Witches in Clackmannanshire


As in many parts of the world, Clackmannanshire once had witch trials. The most commonly known one being that of Margaret Duchell.

The ordinary people of the 16th and 17th century believed that magic was very real. The belief and ritual practices helped people to make sense of the world especially when misfortunes presented in their lives. People's belief systems included God, the Devil, fairies and spirit guides - therefore “magic” was an easy extension of their beliefs. People had varying views about who was responsible for witchcraft - many saying the “abilities” were given by either God or the Devil. Poorer people believed that a witch's power came from the fairies.

Anyone who had this “wisdom or knowledge” made King James VI, landowners and the church fearful, as they did not understand the “powers” the so-called witches had and so became paranoid of them. Witchcraft was only one element of a belief system in which people also believed in “service magic”, ”divination magic” (the finding of lost or stolen property), love positions, and charm healing. Many of the witches were men and women who had a knowledge of how plants and “practices” were good for health and to treat those that were sick. For many centuries these wise people would provide “health care” for the villagers. They would often suggest “potions” - blends of herbs and plants that would help people recover from illness or injury. Sometimes these were the very same people who would assist delivering babies if necessary. The finding of water by water dowsing was a well known and very effective form of “magic”. Magic was also believed to provide some protection from negative forces by the use of counter/white magic, this was used to mark out boundaries to protect from negative witchcraft as well as deterrents such as “witch bottles” hung over doors or hidden within the home. “Black” men were also considered to be among this group of people - these were usually men who worked in pits or salt pans and would by the nature of their work be dirt covered in public.

It was believed there were two main types of witches, the “village witch” and the “demonic witch”. The belief was that witch's skills pass down through generations of families, often in the females. The village witch was basically hiding in plain sight, she would appear to be a “god fearing” woman who would practice evil magic against those she took “issue” with. The village witch was believed to cast curses and spells against their neighbours causing misfortune. It was said the village witch would act alone and perform their magic out of personal malice because of past disagreements or perceived wrong doing to them by another villager. Often the people and animals who died suddenly were claimed to be the victims of a witch's spell. As was a period of bad luck that a person, family, farm or village were experiencing.

The “demonic witch” was seen as a witch who practised harmful magic and served the Devil. These witch powers were not passed through family generations, indeed all the powers were “given” by the Devil when the witch “called” on him. To be able to call the Devil, the witches would have to make a pact with him. Many believed that demonic witches were part of a conspiracy to destroy Christian society, therefore witchcraft was seen as heresy or a false belief.

During witch trials there were several different types of evidence used, these were confessions, testimonies from others, usually in the form of accusations and statements, testimonies from other witches and finally the finding of the “Devil's Mark”. Most confessions were obtained through torture. A confession was required to be able to apply for a commission to be set up and investigate the accusations. A confession was also sufficient proof of guilt. Those who have accused others of witchcraft would provide statements detailing their reasons for the accusations. These statements would also help provide a picture of the accused persons background, past behaviour and reputation. Another witch naming others as witches was also strong evidence, especially when the claim to have seen the accused at secret gatherings with other witches and the Devil. Lastly the “Devil's Mark” would be looked for on the body of the accused, there were people who sought out to expose witches who were called “Witch Hunters" or in Scotland, "Witch Prickers” they would examine the body looking for either a blemish somewhere on the body or an area of body that had no sensation, this was why they would prick the accused person usually with a needle or knife, if no pain was found then the person was confirmed a witch.

In 1597 two women from Dollar were accused of witchcraft. They were Catherine Kello and Jonet Crawford. The Presbytery of Stirling insisted that they be examined by ministers from Stirling. During their examination both women apparently confessed to being witches. Sadly there is no knowledge of what the women's punishment entailed.

In the 17th century was a fearful time for those people who were accused of being witches and warlocks. An accusation of witchcraft normally meant the the person would stand trial before a nominated commission. That commission was made up of Church Ministers, landowners and titled men, i.e. Lords and Earls. Two members of the Clackmannanshire Erskine family, John Erskine, 2nd Earl of Mar and his second son Sir John Erskine of Otterstoun were members of witch trial commissions. Very little is known about the son, however information is available about the 2nd Earl of Mar's commissions. Sir John senior was involved in two trials, the first of which was prior to him becoming the Earl. At that point in time he was the Sheriff of Stirling, where he was called upon to set up a commission to investigate a Denny woman, Margaret Crawford, who had been observing Holy Communion in the way of the Catholics. Needless to say the Presbyteries wanted this issue investigated. There are no notes of this trial or commission and Margaret always stated she did not perform witchcraft.

