A couple of weeks ago I was at the Lyceum in Edinburgh to see a new production of Arthur Miller’s celebrated play The Crucible with its chilling account of the famous witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th century.
The following day, on my way to Bo’ness, I drove along Corbiehall and was immediately reminded that a couple of decades before the events in America the good folk down there had burned a number of women for the same ‘offence’.
Another good old Scottish custom sent across to the colonies with the emigrants!
Of course, it was not unique to Scotland but a European wide practice that crossed the religious divide.
‘Christians’ both before and after the Reformation followed the Bible injunction that “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and this led, at different periods, to massive witch hunts in which tens of thousands of women and hundreds of men were accused, examined, tortured and executed.
Scotland was one of the most active with some estimates putting the number of burnings at 4000, with the late 1500s the worst.
Here the law allowed the accused to be subject to horrible tortures like thumbscrews and the boot, where wooden wedges were driven into an iron boot crushing the bones of the victim.
Little wonder that the confessions flowed and some ludicrous admissions were made!
The records in Falkirk are fairly quiet on such activity but Bo’ness and Carriden were different.
There was a renewed flare up in the later 17th century with the authorities very active in seeking out those under suspicion.
Complaints about milk turning sour, animals dying or people falling sick often led to the person blamed for the curse ending up in the Tolbooth.
In 1648, for example, six women were burned as witches in Carriden, possibly at the spot where the so called ‘Witches Stone’ still stands not far from the old graveyard at Carriden House.
Thirty years later brought the most celebrated and best recorded case.
In Bo’ness in 1679 five women – Margaret Pringle, Bessie Vickar, Annaple Thomsone and two called Margaret Hamilton, along with their so called ‘warlock’ William Craw – were charged with witchcraft.
It is not clear exactly what they were supposed to have been planning, although one part of the charge talks about attempting to “destroy Andrew Mitchell, son to John Mitchell, elder in Dean of Kinneil”.
However it was their admission that they had entered into “a paction with the Devil” and renounced their baptism that eventually led to the guilty verdicts.
Their confessions included meetings with Satan and drinking several “chopins of ale” with him.
They also told tales of turning into black crows and flying down from Grange to the kirkyard at Corbiehall where the devil – in the form of a large black dog – had his wicked way with them, before they danced around the graves while the devil played the pipes.
The women were all widows and the indictments claimed they had been the devil’s servants and handmaidens for several decades.
The specially convened assize, made up of leading Bo’ness citizens, had no doubt that all of this was true and the six were sentenced to death.
On December 23, 1679 they were ‘wirried (that is strangled with wire) then burned at the stake at the west end of Corbiehall below the Pan Brae.
By the start of the following century the stirrings of the Scottish Enlightenment meant that superstitious practices began to wane and, eventually, disappeared.
The last known witch execution in Scotland took place at Dornoch in Sutherland in 1722 and a few years later the Act against witchcraft was repealed.