On the 17th August 1696 eleven year old Christian Shaw witnessed one of the Bargarran household maids, Katherine Campbell taking a glass of milk with out permission. Christian is said to have told her mother of the maids stealing, which led to her mother reprimanding Katherine, and that was the end of the story. Two days later Katherine and Christian found themselves alone together, when Katherine turned on Christian cursing her three times ‘May the Devil Harl your soul through Hell’.
On the 21st August, a well-known beggar, Agnes Naismith, came to Bargarran and spoke briefly with Christian and her younger sister asking after their younger recently born sibling was. After a short talk, Agnes went on her way.
The next night Christian went to bed as usual, but while asleep began to struggle and shout out for help. It is said that she flew out of bed and that if she had not been caught she would have hit the wall with a great force. She was placed in another bed and remained in it, as though dead, for 30 minutes and then awoke and could not sleep and had pain throughout her body and when she did try to sleep she became frightened and cried out for help. This continued for forty-eight hours without respite, after which the contortions turned into convulsions, which went on for days in quick succession before giving way to a new set of symptoms.
These new symptoms took the form of violent struggles against invisible attackers, so violent that sometimes four men were required to hold here down.
At this point Christian began to talk in her fits, crying out again and again that Katherine Campbell and Agnes Naismith were cutting her open with knives, but no one believed her as nothing could be seen.
Doctors attending from the first day of her fits, but the treatments did not have any effect nor could they produce a diagnosis.
One or both of her parents stayed with her all the time, but, they also allowed crowds of local people to gather in the sickroom each afternoon and evening to watch the performance. It became something of a sombre community entertainment; quite why her parents allowed it is a mystery.
By October that year (1696, Christian was still being afflicted and continued to accuse Campbell and Naismith. She was taken to see an eminent Glasgow doctor. She fitted while she was being examined and the doctor pronounced ‘hypochondriac melancholy’ and prescribed medicine. The medicine appeared to work – for three weeks she was free of all fits and attacks.
In the 4th week, she spoke of having a pain in her side, and announced that she was about to have a fit, and became rigid and corpse-like. Her tongue stretched out over her chin and her teeth clenched over it. After several days of similar attacks, her distraught parents took her back to Glasgow.
On the journey there, a new manifestation occurred. Christian fainted, and then began coughing up little bundles of hair. There were a great many of these bundles, they were all different colours and mostly knotted or plaited. Once the family were settled in their Glasgow accommodation the child continued fainting and coughing up objects of an enormous quantity and variety. There was not just hair, but straw, handfuls of pins, small bones from animals and birds, feathers, twigs, dung, warm coal cinders, stones, candle-wax and egg-shell pieces. Doctors admitted bafflement. They were certain that she was not vomiting these things up from her stomach because there was no sign of vomit and the objects were always dry – they simply seemed to appear from the back of her throat.
Christian herself maintained that Katherine Campbell, Agnes Naismith and others were causing all of this by supernatural means, and that they were trying to kill her. She frequently saw them in her room, trying to attack her in various ways. She held long one-sided conversations with these apparitions in which she admonished them, gave them her forgiveness and quoted Bible texts at great length. On one occasion, the apparition of Katherine Campbell pierced her side with a great sword so that she convulsed in pain. Her parents, along with the crowds who (as usual) were allowed to fill the bedroom, began to speak anxiously of witchcraft. The doctors reluctantly concurred – they could produce no rational explanation. Depressed and downcast, the little family went back home.
It took Christian several weeks to tell her story, slowly, haltingly, in bits; she was clearly terrified of revealing too much at once. By then it was January 1697, Christian’s case had been brought to the attention of Paisley Presbytery and they decided that there was enough evidence to act against the witches. Katherine Campbell was already in custody as it was said she had tried to flee when she heard that Christian was naming her as a witch.
Upon arrest, a bundle of hair similar to those the child had been coughing up was found in her pocket. Katherine denied all knowledge of it, but it was taken as proof of her guilt.
Agnes Naismith was found and bought to Bargarran House. Christian swooned at the sight of her, but the old beggar-woman stayed silent under questioning. With no evidence other than the child’s accusation, she was reluctantly released.
At the instigation of Presbytery, a special Commission was appointed by the Scottish Privy Council to examine the case. Of the eleven members, nine were Renfrewshire lairds, and three were directly related to the Shaw family. They had the power to detain and question any suspects. Meanwhile Christian’s attacks continued as before. The invisible “crew” were still besetting her with blows and scratches, and urging her to kill her baby sister. One day in early February, she caught sight of John Lyndsay of Barloch, one of her father’s tenant farmers. She immediately accused him of being one of her tormentors. When told to touch his cloak, she felt pains shooting over her body, and then had a fit, and with this John Lyndsay was arrested.
Later that day, an old Highland beggar came to the gate asking for alms. Christian overheard her and denounced her as one of the “crew”. She was bought before the child and told to touch her hand – she instantly had a fit, and again The old Highlander was arrested immediatly.
