The Burning of the Ayr and Dairy Witches
"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." So wrote the Hebrew lawgiver; and the Church and the Courts of Scotland in the sixteenth century construed his dictum literally. With the advance of the centuries we have outgrown witchcraft, but three hundred years ago its existence was a common article of belief; and the ministers and the gentry, as well as the venerable senators of the College of Justice, were instant, in season and out of season, in rooting. out the abominable thing. There was nothing too gross for them to credit when it was alleged against one who was suspected of inter-communing with the powers of darkness ; there was no cruelty too gross for them to perpetrate upon silly old women, and equally silly old men, who were accused of being wise above that which was written.
Commissions, to examine witches or wizards were issued b the High Court of Justiciary. These were generally in flavour of well-known country gentlemen, or ministers of parishes, or both combined. The names of the persons to be proceeded against were inserted in the commissions, but inasmuch as it was quite certain that these would implicate others while under torture, a blank space was left for the insertion of other names. And thus it frequently came about that, whereas the proceedings were originally directed against one individual, at times as many as six or ten were really had up for examination, and, having been tried and tormented, were finally led to the stake. To these commissions were given the most ample powers of torture; and, even it this late stage of history, the record of the cruelties which they enacted is sufficient to make the blood run cold.
A few of the tortures may be indicated. There was the witch's bridle, for instance, which was placed around the neck, and which had a piece of iron attached to it with four prongs, which were thrust forcibly into the mouth, two of the prongs resting on the tongue or palate, the other two pointing outwards to either cheek. To this, was added a "waker," an attendant whose duty it was to prevent the witch going to sleep ; and the continued torture and sleeplessness rarely failed to break down the most contumacious of her kind. There were the boots and the thumbscrews, instruments which played all important part in the years of the Scottish persecution, The suspected were sometimes hung, up by the arms with weights attached to their feet, and in exceptionally bad cases they were treated to the caspicaws, iron hose or stocking, which were put into a movable furnace or chauffer which was gradually heated, and during the heating of which the incriminatory questions were successively put. The services of the -witch -finder were frequently called into requisition. When the devil initiated a witch, he applied his tongue to some part of her person, and sucked thence a mouthful of blood, which he spat out into his hand and with which he christened the novitiate. The mark thus made it was important to find, and these witch-finders, or prickers, drove needles into the bodies of the accused until they professed to find a spot in which there was no retaliatory pan. This found, the remainder of the prosecution was greatly facilitated. King James, of blessed memory, once ordered a doctor who was had up for witchcraft to be subjected to a " most strange torment," which is thus described in a, contemporary pamphlet:
"His nails upon his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a Turkas (a smith's pincer), and under every nail there was thrust in two needles over even up to the heads, at all which torments, notwithstanding, the doctor never shrank any whit, neither would he then confess it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted upon him. Then was he, with all convenient speed, by commandment, conveyed again to the torment of the boots wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blows in them that his legs were crushed and beaten together as small as might be, and the bones and flesh so bruised that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever. And notwithstanding all these fierce and cruel torments, he would not confess anything, so deeply had the devil entered into his hart."
As a rule, when the convicted, who were almost invariably sentenced to death without other evidence than their own confessions, were taken to the stake, they were mercifully strangled before being burnt. But this was not always so, as the following painful memorandum, by Thomas, Earl of Hamilton, in his Minutes of Privy Council proceedings, conclusively show, The date is December 1, 1608:-
"The Earl of Mar declared to the Council that some women were taken in Broughton. as witches, and, being put to an assize and convicted, although they persevered constant in their denial to the end, yet they were burnt quick (i.e. alive) after such a cruel manner that some of them died in despair, renounced their baptism, and others half-burnt broke out of the five and were cast in quick (alive) in it again, until they were burnt to death."
So it was that our forefathers fulfilled the command "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Witchcraft was a stern reality to them, and it was without the faintest hesitation or difficulty that they credited the tales of old women riding on brooms in the moonbeams, or sailing the sea in riddles, or performing the hundred and one acts that pertained to necromancy. Without examination into witchcraft as in art, it is right to mention that it was overlain with immorality. No study of it is complete without the expounding of this phase of it; and, on the other hand, the confessions of the witches, are often so grossly indecent that they cannot be reproduced for the ordinary reader.
