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  • Greg Stewart

Isobel Gowdie

The village of Auldearn in the Highland region of Scotland sits around 16 miles from Inverness. While many commuters and tourists bypass Auldearn on a daily basis, this small settlement is connected with some significant historical incidents.

The village takes its name from Old Eren Castle, a stronghold built for William the Lion during the 12th century. All that remains of the castle today is the restored doocot on the motte (mound) on which the structure stood. Nearby is the site of a battle which took place on 9th May 1645, fought between the Covenanter and Royalist forces. Despite the Covenanters having a considerably larger army and, so they believed, the benefit of surprise, a tip-off and errors made during the battle led to a victory for the Royalists. It is also well known for its connection to the historic witch trials.

In 1662, Isobel Gowdie was accused of witchcraft. Little is known about Isobel prior to this; her year of birth is not even known, although there are reports that she first came to the attention of the authorities some 19 years prior to her eventual arrest which would indicate that she was well into her adult life when arrested. She is said to have been married to a farm worker who some claim may also have been a church elder. Her life appears to have been relatively routine for the time, other than the suggestion she may have come to the attention of the authorities years prior to her eventual arrest. What she was believed to have done which led to her arrest is unclear, and it is highly likely that Isobel would have just become another forgotten and undocumented statistic from this dark period of Scottish history had it not been for the content of her confessions.

Isobel went into great detail about her meetings with the Devil, workings with other witches, and the spells and tools used to perform her dark magic. Her testimony includes claims that she and others dug up the body of a child who had not been baptised prior to passing, and used parts of the remains to make a potion to steal the corn from farmers. She also told of her visits to meet the Faerie Queen and the use of Elf Arrows, which were flicked in a specific way toward their intended victims to kill them.

What led to the depth of detail she provided is unknown. Some theorize that the information was extracted under torture, as was common at the time. There is, however, no evidence to indicate Isobel did face torture, although this does not mean it did not happen and she would have almost certainly suffered from sleep deprivation and psychological abuse. The extent of her confessions would seem unusual even under duress, and so another thought is that she was well aware of the fate that awaited her once charged, and so she created a fantastical story to provide the authorities with so much information she became too valuable an asset in their campaign against perceived witches for them to execute and that her life would be spared in return for her knowledge. It has also been noted that many of the questions put to Isobel were very heavily weighted to suggest the sort of information the authorities were looking for, and so in her state of exhaustion she may have simply agreed and gone along with the story they were trying to create. While the outcome of the trial is not noted, it is widely believed that any hope she had to save herself failed and she was strangled at the stake before her body was burned.

Isobel's confession not only gave the authorities of the time what they believed to be a valuable insight into the secret world of witches led by the Devil, but they later gave historians researching the trials vital information as to the type of activities it was believed that those accused of witchcraft were undertaking. It is for this reason that Isobel remains so well remembered today and, in 2021 a local artist named Helen Wright completed a mural painted on a wall at the village green which depicts the story of Isobel. The mural also shows an interpretation of the executions, and that many others were also killed, along with Isobel. Although Isobel certainly did name others as working with her, their fate is uncertain.

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