When, under these auspices, the ship was absent on her voyage, a vagabond fellow, named John Stewart, pretending to have knowledge of jugglery, and to possess the power of a spaeman, came to the residence of Tran, the provost, and dropped explicit hints that the ship was lost, and that the good woman of the house was a widow. The sad truth was afterwards learned on more certain information. Two of the seamen, after a space of doubt and anxiety, arrived with the melancholy tidings that the bark, of which John Dein was skipper, and Provost Tran part owner, had been wrecked on the coast of England, near Padstow, when all on board had been lost, except the two sailors who brought the notice. Suspicion of sorcery, in those days easily awakened, was fixed on Margaret Barclay, who had imprecated curses on the ship, and on John Stewart, the juggler, who had seemed to know of the evil fate of the voyage before he could have become acquainted with it by natural means.
Stewart, who was first apprehended, acknowledged that Margaret Barclay, the other suspected person, had applied to him to teach her some magic arts, " in order that she might get gear, kye's milk, love of man, her heart's desire on such persons as had done her wrong, and finally that she might obtain the fruit of sea and land." Stewart declared that he denied to Margaret that he possessed the said arts himself, or had the power of communicating them. So far was well; but, true or false, he added a string of circumstances, whether voluntarily declared or extracted by torture, which tended to fix the cause of the loss of the bark on Margaret Barclay. He had come, he said, to this woman's house in Irvine, shortly after the ship set sail from harbour. He went to Margaret's house by night, and found her engaged, with other two women, in making clay figures ; one of the figures was made handsome, with fair hair, supposed to represent Provost Tran. They then proceeded to mould a figure of a ship in clay, and during this labour the devil appeared to the company in the shape of a handsome black lap-dog, such as ladies used to keep.* He added, that the whole party left the house together, and went into an empty wastehouse, nearer the seaport, which house he pointed out to the city magistrates. From this house they went to the sea-side, followed by the black lapdog aforesaid, and cast in the figures of clay representing the ship and the men ; after which the sea raged, roared, and became red like the juice of madder in a dyer's cauldron.
This confession having been extorted from the unfortunate juggler, the female acquaintances of Margaret Barclay were next convened, that he might point out her associates in forming the charm, when he pitched upon a woman called Isobel Insh, or Taylor, who resolutely denied having ever seen him before. She was imprisoned, however, in the belfry of the church. An addition to the evidence against the poor old woman Insh was then procured from her own daughter, Margaret Taylor, a child of eight years old, who lived as servant with Margaret Barclay, the person principally accused. This child, who was keeper of a baby belonging to Margaret Barclay, either from terror or the innate love of falsehood which we have observed as proper to childhood, declared that she was present when the fatal models of clay were formed, and that in plunging them in the sea Margaret Barclay, her mistress, and her mother, Isobel Insh, were assisted by another woman, and a girl of fourteen years old, who dwelt at the town-head. Legally considered, the evidence of this child was contradictory, and inconsistent with the confession of the juggler, for it assigned other particulars and dramatis persona in many respects different. But all was accounted sufficiently regular, especially since the girl failed not to swear to the presence of the black dog, to whose appearance she also added the additional terrors of that of a black man. The dog also, according to her account, emitted flashes from its jaws and nostrils, to illuminate the witches during the performance of the spell. The child maintained this story even to her mother's face, only alleging that Isobel Insh remained behind in the wastehouse, and was not present when the images were put into the sea. For her own countenance and presence on the occasion, and to ensure her secrecy, her mistress promised her a pair of new shoes.
* This may remind the reader of Cazotte's Diable Amoureux.
John Stewart, being re-examined and confronted with the child, was easily compelled to allow that the " little smatchet" was there, and to give that marvellous account of his correspondence with Elfland which we have noticed elsewhere.
The conspiracy thus far, as they conceived, disclosed, the magistrates and ministers wrought hard with Isobel Insh to prevail upon her to tell the truth, and she at length acknowledged her presence at the time when the models of the ship and mariners were destroyed, but endeavoured so to modify her declaration as to deny all personal accession to the guilt. This poor creature almost admitted the supernatural powers imputed to her, promising Bailie Dunlop, (also a mariner,) by whom she was imprisoned, that if he would dismiss her he should never make a bad voyage, but have success in all his dealings by sea and land. She was finally brought to promise that she would fully confess the whole that she knew of the affair on the morrow.
But finding herself in so hard a strait, the unfortunate woman made use of the darkness to attempt an escape. With this view, she got out by a back window of the belfry, although, says the report, there were " iron bolts, locks, and fetters on her," and attained the roof of the church, where, losing her footing, she sustained a severe fall, and was greatly bruised. Being apprehended, Bailie Dunlop again urged her to confess ; but the poor woman was determined to appeal to a more merciful tribunal, and maintained her innocence to the last minute of her life, denying all that she had formerly admitted, and dying five days after her fall from the roof of the church. The inhabitants of Irvine attributed her death to poison.