IF GLASGOW was a bishop's burgh before the Scottish Reformation of

1560, the picture which emerges after the Reformation is of a town which

is tightly ruled by a theocracy made up of the provost, bailies,

council, and ministers.

As might be expected, women are mentioned incidentally in the Burgh

Records as providers of services to the town. For example, payment was

made to the town-hall cleaners, ''the weemen quha dichts the

Tolboothe'', on May 5, 1655, and payments were made to those who

provided food and wine to the council on special occasions.

More often brawls between women were settled in the burgh court. A

typical misdemeanour was that of throwing urine over others, as Marian

Alderston did in April 1574. On May 18, 1574, Janet Dunlop was found

guilty of troubling Agnes Martin, by throwing dirt at her window and

spoiling her cheese, bread, and butter, whilst Agnes was also deemed

guilty of throwing urine over Janet. A similar brawl between Margaret

Kinloch and Florence Cunninghame took place in August 1574, when one

called the other ''a priest's whore''.

Sometimes, the arguments could be quite violent; on May 29, 1590,

Elspeth Clogy was accused of throwing stones at Christian Sauchie and

''biting her through the arm and letting the piece of flesh which she

bit, fall into the watter''.

Trespass and theft were also crimes common to women. In April 1574,

three women were found guilty of taking a shortcut through Duncan

Finlay's yard and destroying his grass. In May 1578 Bessie Douglas was

warned yet again about letting her cows stray through the kirkyard dyke

and grazing on the burial ground, and appropriate repairs were


In August 1589 special measures were taken to protect the doocots and

doves in the town, which had been under attack from men shooting and

slaying the stock. On November 11, 1595, Margaret Reid was banished from

the town because of a catalogue of theft.

Women were regularly found guilty of gossiping, quarrelling, or

''flyting'' and were punished in a very public way, chained up with a

metal cage over their heads which contained a mouthpiece to depress the

tongue and prevent speech. A typical example is the case of Janet

Foirside, found guilty of slandering Margaret Fleming in July, 1584, by

saying that she

had tane Duncan Leiche to ane chalmir and had layne with him and usit

her as he thocht guid . . . the bailies and counsell upon the said

Jonetis awin confessioun . . . ordanis hir upoun Monounday nixtocum to

be presentit to the govis and to the brankis to be put in her mowth, and

thair to stand and remane in her mowth during the said Margaret

Flemingis will, and upon the Sounday thaireftir to pas upe to the place

of repentance and thair in presens of the minister for the tyme confes

the foirsaid sclanderous wordis to be maist fals . . . and ask God

mercie thairfoir, the congregatioun and the said Margaret . . .

Church and state regularly combined in this way to keep women in

check, and it is evident from the records that the ''evil doers'' were

periodically successful in damaging or removing the branks. In December

1594, the Glasgow Kirk Session decreed that the branks should be set up

in a public place, and ordered a cart for the purpose of taking harlots

through the town, and a pulley to be made on the bridge whereby

adulterers could be ducked in the Clyde.

There was a complicated sliding scale of punishments and fines for

adultery and fornication which changed when the church thought fit. In

1586 the Kirk Session decreed that the punishment for adultery was ''to

satisfy 6 Sabbaths at the Pillar, bare foot and bare legged in

sackcloth: also to be carted through the town''. On August 16, 1587, the

same Kirk Session decreed the following:

That servant women for single fornication, pay 2obs for her relief

from Cross and Steeple. The man servant 3obs or else be put in prison 8

days on bread and water, thereafter to be put in the jugs. As for the

richer sorts of servants, to be exacted at the arbitriment of the Kirk.

This act not to extend to honest men's sons and daughters; but they to

be punished as the Kirk shall prescribe.

Glasgow Town Council in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

repeatedly prohibited single or ''orray'' women and beggars or vagabonds

of either sex from living alone or renting rooms or houses together. The

magistrates and Kirk Session frequently combined to search out and

legislate against such households. Women living on their own were

obviously considered to be out of control in a patriarchal society where

people's private lives were scrutinised and restricted to a degree which

is hard to imagine. When we consider this atmosphere of control,

repression, contempt and hatred of women, the circumstances of the

witch-hunts in Scotland, whereby women were persecuted, tortured, and

burned to death, with the full support of the church and state, became

easier to understand.

Historians usually seek explanations other than woman-hatred for the

European witch-hunt, or treat it as being some kind of temporary

aberration, unrelated to mainstream historical development. Without

first taking into consideration the oppression of women, some

interpretations often read like a defence of the indefensible.

