|"A Visit to a Witch," Edward Frederick Brewtnall|
Back when there was a common belief in witchcraft, a surprising number of people openly boasted to their neighbors about their alleged Satanic powers. Whether it was from a desire to feel superior to their peers, a mischievous delight in inspiring fear, or sheer bloody-mindedness, some “witches” proudly identified as such. Such boasting, of course, brought a great many of them to the gallows.
Deliberately allowing those around you to think you have sinister supernatural powers was a particularly dangerous pastime during certain eras. A fine example is the case of one Janet Wishart, who was among the most prominent figures in what has gone down in history as the Great Scottish Witch Hunt. If her trial testimony is to be believed, Wishart was a veritable Energizer Bunny of Evil.
For some 25 years, the residents of Aberdeen, Scotland were convinced that Wishart was a witch--a belief she did absolutely nothing to contradict. Everyone in town lived in supernatural terror of her. Her diabolical ways were first recorded in 1573, when two boys, John Leslie and John Johnson, caught her stealing from a neighbor. When the boys were found drowned a short time later, townsfolk were convinced that Wishart had bewitched them into committing suicide. In 1581, she cast a spell upon the wife of one Malcolm Carr, causing the woman to be ill with fever for six months.
Four years after that, Wishart was involved in a more complicated affair. After a brewer named Katherine Rattray managed to get on Janet’s bad side (reportedly not a difficult thing to do,) Wishart cursed Rattray’s stock of ale, leaving it all spoiled. When Rattray’s daughter, Katherine Ewin, begged Wishart to restore the ale, the witch relented. She told Ewin to go to the brewery before dawn, taking care beforehand not to cross herself, speak, wash her hands, pass over water or breastfeed her baby. Then Ewin was to say, “I to God, and thou to the Devil” three times and throw a charm of red, green, and blue threads into the fire.
This brought the ale back to normal, but when Ewin was indiscreet enough to teach the ritual to others, Wishart, irked at having her trade secrets revealed, placed a fatal curse on Ewin’s baby. Then Ewin’s store of ale disappeared from a locked room where only she had the key. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, for the next twenty nights, a cat appeared in the bedroom of Ewin and her husband Ambrose, keeping them awake and, on one visit, biting off a chunk of Ambrose’s arm.
In 1591, Wishart was seen hobnobbing with Satan himself at a military blockhouse. In the following year, she placed a curse on one Andrew Ardes, causing him to come down with a fever which killed him eight days later. In 1593, a merchant named Walter Healing refused to sell Wishart some wool. She responded by placing a spell on Healing’s child which soon led to the infant’s death. In 1594, Wishart’s servant, James Ailhows, decided he had enough of working for a witch, and handed in his notice. By this point in our little tale, you will not be surprised to learn that Wishart then put a spell on Ailhows which left him bedridden for months. He was only cured when he paid another witch to lift the curse. (For those of you curious about such things, Ailhows was brought back to health by washing in south-running water and passing through a horse’s saddle-strap.)
In that same year, she placed a spell on one Bessie Schives, which for over four months left the unfortunate woman “the one half-day roasting as in a fiery furnace, with an extraordinary kind of drought, that she could not be slaked, and the other half-day in an extraordinary kind of sweating, melting, and consuming her body, as a white burning candle, which kind of sickness is a special point of witchcraft.”
In 1596, Elspeth Reid, the sweetheart of Wishart’s son Thomas, caught Janet and another woman performing some manner of Midsummer ritual. Wishart’s response was entirely predictable: Reid fell into an illness which lasted for six months.
It must be said that on at least one occasion, Wishart used her powers in a commendable manner. When her son-in-law, John Allan, took to beating his wife, Janet avenged her daughter by coming through Allen’s window in the form of a brown dog and attacking him.
Although all the above were the high points of Wishart’s resume, history records a miscellany of other disagreeable doings: causing stillbirths, dedicating a section of farmland to the Devil, causing a neighbor’s cow to produce poison instead of milk, bewitching some sheets into turning another neighbor insane (don’t ask,) killing hens, “raising the wind” in order to winnow malt barley (thus leaving her neighbors with no wind at all,) destroying businesses, and the like.
Wishart’s son Thomas Leys proudly carried on the family tradition. It was said that he helped his mother bewitch the property of one Andrew Clark. When Clark threatened to sue, Thomas warned Clark would receive a fatal curse if he persisted. On Halloween night in 1596, Leys led a group of witches, dressed “some as hares, some as cats, some in other likenesses” in a dance around the Mercat Cross. The music was provided by the Devil himself. There was one unfortunate moment in this diabolical rave, when Thomas hit one of the participants, Kathren Mitchell, “because she spoilt the dance and ran not so fast as the rest.”
Given all this, it says a lot about Wishart’s formidable reputation that it wasn’t until early 1597 that the authorities decided that something had to be done about her. Janet, along with her husband John Leys, her son Thomas, her daughter Violet, and Elspeth Reid, were all arrested. It is recorded that as Janet and Thomas sat in their cells awaiting trial, they were visited by the Devil. Mother and son asked, “What will become of us?” The Devil replied, “Deny everything.” Although he promised to return later with more legal advice, they never saw him again. (Pro tip: Satan makes a lousy defense attorney.)
To no one’s surprise, Janet was found guilty of eighteen of the thirty-one witchcraft accusations brought against her. On February 17, 1597, she was burned at the stake. Thomas followed her into the flames a short while after. Elspeth Reid and the rest of Wishart’s family were freed, but banned from Aberdeen for the rest of their days.
And thus ends our look at domestic life in 16th century Scotland.