During the latter half of the 17th century, the fervour for persecuting so-called witches was dampening as the authorities became more sceptical with the influence of the approaching Enlightenment. That said, there were still notable trials during this period. Two, in particular, are the Pollok and Paisley cases, in which, as in several other witch trials, the word of a young girl sent a community into a frenzy.
Janet Douglas enters Pollok-toun
The girl at the heart of the Pollok case was Janet Douglas, a 13-year-old beggar. In October 1676, seven weeks prior to Douglas arrival in Pollok-toun, Sir George Maxwell of Auldhouse, the Laird of Pollok Castle, had become stricken by a mysterious illness whilst inspecting his factory in Glasgow. Janet Douglas is described as a ‘dumb’ girl in contemporaneous accounts, unable to talk. No one knew where she came from, but the impact she made during the short time she was in the community was significant. The daughters of Sir George Maxwell became familiar with Douglas, who indicated to them that their father was the victim of witchcraft, carried out by a local woman, Janet Mathie, whose family had been in conflict with the Maxwells. Mathie’s son, Hugh Stewart, had recently been caught stealing from the Maxwell orchards with one of the servants who later confessed. Mathie had then targetted Sir George Maxwell in revenge by creating an effigy of the Laird and pricking it in the side, causing him to fall ill.
The Laird’s daughters were reluctant to believe Janet Douglas until two of Maxwell’s servants took Douglas down to Mathie’s cottage. There, the girl pulled out the aforementioned effigy, with a pin still stuck in its side. Janet Mathie was arrested for witchcraft and under questioning, she denied the accusations, saying that Douglas had made the whole thing up. However, a witch-pricker, under the orders of the Sheriff-Depute, discovered several ‘witch marks’ on Mathie’s body. Sir George Maxwell, meanwhile, made something of a recovery when the pins were taken from his effigy, whilst Mathie languished in jail. But in January 1677, Sir George Maxwell fell ill again. Janet Douglas communicated that Janet Mathie’s oldest son, John Stewart, had created another effigy targeting the Laird. Such an effigy was found in Stewart’s bed, leading to the arrest of both him and his 14-year-old sister Annabil.
Annabil was the first to crack under questioning, soon followed by her brother, who confessed after ‘witch marks’ were found on him. The confessions were typically lurid, with more individuals being named as witches, including Mathie’s 80-year-old mother-in-law, Margaret Jackson, Marjory Craig and Bessie Weir. Annabil described in her confession the manufacture of the effigies used to target and curse Sir George Maxwell and how she and her brother were dedicated to Satan by their mother whilst still in the womb, the two later reaffirming this when they were old enough to make the choice in front of Satan himself when he came to visit. The others indicted in the confessions were duly arrested; Margaret Jackson quickly confessed, whilst Marjory Craig and Bessie Weir denied any involvement. The second effigy had been angrily made by John Stewart in response to his mother’s arrest. All six were charged as being witches, and the trial held in Paisley, starting on 27 December 1677. It was quite the show, with Annabil and John Stewart pleading with their mother to confess, accusing her all over again.
She had been creating her own stushie whilst in custody, with another effigy being discovered in her cell by warders. On the night of the first day of the trial, Mathie was locked in stocks near her bed to prevent her killing herself. The following day, she was found in bed, still in the stocks, which were impossible to move. At the end of the trial, on 15 February 1678, all six accused were convicted. Annabil was set free owing to her young age; the rest were sentenced to death and were strangled to death, before being burned on Paisley’s Gallowgreen, a location to which, we’ll be returning to shortly. Sir George Maxwell passed away in April that year. Meanwhile, Janet Douglas somehow recovered her ability to speak and had a short-lived career as a witch finder, before being arrested in Edinburgh on a number of charges, flogged and transported. Sir George Sinclair, Professor of Philosophy at Glasgow University spoke with her whilst she was in custody. She had no memories of her previous life and mysteriously was able to communicate in Latin and Ancient Greek.
Christian Shaw and the Curse of Paisley
In August 1696, Christian Shaw, the 11-year-old daughter of the Laird of Bargarran House, near Erskine, had a run in with the family maid, Katharine Campbell, after Christian caught Campbell stealing the family milk. The maid cursed Christian, who had told her mother of the incident, hoping that the Devil would drag the younger girl through Hell. Shortly after, Agnes Naismith, a local elderly woman with a venomous reputation, whom people already believed to be a witch, appeared at Bargarran, asking Christian how her health was. It was after this that Christian began to act in a decided strange way, entering trance states, contorting her body in impossible ways, displaying superhuman strength, throwing up pins, faeces and losing the power of speech.
Doctors in Glasgow who saw Christian were perplexed, coming to the conclusion that she was the victim of witchcraft. Christian herself said she was the victim of invisible attackers, naming the Devil, Katharine Campbell, Agnes Naismith and others, including a local tenant farmer, John Lindsay of Barloch, and a visiting Highlander. Naismith visited Christian again, praying for her, after which, the old woman no longer featured in the alleged attacks. Katharine Campbell refused to repent, leading to her arrest for witchcraft. Christian’s father also detained John Lindsay of Barloch and the Highlander after Christian reacted badly at the sight of them. The girl’s predicament got stranger, taking on what would be seen now as a poltergeist-like element. She floated down a flight of stairs, levitated, become as stiff as a board, whilst the trances and regurgitation of strange objects continued.
In time, a commission was set up by the Privy Council to investigate, leading to the arrest of Alexander Anderson, a beggar, and his daughter Elizabeth. The latter denied that she was involved in witchcraft, but said that her father was, and went on describe several meetings she had witnessed between him, the Devil and other individuals, whom Christian had also named. These were young brothers, Thomas and James Lindsay, aged 14 and 11; Margaret Lang and her daughter Martha Semple; James Reid and Margaret Roger. Christian did not react well to seeing Margaret Lang, Martha Semple and Margaret Roger. The young Lindsay boys, meantime, made a confession that corresponded to what had already been said before, including giving the same names as the ones already given by Christian and Elizabeth Anderson, though further details were added. These included allegations of murder: the accused were said to have caused a local minister to die; a ferry to sink with two drownings; and the inexplicable deaths of two babies.
By the time the case went to trial, 27 had been accused, including another, older, pair of Lindsay brothers, Jean Fulton, Margaret Fulton, Margaret MacKillope, William Miller, James Reid, Margaret Ewing and Janet Roger. The trial started in March 1697, ending in May, owing to a lot of evidence being heard. By that point, some of the accused had already been released. The younger Lindsay brothers were released without charge due to their age, whilst Margaret and Janet Roger were set free after confessing and repenting. Elizabeth Anderson was released after giving evidence and three others died in prison: Janet Fulton died of old age, James Reid hanged himself and the cause of Alexander Anderson’s death is unknown. Christian made a recovery in March 1697 and went on to become a successful business woman in Paisley’s growing textile trade. It’s now thought that she had either suffered a temporary childhood illness or had made the entire thing up.
In the end, seven people were executed on Gallowgreen on 10 June 1697, by strangulation and burning. They were Agnes Naismith, Katherine Campbell, the older Lindsay brothers, John Lindsay of Barloch, Margaret Lang and Margaret Fulton, their ashes being placed in an urn and buried beneath Maxwelton Cross in Paisley. A horseshoe still marks the spot, and the trial and execution are marked every year in Paisley. Agnes Naismith is said to have put a curse on Paisley as she was taken to be executed, a curse that some have given credence to for subsequent misfortunes in the town.
This and other tales of dark history and ghosts can be found in M J Steel Collins’ first book, Uncanny Clydeside, available now