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Issue 39 - Christian Shaw and the witches

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008

 

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Christian Shaw and the witches

James Irvine Robertson brings to light the story of a little girl and Scotland's very own witch trials

In 1692 they hanged 19 witches in Salem, United States of America, on the evidence of nine ‘afflicted children.’ Scotland had its own very similar experience a few years later. This time only one child was at the centre of the storm, and she was responsible for the deaths of seven people for witchcraft, but her later life was equally remarkable.

Christian Shaw was born in 1685, the eldest daughter of John Shaw, laird of the small estate of Bargarran in Renfrewshire.

When she was a ‘smart lively girl’ of 11, she caught a housemaid, Catherine Campbell, drinking the household milk without permission and told her mother. “The Devil hurl your soul through hell,” said Catherine.

Soon afterwards Christian began to have fits and strange visions. A change of air brought about an improvement, but when she returned home, the problems returned and her condition became worse. Christian claimed that Catherine and others, mostly those whom she disliked, were torturing her and her body showed the signs of severed pinch marks. She began to spit such things as “unclean hay, wild fowls’ feathers, gravel stones, nut-galls, candle-grease, egg-shells” which she declared had been placed inside her body by her tormentors. She floated round rooms without touching the floor and transported objects. She also engaged in complex theological arguments with the invisible devil, accurately citing biblical texts.

Her father took her to the eminent Dr Matthew Brisbane, a graduate of the University of Utrecht, and, for his benefit, she spat out a hot coal the size of a chestnut. He was baffled and diagnosed her condition as diabolic possession. Her father persuaded the sheriff depute of Lanarkshire to jail those his daughter accused of harassing her since witches lost their power when imprisoned, but the victim’s condition showed little improvement.

‘Honourable commissioners appointed by his Majesty’s Privy Council’ investigated the affair. Alexander Anderson, an ‘ignorant irreligious fellow,’ his mother and daughter, Elizabeth, were arrested. The latter was ‘severely interrogated’ and she said she had often seen the devil, in the likeness of a little black man, in the company of her grandmother. She also produced more names of those who consorted with Satan. So did Christian.

Twenty one men, women and children were thrown into prison and ‘witch prickers’ examined them, seeking the numb spot on their bodies and an imperfection, perhaps as insignificant as a freckle, the devil’s claw, which would prove their guilt. They were paraded before Christian, and their presence caused her to lapse into fits. Twelve year old Thomas Lindsay was one of those arrested having testified that his father was the devil and he could fly like a crow.

They were brought to trial in Paisley in March 1697 before a bench of judges and a jury, and charged with witchcraft and murder since some children had been found dead in the morning and seemed to have been perfectly well the night before. A minister had also died. Witnesses declared that he had been ‘in excessive torment, and of an unusual colour, to have been of sound judgment; and yet he did tell of several women being about him, and that he heard the noise of the door opening, when none else did hear it.’ Fourteen of those charged were found not guilty and released. The remainder, four women, including Catherine Campbell, and three men, were sentenced to death. On the 10th of June, on the Gallow Green of Paisley, a gibbet and a fire were prepared together. The victims were brought out and hung for a few minutes on the one, then cut down and burned in the other. Aman called John Reid would have made a sixth victim, if he had not been found that morning dead in his cell, hanging to a pin in the wall by his handkerchief, and believed to have been ‘strangled by the devil.’ The executions were watched by a large crowd which probably included Christian. And she was cured.

Understandably, Christian was not a hot property on the marriage market. She was 34 before she found a husband, John Millar, the minister of Kilmaurs in 1719, and he died within three years. The widowed Christian then found a small house in Johnstone and took up spinning.

At that time, Dutch lace and linen led the world. They had invented a mill that could twist flax to produce a strong, consistent thread. Christian found she was unable to produce its equal. And she saw an opportunity. She persuaded a Glasgow merchant of her acquaintance to bring back the vital bits of machinery on his next visit to the Netherlands, and built a little thread mill on Bargarran, employing her sisters and making her mother the head of the firm. The judge who had presided over the witch trial was Lord Blantyre; his wife had kept in touch with Christian and her family. She took samples of their output down to Bath which was then the wildly fashionable spa town where the upper classes of the country went to take the waters and socialise.

Lady Blantyre persuaded her grand friends and local manufacturers to patronise the Bargarran threads, lawns and cambrics.

Christian used other aristocratic women to show off her goods; orders flowed north, and the reputation of the Bargarran Thread Company, with the family coat of arms as its trade mark, grew.

Soon its products were in demand from embroiders and lace-makers as far south as Honiton in Devon which was the centre for the production of high quality lace.

Others in Renfrewshire, particularly Paisley, copied Christian’s methods and soon she had spawned a flourishing industry.

Later in the century, cotton was added to to linen, and for two centuries the production of textiles was one of the most important industries in Scotland.

In 1820 the Paisley mills employed 7,000 people and at one time the town, after Edinburgh and Glasgow, was the largest population centre in Scotland. Only the advent of low-cost production in the developing world towards the end of the 20th century led to its extinction.

As for Christian herself? In 1737, in her 50s, and possessor of a substantial fortune, she married William Livingstone, an Edinburgh glover.And they lived happily ever after.