The Last Witch of Scotland
People often walk by the place where I died. I have no grave, just a stone to mark the spot where I met my fate. It still stands at the foot of someone’s private garden. There is no name on it, just a date, and I might add, an erroneous one. I did not die in 1722, but in 1727. I had no magical witches cap to put on my head and utter “back to Kintail“* as the story goes, to be whisked away and thus save myself from the hangman’s noose. Besides, I lived in Sutherland, not Kintail, in a rather modest village called Dornoch* in the highlands of Scotland.
No one remembers my real name anymore, not even I. I am referred to as Janet or Jenny Horne, a generic name given to those ignominious beings suspected of practicing witchcraft. I did not die by the noose but rather the fires of wrath and malice. Was I a witch? I do remember in my youth, dancing by the old stones at Glen Loth on the solstice. Some of us didn’t forget the old ways or the fairy folk and each year everyone celebrated the fires of Beltane*(Là Bealltainn) on top of the hill, welcoming summer with song and wild dancing!
But I was raised a Christian woman and I married a Christian man in the “kirk” at the center of town. Oh! he was a bonny lad! He worked hard and we lived happily for many years. When he died he blessed me and left a small plot of land. I had lost three bairns to a fever in the early years, but a daughter survived who unfortunately was deformed of foot. She nevertheless was a good lass, fair of face, and a great comfort to me in my declining years. As I recall we only tried to help others with our potions and herbs. They used to say I had a way with the animals and I saved many that might have died without our intervention. But one year disease struck hard and many cattle could not be saved. For one reason or another my animals fared better than most.
It was at that time the villagers began to whisper. My memory during those last days was not so good and still isn’t thankfully. Apparently my behaviours and mutterings alarmed some folk who thought of me as a nuisance. Mean spirited whispers soon became the roar of a malevolent conflagration. Even my daughter’s poor malformed feet became suspect. We were brought before the magistrate and charged with the crime of practicing the dark arts. They accused me of turning my daughter into a pony, and riding her to meet the devil! My daughter protested vigorously but when they asked me to recite the Lord’s Prayer I faltered. Sometimes my tongue would freeze as my mind wandered and for that my fate was sealed.
One of the magistrate’s guards took pity on my daughter who was only guilty of being the daughter of a witch and with a few coins we bribed him to allow her to escape. It was harder to convince her to leave me so one of us could be saved. The tears we shed would have put out any fire. The next day they stripped me naked and tarred me, but my mind was again befuddled and I thought I was wandering through the glen as the procession made it’s way to the square. Someone said that I had warmed my hands and exclaimed “what a bonny bonfire!” before being forced into a barrel and rolled onto the pyre. No one spoke up for me but a few of my neighbours hung their heads in shame. They later scattered my ashes to the winds which was fitting as I then became one with the rivers, hills and glens of the glorious highlands of my heart’s home.
“will ye go, Lassie, go” (The Wild Mountain Thyme)- Highland Aire
“and we’ll all go together to the wild mountain thyme, all around the blooming heather”
It was all so long ago and in 1736 the witchcraft laws were at last repealed. No other Scottish woman would die by hangman’s noose, strangulation and fire. My daughter had escaped. It has been written that she later married and had children, one of whom was also born with a deformed foot.
I am long past blaming the villagers. In their poverty and misery they needed something or someone to condemn for their troubles and thus I had the tragic distinction of being the last witch executed in Scotland.
*The little Town of Dornoch is beside the Dornoch Firth which opens into the larger Moray Firth spilling into the North Sea. Firths are named from the Norse word Fjord. Dornoch became a royal Burgh in the seventeenth century. Cattle and sheep were the main commerce of the area along with fishing. Though the town was mainly royalist and supported the Hanoverian House there was still Jacobite activity in the surrounding countryside. The nearby Skelbo forest is part of the Highland walking tours. In modern day, Madonna’s son Rocco was christened in 2000 at the Dornoch Cathedral.
*The last highland Beltane fire was lit in Helmsdale Scotland in 1820. Up until then, this ancient Celtic celebration ( also celebrated as May Day) was honoured yearly. It has more recently been revived and in Edinburgh people gather on Calton Hill to light bonfires and play music.
*The Three Witches of Kintail is an old folk tale found here
tea and tarot cards and three ladies not from Kintail