The country of Scotland has a long, often dark and turbulent history, and like many such places it is rife with tales of ghosts and the supernatural. Here among the many, many tales of haunted places and paranormal phenomena that populate this place, there are some that have compelling stories behind them involving witches. Like many European countries, here there is a long history of witches and witch trials, and some of these have produced some amazing tales of the supernatural.
In the 16th century, a humble widow by the name of Agnes Sampson lived with her two children in a modest home at Nether Keith, a part of the Keith Marischal barony, East Lothian, in Scotland. She led a rather simple life, and was mostly known for her purported healing powers and her work as a midwife, with people coming from far and wide to purchase various salves, potions, ointments, and other folk remedies to heal all manner of sicknesses and ailments. Agnes, who was often called the “Wise Wife of Keith,” was not known for being sinister or malevolent at all, always willing to help cure people of their various ails, but unfortunately for her this was 16th century Scotland, when witch hunts were going on throughout Europe, and to show any sort of magical ability was to risk being accused of witchcraft.
This crusade against witches would focus on Agnes Sampson in the spring of 1590, when King James VI returned from Copenhagen after marrying Anne of Denmark and was beset upon by uncommonly fierce storms during the journey that sunk several of his fleet. This was obviously the doing of witches, it was thought, and so a witch hunt began in earnest in Denmark to find those responsible, leading to two women being burned at the stake, and James VI followed suit by launching his own extensive witch hunt in Scotland, where many had already long been taking place. Called the North Berwick witch trials, there would be numerous suspected witches arrested, and one of these was a maidservant named Geillis Duncan, who was convicted of witchcraft and under torture started giving up the names of other witches, with Agnes Sampson’s name among them. Although Agnes had done nothing other than sell some healing remedies, in those days being accused by someone was often enough to get one imprisoned as a witch, and so she was arrested and brought to the historic Holyroodhouse Palace in Edinburgh to be questioned. Things would not go well for her.
Although she denied any sort of witchcraft even under torture, the first damning piece of evidence against Agnes Sampson was a supposed "privy mark," or witches' mark, found on her body, which was basically a birthmark or mole deemed to be unnatural and thus obviously a mark of the Devil. After this, when further tortured she would confess to having made magical charms and sinking them into the sea in order to cause storms that had sunk many ships and had also terrorized the king on his return voyage from Denmark in 1590. Agnes would allegedly confess to the King himself that the Devil had often appeared to her as “a black man, a dog, or a hay rick,” and that she had made a pact with him because she was a poor widow. She also confessed to trying to gain personal articles from the king in order to use them to craft magical charms to use against him for nefarious purposes, such as making him infertile. Interestingly, the king didn’t even believe any of this at first, but was convinced of the truth of her words when Agnes told him information that she could not have possibly known without the help of supernatural means. An excerpt from the Newes from Scotland would say of this:
The said Agnes Sampson confessed before the Kings Majesty sundry things which were so miraculous and strange, as that his Majesty said they were all extreme liars, whereat she answered, she would not wish his Majesty to suppose her words to be false, but rather to believe them, in that she would discover such matter unto him as his majesty should not any way doubt of. And thereupon taking his Majesty a little aside, she declared unto him the very words which passed between the Kings Majesty and his Queen at Oslo in Norway the first night of their marriage, with their answer each to other: whereat the Kings Majesty wondered greatly, and swore by the living God, that he believed that all the Devils in hell could not have discovered the same: acknowledging her words to be most true, and therefore gave the more credit to the rest which is before declared.
These confessions did not do her any favors, and Agnes Sampson was duly convicted of being a witch, brutally tortured for several months, and garroted and then burned at the stake on 28 January 1591. It doesn’t seem as if she has ever really left, though. The Palace of Holyroodhouse to this day is allegedly prowled by the restless ghost of Agnes Sampson, who appears naked, her body covered with the cuts and bruises sustained from her arduous torture at the hands of her captors, or sometimes covered with horrific burns. The ghost apparently largely ignores people, instead wandering about in a daze and materializing and dematerializing. There are apparently other ghosts lurking within the walls of the Palace of Holyroodhouse as well, but Agnes Sampson is the one who is seen most often and clearly.
