Witches everywhere should pay an enormous debt of thanks to the famed Romantic Scots novelist Sir Walter Scott, who out of curiosity and initiative, made it his business to research the Scots Witch-Trials of some two centuries prior. He eventually published his findings (initially written as a series of letters to a friend), as Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (which, for being now in the public domain, is available both through the Internet as well as reprinted in numerous editions available at Amazon.com). Scott is surely one of the first in Europe to take an interest in the historical records of the Burning Times, so much gratitude of posterity to him for locating, reviewing, and describing such surviving documents as his investigation covered. Being a Scotsman considering the Witch-Hunting records of his nation, Scott has access to the documentation of the European country outside of the German states where Witch-Hunting was at its most ferocious, and the Burning Times most severe. Reading Scott’s work is to encounter time-and-again descriptions of brutal and matter-of-fact torture. (It is to his credit that Scot is among the first modern folks to express revulsion at the barbarity of the medieval Witch-Trials.) A notable thing in Scott’s review is the prevalence of the Faerie-Folk in his accounts: so much so, that it seems as if the Fees must have represented some primal aspect of Scots Celtic religion, preserved as on-going folk-custom until at least the early 1600s. In a number of cases, the Fees are encountered in a visionary, almost ecstatic, sense; and appear to function like Spirit-Guides, or Supernatural Counsels, or significant Initiatory Beings: as in the case of John Stewart (no, not the host of The Daily Show).
In his Fifth Letter, Scott not only refers to the work of Rev. Robert Kirke, a Highlands minister of the 17th century who published an account of continuing Faerie-belief and experience in late 1600s Scotland: Scott addresses the “Confession of John Stewart, a Juggler, of his Intercourse with the Fairies.” (Scott uses “Juggler” in its medieval sense, meaning a charlatan or fraud or pretender in the Magickal Arts.) Stewart was something of a wandering tramp in early 1600s Scotland, automatically a figure of suspicion; Stewart also professed powers of prognostication and clairvoyance, which powers he said that he received from the Fees: “Another instance of the skill of a sorcerer being traced to the instructions of the elves is found in the confession of John Stewart, called a vagabond, but professing skill in palmistry and jugglery.”
Stewart’s explanations as to how he acquired his talents seem extraordinary, but are actually very much in keeping with the Times: “It being demanded of him by what means he professed himself to have knowledge of things to come, the said John confessed that the space of twenty-six years ago, he being traveling on All-Hallow Even night, between the towns of Monygoif (so spelled) and Clary, in Galway, he met with the King of the Fairies and his company, and that the King of the Fairies gave him a stroke with a white rod over the forehead, which took from him the power of speech and the use of one eye, which he wanted for the space of three years. He declared that the use of speech and eyesight was restored to him by the King of Fairies and his company, on an Hallowe’en night, at the town of Dublin, in Ireland, and that since that time he had joined these people every Saturday at seven o’clock, and remained with them all the night; also, that they met every Hallow-tide [on various hills], and that he was then taught by them.”
Quite a remarkable tale, notable for being the purported historical account of one man’s extraordinary experiences, demonstrating “in action” any number of folkloric themes concerning the Faereys. The Kings and Queens of the Fees legendarily roamed the countrysides during the nighttime hours, in the company of their Train; meeting them was supposed to be a dreadfully fraught encounter; the Fees were held to be especially powerful and inclined to activity as the time of All Hallows or Samhain drew nigh. As is described of the Shamanic Initiation, meetings with the Fees could leave one with a physical infirmity or crisis somehow; however, such an experience also tended to enable one with the visionary ability to see and communicate with the Fee-Folk- often in places (such as hilltops) or at times (Halloween, or Saturday nights in general) deemed conducive to the Folk. In such instances, the Fees could often serve as instructors and teachers (consider also the Elizabethan case of John Walsh, of Dorset).
Scott quotes the case of John Stewart here, as “another instance of a fortune-teller referring to Elfland as the source of his knowledge.” He demonstrates the unfortunate situation through which we now have cause to remember Mr. Stewart, Faerie-Groupie of 1600s Scotland, when (as he says) he reverts to the “execrable proceedings which then took place against this miserable juggler and the poor women who were accused of the same crime”- which would be the Witch-Trial of Margaret Barclay, of Irvine.
According to Rossell Hope Robbins’ invaluable Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (“Barclay, Margaret”), the facts are these: in 1618, Margaret Barclay, wife of a burgess in Irvine, Ayrshire (always be suspicious of Witch-Hunts in which one of the accused is related to someone important), was not on good terms with her brother-in-law and his wife, exchanging acrimony and retaining rancor when her brother-in-law set sail for France; it was alleged that she wished the ship to sink, and crabs to eat his flesh. Enter John Stewart, passing through Irvine, able to tell the future through the aid of the Faereys, and speaking of a ship foundering at sea. Curiously, this is a rare Jugglers’ prediction which comes true, as surviving sailors from the lost ship made their way back to town, confirming the ship’s destruction. As Scots authorities are apt to consider the Faeries as “diabolical” and fortune-telling as “devilish”: into prison goes John Stewart and Margaret Barclay. There, “doubtless under torture,” Stewart produced a story about Barclay enlisting his assistance in an act of Magickal Revenge; he met her in an abandoned house, where they constructed waxen images of Barclay’s brother-in-law and the ship. Stewart gave Barclay a accomplice: one Isobel Insh, whose eight year-old daughter was apprehended, emerging with a story about being present at the hellish workings, while a devil-dog breathed fire out his mouth, to enable them to see. (This is an example of the regrettable Burning Times tendency to extract “evidence” from children, sometimes against their parents.)
Insh was tortured into confession. Confined in the church belfry, she attempted an escape, but fell to the ground. She died a few days later. Stewart somehow committed suicide in prison by hanging himself; Robbins expresses such skepticism here, one wonders if this was not some sort of jailhouse murder. Barclay was subjected to what is called a “most safe and gentle torture.” (Scott cannot get over the use of that expression.) Her legs locked into a pair of stocks, heavy iron bars were laid across them until, able to bear the pain no longer, she confessed, implicating one Isobel Crawford. Crawford was put to the same “safe and gentle torture,” which she endured with fortitude. The account-writer seems almost admiring, in describing how she would, “without any kind of din or exclamation, suffer above thirty stone [420 pounds] of iron to be laid on her legs, never shrinking thereat in any sort, but remaining, as it were, steady.” However, finally, the torture was too much to endure, and she confessed to relations with the Devil. Barclay was strangled before being burnt, her ashes flung far and wide. Crawford “died impenitent and absolutely refusing to pardon the executioner.” (It was customary to ask the condemned to forgive the person doing them to death.)
Walter Scott, the first to report this case, is horrified by what he has uncovered (quoted by Robbins): “It is scarce possible that, after reading such a story, a man of sense can listen for an instant to the evidence founded on confession thus obtained.” The thing is- this isn’t even one of the more extreme Scots Witch-Cases: it’s not the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597 or the North Berwick Witch-Trials. As Robbins notes, in a particular sort of damnation: it was ”typical, no better and no worse than thousands of other witch trials in Scotland.”