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Monday, 26 October 2015

Helen Guthrie: Last Witch Executed in Forfar

To celebrate Halloween I decided to do something different and post an article on the Forfar witches focusing on Helen Guthrie, the last witch to be executed when the witch hysteria that was endemic all over Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was coming to its end. This article was previously published in The Highlander.
Witches dancing in Forfar Graveyard - Forfar Witch Walk 1997:
street theatre written by Chris Longmuir

by Chris Longmuir
Fear of witchcraft was common in 1661, when witch-fever was at its height in Forfar, a small country town in the north east of Scotland.
Most people thought that any misfortune befalling them was caused by magic. Loss of livestock, bad crops, illness and death, were thought to result from spells cast by witches. Accusations of witchcraft in the town were rife and the archives of Angus Council bear testimony to many witch trials and executions.
Witch hysteria reached its height in Britain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, resulting in witchcraft becoming a capital offence in 1563. Witch persecution sent many people to their deaths until the witchcraft laws were repealed in 1736.
Between 1661-1663 forty-two Forfar people were accused of witchcraft. Seven of those accused were executed while the fate of some of the remainder is unclear. One woman, Helen Guthrie, played a major role, and although she was not responsible for the start of the witch hunts she did have some influence on their continuation.
Helen Guthrie carousing in the churchyard:
Forfar Witch Walk 1997
From September 1661, the Provost and Baillies of Forfar examined various women. The Town Clerk, Thomas Robertson, noted their confessions.
The first surviving confession was that of Isobel Shyrie. She was examined on Sunday 15 September 1661, and her confession was taken down between the morning sermon and the afternoon one. Isobel confessed to being a witch and meeting with the devil. She also confessed to conspiring with the devil to cause the death of Baillie George Wood with whom she had argued. She said she made a powder from two toads’ heads, a piece of a dead man’s skull and flesh, and that she put this powder in the Baillie’s drink, and so killed him. Baillie George Wood’s gravestone can still be seen in the cemetery to the rear of Forfar Parish Church.
Helen Guthrie’s first documented confession was taken ten days later so she must have been among the first wave of Forfar women accused of witchcraft. Little is known of Helen’s life prior to her imprisonment as a witch, except that she lived with her thirteen year old daughter, Janet Howat, and associated with most of the women who were accused of witchcraft.
Helen, also known as the White Witch, was imprisoned in Forfar Tolbooth in 1661, accused of being a witch.
However what made Helen different from the majority of those accused and imprisoned, was that she informed on all her friends and acquaintances in order to save her own skin. By this means she survived for one year and two months before finally being executed.
Helen made her first confession on 25 September 1661, when she claimed to have been a witch for more than 14 years, after learning her craft from Joannet Galloway in Kirriemuir. Helen claimed that Joannet gave her three bloody papers as proof of her initiation.
Accused witches: Forfar Witch Walk 1998

Helen underwent several examinations and made at least three separate confessions. In the hope of making herself indispensable to the authorities she acted as witchfinder and prosecution witness by accusing twenty-eight people of witchcraft. She managed to survive by this means until Friday 14 November 1662.
Helen Guthrie’s daughter, Janet Howat, was also accused of witchcraft. Janet was the youngest of those accused in Forfar. Not only was she thought to be a witch in her own right because she had attended various meetings with the devil at Muiryknowes, Petterden, the Forfar Loch, and Lappiedub; but she was also a witch by association. This was the belief that witchcraft ran in families, for example, if a person’s mother was a witch the child was also a witch by association, and Janet’s mother, Helen Guthrie, was a self confessed witch.
Janet, whose witch name was the Pretty Dancer, was only thirteen when she was imprisoned in the Tolbooth in 1661. She never came to trial and was one of the last to be freed when the witch hysteria ended. There is no record of what happened to her but it is thought she may have been released and banished from the burgh in 1663.
It is easy to vilify Helen because so many people died as a result of her confessions and there is little doubt she was no innocent. Helen admitted she was a drunken and wicked woman who murdered her own step-sister when they were both children. So, did she accuse her friends and acquaintances out of a desire to do evil? Or was she less wicked than she made herself out to be and simply submitted to torture? Yet again, her daughter Janet Howat was also imprisoned as a witch. Was Helen simply doing what any good mother would do? Was she trying to save her daughter? We will never know.
Whatever her reasons Helen gave the authorities plenty of material to work with. She told of witches dancing in Forfar churchyard, drunken orgies, shipwrecks instigated by witches, cannibalism and consorting with the devil. She named names and pointed the finger at other women many of whom were subsequently executed in the time honoured fashion of being burnt in a tar barrel after being garotted.
Torture was a fairly common way of gaining confessions and, although by today’s standards, some of the methods used were barbaric, it would not have been seen in such a way then.
The existence of an extra teat or nipple, or a witch-mark was proof that a person was a witch. In order to examine an accused person for these marks, the Forfar dignitaries hired a witch prodder, John Kincaid, who had previously made a reputation for himself in East Lothian. His task was to examine all those accused of witchcraft and provide the necessary evidence.
Witch prodders detected witches by prodding them with long pins to find their witch-mark. This was a mark or blemish on the skin that when pricked did not bleed or cause pain. Any red spot, mole, wart or indentation of the skin could be considered the witch-mark, even flea bites. Witch hunters were paid anything between twelve shillings to twenty shillings for each witch they detected, and there were some prodders who did not hesitate to cheat by using retractable pins.
The suspected witch was stripped, her hair shorn and her body, including genitals, examined in front of the Baillies and town officials. Her body was searched for her witch’s teat – an extra nipple witches were supposed to have to suckle their familiars – following which her body was prodded with pins. Some women could have been petrified by fear at having their bodies probed by a strange man. They may have become numb and felt nothing.
The Witch Bridle or Branks
in  The Meffan Museum, Forfar

