The Paisley Witch Trials

When you think about the Paisley Witch Trials, you probably think of the Bargarran “witches” of 1697, of Christian Shaw, of Agnes Naismith’s legendary “dying woman’s curse” and of the horseshoe memorial at Maxwellton Cross. In this wee article I’d like to write about not only that trial, but also about the lesser known connection with the Pollock “witches” who were sadly executed in Paisley too in 1677. Both mass executions took place on Paisley’s Gallow Green, and the son of “victim” of the accused Pollok witches – Sir John Maxwell of Pollok – appears to have been among the many powerful local men named as witnesses in the Christian Shaw case 20 years later.

The Pollok “Witches” 1677

Sir George Maxwell of Pollok came from a religious Covenanting family and was reportedly keenly interested in witch trials. Around December 1676 he suddenly took ill, complaining of severe pains in his sides. Not long after that, Janet Douglas, a 13 or 14 year old girl known to the family communicated to them that she knew who was causing this and how. Janet appeared to have a disability that prevented her from speaking, so she made herself understood through gestures and demonstrations. She accused a local widow by the name of Janet (or Jonet) Mathie; and when the widow’s house was searched a wax effigy with pins in it was found in a hole behind her fireplace, just where young Janet had said it would be.

Janet Douglas is not the only case of someone with a speech disability that made them unable to speak claiming to have the ability to detect witches. Some seemed suspicious as to whether in her case it was genuine, but why might she have faked it? In Scottish folk belief people with disabilities were sometimes thought to have other supernatural abilities that most able-bodied people didn’t have such as having visions, so this may have made people more likely to believe her. She communicated her accusations through gestures, demonstrations etc and claimed to have got her information through both visions and a “voice above her head”. Some years later she is reported to have been able to speak, but not very clearly.

Young Janet went on to accuse 5 more local people of being involved and more effigies made of wax or clay were found with pins in them, again where she had said they’d be. Among the accused were 2 of the widow Janet’s children – including a 14 year old girl – her daughter-in-law, and 2 other local women who were also tenants of the Maxwell family. The motivations of the group are unclear with some sources speculating on individual personal grievances and others, such as The Scottish Survey of Witchcraft, suggesting it could have potentially been some kind of group protest against their landlord. It may have been that they felt they didn’t have any other way of pursuing recourse against a powerful man like Sir Maxwell, assuming that the accused did indeed make the effigies and that they weren’t planted.

Methods such as “witch-pricking” and the stocks, at least on the widow Janet, were used in order to try to force confessions. John Stewart (Janet’s son), Margaret Jackson (her Daughter-in-Law) and Annabel Stewart (her 14 year old daughter) all “confessed” to meetings with Devil, to making the effigies, and how they’d renounced their baptisms in order to make a pact with the Devil by placing one hand on their head, the other on their feet and pledging everything in between to him. This was a very common feature in Scottish witch trial confessions. Annabel also “confessed” to having sex with the Devil saying he was cold – another common feature – and Margaret Jackson said she thought she had been visited by the spirit of her dead husband in her bed at night, but later realised it was the Devil. On the other hand, Janet Mathie along with Marjorie Craig and Bessie Weir (the other 2 local women) adamantly refused to confess to any dealings with the Devil, even when Annabel pleaded with Janet to do so. Despite this they were still found guilty of witchcraft based on the words of their fellow accused and the fact that all 3 apparently had bad reputations locally.

On 20th February 1677, all except Annabel were strangled and burned at the stake on Gallow Green in Paisley. Annabel was considered too young so her sentence was postponed and she was to receive “spiritual guidance” instead. It’s unclear whether she was eventually executed, but her name does crop up in the trial records of another accused witch, Catharin Mactargett, in 1688. In these it’s alleged that Annabel was a “known witch” who taught Catharin what to do, so if she did survive her reputation unfortunately followed her. An interesting note about this case is that Catharin was “witch-pricked” by a man who had a speaking disability just like the young girl doing the accusing in Pollok.

The Bargarran “Witches” 1697

This is a very well-known trial that took place against a backdrop of strange goings on, the murder of a minister and panic about a group of people thought to be trying to murder children by possessing them, sticking pins in wax effigies and/or strangling them amongst other things. The main accuser in this case was 11 year old Christian Shaw, daughter of the Laird of Bargarran, who went on to be very successful in manufacturing high-quality thread. She and her mother are believed to have contributed greatly to the textile industry becoming very important to the town.

This case differed from many earlier witchcraft cases in that it involved possession rather than things like someone’s livestock dying or child falling ill etc. Christian was said to have been seized by violent fits, to have vomited up several strange objects such as pins, to speak to people that weren’t there, to have bite and scratch marks appear on her in front of witnesses, to complain of being strangled etc (I’ll put a link to where you can read a full account below – I’ve purposefully been as brief as I can with this one as it’s been covered a lot already). She was taken to a doctor but he couldn’t find any natural reason for these things happening, so her father went to the local minister who took it to the Presbytery of Paisley. All this had started after a servant, Katherine Campbell, was witnessed angrily cursing Christian because she had told on her for stealing a drink of milk. Christian had also recently had an encounter with a local widow, Agnes Naismith, who had a reputation for cursing people and bad things happening to them later. These women were the only 2 accused at first, but later this spiralled into a total of 28 – as well as claiming to see people in her room, Christian said she was also getting information on who her tormentors were and even what they planned to do “from a voice above her head”. Interestingly this is similar to how young Janet Douglas in Pollok claimed to get her information in addition to her visions. The Bargarran trial involved claims of wax effigies with pins too, amongst other things. Again I would recommend reading a fuller account of both cases in the links below as there are a lot of wider cultural themes in both of them.

In the end, at least 7 people were sentenced to be strangled and burned on Gallow Green on 10th June 1697. Katherine Campbell, Agnes Naismith, Margaret Fulton, Margaret Lang, John and James Lindsay (brothers) were all executed. A second John Lindsay may have hanged himself in prison before the sentence was carried out – some sources attribute this story to a James or John Reid with the second John Lindsay going on to be executed also, while others still have a unknown man being executed instead. So, potentially there could have actually been 8 people sentenced and 7 executed (see the list of sources such as The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft database below). Agnes Naismith in particular is remembered to this day as having cursed the townspeople and their descendants for what they had done, whether this actually happened or not. This was the last mass execution of accused witches in Western Europe, though sadly single executions continued in Scotland up until 1727 (or more likely 1722 according to some sources).

Paisley now has 2 memorials for those executed as a result of the Bargarran trial of 1697 – a round, stone monument on what’s left of Gallow Green and a metal plaque with a horseshoe at Maxwellton Cross that reads “Pain inflicted, suffering endured, injustice done”. As someone from Paisley I’m pleased that in recent years there seems to be more effort being made to educate the public on the historical facts behind this trial – this wasn’t the case when I was growing up. I really hope this will continue and that in future we’ll also remember those unjustly executed in the earlier 1677 Pollok trial too. (I know they’re remembered in the Pollok area where the events happened and that books etc have been written, so I don’t mean to suggest that they aren’t remembered at all, just that to my knowledge they aren’t often mentioned in Paisley)

⭐️ Note: article updated since first published to reflect that there may have been 7 people executed, rather than the 6 detailed in many sources, as a result of the Bargarran trial

💻 Links to sources, further reading etc:

(📸 Featured Photo credit: Me, Memorial at Gallow Green in Paisley – that & the horseshoe plaque are dedicated to those executed as a result of the 1697 trial)


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