Scottish Witches: Sorcery, Soothsaying, and Poltergeists
Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
Ever since these simple lines were immortalised in Macbeth by William Shakespeare, the idea of the Scottish witch has embedded itself deeply in the psyche of the British. Ask anyone for their most memorable quote from the infamous "Scottish play," and a line or two from the witches' chant is sure to feature. The three witches remain anonymous, we only learn the name of their leader, Hecate. Had their names been known, they would surely have been included in the historical document The Names of Witches in Scotland (1658), now available to peruse online. Read on to discover more about three Scottish women who were accused of witchcraft and prepare to be surprised when you discover just how recent, two of those accusations were made.
Isobel Gowdie: The Witch of Auldearn
In 1563 the Witchcraft Act was passed in Scotland which made practising or consulting with witches a capital crime.This act, combined with political upheaval and a series of failing harvests, sent Scotland into a fervour of witch hunting. Between 1559 and 1662, up to 6,000 Scots stood trial for witchcraft. Of these 75% were women. By the time the trials ended 1,500 people had been executed and put to death.
In 1662 one Isobel Gowdie was arrested and tried for witchcraft. Very little is known about Isobel herself other than she was female, married and lived in Auldearn near Nairn. History even fails to tell us whether she was definitely executed or not. What makes Isobel interesting is her eagerness to confess without torture, and the astonishing details she gives about her life as a witch.
During four detailed confessions written over six weeks, Isobel confessed in detail about her life as a practising witch. Whether she told the truth or was suffering some sort of psychosis is open to question. Married to a man called John Gilbert, who she claimed knew little about her practice, Isobel was for all intents and purposes, a poor but ordinary Scottish housewife. Possibly arrested after a plot came to light to harm the local minister, Harry Forbes. Gowdie was incarcerated in the Auldearn tollbooth and then interrogated without torture.
In the first of her accounts Isobel claimed to have met Satan at the church in Auldearn, some 15 years earlier. Along with others she renounced her Christianity and engaged in sexual intercourse with the devil, before he left his mark on her shoulder. Isobel went on to describe further encounters and her participation in a coven of thirteen witches, some of whom she named. Her husband had no idea that she left the marital bed of a night because she placed a broomstick by his side to trick him.
Gowdie claimed that she and her coven would fly through the night on magical horses. They would enter the homes of the rich and dine on their fine food. The coven would even visit the Queen of the Fairies and engage in magic and celebration. Disturbingly, Isobel also claimed to have dug up the bodies of dead babies and made clay effigies of local children, with the intention of bringing them harm. She also claimed to have spoiled the local crops and to have brought illness and misfortune to those she did not like.
In further interrogations, Isobel went on to describe the meetings of her coven. She told her interrogators that she was able to transform into the form of an animal to avoid detection and move freely about the countryside. Her favourite form was that of the hare. When she needed to, Isobel would recite a simple spell in order to transform herself into an animal and then back again into a woman when danger had passed.
I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil's name,
Ay while I come home again.
There is little information about Isobel after her six week incarceration and her lengthy interrogations. It is believed that like others before her she was strangled then burned at the stake. Her legacy, if you can describe it thus, is the amazing detail she gave of the beliefs and practises surrounding witchcraft in the seventeenth century.
Helen Duncan: The Wartime Witch
Helen Duncan was a Scottish medium and spiritualist born in Callander, Perthshire, on the 25th November 1897. Duncan became notorious for her false claim to be able to produce ectoplasm. Sadly, during her lifetime she became infamous for a much more sinister reason. Helen Duncan was the last woman to be tried and convicted of witchcraft in Great Britain.
When Duncan was born in Scotland, there was little to mark her out as extraordinary. The daughter of a cabinet maker, she began to show an interest in the supernatural as a young child to the consternation of her Presbyterian parents. When she married an injured war veteran Henry Duncan in 1916, he supported her unique gift and encouraged her talent for clairvoyance. Within a few years Helen was supporting their income by holding seances. By 1926, with six children to support, an injured husband and a daytime job in a bleach factory, she was adding an extra dimension to her seances to attract more interest, the production of ectoplasm.
Ectoplasm is a substance that supposedly physically embodies the spirits of those who have passed.The production of ectoplasm was a feature of many seances until the early twentieth century, when it was widely accepted as a hoax. Probably made from cheesecloth, it appeared to exude from the mouth of a clairvoyant while they were in a trance like state.
In 1831 the famous psychical researcher Harry Price paid Helen Duncan a fee to investigate the production of ectoplasm at four of her seances. He concluded that the ectoplasm which Duncan appeared to spew from her mouth was cheesecloth or paper soaked in egg white. Describing Helen Duncan as ‘a fat female crook’, he clearly believed that he had exposed the clairvoyant as a cruel and heartless charlatan.
