing, others for choking, and a third for hanging her; but fearing they might be taken before next morning, their lord, as they called him—“the black, grim man "-gave them a piece of unchristened child's heart to eat, telling them that though they were apprehended they should never confess. So far as confession was concerned, witness was threatened with being torn to pieces, especially
by Maggy Lang, or “Pinched Maggy," as she was called. After two hours, or thereby (the witness gravely concluded) the whole party disappeared in a flight, but she herself went home on foot. The testimony of the two Lindsay lads was so similar in detail as to afford strong presumption that the monstrous story was concocted by some person equally credulous but more experienced than themselves. From the want of any official record of the court's proceedings it is impossible to say how many were indicted, or "deleted,” as it was called, for these imaginary and impossible crimes. Even the victims who suffered can only be indicated in a doubtful way. The number, according to all accounts, would appear to have been seven, and from a note appended to the reprint by Mr. D. Semple their names would seem to have been-John Lindsay, cottar, Barloch; James Lindsay, cottar, Bilboe; John Reid, smith, Hapland; Margaret Lang, Cartympen; Margaret Fulton, Dumbarton; Catherine Campbell, servant, Bargarran; and Agnes Naismith, probably of Old Kilpatrick. On what strict principle of law these seven could be found either more or less guilty than the other panels on charges so preposterous as to be incapable of proof by evidence of any kind is never likely to be ascertained. If the slightest reliance could be placed on the incoherent ramblings of the girl Anderson, some of the women at least may be presumed to have been well up in years—possibly old and wrinkled, poor and friendless--in all these respects, unlike the witches of modern days, who cast their spells over poor humanity under quite different conditions. There is not only a want in the way of documents concerning the proceedings of the Commissioners, but it would appear as if even the municipal records of Paisley failed to furnish any reference to this extraordinary series of executions which may be presumed to have been carried out under authority of the burgh magistrates. As the Kirk introduces us to the case, so is it from the Presbytery records we get the last glimpse of the victims. The burning was fixed for the roth June. On May 19, three ministers of the Presbytery were appointed to converse as frequently as they could with the seven persons condemned to die for witchcraft, and two were appointed to preach special sermons on the day preceding the execution.