In the era when Darwin published his theory of evolution (in 1859), accusations of witchcraft were still relatively common.  The Victorian belief in the supernatural is well documented, but their belief in witchcraft is less so, this article investigates a few stories from Orkney and further afield, covering the period 1850 to the early/mid-20th Century. 

As a youngster, the Orkney folklorist Walter Traill Dennison (1825-1894) was taken to see the shipping at the Leith docks.  There he met an old sailor who delighted him with tales of his life at sea.  When the sailor asked where Walter came from, he drew back repulsed and, according to Dennison, exclaimed “O, my lad, you hail from that lubber land where so many cursed witches dwell!”

There have certainly been many documented cases of witchcraft in Orkney, perhaps the most famous being that of the tragic Alison or Alesoun Balfour in the late 16th century.   Implicated in an alleged plot against Earl Patrick Stewart, Alison was tortured for her confession. With none forthcoming, her entire family was subjected to similar tortures, but only when her seven year old daughter was threatened with the pinny winkis did she confess to witchcraft.  Although she retracted her confession at the stake, the execution was carried out with Alison being first strangled and then burnt.

Another such tale is of Bessie Skebister or Dalyell, who was brought to trial in March 1633.  Eliza Lynn Linton’s gives a very short paragraph on Bessie’s tragic end in her 1847 book “Witch Stories,” whereby Bessie is described as a “dreamer of dreams,” and accused of riding one James Sandison with a bridle in his mouth through the air to Norway and Shetland.

The lives of these tragic women held little value for the people of the 17th century, with woman after woman being accused and thereby almost always condemned to death at the stake.  However, towards the end of the 17th century in England and beginning of the 18th in Scotland, witch trials and the subsequent executions which followed had wound down, with the final trials being conducted in Switzerland towards the end of the 18th century.   The Witchcraft Act was finally abolished in 1736 in Scotland.  The end of witch hunts and trials, however, did not extinguish any belief in the supernatural and the power of witches, and even today in some parts of the world a belief in the supernatural leads to violence and death, particularly in the poorer provinces of South Africa.

In 1850, the John O’Groat Journal reported the sad tale of “Quackery and Superstition in the Nineteenth Century” (11/01/1850), when in Gloucestershire a four year old child was seized by the neck by her older sister with heated tongs, burning her seriously.  This was successfully dealt with by the “proper application of flour, linseed oil, &c,” and the wounds were healing nicely when three “quack doctresses” persuaded her parents to succumb to their treatment.  The women applied ointment spread on cabbage leaves for two days, which caused great inflammation.  After this, one of the women “professing to have a miraculous power of cure by the pronouncing of a ‘charm’” had a salve applied whilst recanting her ‘charm’;

“Three angels come out of the whost;

One cries fire, another frost,

To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”

The child got progressively worse, but the parents believing in the power of the charm allowed their daughter to linger for five days in pain, until she died.  An inquest was called, at which the verdict of manslaughter was considered.  Instead, the jury returned a special verdict “finding all three guilty of rashness, and especially Teman [the quack-ess, presumably], for persisting in her ‘impious and presumptuous charm.’”  The jury also blamed the parents and expressed hope that “this occurrence might lead to a discontinuance of the system of quackery.” 

Again in 1850, the Kirk Session of the Eday UP Church documents an account of superstitious practices in the North Isles of Orkney. 

Session House Jan 5th 1850.  The Session entered on the consideration of the case of Jane Drummond, Pharay, charged with consulting a person in Westray who professes to hold intercourse with the dead, regarding her sister-in-law while on her death bed.  As Jane was not present it was agreed that she be again cited to appear at next meeting. 

This being the first case of the kind that has come before this Session, it was unanimously resolved that any person found guilty of superstitious practices shall be suspended from the Fellowship of the Church.

