Witchcraft in Strathearn – Part One of Two
The 17th century was a time in Scotland when the Kirk and the King , James the Vl were somewhat paranoiac about witches and witchcraft . In 1643. John Brughe, "the notorious Crook-of-Devon Warlock" had long been a terror to the Kinross district. It was proven at his trial that he had "met the devil at the Rumbling Brigg"; and that he and others had "met Satan thrice in the Kirkyard of Glendevon, and at such a time there had taken up there several dead corpses, one of them being a servant man named John Chyrystiesone, other corpses were taken up at the kirk of Muckhart and the flesh of one of the corpses was put in the byres of certain individuals to destroy their cattle “. For these, along with several other "horrid crimes" John was tried in Culross in November this year, and his "doom" was that he be "first strangled and then burnt," which was done, it seems, on the gallows knowe of Crook-of-Devon between the years 1560 and 1700. It now appears extraordinary that such an amount of faith should have been placed in the existence of "Warlocks and Witches." and in their capabilities. These instances appeared immediately after the Reformation. The reasons behind this are in all probability to do with the sudden change in attitudes that prevailed .
Some years later in 1662., Crook-of-Devon, was, it would appear from old Registers and trials, "greatly infested with witches and warlocks " .At least 10 persons were tried for their "wicked practices and several of them "brunt quick," that is to say burnt alive at Crook of Devon.
Not far from Crook of Devon lies the village of Dunning Dunning has a memorial to Maggie Wall a so called witch . Her story has been covered in many books and pamphlets over the years The historian and author Archie McKerracher in his book on Perthshire says that a wreath is left at the cairn each year, with a card saying 'In memory of Maggie Wall, Burnt by the Church in the Name of Christianity'.
Nobody knows what her 'crime' was. Perhaps somebody's cow took sick and died and Maggie got the blame. Maybe she just knew too much for her own good about the special properties of herbs and flowers. There again, perhaps the 'Witch Pricker' was called in to look for the 'Devil's Mark' on her body, and found it. This was a patch of skin stained red, brown or blue where his three-inch blade gave no pain when he pushed it in.
The truth is blacker. Probably it has more to do with politics than spells, for Maggie Wall lived and died in troubled times. She also had the bad luck to live in an area with a terrible reputation for persecuting witches. Six more were executed in Dunning in 1663, in a wood on the other side of the village. That number is terrifying for a village of perhaps a few hundred souls. Fear and hysteria were in the air and no woman was safe. A recent theory concerning Maggie Walls has been put forward by author Geoff Holder in his book Paranormal Perthshire (The History Press.2011) . Geoff states that in fact there was no such person as Maggie Walls . Indeed examination of the records do not reveal a person of that name suffering with the other unfortunates of the time . His theory is that that it was a mistranslation from an Estate Map of Lord Rollo of Duncrub produced in 1755 The map showed a field close by Duncrub House with a stone dyke referred to as Maggie’s Wall ! So Maggie may well have been around a s a witch but her surname was not Walls !
Another local legend that has been oft quoted is that of Kate McNiven. Kate from Monzie near Crieff was condemned as a witch and was publicly burned on the Knock of Crieff . Her tale is well remembered and oft repeated in this part of the Strath and indeed there are still persons of that name living in the vicinity . The cliff upon which the poor lass met her final fate is still marked on the map as Kate McNiven’s Crag . What then was the nature of the crime for which she was accused of and condemned those centuries ago ? Kate worked for one of the families of the area namely the Graemes of Inchbrakie . Kate walked each day the 2 or 3 miles from the village of Monzie to the mansion of Inchbrakie now no longer standing having being been sadly demolished about 1880 . The young nursemaid was blamed for the regular bouts of sickness of her charge , young Master Graeme . Eventually Inchbrakie sacked her to the relief of the other servants . From that moment onwards a succession of weird happenings began to occur most being attributed to the malevolent nature of the recently departed Kate .