In 1613-1614, Sir John Snr was part of the commission that investigated the accusations against a group of siblings who belonged to the Erskine of Dun family. Four siblings Robert, Annas, Isabel and Helen Erskine of Dun were accused of seeking the help of a witch to kill their nephews to enable them to inherit the estate and titles. The siblings were claimed to have approached Janet Irvine asking her to poison and kill John and Alexander Erskine, who had only recently inherited the estate after the death of their father. John snr was a member of the commission which investigated this case. John snr had to ensure the siblings were present at their trial. They were tried in December 1613. Robert Erskine was tried and executed, Annas and Isabel were both found guilty as well and beheaded in Edinburgh at the Mercat Cross in June 1614. The last of the siblings Helen was tried the following year and was banished. The fate of the “witch” Janet Irvine is unknown.

In 1643 a trial was held in Kinross district of John Bruge the notorious “Crook of Devon Warlock”. At his trial is was said to be proven that he met with the Devil at Rumbling Bridge as well as the graveyard of Glendevon. Whilst in the graveyard he was said to have unburied some corpses. He was also said to have interfered with burials in the graveyard of the Kirk of Muckhart, then he hid his “bounty” in a barn, causing the destruction of the farm's cattle. For this and other “horrific crimes” John was tried in Culross in November of 1643. Once found guilty his punishment was to be strangled and then burnt apparently on the “Gallows Knowe” of Crook of Devon. In 1662 Crook of Devon was believed to be “greatly infested” with witches and warlocks. Ten other people were tried around the same time for their “wicked practices” several of whom were “burnt quick” meaning they were burnt alive at Crook of Devon.

Over the years 1658-59 there was a surge in the amount of accusations of witchcraft within the area of the Wee County. Several people from Alloa and Clackmannan were tried after accusations were made against them, several of the accused were then tortured, as was often the case, and made to provide names of the others in their “group”. Torture was often used to extract the information.

A minister from Stirling, Rev. Matthias Symson lead the investigation into the Alloa & Clackmannan witches. Rev. Symson and Rev. George Bennet of St Ninians had been instructed to “endevour to bring the accused to confession and conviction”.

A commission then met in Alloa on the 23rd of June for the trial to commence. The commission was made up of Mr Archibald Muschett of Gargunnock, a substitute Moderator (Mr Johne Craigngelt was absent due to illness), Robert Wright of Clackmannan, Matthias Symson a minister, Johne Craigingelt the minister at Dollar, Rev John Craigengelt snr who was the minister of Alloa, the Laird of Clackmannan, the Lairds of Menstrie and Tullibodie, Mr Robert Bruce of Kennet, Mr James Cunningham, Thomas Mitchell of Coldon the ruling elder of Alloa, Mr James Meldrum who was the Session Clerk, as well as some other gentlemen.

At the very start of the trial Mr Meldrum was presented with a confession which had been apparently been made by one of the accused Margaret Duchill who had died whilst awaiting trial. She confessed to acts of witchcraft, it was said that Margaret had several allegations laid against her by multiple church elders. Once the alligations were first made the ministers and elders had issued a letter which requested the Justices of the Peace send out orders to the Constables of Alloa to find and imprison her, she was also never to be left unguarded. Once held in prison Margaret was visited several times by members of the Commission who made exterme allegations of what witchcraft she had performed as well as chanting exoberant prayers over her about the sin of witchcraft. She did finally confess to her sins. In Margaret's confession she is said to have stated that she had been at the “Service of the devil” for 20 years. She claimed she first met him at the house of Isobell Jamieson, She then described the Devil as a man with brown clothes and a black hat, who asked her “What ails you?” her answer was “I am a poor person and cant get anywhere to live”. Margaret then claimed that the Devils reply was “You shall have no wont if you do my bidding”, he then gave her five shillings and sent her to get some food, when she returned with bannock cakes he then sent her to get a pitcher of ale, which they then sat and ate and drank together. Afterwards Margaret stood outside on the front path and spun some wool until nightime fell, when she entered back into the house he was still there. The Devil then asked Margaret “Maggie will you be my servant?” to which Margaret replied that she would. He then told her she had to stop following God and renounce her Baptism after complying with his orders he kissed her on her eyebrow leaving his “Devil's mark”. After marking Margaret he told her that she could call him anytime by calling for Johne and that he would never leave her and do her bidding. After this he disappeared in the morning sunrise.

Margaret apparently then went on to confess how she sought the life of Bessie Vertie from the Devil, after the two women had argued. She claimed that the Devil had told her to go to Bessie's house and hold Bessie's hand which she did, soon afterward Bessie took ill and died. Margaret then confessed she went to the Devil about Jonet Houston who owed her ten merks. He adviced her to ask for the money one last time and if she didn't receive it she was to hit Jonet's back which she did and soon Jonet was died.

