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THE BUTE WITCHES
Book published 18 August 2007, 342 pages paperback, price £12, containing maps of The Island of Bute in 1600, 1750 and 1780.
THIS IS AN IMPORTANT FIRST: THE SOLUTION OF THE WITCHES PROBLEM
The Bute Witches is a new kind of book. It contains a novel: a reconstruction of the trials and execution of 6 witches in Bute in the mid 17th century, closely based on the history, all the documents for which are printed within the book. But it is far more than this. The reasons for the witch hunt in Bute are made clear, a very original development. Up to now, no one has ever explained the Scottish witch trials. In all, 3,000 to 4,000 witches are believed to have been executed in Scotland, by far the majority in a single year: 1662. Why is this? That is the fundamental problem. But in Bute there are others. 4 witches were burnt there in 1662. How did one witch escape? And what led her to return to the Island of Bute after 12 years spent on the mainland when she was executed with a sixth? All these questions are answered in this book. And the justification of the answers goes far beyond anything ever attempted before: all the relevant documents are printed and analysed within the book so that the reasons behind the witch hunt can be studied easily.
The Roy map of Bute c 1750 is on the cover. The island would look little different 90 years before. Place names since lost can be seen. Places where the witches met the devil and made covenants with him in return for services, are shown on the maps. The witches confessions are printed and analysed in full: what they were accused of, by whom and what was the outcome. There are appendices dealing with the population of the island and the town in 1662: about 500 in the town and 1,000 in the country; fully justified; and about the maps which show the Island of Ascog, the sea 40 yds from the castle and important insights on the nature of Rothesay and its development. There is a full inventory of the 60 people accused of witchcraft in Bute with every reference and related fact which goes far beyond anything attempted before. All the relevant records of the Council and Kirk Session are printed as well as some of the Acts of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland which applied. Best of all are the pretrial confessions of the witches made in 1662.
What was the reason for the witch trials in Bute in 1662? It is clear from the records: blindingly clear! The matter is compellingly explained and justified from the records. In brief, in 1662, everyone on the island was subjected to a level of repression, especially sexual repression, which was insupportable. People were fined, punished by sackcloth humiliations and chained to the wall in church, in public, for trivial offences.1662 saw the dawn of a new monarch [Chas II], expected to relax the strictures under which people lived and which, along with the imposition of bishops, the Kirk Session would resist. But there is much more. One man in Bute, a distinguished, well-educated member of the gentry, knowingly broke all the social taboos, was cast out and took refuge among the only people who would entertain his society: the people on the periphery: the witch folk.As a minister and schoolmaster, he soon became their leader and began to give what were in effect, sermons, examining not only his own conduct but the moral sense in the current church practices. He realised that these had learned nothing from the Life of Christ about forgiveness, compassion and unconditional love. He was a brilliant, vigorous and gifted preacher. People flocked to his meetings held in secret (as the records show). When the snow fell in Dec 1661, the tracks gave the meetings away. The Kirk Session realised that the secret meetings were contrary to church practice and feared a breakaway church. How to stop this? The core of this group were the witches of the island. Well, then, prosecute a few of these for the law against witchcraft was severe. Hence the trials. Once investigations began they could not be halted. Confessions were tortured out of the accused who were allowed no defence. All the minister had to do to save his congregation was to apply spin to the confessions of the witches who had made fairly innocent arrangements for sex with this man. These were changed in the reporting to 'covenants with the devil.' Since he had admitted possession by the devil, had behaved like a devil and been cast out of the community, the transposition of 'the devil' for this man's name was easy. The women could then be prosecuted for covenants with the devil for that was the main definition of witchcraft. Why did they not kill the man? To avoid making a martyr of him. Then, Rothesay, might have become another Nazareth. One was enough. They attacked his 'heretical' but superior teaching by attacking his followers.
'A masterly piece of writing and a riveting story, based on meticulous research, by award winning author, William Scott. This tale captures the reader and transports him back three and a half centuries to dark and dangerous days, with a compelling solution to the mystery of the witches of Bute.' David Torrie, an editor, D.C. Thomson Publications
'I must give you all praise for your imaginative interpretation and fleshing out of the account in the archives. I can’t fault your logical explanation of the witches’ “evidence” and the return of Jonet McNicoll. Your novel is enthralling and would surely stand alone as historical fiction.' Tom McCallum, MA hons Classics, St Andrews
'An astonishing true story,' Michael Tierney, The Glasgow Herald book reviews, 22.9.07
'The Bute Witches is a formidable benchmark.' The Buteman review,
The confessions of the witches contain accusations of a dozen murders, half of them of children. The Earl of Argyll, in the reconstruction, gets the credit for sorting this out. He was the presiding force, the only one with the necessary authority.
