Bargarran Witches (1696-1697) Scottish witchcraft hysteria started by a girl. The case bears similarities to the Warboys Witches and to the Salem Witches, in which the fits of supposedly possessed children led to the executions of accused witches.
The cause of the hysteria was Christine Shaw, the 11- year-old daughter of John Shaw, the laird of Bargarran, near Paisley in Renfrewshire. On August 17, 1696, Shaw caught another girl, Catherine Campbell, stealing some of the Shaws' milk and threatened to expose her. Camp- bell responded by wishing Shaw would go to hell.
Possibly Shaw brooded about the insult and thought of ways to get back at Campbell. She apparently was in an ill humor, for on August 21 she sassed a woman, Agnes Naismith, who asked her how she was doing.
On August 22, Shaw fell into violent fits. She swallowed her tongue and went into extreme contortions. She claimed that the specters of Naismith and Campbell were torturing her and had forced her to swallow vile items that she then vomited up: wild bird feathers, soiled hay, egg- shells, crooked pins, hot cinders, small bones, hairballs and wads of candle grease. She showed this evidence on her bed, and the items were found to be exceptionally dry as though they could not have come out of a stomach.
When in her fits, Shaw argued with the witches' specters and quoted Bible verses at them. She was examined by two doctors, who could not explain her affliction. She was sent away by her family to recover, and while away she was fine. As soon as she returned home, the fits and vomiting resumed.
Shaw widened her accusations, naming other people in a family who supposedly were witches tormenting her, cutting her body: Elizabeth Anderson, 17; her father, Alexander, a beggar; her grandmother, Jean Fulton; and two of her cousins, James, 14, and Thomas Lindsay, 11 or 12. Emboldened, Shaw also named two upper-class women, Margaret Lang and her daughter Martha Semple, 17.
The accusations and Shaw's ongoing afflictions caused an investigation to be launched on January 19, 1697. Lang and Semple were indignant. Some of the others readily confessed to being witches and in turn named others. Elizabeth Anderson admitted that she had often seen the Devil appear to her in the shape of a black man, accompanied by her grandmother. Furthermore, Elizabeth said she had attended local meetings of witches for at least sev- en years and said her father and another man were among Shaw's tormentors.
Thomas Lindsay at first protested his innocence and then admitted his guilt, saying he had signed a Devil's pact. He said the Devil was his father and that he could fly like a crow whenever he pleased. He could cast spells by uttering magical words and turning widdershins, causing a plough to stand on its own and horses to break their yokes. Thomas said his brother James was with him at meetings with the Devil and the witches. James con- fessed. In all, 21 people were named by Shaw and then formally accused. Members of the Lindsay family were already thought to be witches, and examinations showed them to have witch's marks.
The investigators assembled the accused witches and brought Shaw before them. She gave more stories of torments, claiming she was levitated down her stairs, that objects were lifted as though by invisible hands and that her body was being harmed. She recoiled and fell into fits if any of the accused touched her.
Meanwhile, some of the accused confessed to more crimes than tormenting Shaw. They took credit for previous deaths, among them a minister, two children found strangled in their beds and two drowning victims on a ferryboat that sank.
On April 5, 1697, a new commission of judges was ap- pointed. The accused were indicted and turned over to a jury on April 13. After seven hours of deliberation, the jury convicted seven of the 21 accused: three men, including James Lindsay, and four women, Lang, Semple, Naismith and the unfortunate Campbell, whose Curse started the entire tragedy.
The seven were executed by hanging in Paisley. Their bodies were burned. According to lore, some were not quite dead when taken down from the gallows and thrown into the fire. A walking stick was borrowed from a spectator to poke their moving limbs back into the flames. The owner of the stick refused to take it back, saying he did not want it after it had touched witches.
After the executions, Shaw recovered and had no more fits. She married a minister in 1718. He died seven years later. She helped to bring Dutch machinery into Scotland for the manufacture of a high-quality thread, which was named after her family name, Bargarran. As a result, Paisley prospered as a wool center.
A horseshoe was set in Paisley to commemorate the execution place. Shaw's home eventually became a historical attraction.
In 1839, a small hole was discovered in Shaw's bed- room wall. It was speculated that perhaps she had had an accomplice who passed the “vomit” into her bedroom. The vomited items were suspiciously dry.
- Grant, James. The Mysteries of All Nations: Rise and Progress oj Superstition, Laws Against and Trials of Witches, Ancient and Modern Delusions, Together With Strange Customs, Fables and Tales. Edinburgh: Leith, Reid & Son, n.d. Robbins, Rossell Hope.
- The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft & Demonology. New York: Bonanza Books, 1981 (first published 1959).