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

Gallow Green, Paisley, 10th June 1697

This is where we get a lot of confusion with different sources stating different numbers for those executed on that day. For example, the “History of the Witches of Renfrewshire” author Alex Gardner mentions in his introduction that it seems only 5 were executed, yet in Watson’s “True Narrative” from 1698 that he uses for his main information on the Bargarran trial 7 people being executed is clearly stated, same in the Presbytery records he also included! Watson (1698) does focus mainly on the happenings surrounding Christian Shaw and isn’t so clear about exactly who all of the 7 were, plus the Presbytery records don’t name them either, so it may be that Gardner tried to double-check using other sources and could only find records for 5. In any case John Shaw’s manuscript not only states that 7 were executed on 10th June 1697 but also names them all.

Details recorded in the manuscript about what happened on the day of the executions start from page 43 entitled “Confession of Margaret Lang at the Stake”. John Shaw writes that she admitted everything that she was accused of: having a “Devil’s mark” – in her case a horn-like growth with no sensation – and of giving herself up to the Devil, having over 80 meetings with him, “unnatural lust”, tormenting Christian Shaw etc.

Shaw then goes on to say that when brothers John and James Lindsay (“the Bishop” and “the Curat”) were led to the stake, John was overheard saying to his brother that they should confess, but his brother “answered that they should never do that”.

Next, he mentions Agnes Naismith, a figure remembered even now for the legendary “dying woman’s curse” she is said to have put on Paisley. Shaw makes no mention of this curse, though perhaps he just didn’t include it because he didn’t want to mention anything suggesting what they did was wrong. Either that or Agnes Naismith cursing the town is something that didn’t actually happen and was simply a rumour that started later, springing from it being a good story, guilt, or maybe a bit of both? I mean, come to think of it it would have been quite difficult to scream out a curse while being strangled…Plus, if it did happen then wouldn’t that have been seen as more evidence of her being a “witch” and so something contemporary accounts would have included, especially since she already had a reputation for cursing? Similarly Watson (1698) doesn’t mention Agnes’ curse nor her behaviour on the day of execution – like Shaw’s account it just mentions that she had sometimes told ministers that her “head and tongue was so bound up that she could not express what she would”. This seems to be a reference to the idea of the Devil having control over her, preventing her from confessing, just as she and others had used his power to prevent Christian Shaw from praying or naming them when they were tormenting her. I also can’t find any mention of the curse anywhere else in Gardner’s 1877 book nor in the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft online records either.

After Agnes, Shaw goes on to mention one of the main people accused – Katherine Campbell, their former servant. He claims that when she was being held before the trials she admitted to remembering things Christian had said to her during some of her fits though no-one else in the room could see her, meaning that she was admitting to using witchcraft to torment Christian. Shaw then goes on to say that Katherine later retracts this, but then when she was sentenced to death he claims she said that “the doom pronounced against her was most just and that she could not free herself from witchcraft”. Again Watson (1698, in “Appendix No. E.”) mentions similar details and also adds that when Katherine tried to makes these “confessions” she often fell into faints and fits etc, obviously implying that something was trying to stop her.

Finally, Shaw finishes up this section of the manuscript with: “This five persons with(?) John Lindsay in Barloch and Margaret Fulton in Kilpatrick were burnt at Paisley the 10th June 1697.” This is where we can finally put together seven names for those executed that day: Margaret Lang, John Lindsay, James Lindsay, Agnes Naismith, Katherine Campbell, John Lindsay (in Barloch) and Margaret Fulton.

The line about the executions quoted above – Reproduced with permission of CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

As mentioned before, it’s important to remember that both Shaw’s 1696-97 manuscript and Watson’s 1698 narrative were written with a view to justifying the awful fate of the accused, with Watson going as far as saying it was hoped people reading it would find it made their faith in God even stronger. It’s also important to remember the horrible circumstances any “confessions” would have been made – which is why I always use quotation marks around that word as well as the word “witch”, because the accused were not witches, nor pagans, nor anything like that. Of course, Gardner writing in 1877 took a much more skeptical view almost 200 years later and actively condemns what went on during the Witch Trials. He does however have the odd issue with the numbers of how many were executed and seems to argue that they were burnt alive, whereas now it’s generally accepted that they were strangled at the stake before being burnt. Gardner does this because the Presbytery records mention the accused going “to the fire”, but I think that’s much more likely to just be a more dramatic choice of language on their part rather than meaning they were burnt alive. After all, these records also include references to “the great rage of Satan”, that God had “let Satan loose among us”, setting aside days for “humiliation and fasting” etc – “to the fire” just fits in better with all that than mentioning any strangling would.

In the present day, I strongly feel it’s up to us to educate ourselves through a variety of sources in an effort to properly remember the accused who suffered such injustice. Unfortunately the Witch Trials is a topic that still has so much misinformation surrounding it, and no matter how well meaning people are, spreading misinformation only piles on to the false accusations levelled at the accused. It’s also obviously very unfortunate that the surviving evidence comes from the powerful men in authority and sometimes those doing the accusing, meaning we don’t have any direct way to find out what was going through the minds of the accused and always have to keep the viewpoint of the author in mind. So, if you’ve read this far thank you and I hope you’ll be interested in future articles as well as the related campaign and sources listed on the next page.

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