Following the witch test, the confession would be obtained by torture. Some of the implements used included the witch-bridle or branks; the boots; caspie-claws; and pilnie winks.
All the accused witches, including Helen Guthrie, would have been subject to some or all of these forms of torture, as well as more subtle forms such as food deprivation, sleep deprivation and hanging by the thumbs.
The Forfar Treasurer’s accounts in 1663, notes that one shilling and fourpence was spent on candles for the guard who watched Helen’s daughter, Janet Howat, for three nights. This must have been because she was undergoing the waking, walking treatment which would have deprived her of sleep.
Once the confession was obtained, provided the accused witch was still alive, the outcome of the witch trial was a foregone conclusion and the most common sentence was death. Although many of those accused by Helen Guthrie quickly met this certain death, Helen’s own execution was delayed for one year and two months giving her the opportunity to accuse many of her contemporaries.
Witches Awaiting Execution:
Forfar Witch Walk 1997

However, on Friday 14 November 1662, Helen’s time ran out and she met her end in a flaming tar barrel like so many of her contemporaries before her.
So was Helen a wicked woman? Was she trying to save her own skin? Or was she trying to save her daughter?
We will never know.
What we do know is that she was unsuccessful on all counts. She didn’t save her own skin although she may have delayed the event longer than most. Nor did she save her daughter, Janet Howat, from being branded a witch.
Although Janet survived her imprisonment, it was not her mother who saved her. It was the change of attitude, by the Privy Council in Edinburgh, towards trials and torture. The same changes which ensured that Helen Guthrie was the last witch to be executed in Forfar.
The Forfar witch hysteria ended in 1663 when the remaining witches were released. However despite escaping execution and the tar barrel it was not over for these women. They were not allowed to return to their homes in Forfar and were banished from the burgh. Therefore they retained the stigma of being witches even though proved innocent.
And so the Forfar witch hunts ended, but not before misery had been inflicted on many women, some of whom lost their lives in the process.
Helen’s daughter, Janet Howat, the Pretty Dancer, was one of the last witches released and we can only wonder what happened to this fifteen year old girl who was in all likelihood banished from the burgh.

Fact Box
The boots – clamps, placed on the feet and legs, which were tightened by wedges until the legs were broken.
Caspie-claws – iron frames heated over a brazier with the victim’s legs inside.
Pilnie-winks – thumb screws.
The branks, the witch bridle, and the scold’s bridle were all similar – an iron collar fitted over the head in the form of a cage, with prongs that fitted into the victim’s mouth. Many of the prongs were spikes, piercing the tongue to prevent the accused witch from speaking out, either to defend herself or to curse her accusers. The Forfar Branks can be seen in The Meffan Museum at Forfar.

Chris Longmuir


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Gerry van der Hulst said...

Sad history about those witches.
Weel written,

Chris Longmuir said...

Yes, it was sad, a lot of them were healers and midwives. And, of course, anyone who wanted to avenge themselves for something real or imaginary had the ultimate weapon. I can't help thinking that if this hysteria existed today, I might possibly be burned as a witch. Thanks for the compliment.