The first paragraph of this book reads: 'This book is about the devil. In 1662, in Bute, everybody knew him. Soon, you will know him too: who he was, what evil he was capable of and what he actually did.'
There is also a play: The Witches of Bute. Indeed, 2 scenes from it are included within the reconstruction. This play is so dramatic, original and informative that it is bound to be put on soon.
Please email email@example.com if you are having problems buying the book. It can be obtained by post at an extra cost of £2 in the UK, £6 Mainland Europe, £8 US, Australia etc. Last update: 25.10.07
Telephone UK 01700505439, mobile 07842404268, G/L 23 Argyle Pl, Rothesay, Isle of Bute, PA20 0BA, UK.
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1. The Island of Bute in 1662
(i) Places on the Island 1
(ii)What was life like in Bute then? 6
2. What was a witch in Scotland anyway?
(i) Generally 17
(ii) Witch hunts in Bute 20
3. The Inverary Document: elements of 30
4. The Story of Master Robert Stewart of Scarrell 48
I Education 48
II Wanting Widows 61
III Marriage 68
IV Schoolmastering 74
V Nancy 84
VI Dinner with the Devil 92
VII Defences for Deception 102
VIII Nancy and the Kirk Session 114
IX Sunday Service at the Kirk 118
X Evidence of Lechery 121
XI Meetings with Witches 124
XII To Pray or Seek for Prey? 137
XIII Disgrace at the Kirk Session 139
XIV Consequences of Disgrace: Original Insights 152
XV Two Scenes from the Play 154
XVI The Witch Hunt Begins 159
XVII Nightwalkers in the Prison 168
XVIII Jonet McNicoll’s Trial 175
XIX Planning Escape 180
XX The Trial of Jonet Morison 186
XXI Jonet Morison Exposed 191
XXII The Devil Exposed 195
XXIII Jonet McNicoll’s Departure from Bute 204
XXIV The Burning of the Witches 209
5. Jonet McNicoll’s Story 216
6. Aftermath 237
7. Questions 237
8. Cause of the Witch hunt
(i) eneral 240 (ii) Particular [The Main Argument] 242
(i) Inventory of Persons accused of Witchcraft in Bute
County with charges 246
(ii) Witches’ confessions in the Document in
Inverary, analysed 252
(iii)What was the outcome of the
investigations in the Inverary Document? 277
(iv) Justiciary Record at Rothesay, 1673 277
(v) Who were executed in 1662? 279
(vi) Did the accused commit murder? 282
(vii) Why is Robert Stewart of Scarrell taken to be the devil? 284
(viii) Why is the devil taken to be a cat, dog or heather-stalk? 285
(ix) Why were McLevin and Morison psychotic? 285
(x) What did Robert Stewart do about his predicament? 286
(xi) The Character of Robert and Nancy 286
(xii) Did the women kill the children? 287
(xiii) Why did the women say that murder had been done? 287
(xiv) Were the four said to be burnt in the reconstruction
the ones involved? 288
(xv) Records about Robert Stewart of Scarrell 288
(xvi) Statements from the Session Book of Rothesay1658-1750 289
(a) Going with the fairies 289
(b) The Process against Nancy Throw 290
(xvii) Would Robert Stewart have remained as Session Clerk? 294 (xviii) Inferences 295
(xix) What triggers the witch hunt? 297
(xx) Robert Stewart’s possible excommunication 298
(a)Acts of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 298
(b) Inferences 298
(xxi) Was Argyll at the trials? 299 (xxii) The age of Ninian Bannatyne younger in 1673? 299
(xxiii) The Relationship between Rev Patrick Stewart and Rev
John Stewart 300 (xxiv) Was the spouse at the trial and confession? 300
(xxv) What became of Jonet McNicoll’s child? 300 (xxvi) Records of Jean Colquhoun and Robert Stewart 301 (xxvii) They had tar in Bute in 1662 302
(xxviii) Were the trials held in the Kirk or Tolbooth? 302
(xxix) Would Jean Colquhoun have remained with Robert
Stewart after the trials? 302
(xxx) The Status of conclusions reached 303
(xxxi) Robert Stewart of Kilchattan 306
(xxxii) Deceased Rev Patrick Stewart’s Estate 306
(xxxiii) Bute in 1662
(a) Maps 307
(b) The Population of Bute in 1662 312
(xxxiv) Incomplete Research 319
10. Acknowledgements 320
11. Bibliography 321
FOR THOSE WHO HAVE READ THIS BOOK
1. One objection to the discoveries here is to say that the confessions of the witches are merely fantasy. NOT SO!
In a court of law whether an event, such as a meeting took place, is decided by whether it is fully specified and confirmed. The confessions in ID describe meetings of the witch people in many places: Kilmory, Ardbeg, Knockanrioch, Scoulag Moor, Edinbeg, St Bride's Chapel among others, well out of the way and out of sight. These places were therefore selected because the meetings could be held in secret. These meetings are described by several independent people. Many people are stated to have attended them and their names are given and in several cases they match quite well: the same people, with a few additions and subtractions, are named. But many people are named: nearly two dozen on occasion. In addition, the dates of the meetings are even given. The meeting at St Bride's Chapel, for instance, was either on Hallow day or three days before, like the meeting at Bute Quay and the meeting on the shore at the foot of Chapel Hill. It follows that these meetings are fully specified. Where and when they were held is often clear and who attended them is also clear. In any court of law, then, these meetings would be concluded to have actually taken place. No fantasy then. The meetings all took place before or during 1661.
