The Tale of the Bewitched Baronet

A true story of old Scotland…

For Hallowe’en, here’s a true witch story to harrow your soul, set in Pollok where I grew up , which at the time of this tale was just outside Glasgow…

The story takes place on the Maxwell estate in Nether Pollok, which is now called Pollok Country Park and is home to the world famous Burrell Collection of art and antiquities, collected by Sir George's descendants...
The story takes place on the Maxwell estate in Nether Pollok, which is now called Pollok Country Park and is home to the world famous Burrell Collection of art and antiquities, collected by Sir George’s descendants…

* * * * * * *

‘Twas in the year 1676 that Sir George Maxwell, Laird of Nether Pollok, always zealous in pursuit of witches, took part in a witch trial in the town of Gourock.

sir-george-maxwell-of-auldhouse-1622-1677
Sir George Maxwell of Auldhouse 1622-1677

Soon after, he was struck down with a mysterious sickness, a “hot and fiery distemper”, that caused the doctors to fear for his life. While he lay in his agony, a dumb girl who lived on his estate in Pollok was suddenly granted the power of speech. Janet Douglas was her name, and she was possessed of mysterious powers, as Sir George’s son, Sir John, later recounted…

For instance, when a chapter in the Greek New Testament was read, she made us understand by signs what the purposes were (for at that time she was dumb, whether really or counterfeitly it is hard to determine) and did exactly give an account to myself what we did at two miles distant from the place where she was, without any information given to her…

Now, this Janet declared that Sir George was under a witch’s curse and named the woman who had cursed him, one Janet Mathie, a widow-woman whose son had been accused of stealing fruit from Sir George’s orchard. Perhaps she feared Sir George would punish him harshly. Or perhaps the Devil was angry about Sir George’s actions against witches. When the widow’s house was searched, a wax doll was found with pins stuck in it sides, hidden in a wee hole behind the fireplace, and it had an awful resemblance to Sir George. The widow was held and the doll was destroyed, and Sir George seemed to recover.

wax-doll

But a few weeks later he fell stricken again. This time Janet Douglas named a man, John Stewart, eldest son of the Widow Mathie. A search was carried out and, sure enough, another effigy was found hidden beneath his pillow, this time made of clay, and with pins in it. He was arrested along with his little sister, Annabil, aged fourteen at the time, and three other women of the village. The child Annabil confessed to…

“…being present in her brother’s house the 4th of January, while the clay picture was formed, the black gentleman being present (which was the name she gave the devil) together with Bessie Weir, Margery Craig, Margaret Jackson, and her brother John.”

On the pins being removed from the clay, Sir George again recovered.

John Stewart and the others maintained their innocence until they were checked for devil’s marks, and were each found to have them.

From Wikipedia: Scottish witchcraft trials were notable for their use of pricking, in which a suspect's skin was pierced with needles, pins and bodkins as it was believed that they would possess a Devil's mark through which they could not feel pain.
From Wikipedia: Scottish witchcraft trials were notable for their use of pricking, in which a suspect’s skin was pierced with needles, pins and bodkins as it was believed that they would possess a Devil’s mark through which they could not feel pain.

So their guilt being certain, they confessed. Taken for trial, the first to give evidence was young Annabil Stewart, who…

“declared, that in harvest last, the devil, in the shape of a black man, came to her mother’s house and required the declarant [Annabil] to give herself up to him; and that the devil promised her that she should not want [for] anything that was good. Declares, that she, being enticed by her mother Janet Mathie, and Bessie Weir, who was officer to their several meetings, she put her hand to the crown of her head, and the other to the sole of her foot, and did give herself up to the devil.”

Only Janet Mathie refused to confess, despite the pleas of her children, and remained obdurate to the end, insisting that her accuser, Janet Douglas, had put the dolls there herself. But to no avail. Annabil was granted mercy for being no more than a child, but the others were sentenced to die.

The burning took place soon after, in Paisley. It was a fine sight with the tar barrels and the flames and the screaming and all, and people came from near and far to see justice carried out.

witch-burning

But was it all in vain? Barely a twelvemonth later Sir George was laid low for a third time, this time never to rise again as a living man. Was it God calling him home? Or was it the Devil having his revenge…?

Janet Douglas, the dumb girl who spoke, later left Scotland for the New World. Some say she made her home in Massachusetts, in the town of Salem…

* * * * * * *

witch-on-broomstick

Actually, nobody says she went to Salem except the playwright Anne Downie in her play based on the story, The Witches of Pollok, but it’s too lovely an idea to have left out. However, as far as is known, Janet Douglas made a habit of accusing people of witchcraft and later did indeed go to America, so it’s possible…

Downie has apparently also written a fictional account of the case in her book of the same name.

the-witches-of-pollok

My version is based largely on the account of the trial given in A History of the Witches of Renfrewshire, from where all the quotes are taken. It’s available to read online at this link. I have somewhat modernised the language and spelling in the quotes.

Happy Hallowe’en!

40 thoughts on “The Tale of the Bewitched Baronet

  1. Sounds like Janet Douglas would indeed feel right at home Salem. Thanks for the great review.
    Happy Halloween to you. Yesterday, I watched a movie about an accused witch–the stop-motion film by Laika called PARANORMAN. Tis the season!

