A few days ago I mentioned that the piles of heaped up brash, stripped twigs and branches left over by the timber harvester looked like tiny witch burning pyres. I smiled to myself when the thought emerged, as it was hard to imagine anything so brutal in my undisturbed little glade.
However, the thought has been circling in my head. Fear of witches positively convulsed this country in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Perhaps the madness struck here too. As I hid from the heat of the day today, I decided to investigate to see if I could find tales of any local witches. What I found, though, was not folk tales but a rather uncomfortable pattern of hard facts, drawn from local court records.
The closest witch trial to Ruthven was that of Margaret Nicholson from Birgham (lovely little Birgham with its proud floral gateway award and pots of geraniums) in 1615. In 1629 Alisoun Pringell and her husband William Nicholson from the Hirsel (where we wander tranquilly amongst the rhododendrons) and Bessie Aitkine from Swinton (not so very far from the little wood where I saw the pyres) were also tried . I could not see the trial outcomes for these cases in the records, but fear the worst. However, the records do show that Alison Nisbet, a midwife from Hilton between Horndean and Whitsome, was strangled and then burned in Edinburgh in 1632.
Duns (where I used to go for lovely relaxing pilates classes) claimed a full thirteen cases and Chirnside another 6. Many seemed to have been swept up in accusations by Alexander Hamilton, a vagrant who wandered to and fro across the border and was himself prosecuted and killed as a witch. Hamilton had, in the course of the investigation of his case, denounced many others. He also gave evidence of a plot by Lady Helen Manderston to kill her husband, Sir George Home (who was himself an avid prosecutor and investigator of witches).
It seems that Sir George pressured Alexander Hamilton to implicate his estranged wife in the plot. Their relationship had ruptured irredeemably by 1616 when Lady Helen’s fabulously rich father, a previous provost of Edinburgh, had died leaving nothing to his son in law (who was in fact the main debtor of his father in law’s estate). Lady Helen was abandoned and her husband sought to control her wealth. In 1620 she had been forced to take him to court for maintenance (a massive indignity for a woman originally as wealthy as she, no doubt). However, the Privy Council was not convinced by the allegations and the testimony against her was found false and two of the witnesses were pursued for perjury. Not, however, Sir George….
Lady Helen had recourse to the courts several times after this to seek protection from Sir George and to try to gain access to her property. She later successfully divorced him, no small feat in the 17th century. I have warmed hugely to Lady Helen over the course of my research.
Sir George however cemented his impression as a very nasty piece of work by later also accusing his cousin Janet Home, Lady Samuelston, of witchcraft. The courts did not pursue this allegation either and, lo and behold, it seems as though there was no love lost between Janet and George. There are records of a later court dispute over some rents which Lady Samuelson claims Sir George acquired from her by forgery and fraud.
Lady Helen and Lady Janet were no doubt lucky in their status and influence, which caused the commissioners to hesitate and consider their cases seriously. I wonder how many of the other poor local women, as most of them were, caught up in a web of denunciations made by other accused, under who knows what pressure, or by disgruntled neighbours with an axe to grind, were able to to extricate themselves.
There is a hill outside Duns called Witches’ Hill. It is recorded by Historic Scotland as an execution site.