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Forfar Courthouse



Burn the Witch
The Forfar witch hunts of the 1660's

In 1563 the newly created Church of Scotland made it illegal to either be a witch or to consult a witch in an attempt to stamp out pagan practices. This Act of Parliament was not abandoned until 1736. In between 1563 and 1736 is known from documentary evidence that at least 1,500 people were executed for the crime of being a witch. During the time the act was on the statute books there were 3 periods of intense witch hunting. One witch hunt took place in the reign of James VI in the 1590's, the second during the Civil War of the 1640's and the third after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. During this last witch hunt of 1660-1663 it is believed that 300 people were executed as witches. In 1663 alone it is thought that 150 people were executed. This does not count those people who died in jail after they were tortured or who killed themselves in despair. To this total Forfar contributed 42 people suspected of being witches, of whom at least 9 were executed. Only 3 were men.

Forfar's witch hunt of 1661-166

Forfar was a typical small Scottish burgh in the seventeenth century. It was quite isolated as it was surrounded by marsh or loch on 3 sides. It was also a market town for the area where meat and fresh fish were sold plus manufactured goods such as the shoes for which Forfar was famous. It was made up of 2 streets, the High Street and Castle Street. At the crossroads sat the tolbooth and the market cross. The population was probably around 1000 people. It was crowded, dirty and smelly. There was no running water or modern conveniences. The contents of the chamber pot, animal dung and household rubbish were all dumped on the street. It was a small town where everyone knew everyone else's business and grudges were held for generations.

Who were the witches?

Witches were generally accepted to be women. They were usually poor women with no family to offer protection. They were widows like Katherine Porter or young women such as Elspeth Bruce. Any women who was a little different and who lived on the fringes of respectable, church going society could find herself accused if the climate was right. This would include anyone who had a squint, regarded as the evil eye, or who suffered from epilepsy, considered to be possession by the devil. Midwives were often accused. If they could bring life into the world, they might decide to take life out of this world. The same applied to women with a knowledge of herbal medicine.

The importance of the minister

Accusations of witchcraft would have been brought to the attention of Forfar's young and enthusiastic minister, Alexander Robertson. Ministers were the key to witch hunts. If the minister held no truck with the notion, then witch hunts simply did not happen. If he did accept that witches existed and should be eradicated then he took the matter to the Town Council who would set the ponderous forces of 17th century justice into motion.

The role of Helen Guthrie

Without one woman, Helen Guthrie, the Forfar witch hunts would not have lasted so long or encompassed so many. She played a vital role in this story of prejudice and intolerance. Helen was by her own admission a drunken and very wicked woman who had murdered her own step-sister when they were both children. Helen and her 13 year old daughter Janet Howat were accused of being witches along with 11 others including Isobel Shyrie, Helen Alexander, Girsel Simpsone, Agnes Spark, Katherine Porter, John Tailyeour and Janet Stout. Helen helped the witch hunters identify more witches. She did this by claiming to be able to identify another witch simply by seeing her. She agreed to help the witch hunters but only if they did not hurry her. She became the star witness for the prosecutors. She gave them plenty of material. She told stories of drunken midnight parties held in Forfar Kirkyard, desecration of graves, cannibalism, ship sinking at Carnoustie and destruction of bridges at Cortachy. She boasted of her prowess as a witch claiming the devil tried to rescue her from the tolbooth by levitating her up through the rafters. She would have escaped but for the vigilance of the watchmen. Helen's motivation for assisting the witch hunters can only be a matter for speculation. As long as she was alive, so was her young daughter. Perhaps Helen aimed to make herself indispensable to the witch hunters to protect Janet.

How to identify a witch

The 1563 Act making witchcraft illegal simply made it unlawful to be a witch. Witch hunters believed that there were four ways in which a witch could be identified. A witch confessed to meeting with the devil. Witches were believed to meet with the devil to drink and dance and to confess their evil deeds. Sabbats were traditionally held on Friday evenings in churchyards, at crossroads or other out of the way places.

A witch renounced her baptism. This meant she was commonly known by a name other than the one which she received at her baptism. Isobel Shyrie was known as the Horse and Helen Guthrie was called the White Witch, perhaps indicating a knowledge of healing herbs.A witch received a mark from the devil which was not painful or did not bleed when pricked with a needle.

It was taken as conclusive proof that a witch had renounced her Christian baptism. Lastly, a witch performed malefice, evil deeds by supernatural means. Witches were accused of causing destruction of crops, cows to stop giving milk and making people ill.


Many of the witch suspects have left confessions behind. The prosecutors required confessions before they could execute a witch. But what did the witch suspects actually confess to doing? They confessed to meeting a man in black that they believed was the devil. Few of them confess to anything supernatural except for Helen Guthrie and Isobel Shyrie, who claimed she murdered Bailie George Wood by giving him a drink containing powder dead man's skull and flesh. Elspeth Bruce, singled out as a pretty woman, admitted to preparing a roast goose for the devil.

Imprisonment and torture

The witch suspects were held in Forfar's tolbooth in appalling conditions. They were arrested at the start of winter and yet were kept in cold dark conditions. They were deprived of sleep, warmth and light for weeks if not months on end. They were also prodded all over their bodies with long thin pins to discover their witches mark. John Kincaid from Tranent was hired to conduct the proddings. Forfar presented him with an honorary burgess-ship as a reward for his work. Some witch prodders were discovered to be charlatans who used retractable pins in order to "manufacture" a witch. One Mr Paterson from Inverness was actually a woman.

Confessions were not freely obtained from witch suspects. It was common to use what we would now call torture to get confessions of guilt from the accused. Any museum in any Scottish burgh will have thumbscrews and a branks, or scold's bridle as it is also known, a device for depressing the tongue and keeping suspects quiet. There were also a number of more subtle torture's used on Scottish witch suspects such as waking and light deprivation. In "waking" or sleep deprivation witch suspects were deliberately kept from sleeping. Local guards took turns to stay in the tolbooth with the suspects. If the women fell asleep it was the job of the guards to march the women up and down the prison to keep them from sleeping. This process continued until they made a confession. After a number of nights without rest people would do anything to be allowed to sleep. It can also cause hallucinations. Light deprivation can have much the same effect. Although it was winter the women were not allowed a candle to see by or a fire to warm themselves. If they had access to a naked flame the witch hunters believed that they would use their magical powers to summon the devil to set them free.

A just trial?

Once a confession was obtained a trial could be held. Trials were swift, perfunctory affairs with a guilty verdict almost inevitable. The convicted witch was lucky if she was merely banished such as Helen Alexander and Janet Bertie. The less fortunate ones were executed by the more "merciful" method employed in Scotland. A witch would be first strangled and her body burnt in a barrel of tar. Isobel Shyrie was the first to suffer this fate in Forfar.

The execution of Helen Guthrie

Helen Guthrie finally outlasted her usefulness to the witch hunters in late 1662. Witch hunting ceased quite abruptly in the burgh. Its demise coincided with Alexander Robertson's removal as ministers by the Privy Council for too much zeal in his witch hunting. Helen Guthrie was the last witch to be executed in Forfar in December 1662. By that time 8 women had been executed and at least 2 had been whipped to the burgh gate and exiled from the town.

The last witches

A few were still imprisoned in the tolbooth, including Elspeth Bruce and Helen's teenage daughter Janet. The last that is known of Janet is a plea that appears in the records of the Privy Council begging that they order the Town Council to let her go free. They had held a trial and no one had spoken against her. The Privy Council orders the Town Council to hold another trial or release her. This plea is dated 1666, 4 years after her initial arrest. Her final fate is unknown.

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