Trials for witchcraft in Ayr shire were, not uncommon, but there are two which stand out prominent and which may be taken as a type of the rest.
Maggie Osborne is the witch of Ayr town par excellence. It is she who dwells in memory ; it is her misdeeds that have been handed down ; it is of her that the people still talk; it is she who is identified with the era of witchcraft in the auld toun. A few years ago the inhabitants could point out to strangers the house in which she resided, but Time's effacing fingers have swept it away and nothing more than the site is left.
With Maggie Osborne, as with other "wise women," history and tradition have dealt differently; so that while in reality there was only one Maggie, there are now three. The story tellers have diverged into separate paths, one party sticking to the bare facts of the case, the other over-laying it with details and with criticisms founded on nineteenth century advance. These latter forget that times have changed and we with them, and that what appears to us strange, savage, and barbarous appeared to our forefathers as a sacred, though no doubt a painful duty. We have no right to believe that they gloried in the human sacrifices which in their ignorance they offered up. They were doing God service, they believed so, at least; and, therefore, while we can not defend what they did, we need not go out of our way to analyze their motives or to brand them as fools or murderers.
The witch of tradition, the Maggie Osborne whose misdeeds and doings hung in mystery about the country-side long after the devil had claimed her as his own, was indeed a wondrous woman. She was a natural daughter of the Laird of Fail, a famous warlock and a master in the black arts of diablerie. Her sire instructed her in the profession in which he was himself a distinguished ornament, and she proved apt as a pupil. Her mother dying, Maggie took up a public house in Ayr, and continued to dispense the wines of the country to the burgesses for a full half-century. At nights, after she had finished the work of the day, she did not retire to rest ; but muttering her charms, she rose into mid-air, and made excursions into Galloway, where she disported herself after the manners and customs of her kind, bewitching cattle, turning ale sour, "charming," wives and maidens, and generally misconducting herself. She always went and came by the same route, crossing Carrick Hill by a path long after known as "Maggie's gate to Galloway." For a witch who had to go so far, she seems to have been in no special hurry, varying the monotony of flying by an occasional walk. As she scaled the shoulder of Carrick she folded her wings or gave her steed a rest, and down to earth descended with lieu the attendant imps. Coining from the nether regions their feet were naturally rather warm, and they not only scorched the grass but effectually baked the ground into such permanent sterility, that from that day to this no vegetation has ever been able to live in the track of their cloven hoofs. On one occasion as she was leisurely sailing over the Nick of the Balloch in the dusk of evening, she espied a funeral approaching; and not wishing to be discovered or recognized by the mourners, on many of whom she had played her cantrips, she transformed herself into a beetle, and, thus disguised, went creeping along the road. As the procession passed, she hid in a hollow in the ground made by the hoof of a horse and lay quietly, not daring to do more than peep from her hiding place. One cannot but think that Maggie's action in thus secreting herself did not say very much for her wisdom; but, amid the delightful incongruities of such lore, such a trifle may be allowed to pass. She came very near her death as it was; for one of the mourners trod on the hollow where she crouched and she only escaped death by a miracle. Maggie was vindictive. She knew the man whose heavy tread had endangered her existence and set about the accomplishment of his ruin. And she succeeded only too well, Surrounded by his family he sat down one winter night to supper. His wife, and his bairns, eight in number, barring one who was a sailor and at sea, were by him. By some unaccountable lapse of memory he forgot to say grace; and this gross dereliction of duty put him in the power of Maggie Osborne, who rolled a huge wreath of snow upon his house, beneath whose weight the unhappy peasant and his family were crushed, or smothered to death.
