Witchcraft and Superstitious Record in the South-Western District of Scotland

Witchcraft and Superstitious Record in the South-Western District of Scotland

J. Maxwell Wood
J. Maxwell Wood

Author: Wood, J. Maxwell (John Maxwell), -1925
Folklore — Scotland
Witchcraft — Scotland
Witchcraft and Superstitious Record in the South-Western District of Scotland

Witchcraft and Superstitious Record

Witchcraft and
Superstitious Record

South-Western District of Scotland

Witchcraft   Witch Trials
Fairy Lore   Brownie Lore
Wraiths   Warnings
Death Customs   Funeral Ceremony
Ghost Lore   Haunted Houses

Author of “Smuggling in the Solway and
Around the Galloway Sea-board”

Editor of “The Gallovidian,” 1900-1911

Illustrated from Special Drawings by
John Copland, Esq., Dundrenna

Dumfries: J. Maxwell & Son

“For she’s gathered witch dew in the Kells kirkyard,
In the mirk how of the moon,
And fed hersel’ wi’ th’ wild witch milk
With a red-hot burning spoon.”


Alison Jean Maxwell Wood
A “witch” of my most intimate acquaintance


Throughout Dumfriesshire and Galloway remnants of old-world customs still linger, suggesting a remoter time, when superstitious practice and belief held all-important sway in the daily round and task of the people.
In gathering together the available material bearing upon such matters, more particularly in the direction of witchcraft, fairy-lore, death warnings, funeral ceremony and ghost story, the author trusts that by recording the results of his gleanings much as they have been received, and without at all attempting to subject them to higher analysis or criticism, a truer aspect and reflection of the influence of superstition upon the social life of those older days, may be all the more adequately presented.
112 George Street, Edinburgh,
August 9th, 1911.


Chapter I.
Traditional Witchcraft Described 1
Chapter II.
Witch Narrative 21
Chapter III.
Witchcraft Trials and Persecution 66
Chapter IV.
Fairies and Brownies 142
Chapter V.
Wraiths and Warnings 198
Chapter VI.
Death Customs and Funeral Ceremony 216
Chapter VII.
Ghost Lore and Haunted Houses 244
(a) Surprising Story of the Devil of Glenluce 302
(b) A True Relation of an Apparition which Infested
the house of Andrew Mackie, Ringcroft of
Stocking, Parish of Rerwick, etc.
(c) The Laird o’ Coul’s Ghost 344



The Witches’ Ride 4
“And Perish’d Mony a Bonny Boat” 12
The Carlin’s Cairn 35
A Witch-Brew and Incantation 38
“A Running Stream they dare na cross” 69
A Witch Trial 85
The Burning of the Nine Women on the Sands of Dumfries, April 13th, 1659 114
Penance 125
“In Fairy Glade” 152
“Riddling in the Reek” 167
An Eerie Companion 206
“Deid Lichts” 211
Funeral Hospitality 222
A Galloway Funeral of Other Days 238
The Headless Piper of Patiesthorn 266
The Ghost of Buckland Glen 271
“To Tryst with Lag” 280
Ringcroft of Stocking 324
A Threefold Charm ’gainst Evil 20
Witch Stool and Brooms 65
Witch Cauldron, Ducking Stool, and Stake 141
To Kep Skaith 197
A Midnight Revel 215
Haunted 243


Witchcraft and Superstitious Record
South-western District of Scotland.


Traditional Witchcraft Described.

“When out the hellish legion sallied.”
Tam o’ Shanter.

n the far-off days, when Superstition, in close association with the “evil sister” of Ignorance, walked abroad in the land, the south-western district of Scotland shared very largely in the beliefs and terrors embraced under the general descriptive term of witchcraft. Active interference in the routine of daily life on the part of the Prince of Darkness and his agencies was fully believed in. The midnight ride, the power of conversion into animal semblance and form, mystic rite and incantation, spells and cantrips, as well as the presence on earth of the Devil himself, who generally appeared in some alluring form—all had a firmly-established place in the superstitious and impressionable minds of the people who dwelt in the land of those darker days.
In approaching the whole matter for descriptive purposes, the traditional, or as it may perhaps be fittingly termed, the “ideal” form of witchcraft, falls naturally first to be considered, and here the existence of a secret society or unholy order of witches and warlocks meeting together at certain appointed times, figures as an outstanding feature, qualification to belong to which, confessed rare powers of affinity with the powers of evil and darkness. The more these witches and warlocks were feared in their ordinary guise as human mortals by the country-side or district to which they belonged, the higher the rank accorded to them in secret conclave, and the special notoriety of having been branded or “scored,” at the hands of an angry populace, with the sign of the cross on the forehead, carried with it special recognition of itself. Reputed gatherings or witch-festivals were celebrated periodically, the most important and outstanding taking place at Hallowmass, and such eerie places of meeting as the lonely ruins of Sweetheart Abbey and Caerlaverock Castle, were the appropriate scenes of their midnight rites and revels; but most of all in this south-western district was it to the rising slope of Locharbriggs Hill, not many miles from Dumfries, that the “hellish legion” repaired.
There is a remnant extant of an old song called the “Witches’ Gathering,” that with quaint and mystic indication tells of the preliminary signals and signs, announcing that a midnight re-union or “Hallowmass rade” as it was aptly termed, had been arranged and appointed:—

