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Article ID: 14052
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Fiona Tinker [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: August 29th. 2010
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Arguably, Isobel Gowdie is one of the most famous witches in Scottish history. But who was she – and why does she continue to fascinate and inspire prose, drama, poetry and song?
Gowdie (sometimes spelt Goudie) was the daughter of an Auldearn lawyer, born in the early part of the 17thC, although the exact date of her birth is unclear. The family were Catholic, but converted to the Protestant Kirk. This was probably an expedient move on her father’s part to enable him to continue to make his living, given the religious troubles of the time. Isobel later claimed to have become a witch and entered a pact with the Devil, who made her Queen of her Coven. By the time of Isobel Gowdie’s trial in 1662, Scotland had seen centuries of turmoil and change. Political and historical battles between Catholics and Protestants, Roundheads and Cavaliers, Scots and English and so on are the backdrops to the Scotland she grew up in. Auldearn and Nairn, in the Highlands of Scotland, were not sleepy towns back then but lively centres of commerce and strategically important. Elgin was a major town on the road between Aberdeen and Inverness. Elgin Cathedral – sometimes referred to as ‘the lantern of the north’ - had been a centre of the Catholic Church before falling in the Reformation in 1560. Spynie Palace, just outside Elgin, was the seat of the Bishops of Moray. The Clearances had not yet happened and it is probable that areas that are still vast tracts of emptiness now were populated then.
The Covenanters were a powerful political and religious group in Scotland, set on reforming the Church within Scotland and resisting the imposition of both Charles Stuart’s (Charles I) belief in the Divine Rights of Kings and his reforms to the accepted Scottish prayer books. The Covenanters had drawn up the National Covenant in1637 -38 and people signed in thousands. It was an agreement on how people would believe, how they would worship – and how they would be ruled. However, the northwest of Scotland, Aberdeen and Banff were not so quick to sign and pockets of resistance arose here. By 1643, the Scottish Covenanters had formed an alliance with the English Parliament against the Royalists. The times were bloody indeed.
Auldearn is now just a little village on the old road heading west towards Nairn and Inverness, yet a ferocious battle was fought there in Isobel’s time. The Battle of Auldearn happened on the 8th May 1645. The troops of the Earl of Montrose fought for the Royalist side against the Covenanters, led by Sir John Hurry. 2000 Covenanters were killed and the Royalists lost 200 men. Isobel Gowdie would most likely have been in her mid-teens at this point. The Kirk Yard in Auldearn gives a fantastic view of the Battlefield and it is all too easy to imagine both Isobel and just about the whole village up on the hill, watching. This would have been a ferocious battle to witness – especially for a young woman. Whilst it may have been exciting, it must also have been frightening and who knows what psychological after-effects this had?
Isobel Gowdie was said to be an accomplished young woman: educated and refined. In addition, she is reputed to have been stunningly beautiful, with flaming red hair. She would have had high expectations of a marriage. Instead, she found herself coaxed into marriage by her father, to John Gilbert of Lochloy, a Kirk Elder and a tenant farmer. He was not of the class that Isobel could have expected to marry and by all accounts he was dour and very religious. Gilbert frequently requested that she accompany him – as the wife of a Kirk Elder should - to Auldearn Kirk, but Isobel was not inclined to do this very often.
Moray was a larger county then and it is a beautiful part of Scotland. Lochloy, however, is isolated and has flat fields and boggy ground around it. In addition to the class differences and lack of Kirk attendance, the geography of Isobel’s mismatched marriage left her further isolated as she had little in common with her neighbours. The farm hands had no need of her help and she found herself often alone. She took to walking in the woods around the farm and one day she met Margaret Brodie. Brodie is a fascinating woman for whom even less documentary evidence survives than that for Isobel. Margaret Brodie was the illegitimate daughter of a gypsy woman and the Laird of Brodie, the Earl of Moray. She lived with her aged mother in a run-down cottage in the woods. She had second-sight and it would seem that she taught Isobel a few esoteric things over time. However, at their first meeting, Margaret Brodie said that she looked forward to meeting Isobel at Auldearn Kirk. This reference to the Kirk puzzled Isobel but Margaret seemed to be the kind of friend that Isobel longed for.
After leaving Margaret that first time, Isobel walked on the Drumduan road and it is here, according to her confessions, that she reputedly met the devil, in the guise of a handsome stranger. Brodie-Innes relates that the Devil told her that her double baptism was what troubled her soul. The devil flattered her and offered to show her proof of what power should be hers – he said that on the morrow, the farmlands of Culbin would be buried and the harvest never gathered. He too said that he would see her at Auldearn Kirk.
The next morning, Isobel awoke to the news that The Mains of Culbin, about a quarter of the estate and the fertile farmland, was covered in sand, blown in from the dunes by winds whistling across the Moray Firth. It is an intriguing part of her story: the ‘devil’ could read the weather signs and, quite literally, tell which way the wind was blowing. Historically, the entire Barony of Culbin itself was completely destroyed and impoverished by a ferocious north tempest blowing sand across the fields of crops at harvest-time in 1686. The dunes had built up for many years and sand being blown across the land by winds is still common today, so it is not impossible to imagine or accept this aspect of Isobel’s story.
