Skip main navigation

Witch-hunting in Lanarkshire: part 3

In this article we conclude our study of an alleged case of witchcraft in Lanarkshire.

Last week we explored the minutes of Lanark presbytery and had a closer look at how allegations of witchcraft were handled by local officials.

This week we will continue using the minute book, but you will now use your palaeography skills to transcribe the passages and learn more about the case.

The investigation

The investigation continued on 10 January 1650. The passage below is from the original manuscript. It is accompanied by a direct transcription which retains the early modern Scots:

The which day Marion Hunter one of the suspected per=

sones incarcerat for witchcraft compeared before the pbtrie

(NRS, Presbytery of Lanark, CH2/234/1/427)

In this extract you can observe:

  • The stylised capital ‘T’ for ‘The’.
  • An ‘h’ with subscript loop in ‘which’, ‘the’ and ‘witchcraft’.
  • The stroke over the letter ‘u’ in ‘Hunter’.
  • The long ‘s’ in ‘suspected’.
  • Use of ‘=’ to continue the word ‘persones’ on to the next line.
  • Superscript letters used to abbreviate ‘presbyterie’.

Marion made a remarkable confession. In her statement she ‘declared that the devill appeared like a little whelpe’ and later ‘appeared like a man betweene Haircleugh and Glespen, and nipped her in her shoulder, and required her to be his servant’. She claimed that five of the accused women – Lilias Moffet, Marion Watson, Helene Acheson, Marion Moffet and Male Laidlaw – were witnesses.

Later that month John Veitch reported from Crawford. He had been ordered to hold a kirk session after his sermon but no witchcraft information was forthcoming.

The investigation continued. Having received a paper from the minister of Lamington, Thomas Crawfurd, which noted that the confessing witch, Jonet Cowts, had cleared Helene Acheson, the presbytery freed her from imprisonment in Lanark.

Towards the end of February, and following repeated inquiries, the presbytery and commissioners could find no evidence against Bessie Williamsone, Margaret Gilpatrick, Lilias Moffet, Marion Moffet and Jonet Acheson. After dismissal they were bound to appear before the presbytery again if necessary.

However, a series of allegations were made against Jonet McBirnie – perhaps by a disgruntled neighbour. It was reported, for example, that she had exchanged ‘evill words’ with one William Brown, a slater, who later broke his neck after falling off ‘ane house’.

Nearly a month went by before the case reappeared before the presbytery. The ministers Robert Birnie, Richard Inglis and William Sommervell made note of their meeting with the commissioners regarding:

the trying of the ___________ delated against the suspected

persones of __________ and notwithstanding that they had

most strictlie ________ the witnesses that compeared, upon

theire oaths they could find nought proven against any of


(NRS, Presbytery of Lanark, CH2/234/1/435)

  • Draw on your skills to fill in the blanks and uncover the meaning of the passage. Use the letters and words which have been revealed to help with the transcription. Refer to the Letter Finder if you need assistance.

On the same day John Veitch was ordered to inform the congregation of Crawford that Jonet Cowts, who had been burnt at the stake sometime between January and April 1650, had ‘cleared many of the persones who were incarcerat at Lanarke, quhom she had given up before to be witches’.

The final entry on the alleged witches of Lanarkshire was recorded by the clerk on 18 April 1650. It is untranscribed below:

NRS, Presbytery of Lanark, CH2/234/1/439

  • Use what you have learned throughout the course to complete the case. Take each word letter-by-letter. Move to the next word if you get stuck. It will be easier to transcribe the trickier words once you have begun to uncover the others. Refer again to steps 3.4 and 3.12 if you require further assistance.

After several months it transpired that Cowts had made an extraordinary number of false accusations – approximately 88 in total and covering individuals from Peebles, Biggar, Lanark and Jedburgh.

In an oral testimony she highlighted the complicity of the witch-pricker George Cathie. Cowts revealed that Cathie had promised to protect her if she gave him people ‘to trie anent the witches mark [and] so profite therby’. Indeed, she had repudiated the charges until his appearance (see Paula Hughes, ‘The 1649-50 Scottish witch-hunt, with particular reference to the synod of Lothian and Tweeddale’, unpublished PhD thesis, (University of Strathclyde, 2008), pp. 113, 142, 144).

The business of witch-hunting, although not exactly lucrative, had seen the charlatan Cathie exploit the vulnerability of an alleged witch for financial gain. He vehemently denied the deal before the presbytery of Haddington, but the scandal appears to have ended his career.

The witch-hunt was over.

© University of Glasgow
This article is from the free online

Early Modern Scottish Palaeography: Reading Scotland's Records

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now