The next meeting of the Kirk Session was held on February 15, 1850;

Feb 15 1850.  The Session entered on the consideration of the case of John Benston, Elder, charged with the practice of superstition in as much as he went and consulted regarding his wife during her illness, a person who professed to have knowledge of futurity by intercourse with the dead.  John Benston was present.  He at first denied the charge but after being questioned by the Session he fully admitted it, but refused to acknowledge that he had thereby committed sin.  After long dealing with him, the Session agreed to defer coming to a decision at present.

It appears that the Jane Drummond of the first entry was the sister-in-law to John Benston.  Upon her absence at the subsequent meeting John Benston, being an Elder, was therefore tried in her place.

No further mention of the supernatural appears in the Minutes until 1851:

The Session entered on the case of James Reid and George Shearer charged with superstitious practices.  James Reid was present and acknowledged that Kirk-yard-earth [sic] had been applied to his leg by the direction of a person in Westray – Margaret Harcus – who professes to cure diseases by necromancy.

George Shearer was also present and said that he had reluctantly given his countenance to the abomination by going as a hand in the boat with the person who went to consult the said Margaret Harcus. 

After long and faithful dealing with them both parties expressed sorrow for the sin that they had committed and the Session agreed to suspend them from the privilege of the Church; which was done accordingly.

Ernest Marwick, in his private papers, documents the above case, noting that John Benston was restored to membership of the Kirk in 1853.  No intervening reference to a decision to suspend was found in the same minute.  The Kirk Session deplored the widespread practice of superstitious rites and appointed a day of fasting and humiliation.  Margaret Harcus of Westray, being found to be the member of “another sect”, no proceedings are possible.

The census record of 1851 produces 15 Margaret Harcuses of Westray.  Three are immediately discounted as being too young, leaving a possible twelve to choose from.  Sadly, the Westray Kirk Session Minutes covering the years 1850-1854 are unavailable, so here her trail runs cold.    

Ernest Marwick recounts several more modern tales of witchcraft.  The first is of an old woman known as Recchel (or Reccel), who was eventually found dead in her cottage by the mother of one of his contemporaries.  Recchel would often appear in the form of a black cat when fishermen returned from the sea, hoping to be tossed a fish.  She is also recorded as having shapeshifted into a cat in the company of a fellow servant at Elsness in Sanday.  When two young men fell ill with an infectious fever, Recchel in her feline form was the only one brave enough to tend to them, bringing food.  A cat was caught in a trap on the Backaskaill Links at this time, its leg being broken.  It was released, and thereafter Reccel was known to have been confined to her bed with a broken leg.  A further tale is of a fisherman kicking a cat in the face when it got in his way, and the next day Reccel had a black eye and bruised face.  When she was eventually found dead, the circumstances were recounted as

…most peculiar… There was Reccel lying dead in bed.  All around her were bunches of everlasting grass (in Orkney tradition this was associated with witchcraft); the fire was full of burnt copper – pennies and halfpennies – the clock had stopped; and Reccel’s black cat lay dead on the top of the box bed.

Another contemporary of Marwick’s recounts a visit to a croft house in Evie, where he remembered seeing a hen’s foot tied to the door.  Upon asking its purpose, he was told that a neighbour had bewitched her hens, and in order to remove the spell she had had to kill a hen and hang up one of its feet.  This same contemporary remembers a woman telling of how all the “profit” of her household butter had vanished.  A neighbour a short distance away, however, seemed to be selling butter much in excess of the number of cattle he owned.  A visit to the croft under cover of darkness revealed the crofter dressed only in his shirt working in a “wild frenzy”, the neighbour thereby firmly believing that he was “demon-possessed and knew a spell which brought him the ‘profit’ of other people’s milk as well as his own.

Ernest Marwick (1915-1977) was a well-known collector and writer on Orkney myths and folklore, so how much of the above tales are true, and how much have been embellished by his friends is unknown.

