The Renfrewshire Witches
The Renfrewshire Witches
© Val Dobson (Written 1997 )
Nowadays, Bargarran is a minute Clydeside suburb to the West of Glasgow, surrounded and overshadowed by motorways. In 1696, it was a remote rural community, with no industry except agriculture.
One day in August of that year, Christian Shaw, the eleven-year-old daughter and eldest child of the Laird of Bargarran, was in the kitchen of Bargarran House; she saw a maid, Katherine Campbell, sneaking a drink of milk. Christian told her mother, who admonished Katherine. As soon as Mrs. Shaw was gone, the teenage maid turned on Christian and cursed her no less than three times thus: “The Devil harl (drag) your soul through hell!” The child, frightened, turned and ran; in those days curses were taken very seriously. Moreover Christian was a notably religious child – the Bible was her favourite reading, she knew every word of her Catechism and paid close attention to the two-hour long kirk sermons each Sunday. But it was to be some days before anything untoward was to happen.
A few mornings later, Christian was playing in the courtyard with a younger sister when they were approached by Agnes Naismith, an elderly and poor widow who often came to the House’ kitchen to beg a little food. (At this time, Scotland was going through a period of harsh winters and poor harvests; consequently, beggars were many and large Houses like Bargarran would set aside food for them.) She spoke to the children, asking after their new-born baby sister, then left.
The following afternoon, Christian had her first “attack”. Napping on a day-bed, with her parents at the other end of the room, she suddenly began struggling and crying in her sleep. She then jerked out of bed, bounced off the door and became stiff, rigid and silent. Eyes wide and staring, she remained so for half an hour, despite all efforts to rouse her. Then she began screaming and contorting in pain, crying out that knives were stabbing her all over. This continued for forty-eight hours without respite, after which the contortions turned into convulsions, which went on for days in quick succession before giving way to a new set of symptoms. These took the form of violent strugglings against invisible attackers, so violent that sometimes four men were required to hold down the emaciated eleven-year old. And now she began to talk in her fits; she cried out again and again that Katherine Campbell and Agnes Naismith were cutting open her body with knives and refused to believe it when told that neither woman was anywhere nearby. Doctors had been attending her from the first day of her fits, but none of their treatments had any effect whatsoever and they could not produce a diagnosis. One or both of her parents had sat with her every minute (her mother had even handed over the new baby to a wetnurse so that she could spend more time with Christian); but, also, crowds of locals were allowed to gather in the sickroom each afternoon and evening to watch the performance. It became something of a somber community entertainment; quite why her parents allowed it is a mystery.
In October, Christian, still suffering from fits and convulsions and still accusing Campbell and Naismith, was taken to see an eminent Glasgow doctor. She produced a spectacular fit while he was examining her, he pronounced ‘hypochondriac melancholy’ and prescribed some medicine.The medicine appeared to work – for three weeks she was free of all fits and attacks. One day, however (when she was back at home) she spoke of having a pain in her side, announced that she was having a fit, and became rigid and corpse-like. Her tongue stretched out over her chin and her teeth clenched over it. After several days of similar attacks, her distraught parents took her back to Glasgow.
On the journey there, a new manifestation occurred. Christian fainted, then began coughing up little bundles of hair. There were a great many of these bundles, they were all different colours and mostly knotted or plaited. Once the family were settled in their Glasgow accommodation the child continued fainting and coughing up objects of an enormous quantity and variety. There was not just hair, but straw, handfuls of pins, small bones from animals and birds, feathers, twigs, dung, warm coal cinders, stones, candle-wax and egg-shell pieces. Doctors admitted bafflement. They were certain that she was not vomiting these things up from her stomach because there was no sign of vomit and the objects were always dry – they simply seemed to appear from the back of her throat.
Christian herself maintained that Campbell, Naismith and others were causing all this by supernatural means – they were trying to kill her. She frequently saw them in her room, trying to attack her in various ways. She held long one-sided conversations with these apparitions in which she admonished them, gave them her forgiveness and quoted Bible texts at great length. On one occasion, the apparition of Katie Campbell pierced her side with a great sword so that she convulsed in pain. Her parents, along with the crowds who (as usual) were allowed to fill the bedroom, began to speak anxiously of witchcraft. The doctors reluctantly concurred – they could produce no rational explanation. Depressed and downcast, the little family went back home.
