Witchcraft in Carrickfergus, County Antrim

‘R. Y.’ (Robert Young)
Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 47
May 18, 1833
Gate at Carrickfergus

Having promised in our 15th number, to return at some future period to Carrickfergus, we now present the above representation of the North Gate, the only picturesque remnant of the external defences of this important borough town.

The Roman style of its architecture indicates the period of its erection in the reign of James the First, when the gothic or pointed style was laid aside. It was originally entered by a draw-bridge. A tradition goes concerning the archway, that it will stand until a wise man become a member of the corporation. The satirical nature of the old saying, has perhaps caused it to be repeated and remembered, and either tends to prove, that the Carrickfergussians have very high ideas of the standard of wisdom, and that though certainly no fools, they have modesty enough to shrink from the assumption of positive wisdom—or that perhaps, like other Irishmen, they give appellations by contraries, as we have heard a man in another district notorious for his sagacity, universally called “Paddy the fool.”

Be this as it may, the old arch still stands; proving, no doubt, that none of the present corporation are in any danger of being submitted to the usual ordeal of those counted as dealing in witchcraft and the black art. This train of thought leads us, as we have formerly noticed the political history of this town, to give an account, as occurring here, of the last trial for witchcraft that took place in Ireland, which is reported as follows by Mr. M‘Skimin, the excellent and accurate historian of his native town.

“1711. March 31st, Janet Mean, of Braid-island; Janet Latimer, Irish-quarter, Carrickfergus; Janet Millar, Scotch-quarter, Carrickfergus; Margaret Mitchel, Kilroot; Catharine M‘Calmond, Janet Liston, alias Seller, Elizabeth Seller, and Janet Carson, the four last from Island Magee, were tried here, in the County of Antrim court, for witchcraft. Their alleged crime was tormenting a young woman called Mary Dunbar, about eighteen years of age, at the house of James Hattridge, Island Magee, and at other places to which she was removed. The circumstances sworn on the trial were as follow:—

“The afflicted person being, in the month of February, 1711, in the house of James Hattridge, Island Magee, (which had been for some time believed to be haunted by evil spirits) found an apron on the parlour floor, that had been missing some time, tied with five strange knots, which she loosened. On the following day she was suddenly seized with a violent pain in her thigh, and afterwards fell into fits and ravings; and on recovering, said she was tormented by several women, whose dress and personal appearance she minutely described. Shortly after, she was again seized with the like fits; and on recovering, she accused five other women of tormenting her, describing them also. The accused persons being brought from different parts of the country, she appeared to suffer extreme fear and additional torture, as they approached the house.

It was also deposed, that strange noises, as of whistling, scratching, &c. were heard in the house, and that a sulphurous smell was observed in the rooms; that stones, turf, and the like, were thrown about the house, and the coverlets, &c. frequently taken off the beds, and made up in the shape of a corpse; and that a bolster once walked out of a room into the kitchen, with a night gown about it! It likewise appeared in evidence, that in some of her fits, three strong men were scarcely able to hold her in the bed; that at times she vomited feathers, cotton yarn, pins, and buttons; and that on one occasion she slid off the bed, and was laid on the floor, as if supported and drawn by an invisible power. The afflicted person was unable to give any evidence on the trial, being during that time dumb 5 but had no violent fit during its continuance.

“The evidence sworn upon this trial were, Rev. —— Skevington, Rev. William Ogilvie, William Fenton, John Smith, John Blair, James Blythe, William Hartley, Charles Lennon, John Wilson, Hugh Wilson, Hugh Donaldson, James Hill, James Hattridge, Mrs. Hattridge, Rev. Patrick Adair, Rev. James Cobham, Patrick Ferguson, James Edmonston, and —— Jamison.

“In defence of the accused, it appeared that they were mostly sober, industrious people, who attended public worship, could repeat the Lord’s prayer, and had been known to pray both in public and private; and that some of them had lately received the communion.

“Judge Upton charged the jury, and observed on the regular attendance of the accused on public worship; remarking, that he thought it improbable that real witches could so far retain the form of religion, as to frequent the religious worship of God, both publicly and privately, which had been proved in favour of the accused. He concluded by giving his opinion, ‘that the jury could not bring them in guilty, upon the sole testimony of the afflicted person’s visionary images.’ He was followed by Justice Macartney, who differed from him in opinion, ‘and thought the jury might, from the evidence, bring them in guilty;’ which they accordingly did.

“This trial lasted from six o’clock in the morning till two in the afternoon; and the prisoners were sentenced to be imprisoned twelve months, and to stand four times in the pillory in Carrickfergus.

“Tradition says, that the people were much exasperated against these unfortunate persons, who were severely pelted in the pillory, with boiled cabbage stalks, and the like, by which one of them had an eye beaten out.”

