The Paisley Witch Trials Revisited – John Shaw of Bargarran’s Manuscript (1696-97) Overview

The Manuscript

“The Informatory accompt of the beginning, progress & circumstances of The Trouble of Christian Shaw, Daughter to John Shaw of Bargarran” – Reproduced with permission of CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

This manuscript was property of John Shaw, Laird of Bargarran and father of Christian Shaw. In the accompt sections he details her apparent torment at the hands of “witches” in a kind of diary-type style but with other people also signing the bottom of pages/entries to attest that they too witnessed these events; a letter from Dr Brisbane, a Glasgow doctor they sought medical advice from; and minutes from the Commisioner’s meeting of other powerful men appointed to investigate – as mentioned in my previous article one of them was Sir John Maxwell of Pollok, son of the accuser of the victims of the mass execution in Paisley of the Pollok “witches” in 1677. In terms of the witnesses signing the bottom of entries, both men and women appear, all fellow members of the gentry of course. Also included are details of various “confessions” made by the accused, details of one of them – John Reid, sometimes referred to as James Reid in secondary sources – being found dead due to suicide, then details of the events on the actual day of the mass execution mentioning 7 people going to the stake. His final writings go on to include things like a sermon and a religious ‘meditation’. A fuller list of contents can be found through the library record link I’ll put at the end.

Start of a handwritten copy of a paper “on Vindication of the witches”: another deeply religious piece of writing to go alongside the sermon and ‘meditation’ as justification for the Witch Trials – Reproduced with permission of CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

As far as I could see the information in the manuscript matched up well with other contemporary sources, such as “True Narrative of the sufferings and relief of a Young Girl” by James Watson, in which he transcribed things like witness testimonies etc for publication in 1698. It’s available online as part of “A History of the Witches of Renfrewshire” by Alex Gardner (1877) which I found really useful when writing about this topic before – I’ll link it again at the end for anyone who wants to have a read later on too. In the appendices of Gardner’s book there are also other useful things such as transcriptions of Dr Brisbane’s letter and an account of John Reid being found dead after “confessing”, both of which are included in handwritten form in John Shaw’s manuscript. Gardner has included transcriptions of the Paisley Presbytery records as well.

Katherine Campbell was accused of cursing Christian after telling on her for stealing milk with these words: “The Devill harle your soull through hell” towards the end of August, 1696 – Reproduced with permission of CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

Transcribed sources are obviously so much easier to read than the original handwritten ones. With the handwriting being so different; spellings of names, places etc varying hugely even when it’s the same person writing, damage to some of the pages and also the fact I was working from photocopies was definitely much more challenging. Shaw even seems to spell his own daughter’s name differently at times – usually Christian but sometimes it looks more like Christine! Of course the language used at the time was sometimes a bit different to now also, so more than once I had to double-check things on DSL pre-1700s version online. It was very interesting though – I feel that seeing primary sources like this really hammers home the reality that they happened and people believed these things as the information is coming directly from eye-witnesses. It also lets you see the source yourself first-hand without any editorial choices that may or may not have been made by other people when transcribing. This doesn’t mean that these sources are perfect in terms of accurately reporting what happened though unfortunately as we have to consider the biases of the author. As mentioned before this was written by a powerful man who was the father of the accuser, so he’s obviously going to write in a way that tries to justify what happened and show his family in the best light possible.

The end of the “accompt” before Shaw goes on to detail John Reid’s “confession” & suicide, then the executions. Christian had apparently fully recovered by 28th March 1697 – Reproduced with permission of CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

Something else I’ll go into more detail on in future articles is the contents of the “confessions” as in addition to folkloric elements they give background details of the dark events apparently going on in and around Paisley in particular while Christian Shaw was making her accusations. This is helpful for understanding the atmosphere and how people would have already been feeling fearful. They also contain a lot of cultural and religious elements commonly found in witch trial “confessions” of the Early Modern Period which are interesting too.

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