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

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.


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.


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…

* * * * * * *


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.


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!

Tuesday Terror! We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

“Something wicked this way comes…”

I had intended to review a short story by Susan Hill today, but by half-way through this book, it was clear it had to be this week’s…

Tuesday Terror!

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

we have always lived in the castleWith all the charm and tripping lightness of a fairy dance, Shirley Jackson lures the unsuspecting reader through an enchanted garden into a world of insanity, witchery and murder. The author has taken the elements of Gothic and turned them on their heads, creating a world where the sun shines so brightly that it’s only gradually the reader feels the chill seeping into her bones. No ruined mediaeval castle filled with cobwebby gloom here – this castle is a lovely house, tastefully decorated in white and gold, with interiors so clean that they sparkle in the endless sunshine pouring through the high and plentiful windows. Three people live here (though once there were more) protected not just by the fence that surrounds the grounds, but by the buried charms and magical words that Merricat, our narrator, uses to keep the world out.

I am walking on buried treasure, I thought, with the grass brushing against my hands and nothing around me but the reach of the long field with the grass blowing and the pine woods at the end; behind me was the house, and far off to my left, hidden by the trees and almost out of sight, was the wire fence our father had built to keep people out.

Merricat survived the crime that is at the heart of the story – the wholesale poisoning by arsenic of most of her family when she was just 12. Now she lives with her sister Constance, who everyone assumes is guilty of the crime, even though she was tried and acquitted. The third member of the household is Uncle Julian, another survivor, although he has been left disabled by the experience. While Merricat, now 18, runs childlike and free in the grounds of the house with her constant companion, Jonas the cat, Constance is the homemaker, always cooking and baking, and caring for both Merricat and their uncle. Uncle Julian is writing a memoir of the day of the poisoning, a task made difficult by his failing and confused memory. It is through Uncle Julian’s ramblings and Merricat’s hints and suggestions that the reader gradually gets a picture of what happened.

Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson

But regardless of truth or proof, Constance has been tried and found guilty by the villagers. The family were never liked – they fenced themselves in and the villagers out – so now the villagers have an ideal excuse to vent their bitterness. On Merricat’s twice weekly trip to the village for supplies, she is shunned by the adults and jeered at by the children. But once home, back in the enchanted space inside the fence, the little family is safe and happy. Until one day, Merricat’s protections fail, and Cousin Charles comes to visit, bringing with him all the sanity and coarseness of the real world. And when Charles’ arrival awakens new desires in Constance, Merricat’s childlike superstitions turn towards something much darker…

Thursday was my most powerful day. It was the right day to settle with Charles. In the morning Constance decided to make spice cookies for dinner; that was too bad, because if any of us had known we could have told her not to bother, that Thursday was going to be the last day.

Merricat is a unique narrator, though much in the Gothic tradition of the lunatic telling her tale. But though we are forced to recognise the insanity that lives within her imaginings, there is a charm and air of childish innocence about her that leads us to sympathise with her totally; the most disturbing thing about the story is that, though we know someone in the house has committed this awful crime, we can’t condemn – we are firmly on the side of Merricat and her family and against the rest of the world. As the story progresses, the sunshine gradually fades into something very disquieting and truly spine-tingling.

A wonderfully written book that distorts and plays with the reader’s expectations, this reads to me like the ‘true’ story behind the creation of the familiar ‘witch’ myths. We see the story from the inside, but if we look closely we also see how Merricat and Constance would have been viewed by the villagers – two strange women, one suspected of a horrific crime, the other, accompanied everywhere by her knowing cat, using talismans and magical words to ward off strangers. As I left Merricat’s world and returned shivering to my own, it seemed when I looked backwards that perhaps the house was made of gingerbread after all…


To see the great review that inspired me to read this, please click through to LitBeetle’s blog. Thanks, LitBeetle!

Fretful porpentine rating 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Next week on Tuesday Terror! – Susan Hill

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