The above curious recital proves to our satisfaction two points:—first, that the above-mentioned Judge Macartney might, on the strength of the tradition, have walked with perfect safety, at all times of his leisure, under the north gate, and secondly, that the Carrickfergussians hereby exhibit their Caledonian origin—witchcraft and sorcery being much practised on the opposite coast, and both king and kirk having there exhibited “full clearness” in spacing the interference of evil spirits on the affairs of this world. In Ireland, as far as we know, there has not been, since the days of Alice Kettle, much ado about witches, though much concerned, it is true, in the matter of ghosts, banshees, and good people. But in Scotland, even at the period of this curious trial in Carrickfergus, witch-finding was still a propensity, and the lawyers, ministers, and magistrates, could not refrain from dealing out their deserts on those suspected of the black art, as is shown as follows, in that interesting work of the late Sir Walter Scott, “Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft.”

“Sir John Clerk, a scholar and an antiquary, the grandfather of the late celebrated John Clerk, of Eldin, had the honour to be amongst the first to decline acting as a commissioner on the trial of a witch, to which he was appointed so early as 1678, alleging dryly, that he did not feel himself warlock (that is, conjurer) sufficient to be a judge upon such an inquisition. Allan Ramsay, his friend, and who must be supposed to speak the sense of his many respectable patrons, had delivered his opinion on the subject in the “Gentle Shepherd,” where Mause’s imaginary witchcraft constitutes the machinery of the poem.

“Yet these dawnings of sense and humanity were obscured by the clouds of the ancient superstition on more than one distinguished occasion. In 1676, Sir George Maxwell, of Pollock, apparently a man of melancholic and valetudinary habits, believed himself bewitched to death by six witches, one man and five women, who were leagued for the purpose of tormenting a clay image made in his likeness. The chief evidence on the subject was a vagabond girl, pretending to be deaf and dumb. But as her imposture was afterwards discovered, and herself punished, it is reasonably to be concluded that she had herself formed the picture or image of Sir George, and had hid it, where it was afterwards found, in consequence of her own information. In the meantime five of the accused were executed, and the sixth only escaped on account of extreme youth.

“A still more remarkable case occurred at Paisley, in 1697, where a young girl, about eleven years of age, daughter of John Shaw, of Bargarran, was the principal evidence. This unlucky damsel, beginning her practices out of a quarrel with a maid-servant, continued to imitate a case of possession so accurately, that no less than twenty persons were condemned upon her evidence, of whom five were executed, besides one John Reed, who hanged himself in prison, or, as was charitably said, was strangled by the devil in person, lest he should make disclosures to the detriment of the service. But even those who believed in witchcraft were now beginning to open their eyes to the dangers in the present mode of prosecution. “I own” says the Rev. Mr. Bell, in his MS. Treatise on Witchcraft, “there has been much harm done to worthy and innocent persons in the common way of finding out witches, and in the means made use of for promoting the discovery of such wretches, and bringing them to justice; so that oftentimes old age, poverty, features, and ill fame, with such like grounds not worthy to be represented to a magistrate, have yet moved many to suspect and defame their neighbours, to the unspeakable prejudice of Christian charity; a late instance whereof we had in the west, in the business of the sorceries exercised upon the Laird of Bargarran’s daughter, anno 1697, a time when persons of more goodness and esteem than most of their calumniators were defamed for witches, and which was occasioned mostly by the forwardness and absurd credulity of divers otherwise worthy ministers of the gospel, and some topping professors in and about the city of Glasgow.”

“Those who doubted of the sense of the law, or reasonableness of the practice, in such cases, began to take courage, and state their objections boldly. In the year 1704, a frightful instance of popular bigotry occurred at Pittenweem. A strolling vagabond, who affected fits, laid an accusation of witchcraft against two women, who were accordingly seized on, and imprisoned with the usual severities. One of the unhappy creatures, Janet Cornfoot by name, escaped from prison, but was unhappily caught and brought back to Pittenweem, where she fell into the hands of a ferocious mob, consisting of rude seamen and fishers. The magistrates made no attempts for her rescue, and the crowd exercised their brutal pleasure on the poor old woman, pelted her with stones, swung her suspended on a rope betwixt a ship and the shore, and finally ended her miserable existence by throwing a door over her as she lay exhausted on the beach; and heaping stones upon it till she was pressed to death.