Surely that was vengeance enough to satisfy even such a vindictive being as Maggie Osborne? Not quite, returning home she learned by incantation that the sailor son was in a vessel in the Bay of Ayr and proceeded to compass his ruin. Witches had exceptional power over the elements, and of that power she availed herself. First of all she instructed her servant to put some water in the mash-tun, and to set an ale cup to sail in it, and then retired to her garret where she called in the aid of her master and set about storm-raising. The girl stood by the stairfoot waiting instructions. Maggie's first order to her was to go to the tun and ascertain on what portion of the surface the cup was floating. The servant went as ordered and found the cup being gently floated on ripples which played on the surface of the water, and in the very centre of the tun. " That will do," said Maggie, when the maid told her story, " but in a few minutes you must return to the brew-house and bring the particulars as before." On going the second time the servant was amazed to find the water violently agitated, the miniature waves washing over the rim of the vessel and the ale cup being dashed hither and thither. And worse still, faintly and far off she heard as it were the cries of men in distress, imploring succour where no help was to be found. She hurried back to the stairfoot and called out to the witch, informing her of what she had seen and heard. " They will cry long ere I pity them," was the comment of Maggie Osborne " but go again" Trembling the girl obeyed. The water was still once again, and unagitated; but as for the cup it had gone down to the bottom. On learning this the witch smiled as she remarked, " The devil has served me well for ance." As the mimic storm raged in the tun, so a storm of great violence raged in the bay as the ale cup was dashed about hither and thither, so a vessel was driven to and fro by the violence of the hurricane without; as the girl heard afar off the cries of drowning seamen, so the night winds heard the wails which floated up to them from the deck of the hapless craft; and as the ale cup went clown in the tun, so, driven upon the jagged back of the Nicholas rock, the ship was lost with all hands, and among them the son of the peasant whose foot had well nigh crushed the witch as she hid in the hollow of the road, to escape the observation of the mourners at the Nick of the Balloch.
The servant girl certainly displayed a good deal of courage in watching the results of Maggie's incantations ; and we are rather inclined to think that it must bay been the same brave-hearted domestic who posed as the heroine of the anecdote which follows: Maggie and she " fell out," with the result that the maid was sent to work in the brew house at night. As she was engaged in the still hours of the darkness attending to her duty, a number of ferocious cats entered, and at once, as if by preconcerted arrangement, began fighting with one another. The girl stood aside to enable the feline combatants to have a fair field and no favour; but one of the cats, a large and particularly savage specimen of the race, watching an opportunity, sprang at her throat, evidently with the intention of tumbling her into the boiling " worts " behind her. Undismayed, the girl defended herself right valorously; and dipping her ladle into the worts she bestowed its contents among the cats, taking good care that the one which attacked her received no ungrudging share of the scalding liquid. Witches or no Witches, the cats took to flight, squalling as they retired, and vanished into the darkness. Next, morning Maggie was in and in bed. The girl, drawing her own conclusions from this rather unusual circumstance went upstairs to pay her a visit, and was not at all displeased to find her mistress lying oil her couch groaning and in evident pain. She refused to say what was the matter with her and positively declined to rise; but the maid, not to be beaten, pulled down the bed-clothes and discovered that her mistress was suffering from a series of blisters on her back. That seemed to the domestic to be proof positive of her witchery and she at once reported the matter to the magistrates, with the result that Maggie was apprehended and cast into prison.
