" Cummer, gang ye before; cummer gang ye I Gif ye will not gang before, cummers, let me! "
After this choral exhibition, the music seems to have been rather imperfect, the number of dancers considered. Geillis Duncan was the only instrumental performer, and she played on a Jew's harp, called in Scotland a trump. Dr. Fian, muffled, led the ring, and was highly honoured, generally acting as clerk or recorder, as above mentioned.
King James was deeply interrested in those mysterious meetings, and took great delight to be present at the examinations of the accused. He sent for Geillis Duncan, and caused her to play before him the same tune to which Satan and his companions led the brawl in North Berwick churchyard.* His ears were gratified in another way, for at this meeting it was said the witches demanded of the devil why he did bear such enmity against the king ? who returned the flattering answer, that the king was the greatest enemy whom he had in the world.
Almost all these poor wretches were executed, nor did Euphane MacCalzean's station in life save her from the common doom, which was strangling to death, and burning to ashes thereafter. The majority of the jury which tried Barbara Napier, having acquitted her of attendance at the North Berwick meeting, were themselves threatened with a trial for wilful error upon an assize, and could only escape from severe censure and punishment by pleading Guilty, and submitting themselves to the king's pleasure. This rigorous and iniquitous conduct shows a sufficient reason why there should be so few acquittals from a charge of witchcraft, where the juries were so much at the mercy of the crown.
It would be disgusting to follow the numerous cases in which the same uniform credulity, the same extorted confessions, the same prejudiced and exaggerated evidence, concluded in the same tragedy at the stake and the pile. The alterations and trenching which lately took place on the Castlehill of Edinburgh, for the purpose of forming the new approach to the city from the west, displayed the ashes of the numbers who had perished in this manner, of whom a large proportion must have been executed between 1590, when the great discovery was made concerning Euphane Mac Calzean and the Wise Wife of Keith, and their accomplices, and the union of the crowns.
* The music of this witch tune is unhappily lost. But that of another, believed to have been popular on such occasions, is preserved.
The silly bit chicken, gar cast her a pickle, And she will grow mickle,
And she will do good.
Nor did King James's removal to England soften this horrid persecution. In Sir Thomas Hamilton's Minutes of Proceedings in the Privy Council, there occurs a singular entry, evincing plainly that the Earl of Mar, and others of James's Council, were becoming fully sensible of the desperate iniquity and inhumanity of these proceedings. I have modernized the spelling, that this appalling record may be legible to all my readers.
" 1608, December I. The Earl of Mar declared to the Council, that some women were taken in Broughton as witches, and being put to an assize, and convicted, albeit they persevered constant in their denial to the end, yet they were burned quick [alive], after such a cruel manner that some of them died in despair, renouncing and blaspheming [God]; and others, half burned, brak out of the fire,* and were cast quick in it again till they were burned to the death."
This singular document shows, that even in the reign of James, so soon as his own august person was removed from Edinburgh, his dutiful Privy Council began to think that they had supt full with horrors, and were satiated with the excess of cruelty, which dashed halfconsumed wretches back into the flames from which they were striving to escape.
* I am obliged to the kindness of Mr. Pitcairn for this singular extract.—The southern reader must be informed, that the jurisdiction or regality of Broughton embraced Holyrood, Canongate, Leith, and other suburban parts of Edinburgh, and bore the same relation to that city as the borough of Southwark bears to London.
But the picture, however much it may have been disgusting and terrifying to the Council at the time, and though the intention of the entry upon the records was obviously for the purpose of preventing such horrid cruelties in future, had no lasting effect on the course of justice, as the severities against witches were most unhappily still considered necessary. Through the whole of the sixteenth, and the greater part of the seventeenth century, little abatement in the persecution of this metaphysical crime of witchcraft can be traced in the kingdom. Even while the Independents held the reins of government, Cromwell himself, and his major-generals and substitutes, were obliged to please the common people of Scotland by abandoning the victims accused of witchcraft to the power of the law, though the journals of the time express the horror and disgust with which the English sectarians beheld a practice so inconsistent with their own humane principle of universal toleration.
Instead of plunging into a history of these events, which, generally speaking, are in detail as monotonous as they are melancholy, it may amuse the reader to confine the narrative to a single trial, having in the course of it some peculiar and romantic events. It is the tale of a sailor's wife, more tragic in its event than that of the chestnut-muncher in Macbeth.*
*A copy of the record of the trial, which took place in Ayrshire, was sent to me by a friend, who withheld his name, so that I can only thank him in this general acknowledgment.
Margaret Barclay, wife of Archibald Dein, burgess of Irvine, had been slandered by her sister-in-law, Janet Lyal, the spouse of John Dein, brother of Archibald, and by John Dein himself, as guilty of some act of theft. Upon this provocation Margaret Barclay raised an action of slander before the church court, which prosecution, after some procedure, the kirk-session discharged, by directing a reconciliation between the parties. Nevertheless, although the two women shook hands before the court, yet the said Margaret Barclay declared that she gave her hand only in obedience to the kirk-session, but that she still retained her hatred and ill-will against John Dein, and his wife, Janet Lyal. About this time the bark of John Dein was about to sail for France, and Andrew Train, or Tran, Provost of the burgh of Irvine, who was an owner of the vessel, went with him to superintend the commercial part of the voyage. Two other merchants of some consequence went in the same vessel, with a sufficient number of mariners. Margaret Barclay, the revengeful person already mentioned, was heard to imprecate curses upon the provost's argosy, praying to God that sea nor salt water might never bear the ship, and that partans [crabs] might eat the crew at the bottom of the sea.