The confession said that she then went on to cause the death of John Demperstone's daughter who had called her a “witch”, Margaret had again called upon the Devil to seek revenge, Margaret was told the next time she saw the child she should pull the childs arm which would cause her to bleed to death. When asked how any of these deaths were possible, Margaret replied “theat ! Eftir she got the word from Johne/Devil who was her master she could harm the greatest man or woman in the world”.

Margaret's was then questioned about any other people she knew who were at the service of the Devil, to this she stated that, Elspett Black, Bessie Paton, Margaret Talzeor and Catherine Rainy, who she said were guilt of attempting to murder William Moresone who they had dragged through the snow to a barn belonging to Walter Murray, where they were trying to murder him by drowning William continuely screamed “God be merciful to me”, this lead to the everyone but Margaret running away. Once William headed home she transformed herself into a black dog and followed him without being seen.

The confession went further and named two other women who were known to Margaret as witches they were Jonet Black and Margaret Demperston, who she had met somewhere between the church yard and the shore. This was the place they would go to dance and sing with the Devil, she stated they were lead by Bessie Paton. She also stated that the witches she knew often met in the houses of Alloa with the Devil, Elspeth Black would tell them where and when the meetings would be. Their last meeting had been in the Brewhouse of Andrew Erskine, One night at a meeting the Devil apparently appeared in the form of a cat which then went and killed a cow belonging to Edward Turner, she spoke of several other meetings during which a child, a horse and cow as well as a child of Thomas Bruce being killed.

At this point the Rev. John Craigengelt Jnr the minister for Dollar placed another document in front of the commission which recorded the interrogations of the others who were accused of being witches. It stated that in Alloa on the 3rd of June 1658 the Laird of Clackmannan and the Laird of Kennet as well as Justices of the Peace, Mr H Guthrie the Minister of Kilspindle, Mr Robert Wright the Minister of Clackmannan, Mr Johne Craigingelt the Minister of Dollar, Mr James Cunningham and Thomas Mitchell both elders of the Kirk Sessions in Alloa and finally Johne Kerrie an Elder of the Session were all present at the interrogations.

Margaret Talzeor was the first to be interviewed/interrogated, when asked if she was a witch, she replied “yes”. She told how it had been approximately three years since the Devil appeared to her whilst she was at the Bagrie Burne with Margaret Duchill. It was said that he appeared to be a young man dressed in black, who had suggested she renounce her baptism and belief in God, she said that she consented to do so in return he promised that she “would never want again”. He told her to call him by the name Johne whenever she needed him. She stated that the Devil had visited her since and that Margaret Duchill had appeared as a cat to her. According to her confession a meeting had taken place at midnight three months later at Bodsmeadow. On that night dancing had taken place to the tune played by James Kirk on his whistle, she also stated that they did not speak “ordinary language”.

It was then stated that Margaret Talzeor, Jonet Black and Bessie Paton had went on a strange journey to the Bowhouse where they had entered a barn through a hole in the byre door, apparent as a result of their visit the next day a cow and horse died. At a further meeting in a yard during winter time as the “the tyme of snow” were Bessie Paton, Jonet Black, Kathrine Rainy, Margaret Duchell and the Devil in his likeness of a man. At this meeting Jonet Black said that she was the “death of a bairne in Tullibodie of Marie Moreis” and that Margaret Duchall had told her that she had been in Clackmannan and had “killd a bairne to Thomas Bruce. Jonet went on to say that her name was given to her when she “renouncit her baptisme and interest in Jesus Chryst” the Devil at this time was in the likeness of a “rouch dog”, this being the night when Jonet Grott died and Margaret had been taken. She also stated that James Kirk provided whistle music for their dancing.

Evidence given by Katherine Rainy again identified Bessie Paton as a witch which Margaret Talzeor backed by stating “that the said Katherine was with the Devil and her at a meeting in the Cuninghar and danced with the rest of them. Katherine continued however to deny all allegations. The last of the “witches” to give evidence was Jonet Black. She confirmed much of the evidence already given and also confessed to the killing of a mole which appeared “to come back to life after two days dead”. She stated that she and Bessie Paton had always arranged to go the witch meetings together, something Bessie denied.

Bessie Paton then claimed that David Vertie, James Macknair and James Nicole had tortured her to force her to confess. It was said that they had put stones on her back and feet and burnt her legs with fire. Bessie stated that her legs where still not healed.

Once the women had given their evidence Rev. Matthias Symson was instructed to send a letter signed by himself, Major-General Jame Holburne, Laird of Menstire, “to the judges competent in criminal causes representing the case foresaid unto them, desiring that they take course with the women as accords the law.” Reverends Mushett and George Bennet were instructed to see the women to use prayer to convince them into further confessions.

However it was reported back to the Presbytery that “George Bennett and Mr Archibald Muschette went and dealt seriously with the witches towards confession, as they were desyrit yester night, but fand no word from them more than was formarlie confest be them”.

