The Irvine Witch Trial of 1618

14316739_1091165057599129_5087272091186477957_nIn the early 1600s, the execution of people (overwhelmingly women) convicted of witchcraft was at its peak in Scotland.

The first major persecution of witches began in Scotland under the Witchcraft Act 1563. James VI of Scotland had an obsession with witches and in 1597 wrote the Daemonologie, which railed against the purported evils of witchcraft and other demonic practices.

The most notable case in Irvine was the TRIAL OF MARGARET BARCLAY in 1618. She was strangled and burned at the stake (as was another woman convicted in the same case, Isabel Crawford, just outside the old burgh boundary at Springfield (near Townhead / Mill Road corner, close to where Malcolm Gardens is today).

John Strawhorn, in his ‘History of Irvine’, notes that “Witches were certainly associated with this locality, because nearby at Patons Thorn, the devil in the shape of a black foal is reputed to have appeared to Margaret Barclay and her associates”.

In 1650, a total of 17 women were also executed for witchcraft – 12 in March and 5 in June. Other burnings similarly took place in the town in 1662 and 1682.

BELOW IS AN ACCOUNT OF THE EVENTS AND THE TRIAL IN 1618.14237504_1091165374265764_1559876234111317449_n
Thanks to David Whitelaw from Irvine Old Parish for the extract.

The Trial of Margaret Barclay resulted in the agonising deaths of Isobel Inch, an elderly woman, vagrant John Stewart, beautiful young mother Margaret Barclay and Isobel Crawford who was in the full bloom of youth.

They were accused of being involved in a satanic plot that was widely believed to have caused the Irvine vessel The Gift of God to be wrecked off the coast of Cornwall, causing most of the local crew, including Provost Andrew Tran to perish.

It was as a consequence of this that the Justice Court comprising of ministers and magistrates, included the new Provost, John Peebles, was commissioned.

Isobel Inch was the first of the alleged coven to perish as a result of the brutal treatment meted out to her by her accusers. She endured several days of pitiless interrogation before succumbing and promising to make a good formal confession the next day.

The same night in desperation she flung herself from the belfry of the Old Kirk where she had been imprisoned.

Although critically ill from her fall, she was still pressed to admit her part in the demonic scheme. She died from her injuries five days later maintaining her innocence to the last minute of her life.

John Stewart, an itinerant juggler, likewise resorted to desperate measures to relieve his sufferings.
Incarcerated in the Tolbooth, he was so securely fettered that he pleaded with the Rev David Dickson, minister of Irvine, who attended him during the trial, that “I am so strictly guarded that it lies not in my power to get my hand to take off my bonnet, nor to get bread to my mouth.”

Later, being left unattended with his shackles loosened, he seized the moment and committed suicide by strangling himself with a piece of hemp used to tie his bonnet.

Margaret Barclay was a spirited, high tempered, young woman who steadfastly denied all the ‘devilish practices’ made against her.

The most incriminating evidence the Justice Court had against her was that she carried a piece of rowan tree and a colour thread, to make, as she said her cow to give milk when it failed.

To overcome her resolve the inquiry proposed a method of ‘gentle torture’ as this would take into account her age and sex.

This tender torment consisted of placing Margaret’s legs in the stocks and loading her bare shins with iron bars until she acknowledged her guilt, the weights were removed only when she promised the inquisition that she would tell them what they wanted to hear.

On her last day in court she implored, “All I have confessed was in agony of torture , and before God, all I have spoken is false and untrue.”

After sentence was passed she was immediately taken to a place of execution outside the old burgh boundary known as Springfield (just about where Malcolm Gardens is today).

Having made many expressions of religion and repentance, this poor soul met the fate of most convicted witches in Scotland by being strangled at the stake, then having her body burned to ashes.
Three innocent lives lost by barely credible allegations, the magistrates sought a fourth.

After the Rev. David Dickson failed with earnest prayers to open the ‘obdurate and closed heart’ of Isobel Crawford, she also was introduced to the ‘gentle torture’.