Reccel, the witch Marwick recounts above, once again makes an appearance in Orkney folklore, this time from the Manse in Sanday.   Matthew Armour was ordained as Sanday’s Free Church Minister in March 1848, where he continued to preach until his death in 1903.  One day a young girl visited him with a book she had accepted from a Sanday witch called Reccel Tulloch.  This book was called the “Book of the Black Art,” a textbook of witchcraft written in white ink on black paper.  It was a dangerous possession, as upon the owner’s death it was reclaimed by the Devil along with the soul of the person who had used it.  It could not be physically destroyed, and ownership could only pass to another if it were sold for a lower price than that which it had been purchased.  Marwick recounts a story of a Sandwick man who possessed the book, and tried to destroy it by fire, by tearing it to pieces and by dropping it far out to sea.  Each time the book was restored, it reappeared and waited for him upon his return from sea.  He apparently disposed of the book by giving it to the Reverend Charles Clouston (who died in 1884), who bought it from him and then buried it deeply in the manse garden. 

Both Clackson and Marwick agree upon the next chapter in the fate of the book.  The young girl mentioned above (to whom Marwick was given the name), tried to give the book back to Reccel, who obviously refused.  She tried to throw it over a cliff, but found it lying in her bedroom upon her return home.  Once again a Minister, this time Matthew Armour of Sanday, took the book off her hands, and who managed, through undocumented means, to put the book safely out of circulation. Is it buried somewhere in a garden in Sanday to this day?

The simple act of looking at another person could prove ruinous.   There are several 17th century instances of people looking at a neighbour’s animal, whereby it would become sick and die, but this type of superstition is not merely a relic of the past.  Marwick recounts stories of such “’ill-fitted’ (ill-footed)” people.  If such an unfortunate is encountered on a journey, then you must return home and eat bread, then start off again.  Only in this manner can you break a spell of misfortune and unluckiness.  As a girl, one of his correspondents had accompanied a North Ronaldsay farmer’s wife on a journey to the other end of the island, whereby they met such an ill-fitted person.  They returned immediately home, with the remark that no good would come of that journey.  Another North Ronaldsay man also regarded as unlucky once complained to his neighbour that when they met his neighbour always “met him with iron in his hand”.    Marwick writes that it was merely coincidence that his neighbour often carried a file with which to sharpen his reaper, but the complainer obviously considered it a charm to protect his neighbour from sorcery. 

In Rambles in the Far North, Menzies Fergusson tells us of “wind agents,” women who “helped out her subsistence by selling favourable winds to mariners.”  Bessie Miller, one such ‘wind agent’ is famously immortalised by Scott in his novel “The Pirate” as Norna of Fitful Head.   

Menzies Fergusson continues with the tale of Mammie Scott who resided in Stromness “not many years ago,” who had “power and influence over the weather.”  She was approached by a sea captain for a fair wind, so she gave him a scarlet thread with three knots in it.  She instructed him that if a sufficient wind did not arrive then he should undo a knot.  He should repeat this with the second knot if the wind did not yet please him, but he was on no account to undo the third knot.  His journey was successful, and he reached his destination.  Thinking he was safe, he untied the third knot simply to see what would happen.  No sooner was the knot undone than a “perfect hurricane” appeared, blowing him right back to the beginning of his voyage.  

Eight more deeds are attributed to Mammie, including one which Marwick also recounts in the posthumous 1991 Anthology.  Mammie had taken offence at a Walls man who planned to cross the Pentland Firth that day.   She asked the mistress of the house she was visiting for a bummie (a wooden bowl), which she set floating in the tub and started to stir the water with her finger until the bummie capsized.  At this, Mammie exclaimed “aye, there they go, but I’m sorry for the puir strange laddie that’s wi’ them.” That evening the Walls man, his two sons and the stranger they were ferrying to Caithness all drowned when their boat capsized. When Mammie died her house was infested by a swarm of cats and it was only with difficulty that they were kept away from her corpse.

An old unnamed woman originally from the Black Isle, is further recounted by Menzies Fergusson as living in Stromness “some thirty or forty years ago” (1844/1854), who possessed “superior wisdom – even that of the “second sight.””  She was approached by a farmer whose cattle were suffering from some peculiar disease.  The woman told him that someone bore a grudge against him, and to counter the evil he had to take his best beast and burn it in a kiln with a roaring fire of peats.  His friends called him a fool, but he was unperturbed as his cattle soon began once again to thrive.