One day in the course of business , the laird travelled across the Strath a short journey to visit his cousin at Garvock near the picturesque village of Dunning which coincidentally was another Graeme stronghold . In those days it was the custom to take with you on trip your own cutlery . During the meal, he could not get peace for a bumble bee buzzing around him . In exasperation ,he managed to get hold of it and put it out one of one of the windows. When he returned to the table he discovered to his astonishment that his knife and fork had vanished ! Together with the servants he searched high and low but to no avail . They had truly vanished ! To his utter surprise, when he returned to Inchbrakie the missing implements were there in there usual place . This together with a succession of other inexplicable events galvanised action from the authorities . Kate was brought to court , tried and convicted of witchcraft . The punishment was strangulation and burning . Inchbrakie pleaded for her to be set free but it was no good !. She was dragged up the north east face of the Knock ( the big hill behind Crieff ) to the steep cliff where such sentences were carried out . She was tied to the stake and wood was piled round about her . Inchbrakie had just arrived to ask them to set her free . Kate spotted him in the crowd and called for him to come towards her . As he did this , she lowered her head and bit off a blue bead from her necklace and spat the stone at him . As he bent to pick it up she shouted that she was grateful for his attempts to obtain her release and that she was giving him this as a keepsake . Kate however declared loudly to the gathered assembly that as long as the family kept the stone in Inchbrakie House itself , their house would br there for ever more .
The stone was set in a golden ring and kept as Kate had instructed . It was kept in a little jewel box and only daughter in laws were permitted to touch it . Many years later in the mid 1800s it is recorded that , when most of the family were abroad , the then head one Patrick Graeme opened a box of papers which had been left in his care only to find amongst them the stone set in the ring , but no longer protected within the walls of Inchbrakie . Within a few years , some ground was sold . Now , the Graemes of Inchbrakie are no longer the family they were and there ancient house has long since been flattened . The built a small memorial from its stones and that still remains today adjacent to the original site .
Another tale pertinent to Strathearn is that of the Witch of Pittentian . Pittentian strangely enough means “ the place of the witch “ in Gaelic ! The tale goes that friends were walking a long an old path and hurrying home as it was getting dark .They suddenly had the feeling that they were being followed . Turning around they surprised to see an old
woman with long grey hair and a green cape immediately behind them . They stopped to let her catch up when all of a sudden a high pitched squeaky voice yelled at them asking what they were doing here . Somewhat puzzled and taken aback they retorted that they were just out for a walk . The response was sudden and belligerent . “Go away – go away ! “
With that she twirled a round and her cape flew out from around her . To their horror they old harridan had no legs and just a body ! With a loud scream the small group started backwards just to see the creature vanish under a large adjacent boulder by the pathway . Summoning up sufficient courage they took a few steps forward to look closer at the large rock . To their amazement there was no sign of anything – she had completely vanished ! Similar tales have been told regarding this particular apparition . Once such appeared in the Strathearn Herald back in
September 1985 and is recounted verbatim :
Was there a witch of Pittentian ? A woman who can still appear in human form hundreds of years later ? Mrs Margaret Mills , Pittentian Cottages , a member of the staff of the Crown Inn Hotel in East High Street believes so and has corroborative evidence albeit it from a young son who like herself saw the apparition .
It was last Sunday afternoon around 4.30 pm when Margaret took her four children Barry ( 9 ) Scott ( 6 )Louise ( 4) and a friend Darren Grant( 6 ) along with a very intelligent dog “Lassie “ – on a nature walk where the children could pick flora and fauna on the public path near Pittentian Farm . Scott , Darren and Barry were about 10 yards ahead of Margaret , Louise and lassie . Suddenly from a bush , a small woman with a wizened face dressed in a long coat and wearing what looked like a head square jumped out at them .She raised her fearsome looking fingers , cackling all the time and the only words the six frightened people could hear was “ tee hee “!
The woman apparition , call it or her what you will , then jumped back into a bush . An obviously shaken Margaret took up the story on Monday when she spoke to the Herald .
“ I saw her – let there be no mistake about that . At the back of the bush she disappeared into there was a face There was no hanging of wires and she certainly could not have got over the fields unseen by us . We made a complete search of the area but nothing could be found . Another extraordinary thing is that the Lassie , so intelligent was completely unruffled and when we sent her into the area to search she came up with nothing and looked puzzled .”
Letter from a Mrs Margaret Smith Tigh an Nilt Inverae Minard the following week contains the following :
Pittentian is phonetic Gaelic for Pit - an - t – sithean “ the pace of the fairies “ or the place of the fairy mound .
What Maggie saw was “ bean – shith “ – a fairy woman .
“ He he “ was the fairy saying in Gaelic “ shith “ pronounced “ hee “”
Tigh n Shith “ – fairy house
Scotland is estimated to have been Europe's biggest persecutor of witches. In the 17th and 18th centuries Scotland put to death over 4,000 alleged witches. By the end of the 17th century burning had gone out of fashion so most of them were hanged instead. The last hanging took place in 1728.
A small well , on the eastern corner of the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, marks the spot where, over a time span of 250 years, 300 women accused of witchcraft, were burned to death.
A study by the Department of History of the University of Edinburgh makes interesting reading . It will be quoted in detail in Part Two of this “ Blog”