The last Scottish story with which I will trouble you, happened in or shortly after the year 1800, and the whole circumstances are well known to me. The dearth of the years in the end of the eighteenth, and beginning of this century, was inconvenient to all, but distressing to the poor. A solitary old woman, in a wild and lonely district, subsisted chiefly by rearing chickens, an operation requiring so much care and attention, that the gentry, and even the farmers' wives, often find it better to buy poultry at a certain age, than to undertake the trouble of bringing them up. As the old woman, in the present instance, fought her way through life better than her neighbours, envy stigmatized her as having some unlawful mode of increasing the gains of her little trade, and apparently she did not take much alarm at the accusation. But she felt, like others, the dearth of the years alluded to, and chiefly because the farmers were unwilling to sell grain in the very moderate quantities which she was able to purchase, and without which, her little stock of poultry must have been inevitably starved. In distress on this account, the dame went to a neighbouring farmer, a very good-natured, sensible, honest man, and requested him, as a favour, to sell her a peck of oats at any price. " Good neighbour," he said, " I am sorry to be obliged to refuse you, but my corn is measured out for Dalkeith market; my carts are loaded to set out, and to open these sacks again, and for so small a quantity, would cast my accounts loose, and create much trouble and disadvantage ; I dare say you will get all you want at such a place, or such a place." On receiving this answer, the old woman's temper gave way. She scolded the wealthy farmer, and wished evil to his property, which was just setting off for the market. They parted, after some angry language on both sides ; and sure enough, as the carts crossed the ford of the river beneath the farm-house, off came the wheel from one of them, and five or six sacks of corn were damaged by the water. The good farmer hardly knew what to think of this ; there were the two circumstances deemed of old essential and sufficient to the crime of witchcraft — Damnum minatum, et malum secutum. Scarce knowing what to believe, he hastened to consult the sheriff of the county, as a friend rather than as a magistrate, upon a case so extraordinary. The official person showed him that the laws against witchcraft were abrogated; and had little difficulty to bring him to regard the matter in its true light of an accident.
It is strange, but true, that the accused herself was not to be reconciled to the sheriff's doctrine so easily. He reminded her, that if she used her tongue with so much licence, she must expose herself to suspicions, and that should coincidences happen to irritate her neighbours, she might suffer harm at a time when there was no one to protect her. He therefore requested her to be more cautious in her language for her own sake; professing, at the same time, his belief that her words and intentions were perfectly harmless, and that he had no apprehension of being hurt by her, let her wish her worst to him. She was rather more angry than pleased at the well-meaning sheriff's scepticism. " I would be laith to wish ony ill either to you or yours, sir," she said ; " for I kenna how it is, but something aye comes after my words when I am ill-guided, and speak ower fast." In short, she was obstinate in claiming an influence over the destiny of others by words and wishes, which might have in other times conveyed her to the stake ; for which her expressions, their consequences, and her disposition to insist upon their efficacy, would certainly of old have made her a fit victim. At present, the story is scarcely worth mentioning, but as it con tains material resembling those out of which many tragic incidents have arisen.
So low, in short, is now the belief in witchcraft, that, perhaps, it is only received by those half-crazy individuals who feel a species of consequence derived from accidental coincidences, which, were they received by the community in general, would go near, as on former occasions, to cost the lives of those who make their boast of them. At least one hypochondriac patient is known to the author, who believes himself the victim of a gang of witches, and ascribes his illness to their charms, so that he wants nothing but an indulgent judge to awake again the old ideas of sorcery.