“When the gray howlet has three times hoo’d,
When the grimy cat has three times mewed,
When the tod has yowled three times i’ the wode,
At the red moon cowering ahin the cl’ud;
When the stars ha’e cruppen’ deep i’ the drift,
Lest cantrips had pyked them out o’ the lift,
Up horsies a’ but mair adowe,
Ryde, ryde for Locher-briggs-knowe!”

On such a night the very elements themselves seemed in sympathy. The wind rose, gust following gust, in angry and ever-increasing intensity, till it hurled itself in angry blasts that levelled hay-rick and grain-stack, and tore the thatched roof from homestead and cot, where the frightened dwellers huddled and crept together in terror. Over and with higher note than the blast itself, high-pitched eldritch laughter, fleeting and mocking, skirled and shrieked through the air. Then a lull, with a stillness more terrifying than even the wild force of the angry blast, only to be almost immediately broken with a crash of ear-splitting thunder, and the flash and the glare of forked and jagged flame, lighting up the unhallowed pathway of the “witches’ ride.”

The Witches’ Ride.
Sketch by J. Copland, Dundrennan.
The journey itself, or rather the mode of progression in passing to the “witch gathering,” was itself steeped in “diabolerie” of varying degree. The simple broomstick served the more ordinary witch for a steed. Another vehicle was the chariot of “rag-wort” or ragweed, “harnessed to the wind;” for sisters of higher rank, broomsticks specially shod with the bones of murdered men, became high mettled and most spirited steeds; but the possession of a bridle, the leather of which was made from the skin of an unbaptised infant, and the iron bits forged at the “smithy” of the Evil One himself, gave to its possessor the power of most potent spell. Only let a witch shake this instrument of Satan over any living thing, man or beast, and at once it was transformed into an active witch steed in the form generally of a gray horse, with the full knowledge and resentment that a spell had been wrought, to compass this ignoble use. This was familiarly known and described as being “ridden post by a witch.”
No better picture was ever drawn of the wild witch diabolerie and abandon than in “Tam o’ Shanter,” but it may be claimed for Galloway that in the possession of the powerful poem of “Maggie o’ the Moss,” Ayrshire is followed very closely, as the following quotation bearing upon this particular point brings out:—

“But Maggie had that nicht to gang
Through regions dreary, dark, and lang,
To hold her orgies.
Then cross his haunches striding o’er,
She gave him the command to soar:
At first poor Simon, sweir to yield,
Held hard and fast the frosty field;
His body now earth’s surface spurn’d,
He seem’d like gravitation turned;
His heels went bickering in the air,
He held till he could haud nae mair,
Till first wi’ ae han’, syne the tither,
He lost his haud o’t a’ thegither;
And mounted up in gallant style,
Right perpendicular for a mile.
For brawly ken’d she how to ride,
And stick richt close to Simon’s hide;
For aft had Maggie on a cat
Across the German Ocean sat;
And wi’ aul’ Nick and a’ his kennel,
Had often crossed the British Channel,
And mony a nicht wi’ them had gone
To Brussels, Paris, or Toulon;
And mony a stormy Hallowe’en
Had Maggie danced on Calais Green!”

