The Witches of Bargarran

The Paisley witches, also known as the Bargarran witches or the Renfrewshire witches, were tried in Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland, in 1697. Eleven-year-old Christian Shaw, daughter of the Laird of Bargarran, near Erskine, complained of being tormented by local witches; they included one of her family’s servants, Catherine Campbell.

On 17 August 1696, 11-year-old Christian Shaw, the daughter of a local landowner, John Shaw of Bargarran, saw one of her family’s maidservants, Catherine Campbell, steal a drink of milk. Shaw reported the theft to her mother who reprimanded the serving girl. Soon after, Catherine is said to have cursed her with the words, ‘May the Devil harl your soul through Hell.”

Four days later Shaw met Agnes Naismith, an old woman reputed to be a witch and the following day, the 22nd of August, Shaw became violently ill with fits, similar to the symptoms reported a few years earlier in the American Salem witch trials of 1693. After eight weeks Shaw’s parents took her to see the eminent Glasgow physician Matthew Brisbane, who could find no cause for her symptoms. For eight days after her visit to the doctor  Shaw seemed to have recovered, but then “the fits returned with increased violence. She would become as stiff as a corpse and be senseless and motionless”.

Shaw’s parents took her back to Dr Brisbane, and
by the time they arrived back in Glasgow she had begun to pull out of her mouth balls of hair she claimed had been put there by those who were afflicting her. Soon she began to pull other “trash” out of her mouth, including straw, coal, gravel, chicken feathers, and cinders. During her fits she was sometimes heard to be talking to the invisible Catherine Campbell, pleading for a return to their former friendship.

With Brisbane unable to provide any rational explanation for Shaw’s condition, her family and their local parish minister concluded that she must be possessed and being tormented by witches, a common occurrence in England and Scotland and a central element in the Salem witch trials a few years earlier. The church set up a weekly fast and prayer meeting at Bargarran House, and Shaw’s father appealed to the authorities that those named by his daughter as tormenting her should be arrested. She had initially identified only Catherine Campbell and Agnes Naismith, but as time wore on she implicated others, and eventually 35 were accused. Ten were male and twenty female; the sexes and identities of the remaining five are unknown.

At the request of the Presbytery of Paisley the Scottish Privy Council set up a commission to investigate the case. Under the chairmanship of Lord Blantyre, the hearing opened on 5 February 1697.The commission’s task was to decide whether there was a prima facie case against those accused by Shaw before they were committed for trial.

Paisley 1693

Seven people were subsequently summoned to appear before a second commission in Paisley- Margaret Lang, James Lindsay, John Reid, Catherine Campbell, Margaret Fulton, Agnes Naismith and John Lyndsay of Barloch. They were charged with murder and tormenting a number of people, including Christian Shaw. Their advocate, James Roberston, argued that the prosecution was obliged to rule out the possibility that the events surrounding the case could be explained by natural causes before a conviction could be safely secured.
 Matthew Brisbane gave evidence stating that he had been unable to find any such cause for Shaw’s condition.
 James Hutchison, the minister of Kilallan, about 5 miles north of Paisley, delivered a sermon to the commission; it was commonplace at the time for a member of the clergy to preach to the court in Scottish witch trials, and they were not infrequently instrumental in securing convictions. Hutchison placed great store on the presence of witches’ marks on the bodies of the accused, and cast doubt on the natural explanations of those marks offered by some physicians: ‘And however doctors may say such and such things of it [a witches’ mark, we know not upon what ground. It may be that they have been budded and bribed to say such things’.

The jury, confronted by such a threat from the prosecutor that if they acquitted the defendants they would be ‘accessory to all the blasphemies, apostacies, murders, tortures, and seductions, etc., whereof those enemies of heaven and earth shall hereafter be guilty when they get out’, found all seven of the accused guilty.

One of those convicted, James Reid committed suicide by hanging himself in his prison cell in the Paisley Tolbooth, using his handkerchief attached to a nail in the wall. The remaining six were garoted and then burned on the Gallow Green in Paisley on 10th June 1697. This was the last mass execution for witchcraft in western Europe.

Catherine Campbell, having been carried struggling and screaming to the gallows, “called down the wrath of God and the Devil on her accusers” before being despatched.

Margaret Fulton appeared to have become insane, and “spoke cheerfully about visits to Elfland and the Abode of the Fairies on the backs of magical horses”. Margaret Lang admitted to consorting with the Devil by fornication when young, but said that she had renounced sin and was reconciled with God.

Agnes Naismith laid a “dying woman’s curse” on everyone present and their descendants; ‘there’ll be a hex on all yir bairns and a wrath on all yir fortunes.’

What remains of the Gallow Green, Paisley

For many years afterwards every tragedy in the town was blamed on ‘the witches’ curse’.

Their remains were buried at the crossroads where Maxwellton Street crosses Canal Street and a horseshoe was set in the road.  This was supposed to prevent the witches’ spirits from returning to haunt the living.  The horseshoe later became dislodged due to the amount of traffic passing over it.  The horseshoe was put back in place but it later disappeared and many people believed that Agnes Naismith’s curse had come true as it led to a period of decline for buddies.

In May 2008 a new horseshoe was designed by Sandy Stoddart and laid at the crossing. The inscription on the horseshoe reads “Pain Inflicted. Suffering endured. Injustice done”.

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