Helen Duncan would probably have slipped into obscurity and lived out her days relatively peacefully, had she not made a fateful mistake. In November of 1941 HMS Barham was sunk by a German U boat, off the coast of Egypt. It was the height of the Second World War. The loss of life was catastrophic with over 800 crewmen drowned. To preserve public morale, the British government asked relatives of the deceased to keep the loss of the Barham secret. Of course, with so many dead it is not inconceivable that at least one person spoke of their loss. The same month Duncan held a séance in her home. During this séance, the spirit of a dead sailor from HMS Barham was said to materialize. Of course no civilian outside his family should have known of his death. Duncan lived in Portsmouth at the time, a naval town. Present at the séance were two off duty naval officers who were left unimpressed by the experience. When Duncan revealed details about the sinking of HMS Barham, which later transpired to be true, they reported her to the police.
Helen Duncan was arrested under the Vagrancy Act, but as national security was under threaten, authorities looked around for a more serious offence. Eventually, they came up with the Witchcraft Act of 1735. Helen Duncan found herself between a rock and a hard place. If she truly had no previous knowledge of the sinking of HMS Barham then it would be difficult to defend the charge of witchcraft. If Duncan revealed that she had been fed the information by a source connected to the Barham, then she had to reveal herself as a fake.
In 1944 Duncan was convicted of practising witchcraft and sentenced to nine months in prison. In 1945, she was released from prison and promised not to conduct any further seances. Never one to learn from her mistakes, Helen Duncan was imprisoned again in 1956 and died shortly after.
The Nanny and the Poltergeist
Our last Scottish witch tells a tale of modern witchcraft and the terrifying series of events which led a young Scottish nanny being imprisoned in a foreign country.
In 1982, Carol Compton, a young woman from Ayr in Scotland, fell madly in love. There was just one snag, her boyfriend lived hundreds of miles away in Italy. As he was in the Italian military at the time, Carol made the difficult decision to start a new life close to her lover. Before long, she secured a nanny's job with the Ricci family in Rome. Carol must have believed she was about to embark on a dream. She was in fact about to begin her worst nightmare.
Within days of beginning her new post, a religious painting fell off the wall. Nothing unusual about this, you may say, but the unfortunate Carol had been witnessed uttering a prayer by the family maid as the painting crashed to the floor. The maid informed the family who were probably unconcerned at first and took no action. Before long they would regret their decision. A few days later the family travelled to their holiday home in the Italian Alps. Within days the beautiful house was consumed by fire and razed to the ground.The shaken Ricci family returned home to Rome, bewildered but unhurt. As soon as they arrived back a series of small fires began to break out around their home. When the bedroom of their two year old son was set alight, the Ricci family decided it was time their Scottish nanny was sacked.
Before long Carol gained employment with another family, the Tonti family, on the island of Elba. Almost as soon as she arrived religious statues and paintings about the house began to smash to the floor without explanation. A few days into her employment and a mattress went on fire. Over the next week or so further strange events took place; a vase flew through the air, a silver cake stand flipped onto its side and strange scratching noises could be heard coming from the walls. When the cot of Carol's three year old ward was set on fire, the grandmother of the house snapped and accused Compton of being a witch.
Carol was arrested and charged with attempted murder. Although witchcraft was not mentioned in the charges, the circumstances surrounding Compton's arrest soon leaked out. Headlines portraying the unfortunate nanny as a witch flew around the world, captivating the interest of an intrigued public. Before long, Carol's story had also piqued the interest of three of the world's foremost paranormal investigators. Convinced that Carol was being tormented by a poltergeist, they offered their support. Carol, perhaps wisely, declined their offers. Believing that their presence may stir up further charges of witchcraft, she faced her trial alone.
In December 1983, Carol stood trial for attempted murder. During her trial forensic experts attempted to recreate each of the fires experienced by the Ricci and Tonti families. Not only were they were unable to recreate the fires but they could find no forensic evidence of inflammatory substances. One expert suggested that the fires appeared to have been started by some form of intense heat, rather than a naked flame. Nevertheless Compton was found guilty of the lesser charge of arson and not guilty of attempted murder. As she had served sixteen months in prison, she was allowed to return home to Scotland.
Today Carol Compton lives an ordinary life in Yorkshire, England. In 1990 she published a book recounting her experiences, 'The True Story of the Nanny They Called a Witch'. In her book Carol appears to accept that their was poltergeist involvement in her case. Whatever the truth of the matter, the unfortunate Carol certainly earned her place on the long list of Scottish women accused of witchcraft.