* Law's Memorialls, edited by 0. K. Sharpe, Esq., Prefatory Notice, p. 93.
The officers in the higher branches of the law dared now assert their official authority, and reserve for their own decision cases of supposed witchcraft which the fear of public clamour had induced them formerly to leave in the hands of inferior judges operated upon by all the prejudices of the country and the populace.
In 1718, the celebrated lawyer, Robert Dundas, of Arniston, then King's Advocate, wrote a severe letter of censure to the Sheriff-depute of Caithness, in the first place, as having neglected to communicate officially certain precognitions which he had led respecting some recent practices of witchcraft in his county. The Advocate reminded this local judge that the duty of inferior magistrates in such cases was to advise with the King's Counsel first whether they should be made subject of a trial or not; and, if so, before what court, and in what manner, it should take place. He also called the magistrate's attention to a report that he, the Sheriff-depute, intended to judge in the case himself; " a thing of too great difficulty to be tried without very deliberate advice, and beyond the jurisdiction of an inferior court." The Sheriff-depute sends, with his apology, the precognition* of the affair, which is one of the most nonsensical in this nonsensical department of the law. A certain carpenter, named William Montgomery, was so infested with cats, which, as his servant-maid reported, " spoke among themselves," that he fell in a rage upon a party of those animals which had assembled in his house at irregular hours, and betwixt his Highland arms of knife, dirk, and broadsword, and his professional weapon of an axe, he made such a dispersion that they were quiet for the night. In consequence of his blows, two witches were said to have died. The case of a third, named NinGilbert, was still more remarkable. Her leg being broken, the injured limb withered, pined, and finally fell ofT; on which the hag was enclosed in prison, where she also died : and the question which remained was, whether any process should be directed against persons whom, in her compelled confession, she had as usual informed against. The Lord Advocate, as may be supposed, quashed all farther procedure.
* The precognition is the record of the preliminary evidence on which the public officers charged, in Scotland, with duties intrusted to a grand jury in England, incur the responsibility of seuding an accused person to trial.
In 1720, an unlucky boy, the third son of James, Lord Torphichen, took it into his head, under instructions, it is said, from a knavish governor, to play the possessed and bewitched person, laying the cause of his distress on certain old witches in Calder, near to which village his father had his mansion. The women were imprisoned, and one or two of them died; but the crown counsel would not proceed to trial. The noble family also began to see through the cheat. The boy was sent to sea, and, though he is said at one time to have been disposed to try his fits while on board, when the discipline of the navy proved too severe for his cunning, in process of time he became a good sailor, assisted gallantly in defence of the vessel against the pirates of Angria, and finally was drowned in a storm.
In the year 1722, a Sheriff-depute of Sutherland, Captain David Ross, of Littledean, took it upon him, in flagrant violation of the then established rules of jurisdiction, to pronounce the last sentence of death for witchcraft which was ever passed in Scotland. The victim was an insane old woman belonging to the parish of Loth, who had so little idea of her situation as to rejoice at the sight of the fire which was destined to consume her. She had a daughter lame both of hands and feet, a circumstance attributed to the witch's having been used to transform her into a pony, and get her shod by the devil. It does not appear that any punishment was inflicted for this cruel abuse of the law on the person of a creature so helpless ; but the son of the lame daughter, he himself distinguished by the same misfortune, was living so lately as to receive the charity of the present Marchioness of Stafford, Countess of Sutherland in her own right, to whom the poor of her extensive country are as well known as those of the higher order.
Since this deplorable action, there has been no judicial interference in Scotland on account of witchcraft, unless to prevent explosions of popular enmity against people suspected of such a crime, of which some instances could be produced. The remains of the superstition sometimes occur : there can be no doubt that the vulgar are still addicted to the custom of scoring above the breath,* (as it is termed,) and other counter-spells, evincing that the belief in witchcraft is only asleep, and might in remote corners be again awakened to deeds of blood. An instance or two may be quoted, chiefly as facts known to the author himself.
In a remote part of the Highlands, an ignorant and malignant woman seems really to have meditated the destruction of her neighbour's property, by placing in a cowhouse, or byre, as we call it, a pot of baked clay, containing locks of hair, pairings of nails, and other trumpery. This precious spell was discovered, the design conjectured, and the witch would have been torn to pieces, had not a high-spirited and excellent lady in the neighbourhood gathered some of her people, (though these were not very fond of the service,) and by main force taken the unfortunate creature out of the hands of the populace. The formidable spell is now in my possession.
* Drawing blood, that is, by two cuts in the form of a cross on the witch's forehead, confided in by all throughout Scotland as the most powerful counter-charm.
About two years since, as they were taking down the walls of a building formerly used as a feeding-house for cattle, in the town of Dalkeith, there was found below the threshold-stone the withered heart of some animal stuck full of many scores of pins ;—a counter-charm, according to tradition, against the operations of witchcraft on the cattle which are kept within. Among the almost innumerable droves of bullocks which come down every year from the Highlands for the south, there is scarce one but has a curious knot upon his tail, which is also a precaution lest an evil eye, or an evil spell, may do the animal harm.