The Calders Witches

Taken from a leaflet by the Rev John Povey

Konect August 2011

Cunnigar Hill, Mid Calder – when Mid Calder was gripped by the witch hunting craze of the 1640s innocent women were dragged up this hill and put to death. At that time the hill was just outside the village boundary. An artificial hill or “tumulus” probably dating from the bronze age, it earned the name of “Witches Knowe.” The violent deaths of these women added to the long and violent history of this particular spot next to the River Almond.

Here in Mid Calder, a locally-born minister called John Spottiswood, who later gained prominence as Archbishop of St Andrews, was the minister who first took up witch hunting enthusiastically. He wrote of the winter of 1590 - 91 in Mid Calder, "Most of this winter has been spent in the discovery and examination of witches and sorcerers."


However it wasn't until over fifty years later that the witch hunt in Mid Calder became much more serious under the leadership of the Reverend Hew Kennedie. He was ordained in 1643 and began his career in Mid Calder with a zealous crusade against witches. In February 1644 a certain Agnes Bischope, submitted to trial and examination, confessed to being a "common charmer and a heinous and notorious witch." She was therefore condemned to death. Later that year a parishioner from Nether Williamston (Murieston) had to remimburse the Kirk Session for expenses incurred in the trial, imprisonment and execution of his wife for witchcraft.

During these times people in the parish were employed to guard those who were suspected of witchcraft. They kept the women awake by piercing their flesh with pins and needles, and sometimes red hot sharp pointed irons if they refused to confess their guilt. It was believed that as soon as the witch slept the evil spirit left her and went about doing mischief. Friends and neighbours believed that it was a kindness to keep the suspects awake.

The normal pattern was that a woman suspected of being a witch would be denounced and brought to trial. If she did not give a voluntary confession, before the trial began she was severely tortured in order to extort proof of guilt. Tortures included the thumb-screw, or keeping the woman from sleeping, or witch-pricking (a man skilled in this art would prick the woman all over her body until he found a "witch-mark" - usually a mole or birthmark - which was insensitive to pain, indicating that the devil had marked her for his own use). When a confession was finally made, the woman had to denounce twelve others, for witches met in covens of thirteen, and so the trials continued. However by the late 17th century torture and witchpricking were finally declared illegal.

The best known case of witchcraft in Mid Calder came as late as 1720. People walked out from Edinburgh to witness the affair as it was very unusual after 1700 for there still be be witchcraft trials. The Presbytery of Linlithgow became involved. The Hon. Patrick Sandilands, third son of James, 7th Lord Torphichen, and then a boy of twelve, was said to be bewitched. Declaring that some old women and a man in Calder had bewitched him, he fell down in trances, "from which no horse-whipping could rouse him till he chose his own time to revive," pronounced prophecies, and was said to be the subject of other strange phenomena such as being lifted up into the air "by invisible hands". Lord Torphichen finally believed him, and many unfortunate local people were arrested and put in prison. The family appealed through the parish minister to the Presbytery, which appointed a delegation to meet in Mid Calder on 14th January 1720 for a day of fasting and prayer. The sermon on the fast day was preached by Rev. John Wilkie, minister in Uphall, and was afterwards published at the request of Lord Torphichen. The text of the sermon was "Submit yourselves therefore to God - resist the devil and he will flee from you." On the day of the fast, to add to the excitement, a certain "Tincklerian Doctor" left his shop in Edinburgh to make the journey to Mid Calder to exorcise the evil spirits there. He said, "I went to Calder, the 14th day of January 1720, before day-light, being eight miles, in ill weather, fasting, and on foot. I took the sword of the spirit at my breast, and a small wand in my hand, as David did when he went out to fight Goliath; so I went to cast out the devil of my Lord Torphichen's son. When I went to his house, his servants were eating and drinking, although he had appointed it to be a fast day. I do think they might have fasted until the sermon was over upon such a weighty business; and they offered me some, but I took neither meat nor drink of his. Some think it a fast day when they hear a minister preach for the payment." The arrival of the "Tincklerian Doctor" was not expected and the ministers of the Presbytery would have nothing to do with him; so he went to several of the accused to examine them, two of whom confessed their guilt. It seems that by the end of the day, five had confessed to being involved in the affair. Fortunately the time had long since passed since people were executed for sorcery, and as Patrick Sandilands was perfectly recovered, the alleged witches were publicly rebuked in church and allowed to go free. Thus ended the final chapter in the story of the Calder witches.


A Very Scottish Plague

Between 1560 and 1707 more than 3,000, and perhaps as many as 4,500, were put to death on a charge of witchcraft in Scotland, compared with only about 1,000 in England.

The Swiss Protestant leader, Calvin, whose influence was strongly felt in the Scottish Church, had declared: "the Bible teaches us that there are witches and that they must be slain." Previously in medieval times witchcraft was an accepted part of Scottish life - women with knowledge of herbal cures and "the gift of the gab" found it profitable to be regarded as a witch. In 1563 Parliament first decreed death for anyone practising witchcraft or consulting a witch, although the first great wave of persecution started under King James VI, who was fascinated by witchcraft. The king personally attended a trial at North Berwick in 1590, when various people confessed - after torture - to having attempted to raise a storm to shipwreck the king's vessel on his return from Denmark with his royal bride. The nation-wide publicity set off a wave of killings. Also in 1590, Eupham M'Calyean of Cliftounhall, a lady of rank, was burned alive at Castle hill in Edinburgh. Eighteen years previously she had consulted with an auld indytit witch of the fynest stamp, for to half poysonit Joseph Douglas of Punfrastoune. 

© Lothian Publications