Isobel Gowdie was a Scottish woman accused of witchcraft during the witch hunts of the 17th century. This article discusses her story, witchcraft. Isobel Gowdie, the renowned “Queen of Scottish Witches”, was a young Scottish housewife who was tried for witchcraft in Her detailed confession. The witchcraft confessions given by Isobel Gowdie (in Auldearn, Scotland in )are widely celebrated as the most extraordinary on record in Britain.
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Isobel Gowdie was a difficult assignment for us. Spooky Scotland has taken us to many haunted destinations. However, it seems that we pass through Auldearn on a regular occurrence to get to many other spooky sites: On the surface, Auldearn appears to be a sleepy Highland village, the kind of place you might think would pass through the history books, unrecognised.
However, the s were turbulent times for Auldearn. Then, init became the scene of one of the most bizarre witch hunts in Scotland. The witchcraft confessions by Isobel Gowdie are some of the most extraordinary on record. This is the woman who gave the world the notion of a coven.
James MacMillan – The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Some say that her ghost still haunts Auldearn. Sifting through the information on Isobel Gowdie was difficult: Isobel Gowdie has achieved modern notoriety, as she has been the subject of several modern works. With so many popular works, sometimes the lines between fact and fiction merge, making it hard to find out who Isobel Gowdie really was. According to Brodie-Innes, she was young, attractive and red-headed, her father was a lawyer, her islbel was a Kirk Elder and she married beneath her station.
We simply do not know if any of these things are true. We do know that Isobel Gowdie was a real person who was tried for witchcraft and we do have her confessions. Very little is known about Isobel Gowdie.
She was married to John Gilbert, who had no involvement with the witchcraft case. We do not know what her age was, but as the legal age for marriage in Scotland at the time was fifteen years old, we can assume she had to be older than this.
It should be noted that the average age for getting married in Scotland during this time period was twenty-six or twenty-seven. In addition, during her confession she alluded to have engaged in sexual practices some fifteen years earlier, placing her somewhere between thirty to fifty years of age.
We do not know if she had any children. There are no surviving records from the time and she made no reference to children in any of her confessions. Isobel Gowdie and her husband lived in Loch Loy, some two miles north of Auldearn. As a cottar he would have been provided with a cottage and a parcel of land. It is likely that she lived her life in a turf house and spent her days milking, baking bread, weeding and perhaps spinning yarn. It seems probable that Isobel Gowdie had little or no education.
However, despite being unable to read or write, Isobel possessed a good imagination and could express herself eloquently. Perhaps the thing which sets Isobel apart from other witch trials of the time is the sheer volume of her confession. Although the confessions quickly became celebrated, the original documents went missing. The papers reveal that Isobel Gowdie made a series of four confessions over a six-week period, the first being 13th April in Auldearn, Nairnshire.
The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
In keeping with the time, Isobel would have been keep in solitary confinement, probably in the Tolbooth in Auldearn where she was likely beaten and deprived of sleep. During the course of her imprisonment, she was interrogated by the local ministers, Harry Forbes and Hugh Rose in the presence of at least a dozen witnesses, including a isobell notary John Innes.
Her testimony bears the heavy imprint of a prosecutorial mind. This does not mean that Isobel was not tortured by modern gowdoe standards but likely escaped the horrors of judicial torture or illegal physical torture using a torture device.
It seems probable godie she was subjected to the horrors of sleep deprivation. She may have endured the indignity of a facing a witch pricker, one which was known to be active in Moray at the time who went by the name of John Dickson.
It turned out that Mr Dickson was really a woman named Christian Caddell, who was deported to Barbados in for her fraudulent behaviour. It seems alien to the modern mind that anybody would stand up in court and confess to entering a pact with the Devil, or to having performed a ritual or charm which caused the death of a child, knowing that it would be signing their death warrant. There is little vowdie that many witchcraft suspects were coerced into making a full confession.
However, there were many different forms of torture as seen below:. This may have included the use of thumb screws and the iron boot. Permission had to be granted from the Privy Council for this form of torture to be used.
Most witchcraft cases originated in church courts. Church courts were never legally allowed to use direct torture to obtain a confession. However, there is evidence torture devices were used illegally. Searches for a witch-mark or witch-pricking. This was considered to be legal, and there were people employed as witch-prickers.
This was seen as proof that the witch had entered into a pact with the Devil, getting powers to cause maleficium. The pricker began isobrl stripping the victim naked and shaved them from head to toe. Then the pin was pushed in, again and again, until the right spot was found. Sometimes the victim would pass out during the experience and be incapable of calling out in pain.
