Bargarran Witches (1696–1697)

Bargarran Witches (1696–1697) Scottish witchcraft
hysteria started by a girl. The case bears similarities to
the Warboys Witches and to the Salem Witches, in
which the fits of supposedly possessed children led to
the executions of accused witches.
The cause of the hysteria was Christine Shaw, the 11-
year-old daughter of John Shaw, the laird of Bargarran,
near Paisley in Renfrewshire. On August 17, 1696, Shaw
caught another girl, Catherine Campbell, stealing some
of the Shaws’ milk and threatened to expose her. Campbell
responded by wishing Shaw would go to hell.
Possibly Shaw brooded about the insult and thought
of ways to get back at Campbell. She apparently was in an
ill humor, for on August 21 she sassed a woman, Agnes
Naismith, who asked her how she was doing.
On August 22, Shaw fell into violent fits. She swallowed
her tongue and went into extreme contortions. She
claimed that the specters of Naismith and Campbell were
torturing her and had forced her to swallow vile items that
she then vomited up: wild bird feathers, soiled hay, eggshells,
crooked pins, hot cinders, small bones, hairballs
and wads of candle grease. She showed this evidence on
her bed, and the items were found to be exceptionally dry,
as though they could not have come out of a stomach.
When in her fits, Shaw argued with the witches’ specters
and quoted Bible verses at them. She was examined
by two doctors, who could not explain her affliction. She
was sent away by her family to recover, and while away
she was fine. As soon as she returned home, the fits and
vomiting resumed.
Shaw widened her accusations, naming other people
in a family who supposedly were witches tormenting her,
cutting her body: Elizabeth Anderson, 17; her father, Alexander,
a beggar; her grandmother, Jean Fulton; and two
of her cousins, James, 14, and Thomas Lindsay, 11 or 12.
Emboldened, Shaw also named two upper-class women,
Margaret Lang and her daughter Martha Semple, 17.
The accusations and Shaw’s ongoing afflictions caused
an investigation to be launched on January 19, 1697. Lang
and Semple were indignant. Some of the others readily
confessed to being witches and in turn named others.
Elizabeth Anderson admitted that she had often seen the
Devil appear to her in the shape of a black man, accompanied
by her grandmother. Furthermore, Elizabeth said
she had attended local meetings of witches for at least seven
years and said her father and another man were among
Shaw’s tormentors.
Thomas Lindsay at first protested his innocence and
then admitted his guilt, saying he had signed a Devil’s
pact. He said the Devil was his father and that he could
fly like a crow whenever he pleased. He could cast spells
by uttering magical words and turning widdershins,
causing a plough to stand on its own and horses to break
their yokes. Thomas said his brother James was with him
at meetings with the Devil and the witches. James confessed.
In all, 21 people were named by Shaw and then
formally accused. Members of the Lindsay family were
already thought to be witches, and examinations showed
them to have witch’s marks.
The investigators assembled the accused witches and
brought Shaw before them. She gave more stories of tor18
Bargarran Witches
ments, claiming she was levitated down her stairs, that
objects were lifted as though by invisible hands and that
her body was being harmed. She recoiled and fell into fits
if any of the accused touched her.
Meanwhile, some of the accused confessed to more
crimes than tormenting Shaw. They took credit for previous
deaths, among them a minister, two children found
strangled in their beds and two drowning victims on a
ferryboat that sank.
On April 5, 1697, a new commission of judges was appointed.
The accused were indicted and turned over to a
jury on April 13. After seven hours of deliberation, the
jury convicted seven of the 21 accused: three men, including
James Lindsay, and four women, Lang, Semple,
Naismith and the unfortunate Campbell, whose curse
started the entire tragedy.
The seven were executed by hanging in Paisley. Their
bodies were burned. According to lore, some were not
quite dead when taken down from the gallows and thrown
into the fire. A walking stick was borrowed from a spectator
to poke their moving limbs back into the flames. The
owner of the stick refused to take it back, saying he did
not want it after it had touched witches.
After the executions, Shaw recovered and had no more
fits. She married a minister in 1718. He died seven years
later. She helped to bring Dutch machinery into Scotland
for the manufacture of a high-quality thread, which was
named after her family name, Bargarran. As a result, Paisley
prospered as a wool center.
A horseshoe was set in Paisley to commemorate the
execution place. Shaw’s home eventually became a historical
In 1839, a small hole was discovered in Shaw’s bedroom
wall. It was speculated that perhaps she had had
an accomplice who passed the “vomit” into her bedroom.
The vomited items were suspiciously dry.

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