At this point, a piece of Shaw family history deserves exposition. Twenty years earlier, Christian’s grandfather, John Shaw Snr., had disappeared whilst fording a flooded river in a November snowstorm. His body had been found three months later in a ditch some distance away that had been searched the day after his disappearance. The corpse was in a good state of preservation, as though the old man had died only days previously instead of three months before. There was no signs of robbery – money and a watch were still on the body – but, horrifyingly, the right hand and genitals had been hacked off and were missing.
Going on these bare facts, it would appear that old Mr. Shaw had drowned in the river and his body had been found by someone who removed the hand and genitals to use as magical charms. The body had then been thrown into the already-searched ditch, where three months of frost and snow had kept it hidden and preserved until the spring thaw (as I have said, this was a period of hard winters). However, it was clear to everybody at the time that this was witches’ work.
Although there must have been suspects, nobody was charged and the incident remained a celebrated and gory local mystery. When his daughter fell ill, John Shaw Jnr. must have felt that his family was being attacked by witches for a second time.
Back at Bargarran, Christian’s attacks developed even more bizarre forms. In between regurgitating pins and hairs, she would sing, shriek, dance and leap wildly. She pirouetted rapidly up and down stairs, onlookers swearing that she was levitating. Several times, she attempted to throw herself from a landing, but only when someone was close enough to pull her back from the edge. Bleeding cuts, scratches and bites appeared on her limbs and open clasp-knives appeared in her clothing. During all of these fits, she was unresponsive and seemingly unconscious. In between fits, she was fully conscious and articulate, adamant that Campbell, Naismith and a whole ‘crew’ of unidentified witches were invisibly attacking her. She told a story of being taken one August night into a witches’ circle in the orchard behind the house. There she was introduced to the Devil, who had placed his hand on her head and promised her many wonderful things, on condition that she become a witch and kill her baby sister. She had refused, which was why the witches were now trying to kill her.
It took her several weeks to tell this story, slowly, haltingly, in bits; she was clearly terrified of revealing too much at once. By then it was January 1697, and John Shaw decided that he now had enough evidence to act against the witches. Katie Campbell was already in custody – she had tried to flee when she heard that Christian was naming her as a witch.
Upon arrest, a bundle of hair similar to those the child had been coughing up was found on her. Campbell denied all knowledge of it, but it was taken as proof of her guilt.
Agnes Naismith was found and bought to Bargarran House. Christian swooned at the sight of her, but the old beggar-woman stayed silent under questioning. With no evidence other than the child’s accusation, she was reluctantly released.
At John Shaw’s instigation, a special Commission was appointed to examine the case. Of the eleven members, nine were Renfrewshire lairds, and three were related to the Shaw family. They had the power to detain and question any suspects. Meanwhile Christian’s attacks continued as before. The invisible “crew” were still besetting her with blows and scratches, and urging her to kill her baby sister. One day in early February, she caught sight of John Lyndsay of Barloch, one of her father’s tenant farmers. She immediately accused him of being one of her tormentors. When told to touch his cloak, she felt pains shooting over her body, then had a fit. Lyndsay was arrested.
Later that day, an old Highland beggar came to the gate asking for alms. Christian overheard him and denounced him as one of the “crew”. He was bought before the child and told to touch her hand. – she instantly had a fit. The old Highlander was arrested.
Next to be arrested were Alexander Anderson, already locally notorious for drunkenness and blasphemy, and his 17-year old daughter Elizabeth. Christian had named Alexander as another of the “crew”; Elizabeth Anderson was arrested because she had testified the previous year at a witchcraft inquiry at nearby Inchinnan, naming her own grandmother as a witch.
At the initial questioning before the Commission at Paisley, Elizabeth at first denied everything. Quite soon, however, she broke. Yes, she was a member of the witches’ “crew”. Yes, they were trying to kill Christian Shaw. Yes, she could supply names. She named six – her father, her great-aunt Margaret Fulton, Agnes Naismith, teenage brothers Thomas and James Lyndsay (no relation to John Lyndsay of Barloch) and the old Highland beggar, whose name she did not know (in common with everyone else, apparently – no name for him was never recorded).
Those not already in custody were rounded up, and the whole party assembled at Bargarron House for the formal sitting of the Commission, who would decide if there were grounds for a witchcraft trial.
