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The Bargarran Witches of Glasgow

By on in Occult

804 words, estimated reading time 4 minutes.

Those hung and burned were victims of a widespread hysteria in Scotland during the 17th century – fuelled by the fear of Satan and the occult.

In 1697, seven people were found guilty of witchcraft at a trial in Paisley and condemned to death.

Christian Shaw, the 11-year-old daughter of Bargarran laird John Shaw, accused several locals after she began suffering illness, seizures and delirium – leading her family, local doctors and ministers to believe she had been bewitched.

The Bargarran witches are regarded as the last mass execution of witches in Western Europe. They were victims of a widespread hysteria in Scotland during the 17th century – fuelled by the fear of the occult and the Devil.

The Witch, No. 1, c. 1892 lithograph by Joseph E. Baker
The Witch, No. 1, c. 1892 lithograph by Joseph E. Baker

Around 84 per cent of victims persecuted in Scotland were women – typically those who were regarded as outsiders or of ill-repute by neighbours in their community.

The female 'witches' were believed to have had sex with the Devil, after which he would leave a mark on her body – usually a blemish or insensitive spot – a parody of Christian baptism and a symbol of their pact.

Suspected witches kneel before King James, Daemonologie 1597
Suspected witches kneel before King James, Daemonologie 1597

Witch prickers were employed to search for the Devil's Mark on the body of the accused – ten of which are known to have acted in Scotland. Victims were also tortured to extract confessions of satanic worship in prison, most commonly through sleep-deprivation.

Among the many volumes in Mitchell Library lies a collection of accounts illustrating the Scottish Witch Trials. Among the items is a manuscript written by Christian Shaw's uncle which details the trials.

It also includes a facsimile of Daemonologie, a book on witchcraft lore written by the notoriously superstitious King James VI in 1597 – which fuelled the spread of hunts across Britain.

His work was a direct rebuttal to Reginald Scott's sceptical The Discovery of Witchcraft in 1584, which questioned the very existence of witches. The king later ordered every copy of this text to be burned – but a "rare and valuable" copy survived and is also held at the Mitchell Library.

So-called witches were brought to trial, many by neighbours' testimonies
So-called witches were brought to trial, many by neighbours' testimonies

Were these people witches? Relatively speaking witchcraft isn't a thing. Some people look at it as a history of misogyny, women who were being persecuted as outsiders. It was a campaign of violence against women.

The trial of the Bargarran witches began after Christian reportedly saw servant Catherine Campbell stealing milk from their kitchen. In a fit of rage, the servant was believed to have screamed "The Devil harle your soul through hell" three times at Christian before she fell ill.

After a visit to the esteemed Glasgow physician Dr Matthew Brisbane, Christian began accusing people in the village of casting a spell on her – leading to a local crusade. Around 21 men, women and children were thrown into prison and brought before trial. Seven of them were charged with murder and tormenting people in the community and sentenced to death.

One accused man hung himself in his prison cell – believed to have been 'strangled by the devil' – while others were hanged and burned on Gallow Green in Paisley on June 10.

The atmosphere in the town that fated afternoon was described as like a "market day," with a large crowd gathering from far and wide to witness the gruesome spectacle.

Catherine is said to have protested her innocence to the bitter end, screaming and struggling as the rope was hung around her neck. Accused woman Agnes Naismith cursed the townspeople and their descendants before she was hung. Each tragedy which befell Paisley for many years since that fateful day was blamed on 'the witch's curse.'

The Horseshoe monument in Paisley Maxwellton Street crosses George Street in memory of Paisley's dark past
The Horseshoe monument in Paisley Maxwellton Street crosses George Street in memory of Paisley's dark past

The bodies, some reported to still be alive and moving, were then cut down and dragged into a bonfire. One account reported that a local's walking stick was used to push the limbs back into the blaze; its owner then refused to take it back after it had touched the witches.

Accounts of witch hunts must be examined in relativist terms and to avoid judging people who lived centuries ago by modern standards.

These events took place 400 years ago and people had different beliefs. You can't blame them for what they did – a lot of them firmly believed they could do magic, kill their cows and poison people's foods. We know now that's a lot of nonsense. We've got to look at their actions in a historical context. They believed in superstitions and it was central to their lives.

The people who were accused of witchcraft were scapegoats because someone's crop failed, there was something wrong. Society told them to make sense of their world that way and how they would deal with that. They had different belief systems.

Christian went on to become a successful businesswoman, helping found the thread industry in Paisley after having machine parts brought over from Holland.

Last updated on: Tuesday 30th October 2018

 

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