In other cases, parts of the body were massaged until numb. However, it should be remembered that this was a society which prized modesty. Most of the victims accused were women who were stripped naked in public and handled all over their bodies. This was humiliating sexual abuse. Many would confess just to make it stop. Sleep deprivation which had the accused held in isolation and watched by guards. This was not considered to be torture during this period and was probably the means by which most of those accused of witchcraft were found guilty.
One of the most pronounced effects of sleep deprivation is that it causes hallucinations. Harsh jail conditions including lack of food and warmth and ill treatment including beatings by the guards. Worn down by the pressures of interrogation and hoping for leniency, the poor woman is likely to have told them what they wanted to hear.
Recent psychological studies into the phenomenon of false confession show that people can develop false memories. Fatigue and sleep deprivation impair decision making and increase suggestibility. Memories may become implanted and the suspect may begin to believe the confession him or herself. Extended sleep deprivation can lead to hallucinations, at which point the interrogators would take this as evidence that the accused was in league with the Devil.
It is likely that Isobel may have developed false memories of having performed some of the crimes alleged against her. These aspects of her confession are likely to have been derived from leading questions by the prosecution. For example, her descriptions are dominated by maleficium, or the use of malicious magic, following many of the standard rituals found in other witch trials. However, her account of spoiling crops using a puddock frog plow so that afterwards, only thistles and briars would grow, is unique.
Maleficium was also directed at the Minister of Auldearn, Harry Forbes, with spells being invoked to inflict illness and torment on the man. Harry Forbes, it seems was a religious zealot with a fear of witchcraft. Shortly after his arrival in Auldearn inhe had confided in Alexander Brodiethe main landholder in the area, that he had been the victim of witchcraft.
A surge in awareness of witchcraft as recorded in the diaries of Brodie of Brodie throughout the area seems to coincide with his arrival and then seems to have dissipated after his departure in Much of what Isobel says with regard to demonology is fairly stereotypical.
Isobel Gowdie: A Witch Trial Extraordinaire in Auldearn, Scotland
During her first confession she gave an account of her first encounter with the Devil. She arranged to meet him in the kirk at Auldearn at night. Naming some others who were in attendance, including Janet Breadhead and Margret Brodie, she said that she renounced her baptism and was re-baptised by the Devil who promptly renamed her Janet. Where she differs from the confession of others is in detailing how the Devil put his mark on her shoulder then sucked her blood.
Having admitted to entering into a pact with the Devil, she then disclosed that she had carnal relations with him, kissed his behind and that she met with him in groups as well as on her own. This is standard fare in a witch trial.
Allegedly he had forked and cloven feet which he sometimes covered with boots or shoes. Isobel claimed that, transformed into the likeness of a crow, she sneaked into the cellars and kitchens of local castles and houses to eat their food, steal ale from barrels and perform magical rituals.
As they had no bows, the arrows were fired using a flick on the thumb. Isobel claimed that her coven had killed with these arrows, as death was inevitable if struck by one of them. Throughout her dramatic testimony, Isobel recounts no less then twenty-seven charms, the majority of which are unique in British folklore.
She chronicles instances of sickness transferal, where an individual is cured by diverting their illness onto someone or something else. Isobel describes a ritual whereby a sickness is diverted from a bewitched child onto its cradle belt and finally onto a cat or a dog. After at least six gruelling weeks of incarceration and interrogation, the panel of interrogators felt that they had secured enough evidence to secure a conviction against Isobel Gowdie.
They applied to the Privy Council in Edinburgh, seeking a Commission of Justiciary for a local trial to be held. According to Wilby, it is probable that the confessions arrived in Edinburgh during the middle of June There is no record of Isobel being executed although this is not unusual: It seems likely that Isobel Gowdie and Janet Breadhead would have been found guilty at a local trial held in mid-July. Following the verdict, they would have been transported by cart to Gallowhill, on the outskirts of Nairn, where they would have been strangled and burnt.
The burning of the deceased body was to ensure that no postmortem sorcery could occur. The execution would have been a public affair, with the whole community forced to attend. During the course of her confession, Isobel Gowdie implicated another twelve people as witches, the members of her coven.
Janet Breadhead implicated three times as many people as Isobel. What happened to these wretches, we will never know.
Was this a deliberate tactic to take the scent away from her husband?