Witch-hunting in Scotland was sanctioned by the Witchcraft Act of

1563, which made witchcraft a capital offence. The last witch was burned

in 1727 and the Act repealed in 1735, but not without opposition from

many in the church and universities, who thought this was a backward


Because of the nature of the sources, it is impossible to determine

how many women died; whilst the number was thought to be in the region

of 4000, research by the late Christina Larner indicates a figure of

some 1337 executions, with a possible margin of error of about 300

either way. Numbers are in many respects immaterial; the atrocities

perpetrated and the smell of burning flesh are no less terrible for one

as they are for four.

The intensity of the early persecutions can be attributed to the

personal interest of King James VI in the subject. He wrote and

published a treatise on the subject called Daemonology in 1597, and

entertained no doubts as to why it was women who were mainly involved in


that sex is frailer than man is, so it is easier to be entrapped in

those grosse snares of the divell, as was over-well proved to be trew,

by the serpent's deceiving of Eve at the beginning which makes him the

homelier with that sex sensine.

Working-class women were the main victims of the witch-hunts. A common

factor seems to have been their sharp tongues combined with an inability

to show due deference to authority when required. A quarrel between

neighbours after which one of the parties had sickness in her family or

among their livestock, could in some circumstances end in accusation of


Women thus accused were arrested, questioned, and examined for the

devil's mark. Often a professional witch-pricker was called in, to test

for the devil's mark by thrusting pins into the body of the accused. If

a pin was thrust in without any sign of blood or pain, it was taken as

conclusive proof. A graphic account of the process survives for

Inverness in 1662:

There came then to Inverness one Mr Paterson, who had run over the

kingdom for the trial of witches, and was ordinarily called the Pricker,

because his way of trial was with a long brass pin. Stripping them

naked, he alleged that the spell spot was seen and discovered. After

rubbing over the whole body with his palms he slipt in the pin, and it

seems, with shame and fear being dashed, they felt it not, but he had


it in the flesh, deep to the head, and desired them to find and take

it out. It is sure some witches were discovered, but many honest men and

women were blotted and broke by the trick . . .

The terror of being stripped naked and abused in this way, in the

presence of the good men of the town who would be there to witness it,

was no doubt enough to anaesthetise the senses and thus aid the proof.

An additional important factor was the treatment of imprisoned

witches. They were kept awake, day and night, so that they would have no

further contact with Satan. Sleep deprivation is now widely recognised

as a commonplace tool in the torture kit of oppressive regimes, and it

was practised to perfection in seventeenth-century Scotland.

Confessions were wrung in this way, sometimes with the additional help

of the ''boot'' (for crushing the legs) or the thumbscrews. The

treatment of imprisoned witches was so bad that suicide was often taken

as a way out. After torture, confession, and trial, the sentence could

seem merciful.

Usually, the victims were either hanged or tied to a stake and

''wirreit'' (strangled), and their bodies were burned. Only in

exceptional cases were they burned ''quick'' (alive and conscious).

Burning was deemed necessary on scriptural grounds, taking the words of

Christ in John XV, 6: ''If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a

branch, and is withered; men gather them, and cast them into the fire

and they are burned.''

Sir George MacKenzie of Rosehaugh left behind an account of a woman

who was glad to confess:

I went when I was Justice-depute to examine some Women, who had

confest judicially, and one of them, who was a silly creature, told me

under secresie that she had not confest because she was guilty, but

being a poor creature, who wrought for her meat and being defam'd for a

Witch, she knew she would starve, for no person therafter would give her

meat or lodging, and that all men would beat her, and hound Dogs at her,

therefore she desired to be out of the World; whereupon she wept

bitterly, and upon her knees call'd God to witness all she said.

MOST recorded confessions involve standard details of a demonic pact,

the woman usually agreeing to renounce her baptism and give everything

''from the crown of the head to the soles of her feet'' to the Devil.

Sometimes the Devil appeared in human form, sometimes in animal form;

sexual intercourse took place and the Devil's marks were received.

In return for this, Satan made no great promises. Usually, it was

merely that the witch ''should never want'', a gift which probably

reflected the economic status of the woman. The first recorded

witchcraft cases in Glasgow date from 1597 and are described in

Spottiswoode's History of the Church of Scotland (1655).

Glasgow had only one witch place-name -- Witch Loan -- which survived

into modern times. This probably reflects the fact that there were fewer

prosecutions in the west of Scotland than in the country as a whole;

Dunfermline by contrast had a Witch Loan, Knowe, and Dub.

Glasgow's Witch Loan (later renamed Abercromby Street), was apparently

so named because it was the road along which cattle were driven to

lusher pastures beside the Clyde. Cattle on the high ground -- sick,

stunted, and lacking milk because of lack of feed -- were often

considered to be bewitched. Once past Witch Loan, they became better


There were several epidemics of witch-hunting in Scotland during this

protracted war against women. Burnings were frequent in the 1590s, late

1620s, 1640s, and early 1660s. The sufferings of women in Glasgow were

less than those in parts of Fife and the Lothians, however, and as a

national preoccupation, the hunt is reckoned to have been at an end by

1662. It is therefore interesting to note that two notorious cases

happened in the Glasgow area long after the hunt ceased to be

fashionable elsewhere.