It is a curious fact that the devil never seems to have been able, or willing, to rescue his friends from the clutches of the law. By pronouncing certain charms, witches could at will, when they enjoyed their freedom, rise into thin air and float away wherever they listed; but no sooner did the magistrates or the ministers lock them up in durance vile than they became as helpless as Samson after the sorceress had cut off his flowing locks. So it was with Maggie, though it is only fair to her grimy master to say that he did aid her to the best of his ability. He did not, it is true, take her out of her cell, but he informed her by what means she might escape from the stake. Her liberation was to be effected by the means of two pewter plates, which were to be fastened to her shoulders and with which she was to rise into space after the fire had been lit to consume her, and, as she rose, Satan was to envelope her in the smoke which ascended from the fire, and carry her off to safety and to fresh fields of usefulness. The plates, it was stipulated, were to be new and unwashed; indeed, Satan assured her that if they were permitted to be wet they would not act as wings. The morning came on which Maggie was to expiate her guilt at the stake, and around the Cross were gathered not only a large concourse of people, but a number of ministers who had come to see justice done. Maggie was penitent, she admitted her guilt, and, in order to make such reparation as lay in her power, she told the authorities that if they would only bring her two new pewter plates which had never been wet, she would reveal mysteries which would help them to unravel witchcraft in others and overcome the powers of darkness. She admitted the justice of her sentence. The authorities, ever anxious to learn and to come to a knowledge of necromancy, agreed to comply with her request and despatched a messenger for the plates. In his hurry he stumbled and fell, and one of the two got wet. He thought that a well-dried plate would do just as well for all practical purposes as one that had never been wet, and accordingly he removed the last faint speck of damp and polished the metal till it shone again. Maggie was tied to the stake when he arrived. The plates were handed to her and she affixed them to her shoulders, and, to the amazement of the crowd instantly began slowly to ascend. Unfortunately for her, the pewter wings that had been wet refused to act freely and prevented her soaring out of reach of one of the guards, who hooked his halbert into her petticoats and brought her down again. The magistrates saw how nearly they had been balked of their prey and had the plates removed and the pile lit. The faggots were built up around her, and as the flames mounted higher and higher she was overheard addressing her master who, all invisible, stood beside her-" Oh, ye fause loon, instead o' a black goun, ye hae gi'en me a red ane; ha'e I deserved this for serving ye sae lang And so died the Maggie Osborne of rustic tradition and fire-side tale.
She of the local story-teller who reads sixteenth century events in the added light of three hundred years, is by no means so terrible or repulsive a beldame; she is, on the contrary, a young lady who courts our deepest sympathies and evokes our strongest antipathies to the lay and clerical bigots who doomed. her. to the stake. She is even beautiful of face and of character. The family to which she belonged, that of the Osborne's, is well known in the town, and of recognized social position. Her parents die and leave her their money, and therewith she ministers to the temporal wants of her poorer neighbours. She is instant in season and out of season, and she is blessed for the good that she doeth. Unhappily she is stretched on a bed of sickness. Attacked by brain fever, her imagination and the clustering rush of unregulated and uncontrolled thoughts, carry her away. Her mind wanders and her words go a wool-gathering. She speaks of sacred mysteries ; she rambles of the world to come, and those who are attendant upon her forth with retail to the minister of the Old Kirk all that they have heard her say. Mr. Adair, like the supposed typical minister of the day, is on the outlook for witchcraft. He is a bigot of the first water, and hearing that Miss Osborne is talking to those who are beyond the gates of time, he sets the ever ready machinery of the law in order and has her apprehended. She is charged with inter-communing with Satan, with witchcraft, and with having sold her soul to the Prince of Darkness. She indignantly repudiates the charge. Mr. Adair is inexorable-he will have none of her denial. She passes into the bands of the witch-finder, and from his grasp into that of the inquisitor by torture. All the while the words " confess, confess," ring in her ear's, and as these admonitions are accompanied by the usual satanic methods of extracting confession, she yields to the pleading and the torture, and admits her guilt. She is thrown into prison, to the uncongenial society of the goaler and his turnkeys. They are as much incensed against witchcraft as the minister; and what between incarceration and perpetual monition, the brain fever, which had begun to show symptoms of abating returns. In the bitterness of her agony she longs, for death ; and this being interpreted according to the canons of the witch-hunters, she is formally put upon trial. The inevitable result ensues. She is found guilty and sentenced to be burned at the Cross of Ayr. At the stake she maintains returned calmness and resignation, and with prayer on her lips, her soul ascends amid the smoke to the Father of mercies and God of all consolation. Her charred remains are buried in the churchyard of St. John's; and with her burning terminates the long series of deaths, by the hands of the public executioner, for witchcraft. The story will hardly bear close investigation. While Mr. Adair was no doubt tinctured with the gross superstition of the times, he is not fairly represented in the character of an ignorant and 'bloody-minded bigot. Besides, brain fever cannot have been absolutely unknown to medical science in these days. The wanderings of a patient stretched on a sick bed could never have been accepted as prima facie evidence of guilt or of association with the powers of darkness; and therefore, and for the credit of humanity, it is permissible to dismiss the story as a somewhat weak invention.
