"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 30, 2023

The Witch-Cats of Scrabster

Show me a story about beer-swilling Scottish witch cats, and, naturally, my immediate reaction is to yell for joy and start typing.  A blogger lives for that sort of thing.

Our little tale opens in late 1718, at the Burnside of Scrabster home of a mason named William Montgomery.  He and his family had a cat problem.  Of late, a number of highly sinister felines had mysteriously invaded his home.  They terrorized his servant into quitting, (after hearing the cats talking among themselves in human and intelligible voices,) and left Mrs. Montgomery so frazzled that she threatened to leave her husband and retire to the less cat-plagued town of Thurso.  Worst of all, the diabolical kitties drank up his ale.

Montgomery decided serious measures were called for.  Arming himself with a sword, a dirk, and an ax, he launched an assault on the unwanted guests, killing two of the cats and wounding several others.  At least, he thought at the time that two of them were dead. Curiously enough, by the following morning their corpses had mysteriously vanished.  He also noted that the wounds he had inflicted drew no blood.

Then things really got weird. A local woman, Helen Andrew, who had long been suspected of being a witch, died unexpectedly.  Another reputed sorceress named McHuistan killed herself by leaping into the sea.  Most startling of all, an old lady named Margaret Nin-Gilbert had one of her legs suddenly fall off.  The local residents--who could put two and two together as well as anyone--immediately concluded that the three women were among the cats who had infested the Montgomery home. Nin-Gilbert’s “black and putrefied” leg was presented to the local sheriff (something which must have really made his day) and he was ordered to take the appropriate steps.

Margaret was quickly arrested.  Under what was probably not very gentle questioning, she soon admitted that she had been inside Montgomery’s house in the form of a “feltered [shaggy] cat,” and that the loss of her leg was due to the injuries his dirk had inflicted.  Nin-Gilbert stated that the trouble began when a woman named Margaret Olson had been evicted from her lodgings due to the “wickedness of her behavior.”  The Montgomery family moved into her former home.  As a result, Olson solicited Nin-Gilbert to “do mischief” in revenge.  

Besides Olson, Nin-Gilbert named four other women as her cat-confederates.  Naturally, they were arrested as well.  Margaret died in jail soon afterward.  (Accounts vary as to whether she succumbed to natural causes, or if she was murdered by the women who were, thanks to her, fellow inmates.)

Eventually, the whole affair reached the ears of Lord Advocate Robert Dundas.  He wrote a stern letter to the sheriff scolding him for proceeding on such a matter without his authority.  The entire case, to his mind, was so utterly absurd that he ordered the investigation to cease.  The women Nin-Gilbert had accused were freed, and that, it seems, was that.

Unfortunately, history does not record if Montgomery ever saw the cats again.


  1. I'm torn as to whether I would want my cats to speak intelligibly in human speech or not... I'm glad Dundas had some sense, at least.

  2. Did you ever read "Tobermory" by Saki? It's a tale on exactly this subject, except without witches. I don't think Dundas was the only person who took a rather skeptical approach to such events. I seem to recall reading about the witch hunts in Europe; France, I think. The Lord of one territory realized that the craze was disrupting trade. Being a busy man himself, he delegated one of his senior officials to go to the area and simply sit in on all trials to observe that the law was being applied correctly, and to report back. Oddly enough, the presence of an outside observer with powerful connections seemed to cause a sudden and drastic decrease in the number of witches present - or at least being investigated, charged and convicted in court.

    1. I love Saki's short stories, and that's a favorite of mine. I've always thought of it as a cautionary tale for anyone who lives with a cat.


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