MJ STEEL COLLINS says a dark curse may still hang over the heads of her hometown of Paisley
Some believe that my hometown, Paisley, is cursed. Any tragic events and misfortunes in the town over the last 300 years, they say, were caused by the curse. Though not exactly reassuring to learn you were born in a damned place, it’s more unsettling to learn the story of how the curse came about…
In August 1696, Christian Shaw, the 11-year-old daughter of the Laird of Bargarran, became mysteriously unwell. She suffered fits, contortions, extreme pain and bouts of unconsciousness. The cause of and cure for her illness couldn’t be found, though today it’s thought she had Munchausen’s Syndrome, causing extremely erratic behaviour. It appeared Christian was fighting an unseen assailant. She blamed her family maid, Catherine Campbell, and a local old woman, Agnes Naismith, for her ailments. Catherine had been caught stealing milk by Christian, who reported it to her mother, whilst it was already widely believed that Agnes, by reputation an unpleasant individual, was a witch.
Twice, the best doctors in Glasgow saw Christian, who could not work out was wrong. Her symptoms worsened and she began spitting up strange objects, including feathers, hair, pins and bones. Concern grew for Christian. After Agnes Naismith visited her and prayed, Christian said the old woman no longer bothered her, but claimed she continued to be tormented by Catherine, who refused to see and pray for Christian. The girl also accused others of bothering her; people she said who aligned with the devil and who threatened to kill her if she revealed names.
In January 1697, the Privy Council set up a Commission to investigate the case. Several people were arrested. One, Elizabeth Anderson, broke down and confessed, giving evidence against those already accused and naming others. Eventually, 27 people were arrested on suspicion of witchcraft. As well as the case related to Christian Shaw, there were also accusations of child murder, drowning and illness caused by spells. As investigations continued, Elizabeth Anderson and other accused individuals were released. One, Alexander Anderson (Elizabeth’s father) died in jail. In the end, seven people faced trial, which was a long, drawn out affair due to the amount of evidence and numerous adjournments.
The seven, John Reid, Catherine Campbell, Agnes Naismith, Margaret Long, Margaret Fulton and brothers John and James Lindsay, were found guilty and sentenced to death by strangulation and burning at the stake. John Reid hung himself in prison before the sentence was carried out, but the others met their fate at Gallow Green in Paisley’s West End on 10 June 1697.
Agnes Naismith uttered the curse that has been blamed for Paisley’s ills ever since, cursing those in attendance at the execution and their descendents. It’s believed that not all the ‘witches’ were dead when their bodies were burnt at the stake. A walking stick was borrowed from a bystander to push moving limbs back into the flames. The owner refused to take the stick back.
The remains of the witches were buried at Maxwellton Cross, a circle of cobblestones and horseshoe marking the grave. During roadworks in the 1960s, the original cross went missing. One local blamed the decline of Paisley from that time on the effects of the curse. She hoped the effects of the curse would lift with the installation of a new horseshoe on the witches’ memorial.
Cursed or not, one thing Paisley people will never forget and always regret is their forebears’ treatment of those seven people that dark day on Gallow Green…