All of the suspects were first shown to Christian Shaw and ordered to touch her. The child obligingly went into a fit or a swoon each time. They were then individually questioned. All but one strongly denied the charges against them – Elizabeth Anderson was positively eager to admit her guilt. Describing her life as a witch in some detail, she confirmed Christian’s account of the August sabbat gathering in the orchard and alleged that the “crew” was responsible for murders and much general evil-doing. Christian herself was then questioned. She repeated her story ; the Commissioners admired her intelligence and calmness. Asked about a “Margaret” that she had previously mentioned in connection with her tormentors, she replied that she could knew the woman’s surname, but could not say it out loud. Asked to write it down, she got as far as “Margaret L….” and then fainted. When she had recovered, one of the clergymen present decided to show the Commissioners just what they were dealing with , and asked Christian to read from a bible. As soon as she saw the open book, the child fell to the floor, lay rigid and sang an unearthly wordless melody that echoed through the house. She stopped as soon as the bible was shut – the Commissioners were suitably impressed. After some days of deliberation and consultation with the Shaws and more clergymen, two of the Commissioners decided to question Elizabeth Anderson again; she was only too happy to talk. For a full day, she described all of the witches’ gatherings she had attended, the cursings, the plottings, the murdered babies, the flights through the night-time sky and so forth. She seemed to have an excellent memory for details and easily recalled the names of dozens of co-witches.
As all this testimony poured forth, at least one of the Commissioners expressed some scepticism. Some details of her evidence were inconsistent, he said, and pointed out that many of the people named were half-crazed old beggars who would find it difficult to organise anything, let alone crimes and murders. Additionally, it was extraordinary that a person should be able to recognise so many in the dark of a moonless night in the open, when many of these gatherings allegedly took place.
But the others pointed out that two of the babies claimed by Elizabeth to have been killed by witchcraft had indeed died suddenly from unknown causes. Also, she had named Margaret Lang as a witch, when Christian Shaw had named a Margaret L. as one of her tormentors. Moreover, this Margaret Lang was a midwife, and all the books on witchcraft warned that midwives could be servants of the Devil. The sceptic was overruled and the order given to arrest Lang and her daughter Martha Semple.
The two women did not wait to be arrested. As soon as the local grapevine had bought them word of the accusations against them, they went straight to Bargarran House and indignantly demanded that they be allowed to clear their names. They had every right to be indignant – the two of them were liked and respected by the whole community. Moreover, Margaret Lang was a most pious and good Christian woman, who always carried a bible and traveled many miles a week to attend as many church services as she could. Martha was eighteen and as pious as her mother.
They were shown to Christian, who amazed her parents by behaving perfectly normally. Once the two women were out of sight, however, she had a seizure and announced that she had been prevented from making any accusations by a magical charm that Margaret Lang had dropped in the hallway outside. Sure enough, a small bundle of hair was discovered there.
That evening, Christian had a visit from the Devil Himself. Invisible and inaudible to everyone else, he appeared first as a “filthy sow”, then changed into a handsome dandy. He demanded that she renounce her baptism, but the brave child held firm. For two hours she debated and argued with her infernal visitor, trading insults, theology and biblical texts; He was eventually forced to retire in defeat. Margaret Lang and her daughter were duly arrested the next day.
On the eighteenth of February, the Commissioners delivered their report to the Privy Council in Edinburgh. They had found clear evidence of witchcraft, and listed the names of twenty-two suspects for speedy trial.
The trial opened in Paisley on the 13th April. A week before that, a service was held at Paisley Abbey at which a sermon was preached by James Hutcheson of Killellan, famed throughout Scotland as an opponent of witches. The hour-long harangue dealt with every aspect of witchcraft and delineated the wicked crimes of the Devil’s followers – their idolatry, their spiritual blindness, their unholy powers, the marks placed upon them by their Master. He made detailed references to the bewitchment of Christian Shaw and urged that the judges at the forthcoming trial should do everything in their power to produce confessions and expose the work of Satan. The packed congregation included all of the thirteen trial judges, all of the fifteen jurors, most of the witnesses and all of the clergy appointed to advise the judges. It was unlikely to be a fair trial.
Meanwhile, Christian’s fits had finally ended on March 27th. Until then, her attacks had been getting more and more bizarre. Her invisible tormentors had pursued her into church, had started a fire at her home, had forced her to attempt to hang herself. Satan had returned for another unsuccessful argument, after which an invisible guardian angel had manifested to provide protection and assure her that all would be well. She had recurring nightmares of dead children and barely slept for days on end. One Sunday morning, she suddenly announced to her parents that she was free from bewitchment – her tormentors were now all in prison.
The Paisley trial went much as John Shaw must have hoped for. There were twenty accused. Elizabeth and Alexander Anderson were not amongst them. Elizabeth’s father had died in prison, accusing his daughter to the last of lying.