This witch trial resulted in all the women being found guilty leading to three of the women being burnt and one of them appears to have died in prison.

In July 1700, Mr John Scobie jnr (38) was called before the local court to be interrogated. John had accompanied his uncle another Mr John Scobie snr also from Clackmannan to a well at Grassmainston. The gentlemen had went to the well in a bid to sprinkle a magic potion given to them by Margaret, the wife of John snr, to sprinkle on John snr while he was in the well and naked, to cure whatever was making him unwell. John jnr stated that when his uncle had removed his clothes something moving nearby had distracted him. As he looked in the direction of the movement he saw a “black” (usually a man working in mines or salt pans) man coming from the direction of Kersemill going to Robert Stupart's field, as he reached the field John jnr heard the squeal of cattle. He also spotted not far from the well where his uncle was a bridled cat. By the time there returned to John snr's house he was dripping with sweat. The men had walked silently to and from the well as they had been told to.

The next night John snr and his wife visited John jnr asking him to again accompany his uncle to the well. This time however John jnr had said no, this however changed when Robert Reid arrived at his home too. All three men went to the well and repeated the same ritual as the night before, this time all three men saw the “black” man as well as the bridled cat and all could hear the squeals of the cattle. On their journey back from the well, the wind became very strong along the banks of the River Devon and they watched as the tree branches strained in the wind. As John snr crossed the Cartechy burn he lost his footing and fell in. As he watched John snr fall into the burn Reid exclaimed “The cure is lost, there is no helping you now”. Magaret had warned John snr that if he fell into the burn the cure would be lost, so the three men discussed the situation as they returned to John snr's home. Apparently as the men told Margaret of John snrs fall she began to weep. Sadly the judgement on the case is unknown.

Several locations around Dollar have been associated with witches and witchcraft over the centuries.There is a round pool near the stream of sorrow which is called the “witches cauldron”. However there does not appear to be any historical reason for this. There is also an old standing or memorial stone known as the “wizard's stone”, this is mentioned in the book “History of Dollar by Bruce Bailey, who notes that the giant whinstone called the Wizard's Stone is a replacement for a wooden stake which has rotted away and that it marks the spot where the last Dollar witch. In the “Statistical Account of Scotland – Dollar” John Sinclair stated - “a Wizard was burnt at the foot of the Gloom hill, not many yards from the town of Dollar.”


List of Accused Local Witches

Year / Name
1633 / Helen Ker (Keir)
1658 / Elizabeth Harlaw (Bessie Harla)
1658 / Katherine Whiteman (Wightman)
1658 / Janet Mason (Janet Meason)
1658 / James Hudson (Hudstoun)
1658 / Katherine Remy
1658 / Elizabeth Paton (Bessie)
1658 / Janet Black (Jonet)
1658 / Magaret Taylor (Tailyeor)
1658 / Margaret Demperston
1658 / Margaret Duchill
1658 / Katherine Kay
1658 / Janet Paterson (Jonet)
1662 / Katherine Black
1662 / Elizabeth Crockatt (Elspeth/ Isobell)

Little Snippets

The passing of the Witchcraft Act of 1563 made witchcraft or consulting with witches, capital offences. It is estimated that 4,000 to 6,000 people were tried for witchcraft and that more than 1,500 people were executed.

Approximately 75% of those accused were women.

King James VI., whilst in Denmark collecting his bride, Anne, daughter of Fredrick II, met Neils Hemmingsen who was an expert on demonology. During their meeting King James VI learnt about the dangers of witchcraft. On the journey back to Scotland, the ship the King and his bride were on was seemed to be the focus of rougher seas than the others in the fleet. The Danish admiral of the ship declared this was the work of witchcraft, this lead the king to believe this was the case and soon after this journey the witch hunts and trials began in Scotland supported by King James VI.

King James VI went on to publish a book called “Daemonologie” in 1596, he saw the Devil as his mortal enemy.

Sleep deprivation was the most commonly used form of torture, after a few days the victim begins to hallucinate, this hallucinations are often told by the victim and become part of the evidence although never enacted. Women were known to hallucinate about fairies, meeting the Devil etc. all of this would be used in evidence against her. They were also “encouraged” to name other witches. In their hallucinatory condition sadly many would randomly name friends and family members, not knowing what they were actually doing.

Information Sources

Alloa Advertiser
British Library
The Witches of Alloa – R. Menzies Ferguson
CFSS.org.uk - newsletter 44
Uncanny Alloa
National Trust for Scotland
Scottish Social Sketches of the 17th Century – Robert Menzies Ferguson
The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft - witches.hca.ed.ac.uk/search/
The Scottish Historical Review - euppublishing.com/doi/full/10.3366/shr.2022.0549

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