Next to be arrested were Alexander Anderson, already locally notorious for drunkenness and blasphemy, and his 17-year old daughter Elizabeth. Christian had named Alexander as another of the “crew” while Elizabeth Anderson was arrested because she had testified the previous year at a witchcraft inquiry at nearby Inchinnan, naming her own grandmother as a witch.
At the initial questioning before the Commission in Paisley, Elizabeth at first denied everything. But she did break down, and admitted that she was a member of the witches’ “crew” and Yes, they were trying to kill Christian Shaw. She could supply names: six names – her father, her great-aunt Margaret Fulton, Agnes Naismith, the young brothers Thomas and James Lyndsay and the old Highland beggar.
Those not already in custody were arrested and brought to Bargarran House where the Commission, would sit and decide if there was enough evidence for a witchcraft trial.
All of the suspects were first shown to Christian Shaw and ordered to touch her. The child obligingly went into a fit or a swoon each time. They were then individually questioned. All but one strongly denied the charges against them – Elizabeth Anderson was positively eager to admit her guilt. Describing her life as a witch in some detail, she confirmed Christian’s account of the August Sabbath gathering in the orchard and alleged that the “crew” was responsible for murders and much general evil-doing. Christian herself was then questioned. She repeated her story ; the Commissioners admired her intelligence and calmness. Asked about a “Margaret” that she had previously mentioned in connection with her tormentors, she replied that she could knew the woman’s surname, but could not say it out loud. Asked to write it down, she got as far as “Margaret L….” and then fainted. When she had recovered, one of the clergymen present decided to show the Commissioners just what they were dealing with, and asked Christian to read from a bible. As soon as she saw the open book, the child fell to the floor, lay rigid and sang an unearthly wordless melody that echoed through the house. She stopped as soon as the bible was shut – the Commissioners were suitably impressed. After some days of deliberation and consultation with the Shaw’s and more clergymen, two of the Commissioners decided to question Elizabeth Anderson again; she was only too happy to talk. For a full day, she described all of the witches’ gatherings she had attended, the cursings, the plottings, the murdered babies, the flights through the night-time sky and so forth. She seemed to have an excellent memory for details and easily recalled the names of dozens of co-witches.
As all this testimony poured forth, at least one of the Commissioners expressed some scepticism. Some details of her evidence were inconsistent, he said, and pointed out that many of the people named were half-crazed old beggars who would find it difficult to organise anything, let alone crimes and murders. Additionally, it was extraordinary that a person should be able to recognise so many in the dark of a moonless night in the open, when many of these gatherings allegedly took place.
But the others pointed out that two of the babies claimed by Elizabeth to have been killed by witchcraft had indeed died suddenly from unknown causes. Also, she had named Margaret Lang as a witch, when Christian Shaw had named a Margaret L. as one of her tormentors. Moreover, this Margaret Lang was a midwife, and all the books on witchcraft warned that midwives could be servants of the Devil. The sceptic was overruled and the order given to arrest Lang and her daughter Martha Semple.
The two women did not wait to be arrested. As soon as the local grapevine had bought them word of the accusations against them, they went straight to Bargarran House and demanded that they be allowed to clear their names. They had every right to be angry; the two of them were liked and respected by the whole community. Moreover, Margaret Lang was a most pious and good Christian woman, who always carried a bible and travelled many miles a week to attend as many church services as she could. Martha was eighteen and as pious as her mother.
They were shown to Christian, who amazed her parents by behaving perfectly normally. Once the two women were out of sight, however, she had a seizure and announced that she had been prevented from making any accusations by a magical charm that Margaret Lang had dropped in the hallway outside. Sure enough, a small bundle of hair was discovered there.
That evening, Christian said she had had a visit from the Devil Himself. Invisible and inaudible to everyone else, he appeared first as a “filthy sow”, then changed into a handsome dandy. He demanded that she renounce her baptism, but the brave child held firm. For two hours she debated and argued with her infernal visitor, trading insults, theology and biblical texts; He was eventually forced to retire in defeat. Margaret Lang and her daughter were duly arrested the next day.
On the eighteenth of February, the Commissioners delivered their report to the Privy Council in Edinburgh. They said that they had found clear evidence of witchcraft, and listed the names of twenty-two suspects for speedy trial. The Privy Council agreed and issued orders for a trial to be held in Paisley.
After several delays the trial started on the 13th April 1697. The week before a service was held at Paisley Abbey at which a sermon was preached by James Hutcheson of Killellan (halfway between Kilmacolm and Houston) who was famed throughout Scotland as an opponent of witches. The hour long sermon dealt with every aspect of witchcraft, their idolatry, their spiritual blindness, their unholy powers and the marks placed upon them by their Master. He made detailed references to the bewitchment of Christian Shaw and urged that the judges at the forthcoming trial should do everything in their power to produce confessions and expose the work of Satan. The packed congregation included all of the thirteen trial judges, all fifteen jurors, most of the witnesses and all of the clergy appointed to advise the judges.
Christian’s fits had ended in March 1697. Until then, her attacks had been getting more and more bizarre. Her invisible tormentors had pursued her into church, had started a fire at her home, and had forced her to attempt to hang herself. Satan had returned for another unsuccessful argument, after which an invisible guardian angel had manifested to provide protection and assure her that all would be well. She had recurring nightmares of dead children and barely slept for days on end. One Sunday morning, she suddenly announced to her parents that she was free from bewitchment – her tormentors were now all in prison.
