On 8th November 1576, at the High Court in Edinburgh, Bessie Dunlop, an Ayrshire woman, was accused of ‘sorcery, witchcraft, and incantation, with invocation of spirits of the devil, continuing in familiarity with them at all such times as she thought expedient, dealing with charms, and jinxing the people with devilish craft of sorcery aforesaid’. But like so many people accused of witchcraft at the time of the trials, Bessie was just an ordinary woman who had never caused harm to anyone.
Bessie was what was known as a skeelywife, one who relied on old superstitions, traditional folk medicine, and charms for helping both people and animals. With a great understanding of medicinal herbs and plants, she was the local healer and midwife, and her skills were highly valued by her community.
Unfortunately in the age of hysteria in which Bessie lived, when even a birthmark could find you accused of being a witch, she quickly attracted the attention of the witchfinders of the Kirk. Accused by a neighbour, she was arrested and taken to Edinburgh where she was tortured by ‘hanging her by her thumbs, holding her soles of her feet to fire, burning of them until she wouldst confess’, and confess she did.
Bessie told the trial that while she was giving birth she had been visited by the Queen of Elfhame, the queen of the fairies, in the guise of a stout old woman. The queen had demanded a drink of water and, although in great pain, Bessie had fetched water for her. As a reward, the queen promised her a familiar and ‘commandit him to wait upon hir’.
According to Bessie she met her familiar for the first time as she was walking on the road between her house and the yard where she kept her cows. He was a man named Thom Reid, a former barony officer in Dalry who had died at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547. He had the appearance of a respectable elderly man with a grey beard and a grey coat and breeches, white stockings gartered above the knee, and a black bonnet on his head. In his hand, he carried a white wand.
On the day that Bessie met Thom, her prize cow had just died and her husband and child were very sick. Thom predicted, correctly, that her child would die, as would two of her sheep, but her husband would make a full recovery, then, in the blink of an eye, he disappeared through a tiny hole in a dyke, far too small a hole for a mortal person to pass through.
She later met Thom in the company of eight women and four men. The men were clad in gentlemen’s clothing and the women wore expensive plaids. Thom asked Bessie if she knew any of them, to which she replied that she did not, and Thom explained that these were the good wights of the fairy court who had come to invite Bessie to return there with them. When Bessie refused, they departed with ‘a hideous ugly blast of wind‘, and left Bessie lying sick on the ground. Thom pleaded once more with Bessie to join him in the fairy court, trying to persuade her by pointing out his own well-to-do position, but Bessie was happy with her lot and continued to refuse his advances.
Bessie told the trial that Thom trained her in how to make and use ointments, tinctures, and poultices to heal people and livestock. He advised her on the locations of lost items, allowing her to aid her kinsfolk in recovering stolen property. He gave her a swatch of green lace that she could wrap around the left arm of any woman in labour, giving them pain relief and guaranteeing an easier delivery.
People came from far and wide to hear her wisdom, and even the local gentry consulted her – Lady Thirdpart and Lady Blair sought her advice regarding the whereabouts of stolen items, and Lady Johnstone asked her to heal the sickness of her daughter. Bessie, in turn, consulted Thom who advised:
“Her sickness is due to cauld blood that went about her heart, that caused her to pine away. Therefore let her take equal parts of cloves, ginger, annis-seed, and liquorice, and mix them together in ale; seethe them together; strain the mixture; put it in a vessel, then take a little quantity of it in a mutchkin can, with some white sugar cast among it; take and drink thereof each day in the morning; walk a while after, before meat, and she would soon be better.”
And she soon was. Bessie received a bag of meal and some cheese as payment.
Bessie once consulted Thom about what was likely to happen to her as a result of their acquaintance and he advised her that she would be accused of witchcraft but she would call on her neighbours and they would speak well of her, and no evil would come to her. Unfortunately, when it came to her trial, no one would speak in Bessie’s defence because they all feared for their own lives. Despite endless tortures, Bessie never changed her story. There was never any mention of pacts with the devil, midnight flights in a sieve or on a besom, milk souring, cattle charming, dancing in churches, or any of the other transgressions usually noted in a witch’s confession.
Ultimately, regardless of the fact that she had only ever done good deeds for her community and had never harmed another being, Bessie was found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to be burned at the stake on Castle Hill in Edinburgh, though some accounts have her sentence being carried out at Corsehillmuir on the east bank of the River Garnock.
Bessie Dunlop was one of around two hundred people from Ayrshire and four thousand people in Scotland to be formally accused of witchcraft between the 16th and 18th centuries. Modern estimates indicate that over fifteen hundred people had been executed in Scotland by the time the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 was repealed in 1736.