Now, one of those attending these meetings is referred to as 'the devil', at least after the fact, in January to March 1662, just before the trials, a few months later. Moreover, 'the devil' was engaged in conversation with people at the meetings and was overheard to say things to people [like Jonet Morison] after the meetings, as well as at them by those attending. It follows that the devil is a person, a person like all the others at these meetings. His existence is at least as well specified as any any other person, and the others specified to be in attendance, undoubtedly were in attendance. We are obliged then to conclude that the person afterwards taken to be the devil was a person who attended these meetings. No matter what name he is given after the fact, when he behaves like a human, talks to people, answers questions, has a physical description [a human one: large and dark haired] and attends meetings that other identifiable people are reported to have attended, we are forced to regard him as a human.
Master Robert Stewart of Scarrell is the best candidate in that community for the identity of the person taken to be the devil by the Minister when questioning the accused persons in the jail. He is, indeed, the best candidate by miles, for he had been a devil, and everyone knew it. And the meetings would be held by him for him to provide the mitigation for his own actions of adultery, fathering a child by a maidservant half his age, trying to cover it up by putting the blame onto other men-all grievous crimes given that he was a trained minister, the clerk to the Kirk Session and the schoolmaster and a member of the educated gentry, father a minister and grandfather, Commissioner for the Islands. AND, most of all, so that he could develop and promote his fresh insights about how people ought to live, given his knowledge of the Bible and his recognition that the Church of Scotland had failed to put into practice the best teachings of the New Testament which advocated compassion and disinterested love. His recent experience taught him that this is how it should be: not hellfire and retribution.
There were other sorts of meetings between only two people. Notably, several between 'the devil' and one of the witches. These are specified as to time and place. McWilliam, for example, is very particular as to when they took place in her case and exactly where. We can go and see exactly where this was. Once again we have the events fully specified. This means that the meetings took place. Exactly what was said is not 100% clear because the words were expressed under the duress of imprisonment and recorded by tired members of the Kirk Session such as the minister. And the gist of it was altered to conform the view of the minister that the devil was involved. It suited him to use that name and not 'Robert Stewart of Scarrell.'
The idea that all witchcraft statements in confessions are fantasies is unjustified, especially when the level of specification achieved is so complete. Notice that if, instead of the words 'the devil' the confessions had used the words 'Master Robert Stewart of Scarrell', nearly all of the confessions would have made perfect sense. It was the choice of the recorder of the confessions to use the words 'the devil'. That made witchcraft charges possible. It also splintered the witch group, partly by enabling witch trials. Once these were begun some executions were inevitable. The only aberration is the accusation that a dozen or so of the witch folk were accused of as many murders. However, the two accusers were psychotics, one at least, already found guilty of slander. Under the stress of incarceration for months without proper care or feeding or heat and light, their psychoses were probably induced by their very imprisonment and ill treatment. That is the kind of thing that causes pyschoses. The urge to confess, the hearing of voices the reporting of events that never took place are symptoms of psychoses. But why did they accuse some of the people of murder? Because the people said to have been murdered did die, either of natural causes or unfortunate accidents. The 2 psychotics, Morison and McLevin, easily supposed that these unfortunate people had been murdered by those they accused because these were believed to have the power to cast the evil eye to that extent. And some of the accused, like McWilliam, would, at least for a time, have wanted it thought that she had these sorts of powers, for this meant she was less likely to be attacked in future, especially by wealthy and powerful men. In her confession she admits that her powers are very limited.
That some accused witches said things that are unbelievable
is due to the foul treatment for months in jail. This treatment made them
psychotic. None of them tell unbelievable tales at the start; only once the
investigations have been going on for some time that this occurs. If Morrison
does not quite fit this description it is because she was psychotic from the
outset as well as a convicted slanderer.
This is for my friend, the late Robert Davison, of the Royal Scots and King’s
African Rifles, educated in a British School in Shanghai, followed by 4 years
of finishing school in a Japanese Prison. He became a distinguished exciseman,
planter and tea-maker who, protecting his workforce, killed snakes, tigers
and sharks in India, Africa and New Guinea; a generous, noble-hearted and
courageous man whom you could count on in all seasons.