The Paisley trial went much as the Shaw’s would have hoped for. There were over twenty people accused of witchcraft. Elizabeth and Alexander Anderson were not amongst them. Elizabeth’s father had died in prison, accusing his daughter to the last of lying.
As Elizabeth herself had confessed and shown repentance, she no longer needed to be tried (the fact that any cross-examining lawyer could have shredded her story was also perhaps a consideration). The defendants were provided with a defence counsel, but since there is no way of proving that someone is not a servant of the Prince of Lies, there was little for him to do beyond arguing against individual pieces of evidence.
The two young brothers, James & Thomas Lindsay had both confessed, describing in detail their meetings with the devil and the actions of numerous people. They too escaped prosecution, as they were deemed too young to stand trial,
There was plenty of evidence. Witness after witness testified they had heard or seen this or that defendant mutter a curse, make a sign, cast a spell or make a charm. Elizabeth Anderson’s confession was read out, as was the detailed daily diary that the Shaw’s had been keeping from the beginning of their daughter’s enchantment. Christian herself gave evidence and proved an excellent witness – calm, mature, intelligent and transparently honest. Nobody could doubt that she was a victim.
The highlight of the Commissions enquiry (not the trial) was the pricking of the accused (suggested by James Hutcheson, the aforementioned opponent of witches). As it was some decades since the practice was in vogue, the court actually had some difficulty in finding a pricker, but eventually unearthed an old man who had once been a pricker’s apprentice and who still possessed the vital pricker’s tools (if anybody had asked why the pricking could not be carried out by a court official with ordinary blades or needles, it was not recorded). The defendants were first completely stripped and examined for marks that could have been placed by the Devil. Eighteen-year old Martha Semple was closely examined thus twice by several judges and clergymen – one examination by a couple of judges was sufficient for each of the rest of the accused. Those who had suspicious marks were then blindfolded while the pricker probed with his tools. As expected, hardly any of the marks bled or registered pain when pricked – a certain sign of guilt. The results of these tests were used during the trial.
The defence counsel did his best, as he was employed to. But with so much evidence against the accused, and with no witnesses prepared to say anything in their favour, he might as well have been playing with sand. By the end of the trial the jury were only required to pronounce on the guilt of seven of the defendants – the others had had the charge of witchcraft removed from them during the course of the trial when no conclusive evidence against them could be produced. However, they were not released; having been named as witches, they were clearly guilty of something. They were recorded as being still in prison, without charge, two years later. Nothing is known of their eventual fate.
The jury took only hours to decide that John (alias The Bishop) and James Lyndsay (alias the Curate), Agnes Naismith, Margaret Fulton, Katherine Campbell, Margaret Lang and John Lyndsay of Barloch were guilty of the crimes of witchcraft, sorcery, necromancy and charming. They were unanimous on six of the verdicts – there had been disagreement only on the guilt of the old tenant farmer. The seven convicted witches were executed by hanging, at Paisley on the 10th June 1697, in front of a massive crowd. They were each allowed to speak from the scaffold before being hung one after the other.
John Lyndsay of Barloch made a dignified little speech protesting his innocence. Agnes Naismith fiercely laid “a dying woman’s curse” on all present; according to eyewitness accounts, a solitary raven settled briefly on the scaffold above her dangling, convulsing body. Margaret Fulton appeared to have lost what few wits she had ever had and talked cheerfully about being carried off to Elf land on fairy horses.
The two older Lyndsay brothers – John and James were, at their own request, hung together and clasped in each other’s arms. From other sources we learn that John, alias the Bishop and James, alias The Curate had been accused of witchcraft about 10 years earlier but had escaped death through their ingenuity! Obviously this time they were being investigated more thoroughly.
Katherine Campbell, the Shaw’s maid who had unwittingly perhaps started the whole affair, made the crowd gasp in mixed horror and admiration. Refusing to go quietly, she was dragged screaming and struggling to the scaffold, where she shrieked down the vengeance of both God and the Devil upon her persecutors before being flung into oblivion.
The midwife Margaret Lang was the last to go, and provided the big surprise of the day. Speaking from the scaffold, she admitted that she had indeed once trafficked with the Devil. In her younger years, she said, she had once committed a sin of “unnatural lust”; the Devil had subsequently appeared to her and she had promised herself to Him out of shame. But, she insisted, she was entirely innocent of the charges lately laid against her.
After the hangings, their bodies were burned, and their ashes were deposited in a pit at the Maxwelton Cross, where a horseshoe was placed above their remains to keep their spirits at bay.
The sufferings of Christian Shaw, are only part of the story of the 1697 Renfrewshire Witches. The Confessions of Elizabeth Anderson as described above and those of the James and Thomas Lindsay describe a whole series of activities by this group of witches and wizards. Among their dark deeds include the death of the Ferryman at Erskine, and that of several young children – though from the confessions some of the deaths appear to be nothing more than murder as you can see from the confession of James Lindsay on another page.