It is recorded that Isobel endured her torment with unbelievable firmness, suffering in silence, with above thirty stone of iron laid on her legs. Only when the bars were moved to other parts of her legs she relented with cries of ‘tak of, tak of, and I shall tell all”.

After her confession, she then experienced the same cruel end Margaret Barclay suffered.

However, at her judicial killing, she absolutely rejected the consolations of religion, and raged at the great injustice by constantly interrupting the minister in his prayers and totally refusing to pardon the executioner, as was the custom. Fastened to the stake, this blameless girl died a bewildered maniac.


For those of you who interested to learn more on the 1618 witch trial that took place in IRVINE, below is an account of it written in 1830 by the Romantic novelist, Sir Walter Scott, who uncovered the case. It’s quite long, but it’s a fascinating read !

I remember as a very young boy my father telling me this story, which he had read in McJannets History of Irvine.

Scott was horrified by the brutality of what he had uncovered: “It is scarce possible that, after reading such a story, a man of sense can listen for an instant to the evidence founded on confession thus obtained.”
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Extract from “Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft”, by Walter Scott:

“Margaret Barclay, wife of Archibald Dein, burgess of Irvine, had been slandered by her sister-in-law, Janet Lyal, the spouse of John Dein, brother of Archibald, and by John Dein himself, as guilty of some act of theft.

Upon this provocation Margaret Barclay raised an action of slander before the church court, which prosecution, after some procedure, the kirk-session discharged by directing a reconciliation between the parties.

Nevertheless, although the two women shook hands before the court, yet the said Margaret Barclay declared that she gave her hand only in obedience to the kirk-session, but that she still retained her hatred and ill-will against John Dein and his wife, Janet Lyal.

About this time the bark of John Dein was about to sail for France, and Andrew Train, or Tran, provost of the burgh of Irvine, who was an owner of the vessel, went with him to superintend the commercial part of the voyage.

Two other merchants of some consequence went in the same vessel, with a sufficient number of mariners. Margaret Barclay, the revengeful person already mentioned, was heard to imprecate curses upon the provost’s argosy, praying to God that sea nor salt-water might never bear the ship, and that partans (crabs) might eat the crew at the bottom of the sea.

When, under these auspices, the ship was absent on her voyage, a vagabond fellow, named John Stewart, pretending to have knowledge of jugglery, and to possess the power of a spaeman, came to the residence of Tran, the provost, and dropped explicit hints that the ship was lost, and that the good woman of the house was a widow. The sad truth was afterwards learned on more certain information.

Two of the seamen, after a space of doubt and anxiety, arrived, with the melancholy tidings that the bark, of which John Dein was skipper and Provost Tran part owner, had been wrecked on the coast of England, near Padstow, when all on board had been lost, except the two sailors who brought the notice.

Suspicion of sorcery, in those days easily awakened, was fixed on Margaret Barclay, who had imprecated curses on the ship, and on John Stewart, the juggler, who had seemed to know of the evil fate of the voyage before he could have become acquainted with it by natural means.

Stewart, who was first apprehended, acknowledged that Margaret Barclay, the other suspected person, had applied to him to teach her some magic arts, ” in order that she might get gear, kye’s milk, love of man, her heart’s desire on such persons as had done her wrong, and, finally, that she might obtain the fruit of sea and land.” Stewart declared that he denied to Margaret that he possessed the said arts himself, or had the power of communicating them.

So far as well; but, true or false, he added a string of circumstances, whether voluntarily declared or extracted by torture, which tended to fix the cause of the loss of the bark on Margaret Barclay. He had come, he said, to this woman’s house in Irvine, shortly after the ship set sail from harbour. He went to Margaret’s house by night, and found her engaged, with other two women, in making clay figures; one of the figures was made handsome, with fair hair, supposed o represent Provost Tran.

They then proceeded to mould a figure of a ship in clay, and during this labour the devil appeared to the company in the shape of a handsome black lap-dog, such as ladies use to keep. He added that the whole party left the house together, and went into an empty waste-house nearer the seaport, which house he pointed out to the city magistrates.

