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The Calder Witches

This main basis of this article is the pamphlet by our minister Rev John M Povey, MA BD which is available in our publications section. It covers initially the background to the pursuit of Witches in Scotland, and then more particularly in the Parish of Calder. There is also a postscript on Lizzie Brice (Bryce)

Witchcraft in Scotland

Witchcraft in medieval times was an accepted part of medieval life, and a woman with knowledge of herbal cures and "gift of the gab" found it profitable to be a witch.

The Reformation of 1560 however changed that when Witchcraft became a heinous offence against God. Calvin The Swiss Protestant leader that had such an influence on the Scottish Church  declared "the Bible teaches us that there are witches and they must be slain" .In 1563 Parliament decreed death for anyone practicing witchcraft or consulting a witch.  

There was however relatively few cases initially, however the General Assembly of the Church in calling for a general new reformation of the whole country and a crusade against all forms of immortality, passed acts between 1640 and 1649 and called on Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions to take the lead in searching out and destroying witches. A burst of cases happened in this decade, but by 1700 the Authorities had become disgusted with the whole business and trials after then were almost unknown, although later on you will learn about one that was held in Mid Calder in 1720. 

The process was that a woman suspected of being a witch would be denounced and brought to trial. If there was no confession she would be severely tortured by sleep deprivation, thumbscrews or witch-pricking to extort proof of guilt. When a confession was obtained, the woman had to denounce twelve others, as witches were supposed to meet in covens of thirteen, leading of course to more trials.

Between 1560 and 1707 over 3000 witches were put to death in Scotland, and the last recorded burning of a witch in Scotland took place in Sutherland in 1722.

An interesting footnote for those who think that trials for witchcraft were confined to our superstitious ancestors long ago; In 1944, Helen Duncan (1898-1956), a Scottish medium, was the last person to be jailed under the 1735 Witchcraft Act. A court was told she claimed to have conjured up the spirit of a sailor killed on HMS Barham during World War II. The sinking of this ship was supposed to be a military secret and the British authorities decided to prosecute because they reportedly feared that Helen Duncan might reveal plans for the D- Day landings. She was convicted of "pretending to raise spirits from the dead" and sentenced to 9 months in prison. The 1735 Witchcraft Act was only finally repealed in 1951.

 

Witchcraft in the Parish 

The "Calder Witches" were said at the time to be as proverbial as the Lancashire witches in England. Cunnigar hill in the village was known as "Witches Knowe" and was the spot where witches were put to death.

1591  John Spottiswoode (Minister from 1585-1604) was enthusiastic in the persecution of witches and wrote in 1591 "Much of the winter as been spent in the discovery and examination of witches and sorcerers"
1644 Hew Kennedie (Minister from 1643-1660) began his career in Mid Calder with a zealous crusade against witches. We have records of four incidents that year.
1644 Agnes Bischope who was detained in the tollbooth in Linlithgow, was brought back to Calder and after due "trial and examination" confessed to be a "common charmer and heinous and notorious witch" and was condemned to be executed according to the law"
1644 The records show that a David Aikman paid the Kirk Session 100 merks to defray expenses incurred in the trial, imprisonment and execution of his wife.
1644 The Kirk Session minutes of September relate that "being the Sabbath day, Jeanne Andersoune made publict satisfaction in sackcloth for charming, and the minister made certifactioun to her if ever should be tryed to use charming hereafter she should be held to be a witch"
1644 And one that got off ! - The register of the Privy Council in December states " Complaint by Margaret Thomson in Calder against the Tutor and minister of that parish for 'waking her the space of twenty days naked and having nothing on her but a sackloth' under a charge of witchcraft. Also that she had laid in the stocks and kept separate from all company and worldly comfort, nor could she see any end to her misery by lawfull trial'. The Lords having the minister and tutor before them and no regular charge being forthcoming, ordained her to be liberated"
1720

The Strange Case of 1720 - The best known case of witchcraft in Mid Calder came strangely as late as 1720. The Hon Patrick Sandilands, third son of James, 7th Lord Torphichen , and then a boy of twelve years was said to be bewitched. Declaring that some old women and a man in Calder had bewitched him, he fell down in trances "from which no horse-whipping could rouse him till he chose his own time to revive" pronounced prophecies, and was said to be the subject of of other strange phenomena as such as being lifted in the air by "invisible hands"
Lord Torphichen believed him and many unfortunate local people were arrested and put in prison. The family appealed  through the parish minister John Lookup (Minister from 1698-1758), to the Presbytery, which appointed a delegation to meet in Mid Calder on Thursday 14th January 1720 for a day of fasting and prayer. At the end of the day the five accused had confessed to being involved, however the time had long since passed when people were executed for sorcery, and as the youth in time recovered, the alleged witches were publicly rebuked in church and allowed to go free.

