Halloween, the time of witches, is upon us yet again

As coronavirus restrictions impact many modern day traditions on 31 October this year, like ‘guising’, costume parties and ‘apple bobbing’, we can still tell spooky tales at home, visit haunted attractions (online) and remember a time when witchcraft had deadly consequences for many!

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland a researcher of Orkney’s culture and heritage at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Sigurd Towrie, marketing manager at the institute, share a few witches tales from Orkney.

Halloween is a special time of year that is particularly magical and sinister

On the Orkney Islands, between 1594-1708, islanders tried and found guilty of witchcraft were put to death at an execution site on Clay Loan, Kirkwall.  In March 2019, as part of a research project commissioned by the by the Orkney Heritage Society with the University of the Highlands and Islands a memorial to the victims was placed at their Kirkwall execution site to commemorate the victims.  

Memorial site, Kirkwall, Orkney

Who were Jonet Rendall and Janet Forsyth, two of the 80 victims of the Orkney witchcraft trials?

Jonet Rendall was an Orkney woman tried for witchcraft in 1629. She was poor and relied on ‘alms’, food or money given to poor people from others, for her survival. When someone refused to give her food or a bed for the night, she showed her disappointment by mumbling. People thought she was mumbling spells to harm them and that she was responsible for their cows producing thin milk.

Surely it was the Devil himself who had taught her to do this? And to do it on Halloween to make it more effective?

It was believed that that witches met with the Devil on certain nights, including Halloween, in specially chosen locations. In her confession, Jonet Rendall said she met with the Devil on a hilltop in the parish of Rendall on the Orkney Mainland. Or perhaps she never thought of him as the Devil, perhaps only her accusers made that connection.

Jonet said she had met a man in white clothes, with a white head and white beard, whom she called Walliman. He taught her to heal, so that people would give her food, and to harm those who refused her.

She might have thought he was a fairy – one of the “hill-folk” well known in Orkney folklore. In her trial, she points to Walliman as the originator of the various crimes she was accused of committing by witchcraft. Walliman caused cattle and horses to die. Walliman caused illness and death to people in the parish.

Victorian folklore

A similar name for the Devil was used in a spell written down by the Victorian folklore collector Walter Traill Dennison in the 1880s.

Dennison, from the Orkney island of Sanday, says that to become a witch, and pledge yourself to the powers of darkness, first wait for a full moon, then go alone to the beach, turn three times against the sun and lie down between the high and low water marks. Place stones around your body and over your heart.

Then recite a spell which Dennison recounts, in Scots, where the would-be witch implores the “Mester King o’ a’ that’s ill” to come and “tak me noo” in the name of “de muckle black Wallowa!” Then rise up, taking care to turn to the left, and throw the stones, one by one, into the sea.

Like many others, Dennison was familiar with the widespread belief that witchcraft was particularly rife in the north. When visiting a port on the Scottish mainland, the young Dennison was asked by one of the sailors where he was from. Upon replying “Orkney”, the man “shrank back” muttering: “Oh, my lad, you hail from that lubber land where so many witches dwell.”

The Westray Storm Witch

Another Orkney witch accused of practicing witchcraft on Halloween was Janet Forsyth, better known as the Westray Storm Witch. Forsyth was believed to be able to save a ship in storm, and for generations afterwards was regarded as someone who could take sailors’ lives in her own hands.

Today, the story of the Westray Storm Witch is told and retold in Orkney.

In the folk story, Janet warns her sweetheart, Ben Garrioch, not to go fishing on a certain day because she has dreamt he will perish. Garrioch ignores the warning and goes anyway, never to be seen again. Janet becomes a recluse and her reputation grows for having the ability to control the wind and the fog.

Two years later, she is taken to Kirkwall to be tried for witchcraft. But on the day of her verdict, as she looks out at the assembled crowd she spots a familiar face and cries out: “Save me, Ben!” before being dragged off to be kept overnight in a cell in St Magnus Cathedral.

The following morning, however, when the executioner went to fetch her, Janet Forsyth was gone. Her sweetheart, as the story goes, had not died at sea but had been kidnapped by the Press Gang to serve in the navy. He had returned at just the right moment to spirit his beloved away. The happy couple were never again seen in Orkney but lived a happy life together in England to the end of their days.

Sadly, the true story does not have a happy ending and Janet Forsyth’s court record paints a very different picture. In November 1629, she was brought to trial accused of slaying four pigs, which subsequently caused illness in a woman who ate the pork. She also faced accusations that she bewitched two men – making them ill and then healing them; magically taking the fat from the milk of other people’s cows and the food out of their grain, and putting curses on those who refused to give her food or drink when asking for alms. She also allegedly bewitched a man to fall ill while at sea before healing him again the same evening by washing him in salt water.

Janet Forsyth was sentenced to have her hands tied and be taken to the Kirkwall execution site, where she was to be fastened to a stake, strangled, and burned.

International collaboration

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland’s witchcraft project included contributions from researchers from as far afield as Finnmark in the extreme north of Norway, Warwick in England and Perth in Australia.

The University of the Highlands and Islands has a strong research and knowledge exchange collaboration culture, which together with the technical resources available to staff and students has enabled continued interaction locally, regionally and internationally with the academic community during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Visit the Archaeology Institute to find out more about current research projects and the range of undergraduate, postgraduate and research courses available.

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland is a co-editor of a new publication ‘New Orkney Antiquarian Journal Vol9: Commemorating the Victims of the Orkney Witchcraft Trials’, with James Irvine at the Orkney Heritage Society.  Readers can find the stories of many others who were also tried for witchcraft in Orkney, explored and analysed in their historical, political and folkloric context. Sigurd Towrie, an alumni of the University of the Highlands and Islands, also works at the Ness of Brodgar.  

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