The real Maggie Osborne, though she figures prominently in romance and in the recollections of her fellow-townsmen, does not bulk largely in the history of the royal burgh. The Osbornes, were, it is true, a well-known family in Ayr. Several of its members occupied positions of trust, and were looked up to by the citizens of their day. But what branch of the family Maggie belonged to is not recorded. She is assumed to have been the same person who, in November, 1648, was appointed by the Council " to receave the key of the house wherein Isabell Pyper died under suspicione of the infectioune, fra John Fergusson, one of the quartermasteris, and to intromit with the goods of the house and to be furthcumand to their said honours conforme to ane indenture thairof, to be taken and sett doun in wryt." She resided in High Street, in a house opposite the Fish Cross. It is only of late years that the house has 'been removed; and until its demolition, and it continued a good substantial structure to the close, it was known to old and young as Maggie Osborne's house. Unfortunately there is a long hiatus in the Presbytery records, extending from 1652 to 1681 ; and it was during that period that the reputed witch was sent to her doom. The Council's books are equally reticent, and the criminal records of the country have been searched in vain for verification of the case. It is not however, to be understood that the story is by any means legendary. It has passed into the history of the town as one of those things which cannot be shaken, and it is not at all improbable that the Council, ashamed of the whole transaction, expunged from their minutes any and every reference to it.
It would unquestionably have been interesting to know the nature of the indictment on which Maggie was tried; but whether she danced with other witches in the kirks of the Reformation, wrought incantations with the aid of ghastly relies disinterred from burying grounds, brought about sickness or death by her Satan-bestowed charms, or flew athwart the glimpses of the moon, must for ever remain a mystery. Her case, viewed in the light of the times, must have been a bad one; for the magistrates of Ayr were lenient, rather than otherwise, in their dealings with witches. As early as 1596 a woman from Galloway, Margaret Reid by name, was brought before the magistrates charged with the heinous sin. She was " considered guilty," says the record, and banished from the burgh, with the certification that, " if ever found within their jurisdiction," she was "to be punished without any further assize or process."
Poor Maggie was not treated so leniently; on the contrary, she was ordained to be burned at the Cross, and the sentence was carried into effect, with all the attendant horrors on such an event. Probably she was strangled as the pile was lighted; but as this enters into supposition, it may be dismissed into the limbo of tradition, together with the unholy glee of the Rev. Mr. Adair and the conviction of an unhappy female, condemned because her mind wandered, and because she spake unadvisedly with her lips during an attack of brain fever.
BESSIE DUNLOP, as a witch, stands by herself. She was not one of the broom-besom or kail-stock variety. She had no direct, dealings with the devil. She never courted, in midnight flight, the glimpses of the moonbeams, or danced in unholy cantrip in the churches of the Reformation. She never rode over the crests of the waves in a riddle or sieve, nor charmed anybody's cattle, nor took away the milk from the breasts of her nursing neighbours, nor soured the malt, nor did harm to her acquaintances, nor acted in any one of the hundred other ways affected by the general run of weird women.
If these things be so, the question naturally arises, what did she do to bring her into the category of witches? If she was not a witch of the ordinary variety, why was she burned? Her story must supply the answer. And, fortunately, it can be reproduced in reasonable detail. On November 8th, 1576, she was arraigned at the bar of the High Court of Justiciary; and the faithful clerks of the assize have left us official record of the crimes laid to her charge. Before going into the narrative, however, it might be necessary to premise that in all probability, her confessions were extracted from her by the aid of the torture. The witches became, almost without exception, pliant under the influences of starvation, of solitary confinement, of the witch-finders, and of the witch's bridle, and were ready to admit anything demanded of them, so that they might have an end put to their sufferings.
