Isobel Gowdie - Witch of Auldearn
By Melissa Davies
This story belongs to a ten-part series of stories gifted by Nairn Museum. Many thanks to Melissa Davies, the director of Nairn Museum, for kindly gifting these stories to the Spirit: Stories archive.
In 16th and 17th century Scotland, there was an unprecedented increase in the number of men and women prosecuted for witchcraft. The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft estimates that at least 3,873 people were accused of witchcraft between 1563 and 1737. During this period, in the parish of Auldearn in Nairnshire, at least seven witches were tried, and among these was Isobel Gowdie of Auldearn.
Isobel lived with her husband in Lochloy. He was probably a farm labourer and they may have lived in a turf house, spending days milking, baking, spinning yarn and perhaps growing flax. When she was around 30 years old, Isobel was accused of witchcraft and her trial took place in 1661. The detail of her confession is unique as it gave a huge amount of information about the ways of witchcraft. The first record of her confession, recorded on 13th April, was witnessed by the ministers of Auldearn and Nairn, and at least twelve local lairds and church elders. She confessed that she was guilty of attempting to destroy her neighbour's crops by taking a child's body from the grave and using it as part of her incantation, so that 'only thistles and briars would grow'.
Isobel also confessed to performing 'image magic', whereby she would use clay figures to cast spells over neighbours, including the Minister of Auldearn, Harry Forbes. She claimed she could shape-shift and turn herself into a jackdaw, a cat, and a hare. Furthermore, she claimed she had been part of a coven of witches who would meet at midnight in the old kirk of Auldearn which stood on the site of a pre-Christian stone circle. The Devil, in the shape of 'a meikle, black, roch man' would preach to them from the pulpit commanding them to do all the evil they could. The devil's sermon was followed by a wild dance, during which the witches chanted: 'Cummer go before, cummer go ye, Gif ye will not go before, cummer let me'. She and her coven would fly through the air on corn stalks uttering the words 'Horse and Hattock'. She would also travel to Elfane (fairy land) where she saw elf-boys whittling flint arrows sharpened by the devil to shoot at people they wished to destroy. As written in the confession: 'As for elf arrow heidis, the divell shapes them wi his awin hands to gie to elf boyes, who whytts them wi a sharp thing lyk a baking neidle'.
Throughout her dramatic testimony, Isobel recounted using twenty-seven charms, including using sickness transferal, whereby an individual is cured by diverting their illness onto someone or something else. Suggestions have been made that Isobel may have been a magical practitioner as she claimed to have performed rituals to cure fevers and broken bones, signifying that she was some sort of wise woman. Author, Emma Wilby, in 'The Visions of Isobel Gowdie', has compared Isobel's claims of flying through the air on corn stalks and going into dream-like, trance-like states to that of Shamanic experiences and acts. There are various theories for Isobel's behaviour such as that she suffered from ergotism through consuming Ergot, a mould that grows on rye and can cause hallucinations if ingested. Rye was apparently grown in Nairn during this time. Her behaviour may have been due to some form of psychosis, or the delusions of an unstable mind. However, there is no doubt that she believed what she confessed.
Following the trial, Isobel was found guilty and was then transported by cart to Gallowhill on the outskirts of Nairn where she would have been strangled and burnt. During her confessions, she had implicated another twelve people as witches and members of the coven. One woman includes Janet Braehead, although we don't know what happened to her. Isobel has inspired many writers and historians. For example she is the subject of composer James MacMillan's 1990 orchestral work, 'The Confession of Isobel Gowdie', and there is a song about her by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Nairn writer, John Lawson, wrote a play about her, 'The Witch of Auldearn' which was performed in Nairn at the opening of the Community Centre in March 1974 and at the Clifton Hotel by the Nairn Performing Arts Guild.
Isobel Gowdie remains a mystery, but some say her ghost, which takes the form of a 'green lady' still haunts the area around Auldearn and Nairn to this day!
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