The Scottish prelatists, upon whom the Covenanters used to throw many aspersions respecting their receiving proof against shot from the devil, and other infernal practices, rejoiced to have an opportunity, in their turn, to retort on their adversaries the charge of sorcery. Dr. Hickes, the author of Thesaurus Septentrionalis, published, on the subject of Major Weir, and the case of Mitchell, who fired at the Archbishop of St. Andrews, his book called Ravaillac Redivivus, written with the unjust purpose of attaching to the religious sect to which the wizard and assassin belonged, the charge of having fostered and encouraged the crimes they committed or attempted.
It is certain that no story of witchcraft or necromancy, so many of which occurred near and in Edinburgh, made such a lasting impression on the public mind, as that of Major Weir. The remains of the house in which he and his sister lived are still shown at the head of the Westbow, which, as our readers may perceive by looking at the frontispiece, has a gloomy aspect, well suited for a necromancer. It was at different times a brazier's shop, and a magazine for lint, and in my younger days was employed for the latter use ; but no family would inhabit the haunted walls as a residence ; and bold was the urchin from the High-School who dared approach the gloomy ruins, at the risk of seeing the Major's enchanted staff parading through the old apartments, or hearing the hum of the necromantic wheel, which procured for his sister such a character as a spinner. At the time I am writing, this last fortress of superstitious renown is in the course of being destroyed, in order to the modern improvements now carrying on in a quarter long thought unimprovable.
As knowledge and learning began to increase, the gentlemen and clergy of Scotland became ashamed of the credulity of their ancestors, and witch trials, although not discontinued, more seldom disgrace our records of Criminal Jurisprudence.
Sir John Clerk, a scholar and an antiquary, the grandfather of the late celebrated John Clerk of Eldin, had the honour to be amongst the first to decline acting as a commissioner on the trial of a witch, to which he was appointed so early as 1678,* alleging dryly, that he did not feel himself warlock (that is, conjurer) sufficient to be a judge upon such an inquisition. Allan Ramsay, his friend, and who must be supposed to speak the sense of his many respectable patrons, had delivered his opinion on the subject in the Gentle Shepherd, where Mause's imaginary witchcraft constitutes the machinery of the poem.
* See Fountainhall's Decisions, vol, i. p. 15.
Yet these dawnings of sense and humanity were obscured by the clouds of the ancient superstition oi more than one distinguished occasion. In 1676, Sir George Maxwell, of Pollock, apparently a man of melancholic and valetudinary habits, believed himself bewitched to death by six witches, one man and five women, who were leagued for the purpose of tormenting a clay image in his likeness. The chief evidence on the subject was a vagabond girl, pretending to be deaf and dumb. But as her imposture was afterwards discovered, and herself punished, it is reasonably to be concluded that she had herself formed the picture or image of Sir George, and had hid it where it was afterwards found in consequence of her own information. In the meantime, five of the accused were executed, and the sixth only escaped on account of extreme youth.
A still more remarkable case occurred at Paisley, in 1697, where a young girl, about eleven years of age, daughter of John Shaw, of Bargarran, was the principal evidence. This unlucky damsel, beginning her practices out of a quarrel with a maid-servant, continued to imitate a case of possession so accurately that no less than twenty persons were condemned upon her evidence, of whom five were executed, besides one John Reed, who hanged himself in prison, or, as was charitably said, was strangled by the devil in person lest he should make disclosures to the detriment of the service. But even those who believed in witchcraft were now beginning to open their eyes to the dangers in the present mode of prosecution. " I own," says the Rev. Mr. Bell, in his MS. Treatise on Witchcraft, " there has been much harm done to worthy and innocent persons in the common way of finding out witches, and in the means made use of for promoting the discovery of such wretches and bringing them to justice ; so that oftentimes old age, poverty, features, and ill-fame, with such like grounds not worthy to be represented to a magistrate, have yet moved many to suspect and defame their neighbours to the unspeakable prejudice of Christian charity; a late instance whereof we had in the west, in the business of the sorceries exercised upon the Laird of Bargarran's daughter, anno 1697, a time when persons of more goodness and esteem than most of their calumniators were defamed for witches, and which was occasioned mostly by the forwardness and absurd credulity of divers otherwise worthy ministers of the gospel, and some topping professors in and about the city of Glasgow." *
Those who doubted of the sense of the law, or reasonableness of the practice in such cases began to take courage and state their objections boldly. In the year 1704, a frightful instance of popular bigotry occurred at Pittenweem. A strolling vagabond, who affected fits, laid an accusation of witchcraft against two women, who were accordingly seized on, and imprisoned with the usual severities. One of the unhappy creatures, Janet Cornfoot by name, escaped from prison, but was unhappily caught and brought back to Pittenweem, where she fell into the hands of a ferocious mob, consisting of rude seamen and fishers. The magistrates made no attempts for her rescue, and the crowd exercised their brutal pleasure on the poor old woman, pelted her with stones, swung her suspended on a rope betwixt a ship and the shore, and finally ended her miserable existence by throwing a door over her, as she lay exhausted on the beach, and heaping stones upon it till she was pressed to death. As even the existing laws against witchcraft were transgressed by this brutal riot, a warm attack was made upon the magistrates and ministers of the town by those who were shocked at a tragedy of such a horrible cast. There were answers published, in which the parties assailed were zealously defended. The superior authorities were expected to take up the affair, but it so happened, during the general distraction of the country concerning the Union, that the murder went without the investigation which a crime so horrid demanded. Still, however, it was something gained that the cruelty was exposed to the public. The voice of general opinion was now appealed to, and, in the long run, the sentiments which it advocates are commonly those of good sense and humanity.