The first is the bewitching of Sir George Maxwell of Nether Pollok in

1677. Along with some neighbouring landowners, Maxwell had received a

commission to put on trial three women in Inverkip in January 1662, so

he was a firm believer in the superstition. When in 1676 he ''was

surprised at Glasgow, in the night-time, with a hot and fiery

distemper'', witchcraft was immediately suspected.

In the investigations which followed, six people were accused of

witchcraft, and five of them were strangled and burned. They were Janet

Mathie, her son John Stewart, Margaret Jackson, Bessie Weir, and Marjory

Craig. Annabel Stewart, daughter of Janet Mathie, was reprieved on

account of her age (she was only nine years old), but was ordered to be

kept in prison.

Sir John Maxwell, son and heir of Sir George, was involved in the

second case -- that of Christian Shaw, daughter of the Laird of

Bargarran -- which racked Renfrewshire in 1696-1700. Sir John Maxwell

had been a Member of Parliament for Renfrew and was Rector of Glasgow

University, but it was in his legal capacity, and on account of his

position as a Privy Councillor, that his neighbour, John Shaw of

Bargarran, turned to him when he believed his daughter was bewitched.

Sir John obtained the necessary commission to prosecute the case, and

was one of the nine commissioners appointed to the preliminary

investigation, which came up with a list of 26 people accused of


He was also part of a second, smaller commission, which undertook

further investigations into the matter. He was one of the distinguished

Judges who condemned seven people to death for bewitching Christian

Shaw, and was present at the Gallow Green of Paisley on June 10, 1697,

when six of them were strangled and burnt.

This so-called case of the Paisley witches was horrific in its

duration, geographical spread, personal anguish, and cost in human

lives. It began on August 17, 1696, when Christian Shaw reported a

servant, Katherine Campbell, for stealing a drink of milk. Katherine

uttered a curse against the girl, and not long afterwards, Christian

began to suffer hysterical and demonic fits of a frightening nature.

During the course of them, many innocent people were accused of


The jails were not big enough to hold them, and at one point the

prisoners were divided between the tolbooths of Paisley, Glasgow, and

Renfrew. Payments for the keeping of the witches in the Glasgow Tolbooth

are recorded four times in the Burgh Records between 1697 and 1699.

The sufferings of the accused, some of whom were reported to be

starving, can only be imagined. One, John Reid, who was a smith at

Inchinnan, made a confession and then committed suicide; it was said

that Satan had claimed him. Another, Annabel Reid (who may have been

related), was in prison with two small children and a baby at her

breast, and was let out on compassionate grounds in 1697. A surviving

dittay roll of May 1699 shows that she still stood indicted of

witchcraft, along with 26 others.

THE cream of the Scottish legal profession were involved in this black

episode. Their judgment was aided by a stirring sermon, delivered to

them beforehand by the Reverend James Hutchison, who took his text from

Exodus XI, 18: ''Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.'' Hutchison was

able to prove, amongst other things, that children could be guilty of

witchcraft (two of the accused were young boys), and that it was a crime

particular to poor people, who ''could get their malice and envy

satisfied'' through it.

The dittay roll of May 1699, which is kept in Register House in

Edinburgh, is a document which testifies to the strength of the belief

in witchcraft at this late date. The 26 accused were from Govan and

Glasgow as well as the Paisley area; the charges against them cover many

sheets of paper, pasted into a roll some 12 feet long.

The disgrace, humiliation, panic, and blind terror which these

indictments must have caused to many families over a large geographical

area, in the wake of the execution of six people, is beyond assessment.

Some who witnessed the executions passed on the horror of it to the next


The duration and infamy of the Bargarran case seemed for a time to

strengthen belief in witchcraft. Apart from the publications on the case

itself, there were others, such as Witchcraft Proven (1697) and the

Tryal of Witchcraft (1705), both of which were published in Glasgow.

In 1699 the Glasgow Synod thought it desirable to have ''those in

readiness at the Justiciar Court that has the skill to try the

insensible mark''. Professor George Sinclair's Satan's Invisible World

Discovered (Glasgow, 1685), which was to become a source-book on

witchcraft for succeeding generations, was also popular.

In recent years, there has been a revival of popular interest in the

Glasgow witches. The Fablevision theatre company devised a play on the

Bargarran case. Anne Downie's play, The Witches of Pollok, dealing with

the Maxwell case, was premiered at the Tron Theatre during 1990.

* Extracted from The Hidden History of Glasgow's Women: The Thenew

Factor by Elspeth King, to be published next week by Mainstream