Another victim of the various with hunts and trials blazing across Scotland at the time was Janet Douglas, also known as Lady Glamis Douglas. In this case she was no poor peasant, but rather a Scottish noblewoman, yet this was not enough to make her immune to the witch hunts. One of the problems was that Sir James Douglas, a lieutenant to Robert the Bruce, was an enemy of King James V of Scotland, and another was that her brother, Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, who happened to be the King's stepfather, had imprisoned the young James, and so the king had a great hatred for the entire family. James V would plot to have Janet accused of using witchcraft against him, and for good measure also threw in a charge of poisoning her first husband, John Lyon, sixth Lord Glamis, when he died in 1528, as well as trying to poison him as well and conspire against him. Through a campaign of false evidence and statements against her, Janet was eventually found guilty of witchcraft and burned at the stake in 1537, allegedly as her son was forced to watch. After this, she is said to have taken up residence at Glamis Castle as a spectral apparition dressed all in grey, earning her the nickname “The Grey Lady.” She is mostly seen lurking about the castle chapel, but is also seen wandering through the halls, and she is certainly not alone at Glamis Castle, as it is crawling with spooks and is often considered one of the most haunted places in Scotland. You can read more of what I’ve written on Glamis Castle here.
Rather interestingly, there is another supposed story involving an unrelated Janet Douglas, this time a young 14-year-old deaf girl, who in 1676 came to work as a servant at the Pollok estate of Sir George Maxwell, not far from the center of Glasgow, where she would merge tales of psychic powers, witches, and hauntings. Shortly after her arrival, Maxwell fell gravely ill with a “hot and fiery distemper in the form of a violent heat, attended with pain” as well as stabbing sensations throughout his body but mostly in his shoulder. When this mysterious sickness came upon him, Douglas inexplicably found herself able to hear and speak again, and she promptly told the Maxwell family and other servants of a witch by the name of, Janet Mathie, who was the midwife of the nearby village of Pollokshaw, and who she was sure was the one responsible. Douglas urged the family to go and see for themselves, and one report from the era would say of the events that unfolded:
Lady Maxwell, not being inclined to superstition, would have denied the girl’s request; but the two other gentlewomen consented. So Janet went away with two men-servants, and straight conducted them to the cottage of an old woman of evil fame, named Janet Mathie, whose son the laird had some time before imprisoned for stealing his fruit. She going in with the men, the woman on some occasion stepping to the door, the dumb lass instantly put her hand behind the chimney, and takes out a picture of wax wrapped in a linen cloth, gives it to the men; away they all come with it, and let the gentlewomen see it. They find two pins stuck in the right side of it, and a pin on the shoulder downward, which they take out, and keeps quiet; and that night the bird had good rest, and mended afterward, though slowly, for he was sore brought down in his body: and in two or three days they made him understand the matter. The woman is apprehended, and laid up in prison in Paisley! On being searched, several witch-marks—that is, spots insensible to pain—were found upon her.
On the 4th of January, Sir George’s illness recurred with the same violence as before, and his face assumed the leaden hue of death. Amidst the anxieties which this occasioned, the dumb girl sent to inform the family that John Stewart, Mathie’s son, had made a new image of clay, for the purpose of taking away Sir George’s life. Two gentlemen went next day with the girl to Mathie’s cottage, and keeping her at a distance, but acting under her directions, found such an image under the bolster of a bed, with three pins sticking in it. The young man and his sister Annaple were immediately apprehended. From that day, it was said that Sir George began to recover his health.
Stewart at first denied all concern in the images, but, on witch-marks being found on his person, he was ‘confounded,’ and joined his sister in a confession, which described witch-conventions in their mother’s house, along with ‘a man dressed in black, with a blue band and white hand-cuffs, with hoggars over his bare feet, which were cloven!’ Three women of the neighbourhood, Bessie Weir, Margaret Jackson, and Marjory Craig, were accordingly apprehended and examined, when the second gave a confession to much the same effect, but the other two proved ‘obdurate.’ When the two young people had been committed to Paisley prison, Janet, their mother, desired to see her son, and the request being granted, ‘they make a third and new picture of clay, which the dumb lass again discovers.’ It was supposed that this was intended for Sir George’s daughter-in-law, who had taken an active interest in detecting the diabolic conspiracy, and who fell ill about this time.