The tinkers who used to be a common feature of Orkney’s countryside were said to have taken advantage of their supposed knowledge of the supernatural, selling their wares to superstitious country folk.  Threats and muttered curses were remembered well into the 20th century, such as “I’ll witch your coo, mistress.”   

In the early 20th Century, a member of the Orkney Antiquarian Society related a story he had collected on his journey through the islands.  One concerned a “famous witch-doctor in Papa Westray” who used to tend the sick in Westray.  Often, she would attribute her patient’s complaint to the malice of someone recently dead; in which case she would recommend a spoonful of earth from that person’s grave to be mixed with every meal the patient ate, though for how long these supplemented meals should continue is not given.   There are obvious parallels in this story above and that of Margaret Harcus of Westray from 1851.  Graveyard earth evidently had great healing powers. 

Marwick gives a helpful list of names of witches who had to go through the process of trial or public examination, including those mentioned in the sagas.  He lists a total of 81 names, though one includes an entire family.  Of these names (not including the Sagas), 10 of them are men and, amazingly, 7 are from the early 19th century up until the 20th century, none of which are mentioned in the foregoing text. 

They include Merro o’ Midgar, blamed for having forspoken cattle (early 19th century);  Jenny Young, who forced a local laird to humiliate himself in public (c1850); the Scapa Witch, who wished for no more whales to be washed ashore at Scapa (c1850, and so far successful); Tammy Gibbon, who possessed the Book of the Black Art and could turn himself into a cat (c1850); Bell o’ the Slap, who cursed a local family (c1893); and a tale reported in 1924 through a letter written by “TRJ” (The Orcadian, 10/04/1924).

A Birsay woman, whose name the correspondent could not remember, reportedly tried to make her stepdaughter a gift to the Devil who had insisted “there be no string or lacing of any kind on her person.” She was prevented so by doing by her husband who laced the little girl tightly into her corset, and after giving instructions not to allow her stepmother to undress her, made his way to Kirkwall and the authorities.  Upon returning from Kirkwall, he was attacked by a flock of “corbies,”(crows, or more likely rooks) but managed to fend them off with his walking stick.  He met his wife on the road, who having been apprehended, cursed not having sent “de’ils [to have] torn thee limb fae limb.” She was “duly tried, convicted as being in league with Auld Nick, and got her ticket to the regions beyond.” This tale is supposed to have taken place “between twenty-five and thirty years ago,” making it roughly 1894-1899.  Marwick finally adds that in Dr Hugh Marwick’s The Orkney Norn he uses the word Felkyo, the definition of which he gives as “a witch who used to live in the Hill-side district of Birsay.”  Is this possibly the lady mentioned above? 

A belief in the supernatural, in myth and folklore still exists in Orkney today.  A friend of mine, when selling her house, told the new buyers to feed the ‘brownie’, as this would bring them as much luck and happiness to the new owners as it had to her (the seller). The new owners scoffed at the idea.  It is a coincidence that the couple split and the house was re-sold within the year?   Witchcraft still exists today, though practitioners are ridiculed rather than vilified.  This is much more civilised than being “wirried and brunt at the stake.”  

(from Ernest Marwick’s Anthology)

Jonet Irving –        the Devil told her to look on people ‘with opin eyes’ and pray evil for them

Christian Marwick –    looked over a byre door ‘whereupon the calf died presently and the cow fell sick

Katherine Grant – went to Henry Janie’s house ‘with a stoup in her hand, with the bottom foremost and sat down right opposite the said Henry, and breathed thrice on him: and going forth he followed her; and being on the pavement, she looked over her shoulder, and turned up the white of her eye, where by her deilry, there fell a great weight upon him, that he was forced to set his back to the wall; and when he came in, he thought the house ran about with him; and thereafter lay sick a long time.’


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