We are in Paisley, Scotland. Here, any tragic events and misfortunes in the town over the last 300 years, they say, were caused by a curse. In the middle of a busy intersection sits a largely unremarkable circle of cobblestones surrounding a steel horseshoe centered within an anonymous circular bronze plaque. A person almost certainly wouldn’t notice it if they didn’t know it was there, but this modest memorial marks the final resting place of seven people convicted and put to death on charges of witchcraft. As story goes, It all started with a sip of milk.
In August 1696 Christian Shaw, the eleven-year-old daughter of the Laird of Bargarran, a local landowner, caught her servant Catherine Campbell stealing a drink of milk and reported the incident to her mother. The servant, Catherine Campbell, apparently didn’t appreciate to got caught and responded by wishing that the Devil would “haul Christian’s soul through Hell.” A few days later, the girl started suffering from mysterious and violent fits, including seizures, convulsions, and unresponsive trances. All, incidentally, quite similar to symptoms reported by the accusers in the Salem witch trials of 1693.
Christian’s parents took her to an eminent Glasgow physician, who could find no explanation for these symptoms. However, her strange condition persisted for months and grew worse over time. Christian struggled and pleaded with invisible tormentors and started pulling odd objects out of her mouth, like balls of hair, straw, coal, gravel, chicken feathers, and cinders, which she claimed had been put there by those afflicting her. Modern hindsight suggests that she was exhibiting signs of Munchausen syndrome or conversion disorder. However, her contemporaries were inclined to believe that she was a victim of witchcraft.
Initially, Christian’s accusation were leveled only at Catherine Campbell and Agnes Naismith, an old local woman already reputed to be a witch. Over time, however, the recriminations grew up, and she eventually had implicated 35 people in being involved with the sorcery that afflicted her.
At the end, seven people, Catherine Campbell, Agnes Naismith, Margaret Lang, Margaret Fulton, John Reid, John Lindsay, and James Lindsay (the last two of whom were 11 and 14 years old, respectively), were formally tried for practicing witchcraft. They were all found guilty and sentenced to death. John Reid hung himself in his jail cell before the sentence could be carried out, while the other six were strangled and burnt on the Gallowgreen. All seven bodies were then burned, and the ashes buried at Maxwellton Cross, where the intersection of Maxwellton Street and George Street now stands.
On a small patch of land, just off Queen Street in the West End, lies this well which is all that remains of the Gallowgreen:
But the story does not end here: at her execution, Agnes Naismith laid a “dying woman’s curse” on all present and their descendants into perpetuity (but, a personal opinion, who among us wouldn’t do the same?).
Since then, many local misfortunes and tragedies have been blamed on this curse, and the grave was marked with a horseshoe to keep the curse at bay. However, the horseshoe disappeared while roadwork was being done in the 1960s, and the economic decline in Paisley since 1970 has been blamed by some, ironically or not, on Naismith’s curse. So, the horseshoe was replaced in 2008 with the dedication of a new memorial on the spot, which reads “Pain Inflicted, Suffering Endured, Injustice Done.”
Christian Shaw became a successful businesswoman, copying spinning techniques, and presumably stealing parts of machinery, from the Dutch. She set up a thread factory in Paisley that would become a benchmark of quality in the industry and lead to the town becoming a worldwide leader in thread production. She seems to have gotten over being bewitched.
Thankfully, this would be the last mass witch execution in western Europe.
Author’s note: the memorial is a brass plaque on the road at a busy intersection of Maxwellton St & George St. in Pasley, Scotland.
Images from web.