In the end, all of these suspected witches would end up admitting to being in league with the Devil and of having carried out rituals and having crafted wax and clay figures for the purpose of lashing out with their dark magic. The Devil in the case was called the “Black Man,” dressed all in black, and during the subsequent trial one of the accused, Annaple Stewart, would give a detailed account of this, explaining how they had made the effigy and bound it on a spit and turned it around on a fire, with Mathie's son John Stewart being a big part of it. Annaple would say:
After he (John Stewart) had gone to bed, the Black Man came in, and called him quietly by his name, upon which he arose from the bed and put on his clothes. Margaret Jackson, Bessie Weir, and Marjory Craig did enter in at the window in the gable. The first thing that the Black Man required was that he should renounce his baptism and deliver up himself wholly unto him, putting one of his hands on the crown of his head, and the other to the sole of his foot . . . promising he should not want any pleasure, and that he should get his heart sythe on all that should do him wrong. (All having given their consent to the making of the clay image, which was meant as a revenge for Sir George Maxwell taking away his mother), they wrought the clay, and the Black Man did make the head and face, and the two arms. The devil set three pins in the same, one in each side, and one in the breast; and John did hold the candle all the time the picture was making. The picture was placed by Bessie Weir in his bed-straw.
They all apparently had nicknames given them by the devil, who himself bore the name of Ejool. Interestingly, when the girl was asked what the devil’s name had been to her, "she, being about to tell, was stopped, the bed being made to shake, and her clothes under her blown up with a wind." For Douglas, she had never met any of these people she accused before, but rather all of this information had been coming to her in vivid dreams that had begun shortly after regaining her ears and ability to speak again. All of the supposed witches were tried and condemned, with Janet Mathie, Bessie Weir, and Marjory Craig continuing to deny their guilt of witchcraft to the end, although all of them were not shy about expressing a hatred of Maxwell. In 1677, they would each be hanged, then burned along with their wax and clay effigies, and apparently as the last one was executed there was the testimony that said “there appears a raven, and approaches the hangman within an ell of him, and flies away again.” Janet Douglas would go on to accuse several other witches, demonstrating not only miraculously restored hearing and speech, but the strange gift of being able to sense and track witches down, these things apparently revealed to her in her sleep through visions. She apparently did not know how she had received these powers or from where they came, and one passage in the book Satan’s Invisible World Discovered would say of her response to being asked about it:
I asked her, how she came to the knowledge of Witches and their practices? She answered, that she had it only by vision, and knew all things as well this way, as if she had been personally present with them, but had no revelation, or information from the voice of any Spirit. Nor had she any communication with the Devil, or any Spirit of that kind: only (sayes she) the Devil was represented to me, when he was in company with any of the Witches, in that same shape and habit he was seen by them. She told me, she was altogether ignorant of the Principles of Christian Religion, but had some smattering knowledge of the Lords Prayer, which she had heard the Witches repeat (it seems by her vision) in presence of the Devil; and at his desire (which they observed) they added to the word Art, the letter W, which made it run, our father which wart in heaven, and made the third Petition thus, as on earth, so it may in heaven, by which means the Devil made the application of the Prayer to himself. I know assuredly that Janet Dowglas, that was first a Dumbie, yet spoke thereafter, who had given many Responses by Signs and Words, and foretold many future events, being examined by Mr Gray one of the Ministers of the City of Glasgow, denyed any explicit or implicit Paction [with the Devil], and declared freely that the answers of the questions proponed to her were represented by a Vision in lively Images, representing persons concerned and acting the thing, before her Eyes.
Numerous other witches would be tried on Douglas’ word, and then she just seems to have vanished. It is unknown what happened to her after this, although there are rumors that she traveled to America and continued her witch hunting work during the Salem Witch Trials. As for her victims, they are said to haunt the Pollock estate to this day, screaming out for Janet Douglas and looking for her through the halls, seeking out revenge for what was done to them centuries ago. The ghosts of these witches are apparently very angry and very active, violently throwing objects and pushing or shoving visitors, and they may very well keep doing so until their vengeance is sated, haunting these corridors to the end of time. She certainly adds to the mystique and mystery of these various stories of witches in Scotland, as well as their restless souls that seem to linger on. There is certainly tragedy enough here to warrant a spirit perhaps being tethered to this plane to endlessly wander and seek justice for what was done with them, and they are a spooky side to Scottish history that permeates the darker corners.