Like a swarm of bees in full flight they passed, all astride of something, be it rag-wort, broomstick, kail-runt, hare, cat, or domestic fowl, or even as indicated riding post on a human steed.
Assembled at the Dumfriesshire or Galloway “Brocken,” tribute to Satan, who presided in person, had to be paid for the privilege of exercising their unholy licence over their several districts and neighbourhoods. This took the form of unchristened “Kain Bairns,” the witches’ own by preference, but failing this, the stolen offspring of women of their own particular neighbourhood.
The rite of baptismal entry, which all novitiates had to undergo, was also a regular part of the weird proceedings of this witches’ Sabbath.
A magic circle was drawn round the top of the meeting mound, across which none but the initiated and those about to be initiated, dare pass. In the centre of this circle a fire emitting a thick, dense, sulphurous smoke sprang up, round which the assembled company of witches and warlocks danced with joined hands and wild abandon. Into the charmed circle the converts, naked and terror-stricken, were brought and dragged to the fire, which now sent forth even thicker clouds as if in a measure to screen the secrecy of the rites even from those participating, and scream after scream arose as their naked bodies were stamped with the hellish sign-manual of the order. A powerful soothing ointment was, however, immediately poured on the raw wounds, giving instant relief and almost effacement to the ordinary eye, the well-concealed cicatrix becoming the “witch-mark.” The grim nature of the ordeal now gave place to proceedings more in keeping with a festival, and dancing of the “better the worse” order and general hilarity and high revelry followed, the Prince of Darkness joining in the dance, giving expert exhibitions with favoured partners.
Next in importance to Satan himself at these “Walpurgis” night festivals at Locharbriggs tryst, was the celebrated witch “Gyre Carline,” who possessed a wand of great creative and destructive power. It is told how in the days when Lochar Moss was an open arm of the Solway Firth, an extra large tide swept up and washed away several of the witch steeds from the Locharbrigg hill. This so enraged the “Gyre Carline” that over the unruly waters she waved her magic wand, and what was “once a moss and then a sea” became “again a moss and aye will be.” At other meetings of less consequence the more important carlines of different districts met together, when schemes of persecution and revenge were evolved, and where philtres and charms were brewed and concocted for distribution amongst their inferior sisters whose office it was to give them effect. A concoction of virulent power was in the form of a bannock or cake, better known as the “witch cake,” whose uncannie preparation and potency has been so quaintly described in verse by Allan Cunningham:—

The Witch Cake.
“I saw yestreen, I saw yestreen,
Little wis ye what I saw yestreen,
The black cat pyked out the gray ane’s een
At the hip o’ the hemlock knowe yestreen.

Wi’ her tail i’ her teeth, she whomel’d roun’,
Wi’ her tail i’ her teeth, she whomel’d roun’,
Till a braw star drapt frae the lift aboon,
An’ she keppit it e’er it wan to the grun.

She hynt them a’ in her mou’ an’ chowed,
She hynt them a’ in her mou’ an’ chowed,
She drabbled them owre wi’ a black tade’s blude,
An’ baked a bannock an’ ca’d it gude!

She haurned it weel wi’ ae blink o’ the moon,
She haurned it weel wi’ ae blink o’ the moon,
An withre-shines thrice she whorled it roun’,
There’s some sall skirl ere ye be done.

Some lass maun gae wi’ a kilted sark,
Some priest maun preach in a thackless kirk,
Thread maun be spun for a dead man’s sark,
A’ maun be done e’er the sang o’ the lark.

Tell me what ye saw yestreen,
Tell me what ye saw yestreen,
There’s yin may gaur thee sich an’ green,
For telling what ye saw yestreen.”

At such minor meetings also, effigies were moulded in clay of those who had offended, which pierced with pins conveyed serious bodily injuries and disorder in their victims corresponding to the pin punctures. Two of these carlines dispensing the “black art” in the respective parishes of Caerlaverock and Newabbey were in the habit of meeting with each other for such purpose, but the holy men of Sweetheart Abbey overcame their wicked designs by earnest prayers, so much so that their meetings on the solid earth were rendered futile, and thus thwarted, their intercourse had to take place on the water.
Of this the following tale from “Cromek,” as reputed to be told by an eye-witness, is descriptive:—
“I gaed out ae fine summer night to haud my halve at the Pow fit. It was twal’ o’clock an’ a’ was lowne; the moon had just gotten up—ye mought a gathered preens. I heard something firsle like silk—I glowered roun’ an’ lake! what saw I but a bonnie boat, wi’ a nob o’ gowd, and sails like new-coined siller. It was only but a wee bittie frae me. I mought amaist touch’t it. ‘Gude speed ye gif ye gang for guid,’ quoth I, ‘for I dreed our auld carline was casting some o’ her pranks.’ Another cunning boat cam’ off frae Caerla’rick to meet it. Thae twa bade a stricken hour thegither sidie for sidie. ‘Haith,’ quoth I, ‘the deil’s grit wi’ some!’ sae I crap down amang some lang cowes till Luckie cam’ back. The boat played bowte again the bank, an out lowpes Kimmer, wi’ a pyked naig’s head i’ her han’. ‘Lord be about us!’ quo’ I, for she cam’ straught for me. She howked up a green turf, covered her bane, an’ gaed her wa’s. Wh

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