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  • Greg Stewart

Scotland’s last ‘Witch’ Burning

Janet Horne is often said to be the last witch to be burned in Scotland, although I put the title in quotation marks as she was an innocent victim of the fear of witchcraft.

With it being such a late execution, there are fortunately documents relating to it, including notes written by Captain William Burt, a government rent collector who also aided in overseeing the military roads being constructed under the guidance of General Wade to allow a swift Government response to any further Jacobite uprising.

Janet worked as the maid for a well off family, travelling across Europe with them before returning to Scotland and settling in Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands. She was married, although little is known of her husband, and they had one daughter, who unfortunately had a deformity to her hands and feet (which were said to either be a birth defect or as a result of being badly burned as an infant).

With many in the Highlands still very much believing in witchcraft, suspicion fell upon Janet. Sadly Janet went on to begin to show signs of the onset of what we would now recognise as dementia, however, the unusual behaviour this brought just added to the local rumours and she was brought to the attention of the authorities.

Both Janet and her daughter were taken to the tollbooth in Dornoch, where her muddled responses to questions resulted in her being accused of witchcraft. It was claimed that her daughter’s hands and feet were not deformed, but were in fact hooves created by the Devil to allow Janet to change her daughter into a pony and ride her to secret meetings with him.

She was also accused of causing local crop failures and animal deaths and it seems, in her confused state, Janet readily agreed with the fantastical story. To prove her guilt, she was asked to recite the Lord's Prayer, and a simple mistake in doing so was seen as proof of her guilt.

Janet’s daughter escaped the night before the execution, which must have been a heart-breaking decision to make to leave her mother knowing what she faced. Janet’s execution took place just outside the town boundary, with her being stripped and covered in tar and feathers before being made to walk through the town while being abused by the residents, before being burned in a barrel of oil or tar. The only blessing was, right up until the final moment, Janet’s condition meant she did not realise what was happening, with it being reported that when she arrived at the execution site where a fire was burning, she warmed herself at it and commented to others that it was a ‘braw fire’.

A stone now marks the spot of Janet’s execution although unfortunately, it shows the date as 1722, rather than the correct year of 1727.

The Scottish Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1735, yet the belief in the highlands remained high, particularly in Dornoch. In 1738, Donald MacKay killed a woman he said was a witch, claiming she had turned into a hare just before he killed her. He was executed for the crime, and a plaque marks the spot on Gallow Hill where he was hung.

It is a sad reflection of the times that he is remembered for being a murderer and the last person to be executed in Dornoch, yet the name of the woman he killed is forgotten.

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