Curses and Violence Engulf Pittenweem Witch Hunt

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

An unhappy customer and a cursed blacksmith lead to witchcraft accusations and a dramatic witch hunt in 18th century Pittenweem, Scotland. RICK HALE tells about about the community uproar

An old photograph of Pittenweem in Fife, Scotland
An old photograph of Pittenweem in Fife, Scotland

The early history of the United States was fraught with doubt, desperation and most of all, superstitious fear.

In 1692, a group of affluent teenage girls pointed an accusatory finger at their fellow colonists and uttered a word that was sure to bring swift condemnation and even death, witch. 

The regrettable events that history remembers as, the Salem Witch Trials, left an indelible black mark on the US national psyche.

When the dust cleared, and reasonable people were heard, 20 people were dead and dozens more imprisoned. 

Are witches real? Possibly, but are they the evil brides of Satan that history has made them out to be? Probably not.

Nevertheless, that didn’t stop people from fearing them and nowhere was that more evident than Pittenweem in Fife, Scotland.

A small coastal village on the east coast where accusations of diabolism flew and people faced the wrath of their fellow villagers.

The No Word

It’s remarkable how these things begin. How they can start simply enough, and then progress to a point where things get completely out of control and innocent people are hurt.

 As far as the Pittenweem witch trials are concerned, they began with a very simple word, and that word was No.

Patrick Morton was like any other 16 year old young man in early 18th century Scotland.

In 1704, Patrick was apprenticed to his father who was the village smithy. The job was fairly simple and free of trouble. That was until Beatrice Layng entered the shop.

Ms Layng needed four nails fashioned and asked the aspiring smithy to fashion them.

Patrick explained that he was already involved in an important task that required his immediate attention. 

Now, most people would gladly accept the outcome and leave, seeking another person to complete the task. Not Beatrice Layng. She was, shall we say, a bit of a Karen.

Layng flew into a rage and left the shop telling the poor 16 year old boy that she would have her revenge for his slight.

Most people would laugh this off, but Beatrice Layng had a dark reputation. According to village rumour, Beatrice was a witch.

And to the simple country folk of 18th century Scotland,  this could be bad.

A Curse 

The very next day as Patrick was on his way to work, he happened by Layng’s house and saw something that made his blood run cold. 

Sitting on Layng’s doorstep was a metal pail filled with water and burning coals. Cold dread gripped Patrick’s heart as he believed this could only mean one thing, he was cursed. Beatrice Layng, would have her revenge.

Fear can be an extraordinarily powerful emotion. It can help you identify a possibly dangerous situation. 

Or it can fester and make you act irrational, even change your behaviour. Patrick Morton experienced the latter in a most frightening way.

Almost immediately, Patrick began having violent seizures that caused him to lose consciousness and it made his body contort into unthinkable positions. 

His stomach distended and if that wasn’t enough, those around him watched in horror as deep, bloody scratch marks appeared on his body.

Whatever afflicted Patrick Morton was clearly not natural. Perhaps even preternatural.

The Church Gets Involved 

When word reached the ears of the Reverend Patrick Cowper, he was reminded of a pamphlet that was being spread around called, Sadducimus Deballatus

The pamphlet detailed the travails of an 11 year old girl who was possessed and at the centre of the Paisley witch trials.

Now it was well known that Reverend Cowper had an extreme hatred for witches and found the devil in just about every detail.

When Morton told the good Reverend of his encounter with Layng, he told the young man to accuse her of witchcraft. And the accusations didn’t stop there.

Accusations Fly

At Cowper’s urging, the young man pointed the finger at four others and accused them of witchcraft.

Isabel Adam, Janet Cornfoot, Nicholas Lawson and Lillie Wallace. Janet Horseburgh was later named accomplice in their evil.

The accused were rounded up and imprisoned in Pittenweem Tollbooth where they were subjected to vicious beatings and unimaginable torture.

Confessions 

The investigation, if you can call it that, finally got results. 

Adam, Cornfoot, Layng and Lawson confessed to everything from slinging curses to having sexual relationships with the devil. Basically, garden variety diabolism.

As for the other two, Horsefoot and Wallace, they maintained there innocence regardless of the beating they took. I’ll tell ya, I have nothing but respect for that.

A Not So Daring Escape 

Eventually, everyone but Cornfoot was released after paying an £8 fine. A princely sum in 1704.

Cornfoot remained a prisoner in the Tollbooth but a guard took a little mercy on the woman and gave her a cell where could easily escape. Which she did. 

Cornfoot made it as far as a nearby village where she was captured and returned to Pittenweem.  Needless to say, her freedom and life didn’t last long.

The accused witch was met by an angry mob who proceeded to beat her senseless.

As if that wasn’t enough, she was strung up at the Harbour where stones were thrown at her and citizens punched and kicked her.

When that didn’t finish her off, a door was placed over her and she was crushed to death. 

In the end, four people, including a child were charged with taking part in this grotesque display of public human cruelty. And as you might expect, everyone got off. However, Horseburgh was awarded monetary recompense. 

Researching this article made me truly sad. The level of hatred is astonishing, to say the least.

How people can resort to such wanton acts of barbarism is nothing short of terrifying. 

I can only hope that we as a species will one day evolve beyond this. And hopefully it never happens again.

Tell us of your thoughts about the Pittenweem witch trial in the comments section below!

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