Elizabeth herself had confessed and shown repentance, so she no longer needed to be tried (the fact that any cross-examining lawyer could have shredded her story was also perhaps a consideration). The defendants were provided with a defence counsel, but since there is no way of proving that someone is not a servant of the Prince of Lies, there was little for him to do beyond arguing against individual pieces of evidence.
And there was plenty of evidence. Witness after witness testified they had heard or seen this or that defendant mutter a curse, make a sign, cast a spell or make a charm. Elizabeth Anderson’s confession was read out, as was the detailed daily diary that the Shaws had been keeping from the beginning of their daughter’s enchantment. Christian herself gave evidence and proved an excellent witness – calm, mature, intelligent and transparently honest. Nobody could doubt that she was a victim.
The highlight of the trial was the pricking of the accused (suggested by James Hutcheson, the aforementioned pulpit-pounding opponent of witches). As it was some decades since the practice was in vogue, the court actually had some difficulty in finding a pricker, but eventually unearthed an old man who had once been a pricker’s apprentice and who still possessed the vital pricker’s tools (if anybody had asked why the pricking could not be carried out by a court official with ordinary blades or needles, it was not recorded). The defendants were first completely stripped and examined for marks that could have been placed by the Devil. Eighteen-year old Martha Semple was closely examined thus twice by several judges and clergymen – one examination by a couple of judges was sufficient for each of the rest of the accused. Those who had suspicious marks were then blindfolded while the pricker probed with his tools. As expected, hardly any of the marks bled or registered pain when pricked – a certain sign of guilt.
The defence counsel did his best, as he was employed to. But with so much evidence against the accused, and with no witness prepared to say anything in their favour, he might as well have been plaiting sand. At that time, the workings of Scottish law only required the jury to finally pronounce on the guilt of seven of the defendants – the other thirteen had had the charge of witchcraft removed from them during the course of the trial when no conclusive evidence against them could be produced. However, they were not released; having been named as witches, they were clearly guilty of something. They were recorded as being still in prison, without charge, two years later. Nothing is known of their eventual fate.
The jury took only hours to decide that John and James Lyndsay, Agnes Naismith, Margaret Fulton, Katherine Campbell, Margaret Lang and John Lyndsay of Barloch were guilty of the crimes of witchcraft, sorcery, necromancy and charming. They were unanimous on six of the verdicts – there had been disagreement only on the guilt of the old tenant farmer. The seven convicted witches (the Renfrewshire Seven?) were executed by hanging, at Paisley on the 10th June 1697, in front of a massive crowd. They were each allowed to speak from the scaffold before being hung one after the other.
John Lyndsay of Barloch made a dignified little speech protesting his innocence. Agnes Naismith fiercely laid “a dying woman’s curse” on all present; according to eyewitness accounts, a solitary raven settled briefly on the scaffold above her dangling, convulsing body. Margaret Fulton appeared to have lost what few wits she had ever had and talked cheerfully about being carried off to Elfland on fairy horses. The two young Lyndsay brothers – James was fourteen, Thomas was eleven – were, at their own request, hung together and clasped in each others arms; people wept at the sight (but did not stop the execution). Katherine Campbell, the Shaw’s maid who had unwittingly perhaps started the whole affair, made the crowd gasp in mixed horror and admiration. Refusing to go quietly, she was dragged screaming and struggling to the scaffold, where she shrieked down the vengeance of both God and the Devil upon her persecutors before being flung into oblivion.
The midwife Margaret Lang was the last to go, and provided the big surprise of the day. Speaking from the scaffold, she admitted that she had indeed once trafficked with the Devil. In her younger years, she said, she had once committed a sin of “unnatural lust”; the Devil had subsequently appeared to her and she had promised herself to Him out of shame. But, she insisted, she was entirely innocent of the charges lately laid against her. Was it excessive guilt from this unnamed ‘sin’ that had driven her to a lifetime of church-going piety and the delusion that she had sold her soul to the Devil? Whatever, she went to her death with a great smile of relief.
These were to be the last official witchcraft executions in Britain. Forty years later, the Witchcraft Acts were repealed in England and Scotland.
Were any of the accused actual practicing witches? Unlikely, although some of them (such as Naismith, Fulton, Elizabeth Anderson) probably scratched a desperate living by selling the odd charm, or extorted food by pretending to be able to cast spells and curses.
Were there witches in Renfrewshire at the time? The mutilation of old John Shaw’s body suggests that there could have been one or two people in the area who knew something about the ancient ‘dark arts’ and made use of them (body parts from a rich and powerful man would have been prized magical charms). But what exactly is a witch anyway? Anybody with the habit of laying curses, or a talent for predicting the weather and the growth of crops or aiding the health of beasts or humans would have been a witch at that time; they would not have had to practice any formal rituals, possess ‘occult’ knowledge, or meet in covens to qualify.