From this house they went to the sea-side, followed by the black lap-dog aforesaid, and cast in the figures of clay representing the ship and the men; after which the sea raged, roared, and became red like the juice of madder in a dyer’s cauldron.

This confession having been extorted from the unfortunate juggler, the female acquaintances of Margaret Barclay were next convened, that he might point out her associates in forming the charm, when he pitched upon a woman called Isobel Insh or Taylor, who resolutely denied having ever seen him before.

She was imprisoned, however, in the belfry of the church. An addition to the evidence against the poor old woman Insh was then procured from her own daughter, Margaret Tailzeour, a child of eight years old, who lived as servant with Margaret Barclay, the person principally accused.

This child, who was keeper of a baby belonging to Margaret Barclay, either from terror or the innate love of falsehood which we have observed as proper to childhood, declared that she was present when the fatal models of clay were formed, and that, in plunging them in the sea, Margaret Barclay her mistress, and her mother Isobel Insh, were assisted by another woman, and a girl of fourteen years old who dwelt at the town-head.

Legally considered, the evidence of this child was contradictory and inconsistent with the confession of the juggler, for it assigned other particular and dramatis personæ in many respects different.

But was accounted sufficiently regular, especially since the girl failed not to swear to the presence of the black dog, to whose appearance she also added the additional terrors of that of a black man. The dog also, according to her account, emitted flashes from its jaws and nostrils to illuminate the witches during the performance of the spell.

The child maintained this story even to her mother’s face, only alleging that Isobel Insh remained behind in the waste-house, and was not present when the images were put into the sea. For her own countenance and presence on the occasion, and to ensure her secrecy, her mistress promised her a pair of new shoes.

John Stewart, being re-examined and confronted with the child, was easily compelled to allow that the ” little smatchet” was there, and to give that marvellous account of his correspondence with Elfland which we have noticed elsewhere.

The conspiracy thus far, as they conceived, disclosed, the magistrates and ministers wrought bard with Isobel Insh to prevail upon her to tell the truth; and she at length acknowledged her presence at the time when the models of the ship and mariners were destroyed, but endeavoured so to modify her declaration as to deny all personal accession to the guilt.

This poor creature almost admitted the supernatural powers imputed to her, promising Bailie Dunlop (also a mariner), by whom she was imprisoned, that, if he would dismiss her, he should never make a bad voyage, but have success in all his dealings by sea and land. She was finally brought to promise that she would fully confess the whole that she knew of the affair on the morrow.

But finding herself in so hard a strait, the unfortunate woman made use of the darkness to attempt an escape. With this view she got out by a back window of the belfry, although, says the report, there were ” iron bolts, locks, and fetters on her,” and attained the roof of the church, where, losing her footing, she sustained a severe fall and was greatly bruised.

Being apprehended, Bailie Dunlop again urged her to confess; but the poor woman was determined to appeal to a more merciful tribunal, and maintained her innocence to the last minute of her life, denying all that she had formerly admitted, and dying five days after her fall from the roof of the church. The inhabitants of Irvine attributed her death to poison.

The scene began to thicken, for a commission was granted for the trial of the two remaining persons accused, namely, Stewart, the juggler, and Margaret Barclay. The day of trial being arrived, the following singular events took place, which we give as stated in the record: —
” My Lord and Earl of Eglintoune (who dwells within the space of one mile to the said burgh) having come to the said burgh at the earnest request of the said justices, for giving to them of his lordship’s countenance, concurrence and assistance, in trying of the foresaid devilish practices, conform to the tenor of the foresaid commission, the said John Stewart, for his better preserving to the day of the assize, was put in a sure lockfast booth, where no manner of person might have access to him till the downsitting of the justice Court, and for avoiding of putting violent bands on himself, he was very strictly guarded and fettered by the arms, as use is.

