While out and about reading from my historical novel, Widdershins, and giving talks about the Newcastle witch trials, I’m often asked questions about the first and last people executed as witches. So, as I prepare some new material in readiness for the publication of the sequel, Sunwise, I thought I’d cover some of these issues in my forthcoming talks.
I set off to the Highlands of Scotland in search of answers. In the far north of Scotland is the beautiful town of Dornoch. For being such a small town, it’s fairly well known: Madonna was married to Guy Ritchie there in 2000, and Elon Musk married Talulah Riley there ten years later. Dornoch also features in the novel Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher, although disguised as Creadon.
Dornoch bears the dubious honour of being the town that carried out the last judicial execution for witchcraft in the British Isles in 1727 – in the village of Littletown. The last judicial executions for witchcraft in England were carried out in Devon in 1682 – almost five decades earlier. (Oddly enough, pretty much on the doorstep of my publisher, Impress Books).
All stories of execution are disturbing, especially on trumped up charges of witchcraft, but Janet Horne’s story is particularly harrowing. (It’s worth noting that Janet Horne may not even have been this woman’s name. Witches were often referred to as Janet or Jenny, so this may just be a name applied to her.)
The finger of suspicion was pointed at Janet because her daughter’s hands and feet were deformed to the extent that neighbours claimed they resembled hooves. Janet was accused of transforming her daughter into a horse so that she could ride around and carry out witchcraft. Janet and her daughter were imprisoned to await trial.
Dornoch Jail (though Janet was held in the chapter house of the cathedral)
The trial – in common with so many witch trials – left a great deal to be desired in terms of propriety and fairness, and the man carrying out the trial was operating beyond his pay grade, so this was clearly a mistrial. Janet was forced to say the Lord’s Prayer to prove her innocence. Inability to say the Lord’s Prayer was often used as a classic example of demonic infestation. The unfortunate woman made an error and used the wrong tense. On this basis, she and her daughter were both condemned to death.
Fortunately, Janet’s daughter got away, but Janet did not. Her death was horrific by any standards. She was stripped naked and covered in tar and feathers, then placed in a barrel and dragged through the streets in a humiliating procession. When she reached the pyre where she was to be burnt to death, she reportedly laughed and said the fire would keep her warm. This may have been gallows humour, but it’s also possible that she was suffering a form of dementia and didn’t fully understand her fate. She was then burnt to death, which must have been a dreadful end to her life.
Witch Stone, Carnaig Street, Littletown, Dornoch, Sutherland
A stone was erected to mark the site of her burning. Oddly, it has the wrong date on it – stating 1722, rather than 1727. It’s sited in what is now someone’s back garden in Carnaig Street, Littletown, Dornoch. Interestingly, the so-called Witch Stone stands in the shade of a small rowan tree. These were often planted to keep away witches. This tree looks relatively recent, but it made me wonder whether the garden owners had deliberately planted the rowan tree – or perhaps there had been an older tree at that site.
Witch Pool, Littletown, Dornoch, Sutherland (near Carnaig Street)
Nearby is the Witch’s Pool. This is quite well hidden and not signed, and it was only thanks to some helpful men working on a nearby cottage that I was able to find it. (As you look at the year on the Witch Stone, look to your left and go up the hill you see there and you’ll find the pool just before you reach the golf course.) It’s quite a large pool and it was easy to imagine women being swum and ducked there to test them for witchcraft.
Despite protests from some quarters of the church, claiming that the repeal of witchcraft laws was a ‘national sin’, eventually, the law was changed and a charge of witchcraft no longer required execution. Tragically, the change came a decade too late to save poor Janet Horne. And another woman was executed for witchcraft outside the law when a local man, Donald Mackay, decided to take the law into his own hands and murdered a woman he suspected of witchcraft. Fortunately, the law stood and he was hanged on Gallows Hill in 1738 for ‘murdering a witch’. He claimed that his victim had turned into a hare, and so he had hacked off the enchanted hare’s head with a spade.
Stone marking last execution in Dornoch, on Gallows Hill
But even following the apparent enlightenment signalled by a change in the law, it seems that superstition lived on in local hearts. A visit to Dornoch’s museum will reveal a desiccated cat that was found under the church pulpit. Sadly, from medieval times, hundreds of similarly desiccated cats have been found in foundations, walls, attics and cellars – most likely placed there in an attempt to ward off evil. According to the museum in Dornoch, this would have been placed there following the Disruption (a schism in the Church of Scotland) when the church was built in 1844, and for that reason, it is called a ‘disruption cat’.
Disruption Cat in History Links Museum, Dornoch, Sutherland
More information about Janet Horne, Donald Mackay and Disruption Cats is available from the History Links Museum in Dornoch. And if you’re visiting the Scottish Highlands, it’s certainly worth visiting in person – the museum is filled with fascinating information and the staff are very friendly and helpful.
Best wishes, Helen