The fact that the devil apparently spoke true seems to have impressed Isobel. Here was the excitement she craved, the release from a dreary existence. The Devil had also assured her that John Gilbert would be delayed away from Lochloy Farm on the night she was invited to Auldearn Kirk. This too, came to pass and she kept the appointment. At Auldearn Kirk, she found Margaret Brodie, amongst others, waiting to welcome her. It was here that she was baptised by the devil. Isobel placed one hand on her head and another underneath her foot, stating that she gave ‘all betwixt and between’ to the devil. He then bit her on her shoulder till she bled and made a mark on her forehead with her own blood, renaming her ‘Jonet’. (Brodie-Innes) .
Isobel subsequently became the Devil’s mistress and they consummated their relationship in the shadows of the ruins of Inshoch Castle. Isobel claims that she managed to slip away from the marital bed at night by placing a besom in the bed beside her husband, enchanting him to believe it was she who lay beside him. This enabled her to spend many nights away from her husband without him suspecting a thing. A further enchantment made to cuckold her husband was the conjuring of a shadow-self, one who accompanied John Gilbert, the Kirk Elder, to church on the Sabbath, whilst the ‘real’ Isobel cavorted with her lover. In this way, she claims to have used enchantments to keep her husband both content and in ignorance.
From this point on – according to her own confessions – she seems to have embarked upon a career of malefice – working ill intent on someone through supernatural means.
The Laird Hay of Lochloy and Park was one who felt Isobel’s wrath. According to Brodie-Innes, he had made improper advances to her, which she had spurned. However, the Laird was the landlord of the farm she lived on and he refused to do repairs around the farm or to the farmhouse. The Laird also spoke of Isobel in disparaging terms after she had scorned him; in particular, he slandered her to the Reverend of Auldearn Kirk, Harry Forbes. Isobel had felt impotent fury at this, but once she had the devil’s power and the help of a coven, she laid a curse on the Laird of Park – no male child should survive. This was achieved by making a poppet – a clay figure of a child - whispering spells over it and baking it in the fire. The Laird of Park’s existing sons died and those subsequently born thrived six months or so, before they too withered and died. The Reverend Harry Forbes also felt her ire – the curse of a wasting sickness was put upon him, but he recovered from this. He was one of those present when Isobel made her voluntary confessions.
The murderous intent did not stop at the death of the male children of Hay of Lochloy. Flint arrowheads can still be found at Culbin Sands – for Isobel, these were Elf bolts, capable of killing a man if they hit him. She was taught how to flick the bolt from her thumb in a certain way and she states men were killed for pleasure while she mastered it. Other malefices worked were raising winds, creating havoc in neighbouring farms and dairies by spoiling crops and milk by the aid of both sympathetic magic and incantations.
Much of what we believe we know about what witches in Scotland supposedly did in the 17th C come from Isobel’s confessions, but it is worth remembering that her confessions are atypical and unique. For example: she tells of travelling to Elf land and being a guest at a ball held by the King and Queen of Fairyland. Her story has remarkable accounts of transforming corn stalks into horses and taking part in wild hunts. In addition, there are accounts of transmogrifications into animals: cats, crows and hares, complete with the incantations for achieving them. Isobel would seem to have had a preference for being a hare and there are several accounts of her shape-shifting to enable her to come and go undetected. She was also – according to some accounts – a friend of Jean Gordon, the niece of Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun. He was a nobleman widely believed to be a wizard. It is claimed that she used her witchcraft in conjunction with Robert Gordon’s craft, to help Janet Gordon’s fiancé, Cosmo Hamilton, escape to France when the English Red Coats were after him.
It is unclear what prompted Isobel Gowdie to confess, especially in an era when this was signing her own death warrant. Isobel made four confessions – freely and not under any duress. She was arrested on April 12th 1664 and between 13th April and May 27th 1662, made her confessions. The first one was made in the presence of 12 notable men of the day and recorded by John Innes, a public notary. Her confessions resulted in another 40 people from Auldearn being sent to trial as witches, including her friend, Margaret Brodie and Brodie’s ancient mother.
The Privy Council heard Isobel’s trial in May 1662 (Register of the Privy Council, Edinburgh, 3rd S. VI p.210.) The records are not complete and it is not recorded what the outcome of the trial was. However, it is unlikely that she – or the 40 other souls tried as a result of her confessions - would have escaped execution. It is likely that Isobel Gowdie met her death by being worrit (strangled) , followed by burning, on Gallows Hill, just outside Auldearn.
She remains a fascinating woman – how much of what she claimed was based in truth? Perhaps she was a woman born out of step with the times she lived in and her need for excitement coloured her imagination. Perhaps being witness to the violence and bloodshed of her time had a deeper effect than can be known now. Perhaps being married to a dour, doughty man bored her witless. Whatever the motive, her confessions are fascinating and the story continues to be retold in a variety of ways. Isobel Gowdie claimed to have been a witch for 15 years. In that case, she must have been a good one as the only evidence against her was that which sprung from her own tongue.
1. Mains is the flat, fertile land where crops can be grown, as opposed to the more noticeable vertical landscape of this part of Scotland..
2. Since originally writing this in 2007, Sussex Academic Press has published Emma Wilby’s Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in 17th C Scotland (June 2010) . The author discovered papers relating to Gowdie’s trial in her researches. These papers are being authenticated by the National Archives of Scotland.
Brodie- Innes, J.W,
- The Devil’s Mistress
Larner, Christina, et al
- A Source-Book of Scottish Witchcraft
- Primitive Beliefs in the North-East of Scotland
Pugh, Roy J M
-The Deil’s Ain
- Tales of Witches and Sorcery
- Scottish Witches and Wizards
-In the Name of the Devil: Great Scottish Witchcraft Cases
-Stories of Great Witch Trials
Copyright: Fiona Tinker 2007
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