    • Absolutely! It’s a lovely twist, even if it’s highly unlikely to be true…

      I haven’t watched any scary movies yet this year – unless you count the Presidential election coverage… 😉

  2. Oooh that Janet is a troublemaker and no mistake! They call got very excited about witches back then, didn’t they. Personally, I think Sir George (nice hair) was somewhat sickly and it seemed like fun to blame it on witches. A pity people had to die! This is a fabulous Halloween tale – wishing you a super spooky day, FF!

    • I do wish they weren’t all called Janet and John – not only does it get confusing, but it sounds like one of those learn to read for 5-year-olds books! They did, indeed, and I love the idea that they stuck pins into you and if you didn’t say ouch you were a witch! I’d have used my cunning plan, though – I’d have said ouch even if it didn’t hurt. That’d have baffled them… 👿

      • That is a plan so cunning you could brush your teeth with it! Amazing no one thought of that at the time, really. The confessions always seemed to be quite detailed, it certainly is unnerving how hysteria was such a potent force back then. No one was ever brave enough to say – hang on a minute, isn’t this all a bit silly? Different times!

        • I learned from the master – Baldrick! Apparently, they used to deprive them of sleep till they started hallucinating and that’s why they got these detailed confessions. But there was also a spooky bit in the book I used as a source – apparently Janet Mathie was kinda tied up to stop her being violent, but when the guards went into her cell in the morning things had been moved around – things she couldn’t have reached… I blame the whisky!

          • Oooh that is a bit spooky! But you’re probably right, too much whiskey. And it’s not like me to declare any amount of whiskey as too much! Just think. If only Judge Rinder had been around back then, he would have put them all straight.

            • Hahahaha!! I’ve fallen soooooo in love with Judge Rinder – I’d never come across him before Strictly! And I have to admit, Ed Balls dancing is far more scary than any of these witchy stories…

            • I like him more on Strictly than on his TV show, which is like a massively camp version of Judge Judy featuring Jeremy Kyle rejects. Did you know he’s not an actual judge? Broke my heart when I found out. Balls is really giving it some, isn’t he! I was actually quite frightened when he did The Mask *shudder*

            • Yeah, even my new-found love for him hasn’t persuaded me to check out his own show – so I’ll just have to hope he stays on Srictly for a long time. Did you know he’s a pal of Benedict Cumberbatch? It’s Ed’s partner I worry about, especially after he nearly dropped her! I miss Lesley and Anton…

            • Avoid the show – he is likable enough but it’s still an embarrassment. I did know that – I think he was best man at Cumberbatch’s wedding – or he was best man for Rinder, I can’t remember which. Anyway, they are both quite posh and affable, I bet they get together and drink expensive wine very politely. Haha! Oh no, imagine if Ed did that! Poor lady. She will have to find a way to cling on to him, which is quite a desperate situation!

  3. Anne Downie’s fictionalisation is excellent, and uses the same sources as you. I wish I had known all this when I actually lived in Pollok, although MiddleSister and I used to scare ourselves visiting a ruin known locally as the witch’s (or perhaps witches’) house……… I think it would have been demolished and built on (it was on the site of the NSB) before you were old enough to walk so far.
    Am currently preparing for guisers, so I hope it doesn’t pour, so that Megan can come.

    • I suspect that might be the only real source – unsurprisingly there are lots of different garbled versions on the internet – incuding this one now! Yes, I didn’t know about it either, nor do I remember the witch’s house. In fact, my childhood was remarkably ghoul free, except for my pal Jacqueline – her gran’s house was reputed to be haunted… either by Prince Charles or a dead budgie, can’t remember which. Sometimes I worry about my memory… 😉

      Have a spooky evening!

  4. What a pretty place, to have such goings-on! And Halloween, of course, is the perfect time of year for scary tales like this. Poor Sir George. Seems he was a particularly good target for spells and such. Maybe the witches were merely jealous of his lovely curls??!

    • I know – and I lived within a stone’s throw of it all the time I was growing up and never heard this story! In fact, the house we lived in was built on land that I believe was once part of the Maxwell estate. Ha! He does have a nice hairdo, doesn’t he? Shouldn’t have gone about persecuting witches though… 👿

  5. I am SO SCARED that I will have to have an dark chocolate and ginger biscuit. As you know, they possess magical properties to help ward away witches. I just hope no child is lurking outside to trick or treat me, otherwise they might insist on the handing over of the biscuit if I am to avoid………..aaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrggggggggh

    • Oh no! They haven’t got you, have they?? I hope they don’t turn you into a zombie – it’s so bad for the complexion! However, I guess this means you won’t be needing the rest of those biscuits… *pockets them and walks off, whistling*

  6. St George looks a bit pasty in his portrait despite the abundant curls and that Jane sounds like a nasty piece of work – although like you, I hope she did make her way to Salem. What a spooky story and a grim end for those accused of doll-making – they definitely went to town making sure witches had the most gruesome death possible back then 😉

    • Haha! He does – very sickly and those curls were probably overheating his brain! Yes, being a witch back in those days doesn’t sound like much fun – I’d rather be one of the Charmed witches, or possiby Samantha from Bewitched. Nobody would try to burn any of them! Seriously though, some of these stories are horrendous – makes me glad I live in the century… in this country!

  7. Where do you find this stuff? It’s truly amazing. We’ve spent many a wet and muddy day wondering around Pollok Park. The flying fox was a particular favourite of our small people.

    • Haha! Thank you – I am the Queen of Google!! 😉 It’s odd – because it was on the doorstep when I was growing up, we hardly ever went there! Trawled across to all the other parks and out of the city to other estates instead. But it is gorgeous – and the Burrell is quite fun! (Nice cakes…)

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