And upon that same day of the assize, about half an hour before the downsitting of the justice Court, Mr. David Dickson, minister at Irvine, and Mr. George Dunbar, minister of Air, having gone to him to exhort him to call on his God for mercy for his bygone wicked and evil life, and that God would of his infinite mercy loose him out of the bonds of the devil, whom he had served these many years bygone, he acquiesced in their prayer and godly exhortation, and uttered these words:

— ” I am so straitly guarded that it lies not in my power to get my hand to take off my bonnet, nor to get bread to my mouth.’ And immediately after the departing of the two ministers from him, the juggler being sent for at the desire of my Lord of Eglintoune, to be confronted with a woman of the burgh of Air, called Janet Bous, who was apprehended by the magistrates of the burgh of Air for witchcraft, and sent to the burgh of Irvine purposely for that affair, he was found by the burgh officers who went about him, strangled and hanged by the cruik of the door, with a tait of hemp, or a string made of hemp, supposed to have been his garter, or string of his bonnet, not above the length of two span long, his knees not being from the ground half a span, and was brought out of the house, his life not being totally expelled. But notwithstanding of whatsoever means used in the contrary for remeid of his life, he revived not, but so ended his life miserably, by the help of the devil his master.

“And because there was then only in life the said Margaret Barclay, and that the persons summoned to pass upon her assize and upon the assize of the juggler who, by the help of the devil his master, had put violent hands on himself, were all present within the said burgh; therefore, and for eschewing of the like in the person of the said Margaret, our sovereign lord’s justices in that part particularly above-named, constituted by commission after solemn deliberation and advice of the said noble lord, whose concurrence and advice was chiefly required and taken in this matter, concluded with all possible diligence before the downsitting of the Justice Court to put the said Margaret in torture.

In respect the devil, by God’s permission, had made her associates who were the lights of the cause, to be their own burrioes (slayers). They used the torture underwritten as being most safe and gentle (as the said noble lord assured the said justices), by putting of her two bare legs in a pair of stocks, and thereafter by onlaying of certain iron gauds (bars) severally one by one, and then eiking and augmenting the weight by laying on more gauds, and in easing of her by offtaking of the iron gauds one or more as occasion offered, which iron gauds were but little short gauds, and broke not the skin of her legs, etc.

“After using of the which kind of gentle torture, the said Margaret began, according to the increase of the pain, to cry and crave for God’s cause to take off her shins the foresaid. irons, and she should declare truly the whole matter. Which being removed, she began at her former denial; and being of new essayed in torture as of before, she then uttered these words: ‘Take off, take off, and before God I shall show you the whole form !’

“And the said irons being of new, upon her faithfull promise, removed, she then desired my Lord of Eglintoune, the said four justices, and the said Mr. David Dickson, minister of the burgh, Mr. George Dunbar, minister of Ayr, and Mr. Mitchell Wallace, minister of Kilmarnock, and Mr. John Cunninghame, minister of Dalry, and Hugh Kennedy, provost of Ayr, to come by themselves and to remove all others, and she should declare truly, as she should answer to God the whole matter.

Whose desire in that being fulfilled she made her confession in this manner, but (i.e., without) any kind of demand, freely, without interrogation; God’s name by earnest prayer being called upon for opening of her lips, and easing of her heart, that she, by rendering of the truth, might glorify and magnify his holy name, and disappoint the enemy of her salvation.”

— Trial of Margaret Barclay, &c., 1618.
Margaret Barclay, who was a young and lively person, had hitherto conducted herself like a passionate and high tempered woman innocently accused, and the only appearance of conviction obtained against her was, that she carried about her rowan-tree and coloured thread, to make, as she said, her cow give milk, when it began to fail. But the gentle torture — a strange junction of words — recommended as an anodyne by the good Lord Eglinton — the placing, namely, her legs in the stocks, and loading her bare shins with bars of iron, overcame her resolution; when, at her screams and declarations that she was willing to tell all, the weights were removed.

