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Scotland Magazine Issue 44
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Walking with witches
Annette Harrower-Grey leads us on a historic tour
of the Fife coast, setting for some dramatic events in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Fife Coastal path rambles along the Firth of Forth and on through 95 miles of breathtaking scenery from Culross to the Tay Bridge. It meanders past several small towns, once inhabited by very individual peoples with their own customs, manner of speech and superstitions.
For those unable to tackle the whole journey, the church at St. Monans is a good starting point for a leisurely stroll along the coast and through two fishing ports that played host to some of the most diabolical atrocities of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Until 1737, bewitchment was a capital offence in Scotland, death by burning the punishment for flirting with the devil. Christian Dore was found guilty of witchcraft in St.
Monans and burned in 1644. Her remains were deposited in the Brunt Laft, a loft in the church spire. It would be the second ‘witch’ to suffer on the pyre who would prove the link to later events in the neighbouring town of Pittenweem.
Maggie Morgan was quite a beauty. A gentleman, one of the Anstruther family pursued her relentlessly although she spurned his attentions. His persistence paid off, for he succeeded in seducing and impregnating Maggie before abandoning her.
After her child was born, the Parish minister summoned Maggie to the Kirk session. She could not refuse. The word of the church was absolute. The errant gentleman was not required to appear as the minister was a known guest at Anstruther’s dinner table and obligingly declared the child fatherless.
Forced to admit to being ‘a harlot and a scandalous limmer,’ Maggie was subjected to much ridicule in front of the congregation.
When the gentleman was drowned in a boating accident the minister was told Maggie had taken up with a witch from Pittenweem who taught her evil spells to bring about disasters at sea. After a criminally short trial, Maggie was burned on Kirk Hill behind the church. Her spell master was allegedly a man called Brown and was not to be the only Brown from Pittenweem accused of sorcery.
Heading east towards Pittenweem the path is well signposted and it is easy walking through the harbour and over the slopes towards the Windmill and saltpans set up by the Newark Coal and Salt Works in 1771. At the turn of the 17th century the windmill would mark the boundary between the seafaring residents of St. Monans harbour and the agriculturists on the hill above.
The sailors feared the farmers who kept swine. When a pig broke loose and rushed down the brae there would be an ensuing panic below. Pigs were the emissaries of hell.
To speak their name was inviting disaster and the best way to avoid retribution for such carelessness was to touch ‘cauld’ iron. Any traveller on the path then would have been advised to carry a pocketful of nails.
It was this superstitious outlook and religious ignorance that ensured Patrick Morton, a blacksmith from Pittenweem was a receptive listener when stories of the Bargarran witch trial, found their way over from Edinburgh.
Aspoilt 11 year old, Christian Shaw was the daughter of the wealthy owners of the Bargarran estate near Paisley. She was known for her tantrums and a servant girl, Katherine Campbell, made the mistake of scolding her.
Five days later, Christian’s parents found her in a state of terror and screaming gibberish. For two months the girl fought with unseen demons and named Katherine and six other servants as her tormentors. Of the seven servants tried for witchcraft on 13th April 1697 one committed suicide and five burned. Christian later admitted it was all a vicious hoax. After the trial she lived peacefully and married a minister of the church.
It was another church minister Patrick Couper, who told Patrick Morton the tale, giving him the means to have his revenge on the people of Pittenweem, a vengeance that would end in brutal murder.
As the path approaches the western braes of Pittenweem, look above the walls to where the town’s rubbish was dumped in the 18th century. You may well find yourself looking upon the graves of the two murder victims, Thomas Brown probably a relative of the earlier Brown and Janet Cornfoot. Their broken bodies were discarded here and never found.
Around the next corner a row of brightly painted cottages catch the eye. Today these cottages open their doors to the public during the Arts Festival in August. In 1704 they were the hovels housing the poor fisher folk of the town.
Janet Cornfoot may well have lived here.
She certainly died on the doorstep of one of these dwellings, crushed under a heavy door.
She escaped more dead than alive from the pier a few yards away where the baying mob tied her to the bows of the ship Sophia and repeatedly catapulted her into the freezing waters.
The two Patricks looked on proud of their work that evening. Janet Cornfoot, Thomas Brown, Janet Horseburgh, Nicolas Lawson, Isobel Adam and Beatrice Laing were all accused of witchcraft by Morton. The hysteria arising from his allegations was fuelled by Couper’s evil portrayals from the pulpit.
The persecutions began with the blacksmith making nails for the restoration of the harbour. Beatrice Laing, a wealthy local woman, wanted him to make nails for her but Morton told her to return later. She gave him a tongue-lashing.
Next day, he discovered coal in a bucket of water outside his door and claimed Beatrice had bewitched him. Given the powers of ‘cauld’ iron it seems odd for a witch to be buying nails but the incident was enough to send Morton into convulsive fits in which he screamed out blasphemous agonies and implored his tormentors, Beatrice Laing and her five accomplices, to stop the pain. Couper took charge and ordered the six to be detained in the tollbooth.
The signpost for the tollbooth is to the left of the harbour and the building is situated at the top of the steep Cove Wynd. It was in this prison all six accused were tortured. Here the elderly Thomas Brown died from starvation and Janet Cornfoot would escape only to be recaptured and dragged through the streets to her death.
If, by now, you’re in need of a break from the macabre, this is a good place to stop. A coffee and some of the excellent handmade chocolates at the Cocoa Tree Shop over the road should help revive the spirit some. It is also where a key to St. Fillans Cave is kept and visitors may borrow it at the cost of one pound. With its decorative Celtic cross on the door the focus here is definitely on the cave’s holy connections but this is where Beatrice Laing was held for five months in total darkness after being tortured into signing a confession.
After returning the key, it is worth taking a stroll around the graveyard behind the tollbooth. In a small town isolated by its own peculiar customs it would be expected that all those who played a part in the events would be buried here. Only the final resting place of Janet Horseburgh marked by a tabletop stone is here. Patrick Morton disappeared.
Beatrice Laing died a poor soul foraging in the Streets of St. Andrews. There is no record of Isobel Adam or Nicolas Lawson.
The Parish minister for 48 years, it seems likely that Patrick Couper would be buried with the other ministers in the southwest corner of the graveyard but he is not here.
One plaque exists that is so badly corroded it is unreadable. Could this be his stone worn away by the ravages of time or scrubbed clean of its shame by the human hand of the church?