Click here  for a YouTube video about Cunnigar Hill in Mid Calder (Witches Knowe) where it is said that Calder witches were put to death by burning at the stake. https://youtu.be/30-QqXt647c

Cunnigar Hill
 Cunnigar Hill, Mid Calder                Cunnigar Hill, Mid Calder (summer)        Cunnigar Hill, Mid Calder (winter)

Postscript 

Lizzie Brice, Folk memory had it said she was also a witch, but completely untrue!

Lizzie Brice Roundabout, Mid CalderLizzie Brice (Bryce) woman of mystery - Reference an article in  West Lothian Courier 07/01/2000 - LOCAL historian Sybil Cavanagh has peeled back the layers of time to uncover the story of an old woman whose name lives on today (the name of the main roundabout at the entry to Mid Calder, the petrol station adjacent to the roundabout and also as a Pub in adjacent Livingston.) 

"Sybil went back to the 1860s to reveal a picture of a gaunt old woman who lived in a whitewashed cottage near Calder House. The old woman had a few cows, and took in orphans from the Edinburgh slums to augment her income. The old lady's name lives on - as a roundabout and a pub. She was Lizzie Bryce.
Sybil, who looks after the local history section at West Lothian library headquarters, has found the record of Lizzie Bryce's birth in the leather-bound register of Mid Calder Parish Church. It reads: "Elizabeth Baxter, daughter to William Baxter and Margaret Wilson, was born the 28th of January and baptised the 2nd of February 1776." Sybil fleshes out Lizzie's early life: "Lizzie Baxter grew up like any other poor child of her time: a few years of schooling at the parish school in Mid Calder, then put out to work on a local farm for a few years, before marriage. "While working in Livingston parish, she was courted by Alexander Bryce who was also born and bred in Mid Calder, and a ploughman to trade." Sybil returned to church records to discover: "Alexander Bryce of this parish and Elizabeth Baxter of Livingston Parish declared their purpose in marriage; and having been regularly proclaimed, they were accordingly married. 29th November 1799." In the old records, Sybil points out, what is now Brice was always spelled Bryce. The couple had five children, one dying as a young child. The surviving four, Alexander, William, Jane and Elizabeth, married and left home. As Alexander and Lizzie grew older, ploughing became too strenuous, and Alexander took work as a gardener, Sybil thinks at Calder House, close to their cottage. They lived at Raw Cottage, just to the North East of the present Lizzie Brice Roundabout.
By 1861, Alexander was dead. Lizzie stayed on at the cottage with her daughter Elizabeth, who was also widowed. To make ends meet, Sybil has discovered, the two women took in pauper children from Edinburgh. Rather than put slum orphans in the workhouse, the authorities would send them out to foster homes in the countryside and pay for their care. Five girls stayed with Lizzie Bryce and her daughter in 1861 - teenagers Margaret Anderson and Mary Parker, seven-year-old Alexa Russell, and sisters Mary and Janet Stevenson. Sybil surmises old Lizzie Bryce may not have been the gentlest of foster mothers. "Folk memory tells that she was tall and angular. In her old age she grew confused. She would shout at the local children and scare them .'The children called her a witch.'
Lizzie Bryce died at Raw Cottage on April 22, 1865. She was 89. Lizzie Bryce lived and died in the parish of Mid Calder, her name lives on, with its slight change in spelling. By the 1890s Raw Strip, where she kept her cows, became Lizzie Bryce's Strip. When a new pub was being built in Dedridge in the 1960s, a brewery company ran a competition to name it. Joy Finlayson found Lizzie Bryce's name on an old map. The new pub became the Lizzie Brice and the roundabout at the entry to Mid Calder. also assumed her name"

 The leaflet "The Calder Witches" by Rev John Povey gives more information 
on the subject and is available in the Publications pack

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