She then told a story of destroying the ship of John Dein, affirming that it was with the purpose of killing only her brother-in-law and Provost Tran, and saving the rest of the crew. She at the same time involved in the guilt Isobel Crawford. This poor woman was also apprehended, and in great terror confessed the imputed crime, retorting the principal blame on Margaret Barclay herself. The trial was then appointed to proceed, when Alexander Dein, the husband of Margaret Barclay, appeared in court with a lawyer to act in his wife’s behalf.

Apparently, the sight of her husband awakened some hope and desire of life, for when the prisoner was asked by the lawyer whether she wished to be defended ? she answered, ” As you please. But all I have confest was in agony of torture; and, before God, all I have spoken is false and untrue.” To which she pathetically added, ” Ye have been too long in coming.”

The jury, unmoved by these affecting circumstances, proceeded upon the principle that the confession of the accused could not be considered as made tinder the influence of torture, since the bars were not actually upon her limbs at the time it was delivered, although they were placed at her elbow ready to be again laid on her bare shins, if she was less explicit in her declaration than her auditors wished. On this nice distinction they in one voice found Margaret Barclay guilty.

It is singular that she should have again returned to her confession after sentence, and died affirming it; the explanation of which, however, might be either that she had really in her ignorance and folly tampered with some idle spells, or that an apparent penitence for her offence, however imaginary, was the only mode in which she could obtain any share of public sympathy at her death, or a portion of the prayers of the clergy and congregation, which, in her circumstances, she might be willing to purchase, even by confession of what all believed respecting her.

It is remarkable that she earnestly entreated the magistrates that no harm should be done to Isobel Crawford, the woman whom she had herself accused. This unfortunate young creature was strangled at the stake, and her body burnt to ashes, having died with many expressions of religion and penitence.

It was one fatal consequence of these cruel persecutions, that one pile was usually lighted at the embers of another. Accordingly in the present case, three victims having already perished by this accusation, the magistrates, incensed at the nature of the crime, so perilous as it seemed to men of a maritime life, and at the loss of several friends of their own, one of whom had been their principal magistrate, did not forbear to insist against Isobel Crawford, inculpated by Margaret Barclay’s confession.

A new commission was granted for her trial, and after the assistant minister of Irvine, Mr. David Dickson, had made earnest prayers to God for opening her obdurate and closed heart, she was subjected to the torture of iron bars laid upon her bare shins, her feet being in the stocks, as in the case of Margaret Barclay.

She endured this torture with incredible firmness, since she did ” admirably, without any kind of din or exclamation, suffer above thirty stone of iron to be laid on her legs, never shrinking thereat in any sort, but remaining, as it were, steady.” But in shifting the situation of the iron bars, and removing them to another part of her shins, her constancy gave way; she broke out into horrible cries (though not more than three bars were then actually on her person) of — ” Tak aff — tak aff!”.

On being relieved from the torture, she made the usual confession of all that she was charged with, and of a connexion with the devil which had subsisted for several years. Sentence was given against her accordingly. After this had been denounced, she openly denied all her former confessions, and died without any sign of repentance, offering repeated interruption to the minister in his prayer, and absolutely refusing to pardon the executioner.

This tragedy happened in the year 1618, and recorded, as it is, very particularly and at considerable length, forms the most detailed specimen I have met with of a Scottish trial for witchcraft — illustrating, in particular, how poor wretches, abandoned, as they conceived, by God and the world, deprived of all human sympathy, and exposed to personal tortures of an acute description, became disposed to throw away the lives that were rendered bitter to them by a voluntary confession of guilt, rather than struggle hopelessly against so many evils.

Four persons here lost their lives, merely because the throwing some clay models into the sea, a fact told differently by the witnesses who spoke of it, corresponded with the season, for no day was fixed in which a particular vessel was lost. It is scarce possible that, after reading such a story, a man of sense can listen for an instant to the evidence founded on confessions thus obtained, which has been almost the sole reason by which a few individuals, even in modern times, have endeavoured to justify a belief in the existence of witchcraft.”

Information gather from the Old Irvine Facebook group.

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