As even the existing laws against witchcraft were transgressed by this brutal riot, a warm attack was made upon the magistrates and ministers of the town, by those who were shocked at a tragedy of such a horrible cast. There were answers published, in which the parties assailed were zealously defended. The superior authorities were expected to take up the affair, but it so happened, during the general distraction of the country concerning the Union, that the murder went without the investigation which a crime so horrid demanded. Still, however, it was something gained that the cruelty was exposed to the public. The voice of general opinion was now appealed to, and, in the long run, the sentiments which it advocates are commonly those of good sense and humanity.

“The officers in the higher branches of the law dared now assert their official authority, and reserve for their own decision cases of supposed witchcraft which the fear of public clamour had induced them formerly to leave in the hands of the inferior judges, operated upon by all the prejudices of the country and the populace.

“In 1718, the celebrated lawyer, Robert Dundas, of Arniston, then King’s advocate, wrote a severe letter of censure to the Sheriff-depute of Caithness, in the first place, as having neglected to communicate officially certain precognitions which he had led respecting some recent practises of witchcraft in his county. The advocate reminded this local judge, that the duty of inferior magistrates, in such cases, was to advise with the King’s Counsel, first, whether they should be made subject of a trial or not; and, if so, before what court, and in what manner, it should take place. He also called the magistrates’ attention to a report, that he, the Sheriff-depute, intended to judge in the case himself; “a thing of too great difficulty to be tried without very deliberate advice, and beyond the jurisdiction of an inferior court.”

The Sheriff-depute sends, with his apology, the precognition of the affair, which is one of the most nonsensical in this nonsensical department of the law. A certain carpenter, named William Montgomery, was so infested with cats, which, as his servant-maid reported, “spoke among themselves,” that he fell in rage upon a party of these animals which had asembled in his house at irregular hours, and betwixt his Highland arms of knife, dirk, and broadsword, and his professional weapon of an axe, he made such a dispersion that they were quiet for the night. In consequence of his blows, two witches were said to have died. The case of a third, named Nin-Gilbert, was still more remarkable. Her leg being broken, the injured limb withered, pined, and finally fell off; on which the hag was inclosed in prison, where she also died: and the question which remained was, whether any process should be directed against persons whom, in her compelled confession, she had, as usual, informed against. The Lord Advocate, as may be supposed, quashed all further procedure.

“In 1720, an unlucky boy, the third son of James, Lord Torphichen, took it into his head, under instructions, it is said, from a knavish governor, to play the possessed and bewitched person, laying the cause of his distress on certain old witches in Calder, near to which village his father had his mansion. The women were imprisoned, and one or two of them died; but the crown counsel would not proceed to trial. The noble family also began to see through the cheat. The boy was sent to sea, and though he is said at one time to have been disposed to try his fits while on board, when the discipline of the navy proved too severe for his cunning, in process of time he became a good sailor, assisted gallantly in defence of the vessel against the pirates of Angria, and finally was drowned in a storm.

“In the year 1722, a Sheriff-depute of Sutherland, Captain David Ross, of Littledean, took it upon him in flagrant violation of the then established rules of jurisdiction, to pronounce the last sentence of death for witchcraft which was ever passed in Scotland. The victim was an insane old woman belonging to the parish of Loth, who had so little idea of her situation as to rejoice at the sight of the fire which was destined to consume her. She had a daughter lame both of hands and feet, a circumstance attributed to the witch’s having been used to transform her into a pony, and get her shod by the devil. It does not appear that any punishment was inflicted for this cruel abuse of the law on the person of a creature so helpless; but the son of the lame daughter, he himself distinguished by the same misfortune, was living so lately as to receive the charity of the present Marchioness of Stafford, Countess of Sutherland in her own right, to whom the poor of her extensive country are as well known as those of the higher order.

“Since this deplorable action, there has been no judicial nterference in Scotland on account of witchcraft.”

There is another proof, if any were required, that the inhabitants of Carrickfergus had a community of manners and customs with their neighbours across the channel, in their deeming it necessary to restrain the too common and noisy nuisance of woman-scolding, as the following extract from the town records, shows:—

“‘October, 1574, ordered and agreede by the hole Court, that all manner of Skolds which shal be openly detected of Skolding or evill wordes in manner of Skolding, and for the same shal be condemned before Mr. Maior and his brethren, shal be drawne at the sterne of a boate in the water from the ende of the Peare rounde a-bought the Queenes majesties Castell in manner of ducking, and after when a cage shal be made the Party so condemned for a Skold shal be therein punished at the discretion of the Maior.’ It appears that a cage was got soon after, and delinquents punished in the manner noticed; and that regular lists were kept of all scolds, and their names laid before the grand juries. The cage, or ducking stool, stood on the quay; in a deed granted to John Davy’s, July 6th, 1671, is the following notice of it. ‘One small plot of land or house stead, situated upon the Key, on the north-east, adjoining to the Ducking-stool, on said Key, now standing.’”

R. Y.