There certainly were groups of people secretly meeting and plotting at that time – but they were not covens of witches. The 17th and 18th centuries were a time of political and social upheaval in Scotland. In 1689-90, the Jacobite rebellion of Scottish Highlanders loyal to the deposed James II was at its height. After James’s defeat at the Irish Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the Jacobite forces were scattered across Scotland, continuing to organise small-scale uprisings and invasions of England until the mid-1700s. Maybe that so-called sabbat in the Bargarran orchard was actually a meeting of Jacobite plotters – stories of witches’ gatherings in the area could have provided them with a convenient cover. Could perhaps the whole witch trial been an incompetent attempt at an anti-Jacobite purge?
And what of the Shaws’ motives in all of this? From the very first days, they not only kept a detailed diary of their child’s bewitchment (which is how we now know so much about the case), but allowed anybody who wandered by to come in and witness her fits and swoons. This particular bit of behaviour is most odd for caring, concerned parents, since it must soon have become obvious that an audience made Christian’s symptoms worse. It’s clear that John Shaw wanted revenge for his father’s death – perhaps he suspected some of the trial defendants? Christian’s initial symptoms are suggestive of a mild form of epilepsy that is quite common in young adolescents and which disappears in a year or two; much of the rest of her illness – hysterical suicide attempts, self-mutilation, hypochondria and so on – are typical of a disturbed and attention-seeking adolescent. It is also clear that John Shaw took full advantage of her illness and encouraged her into producing further spectacular symptoms, in front of an audience, in order to manufacture an anti-witch hysteria. A century afterwards, a visitor to the house noted that in the wall above Christian’s bed there was a knot-hole big enough to pass through small objects such as bundles of hair and pins. And who planted that incriminating bundle of hair in Katherine Campbell’s pocket?
So what eventually happened to Christian Shaw, the instigator of the whole tragedy? She went home to lead a totally uneventful life until the age of thirty, when she married a clergyman; he died after only two years, leaving her childless. Always interested in spinning and clothweaving, she was on a visit to the Netherlands when the fine quality of the linen produced there caught her eye. She talked to the spinners and yarn-producers and winkled out much of their trade secrets. Back in Bargarran, she experimented with thread-making and persuaded her family to help fund a factory to produce high-quality linen and yarn. This started an extensive thread-making, embroidery, spinning and weaving industry in the area; the Shaw family business that produced the smooth, fine flaxen sewing thread that she developed survived into the mid-twentieth century. Remarrying in middle age, she disappeared into Glasgow gentility. She left no children and no writings. Any thoughts she may have had about her part in the deaths of seven people were never recorded.
Further reading: Witch Hunt! by Isobel Adams, pub. Macmillan 1978
Since I first wrote this piece, an interesting new theory has been aired. In 2000, a paper entitled “The Bewitchment of Christian Shaw: A Re-assessment of the Famous Paisley Witchcraft Case of 1697” by Professor JK Swales of the University of Strathclyde and Dr. Hugh V. McLachlan of Glasgow Caledonion Unversity was published. This pointed out that the Bargarran case was different in some major respects from earlier Scottish witchcraft cases; for instance, there was no general anti-witch hysteria in which everyone was denouncing ‘witches’, and even one of the hand-picked judges was skeptical about witchcraft.
McLachlan and Swales established to their satisfaction that one of the authors of the original document narrating Christian’s ordeal was almost certainly the Rev. James Brisbane, minister at nearby Kilmacolm; he just happened to be the brother of one Rev. Deodat Lawson. And who was he? None other than the minister who was presiding at Salem, Massachusetts at the time of the (in)famous Salem Witchcraft trials!
The Salem affair happened in 1692; the Rev Lawson published his account of it (“A Brief and True Narrative of some Remarkable Passages Relating to Sundry Persons Afflicted by Witchcraft, at Salem Village “) in Boston later that year; in 1696, the year that young Christian began making her accusations, he was in Britain delivering sermons on the evils of witchcraft – he believed that his own wife and child had been killed by the Salem witches. His brother, when examining the case of Christian Shaw, would have had cause to suspect witchcraft from the start.
A precis of the paper can be found online at http://swhn.gcal.ac.uk/shaw.html; it was published in full in 2002 in “Twisted Sisters: Women, Crime and Deviance in Scotland Since 1400”