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  • Greg Stewart

The Accused Witches of Stirling

When researching the witch trials of Stirling, one thing stood out to me, the authorities in Stirling were very lenient! At a time when an accusation of being involved in witchcraft was as good as a death sentence, Stirling seemed to favour not finding evidence and banishing the accused.

The likely reason is cost, the trials were expensive, there were jailor costs, torturer costs, and then the cost of the wood, ropes and tar to ultimately burn the accused, and while this was recovered from the family wherever possible, it seems the Ballies of Stirling preferred not to risk the costs. True Scotsmen in their reluctance to spend money! Evidence of this can be found in the 1677 trial of John Gray, Janet McNair and husband and wife, Thomas and Mary Mitchell, all accused of causing the drowning of the sons of Douglas of Barloch. Despite a confession being made under torture, the Stirling authorities were unusually in no haste to end the trial. This is perhaps because it was being paid for by the Douglas family. After 14 weeks, when the funding was stopped and a demand made by the family that the Magistrates of Stirling take on the costs, all 4 seem to disappear from the records, and it is believed they were set free with no charges!

Not all of the accused were so lucky however. In 1597, Elizabeth Hamilton, Catherine Kellot or Jonet Crawfurd (Janet Crawford) were all recorded as being held on witchcraft charges, when King James VI became so frustrated at the soft approach taken in Stirling that he wrote ordering that ‘the witch’ be sent to Linlithgow Palace to be dealt with. It is not known which of the unfortunate women was sent, but it is known King James would oversee torture sessions personally, and so she no doubt suffered horrifically.

The biggest trial in Stirling was in 1659, when multiple women, and men, found themselves under investigation. With such a large trial, the authorities had to be seen to act, and 2 women, Bessie Stevinson and Isobel Keir, were put to the flames. The chosen burning point for the accused was an area known as The Valley, a low area of land between the castle and the town where it was considered to be far enough away from both to avoid the fire causing any damage. This area is now part of the Old Town Cemetery, and the graves and statues give no indication of the dark past. It is perhaps no surprise that many of the buildings that now surround this area are said to be haunted.

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