The crime of which she was accused was "sorcery, witchcraft, and incantation, with invocation of spirits of the devil, continuing in familiarity with them at all such times as she thought expedient, dealing with charms, and abusing the people with devilish craft of sorcery aforesaid." She was her own witness. To begin with, the Court demanded to know by what means she was enabled to tell persons of divers things that had been lost, or had been stolen away, and how she had managed to cure sick persons. She knew nothing of herself; she replied all her power to reveal secrets came from her communing with a familiar spirit in the person of one Thomas Reid, who had been slain on the field of Pinkie nearly thirty years before. To all appearance Reid was an honest, elderly man, with a grey beard, who wore a grey coat with Lombard sleeves of the old fashion, grey " breeks " and white stockings gartered above the knees, a black bonnet on his head with lappets over his ears, and carrying a white wand in his hand. She first met him one day as she was going from her own house, she and her husband seem to have been tenants of Lord Boyd, a son of the Laird of Pinkill, to Monkcastle, and mourning over the illness of a cow and the sickness of her husband, "Good day, Bessie," said Reid to her. " God speed you, gudeman," she replied. " Sancta Marie," said he, " Bessie, why are you so very sad and greeting for any worldly thing!" "Alas!" was her response, " have I not great cause to be sad. Our gear is dwindling away, my husband is on the point of death, my baby will not live, I am weak myself also, and have I not, good cause, then, to have a sair heart Bessie," replied Reid, " thou has provoked God and asked something thou shouldest not have done. Therefore I counsel you to make amends to Him. I tell thee thy bairn shall die, and the sick cow before you return home, your two sheep will die too ; but your husband shall mend and be as strong and fair as ever he was." Having so delivered himself, and imparted to Bessie a modicum of comfort in the assurance that her husband would recover, he walked off towards the yard of Monkcastle, disappearing in a hole in a dyke so small that, in Bessie's opinion, no mortal man could have gone through it. "This," says the record, "was the first time that Thom and Bessie foregathered."
At an interview which took place shortly after, Thom, as he is called by the narrator, reproached Bessie because she would not trust in him. Why would she not put her faith in him? he asked. Bessie strategically replied that she was willing to trust in anybody who did her good. The grey old man was ready with his promises. She should have, he told her, horses and cows, "and other graith," if she would deny Christianity and the faith which she took upon her at baptism. But, though Bessie was anxious enough to possess the world's goods, she would not deny her faith; and, rather than do so, she expressed her firm determination to be "riven" at horses' tails. This reply angered him, and he departed in a rage. When next he returned, however, his ill-temper had disappeared, and, under pledge of secrecy, he showed her a sight which no mortal save herself had ever before looked upon. This was none other than four men and eight women from Elfame-Elf-Hame-the Court of Fairyland. The men were clad in gentlemen's clothing, and the women had all plaids about them, and were very kind to her. Thom asked her if she knew any of them.
None, she replied, save himself. They bade her sit down, and endeavoured to persuade her to go with them. To their solicitation she answered nothing, because Thom had previously for-bidden her to speak in their presence. Finding their entreaties of no avail, they rose to take their departure, and as they parted from her, and left her lying sick upon the ground, " a hideous ugly blast of wind followed them." On Thom's return, for he, too, had gone off with them, he told her who they were, and pressed her anew to reconsider her decision, but this she stoutly refused to do. She saw no profit, she told him, in going with them without knowing what the result was to be. To this he replied that she should better her position, and he pointed to his own well-clad, well-fed condition in token of the state of bodily comfort she would enjoy in the Court of Elfame. But all to no purpose.
About this time Bessie was to be recognized as a wise woman among her neighbours. When their cattle became ill she consulted Reid, and he gave her herbs with which to cure them; when their children were sick bc handed to her potions to cure them ; and when their goods were lost or stolen she told them where to find them, or in whose possession they were. Persons of rank and of title sought advice from her. Lady Johnstone sent a servant to consult her regarding, the sickness of her daughter, who was married to a neighbouring proprietor. Bessie in turn consulted Thom. " Her sickness," said that personage, " is due to cauld blood that went about her heart, that caused her to pine away. Therefore," counselled he, " let her take equal parts of cloves, ginger, annis-seed, and liquorice, and mix them together in ale; seethe them together; strain the mixture; put it in a vessel, then take a little quantity of it in a mutchkin can, with some white sugar cast among it; take and drink thereof each day in the morning; walk a while after, before meat, and she would soon be better." Bessie administered the physic in the house of Lady Blackhall and received as payment a peck of meal and some cheese. Lady Thirdpart, in the barony of Renfrew, sent to her to discover who had stolen some coins out of her purse, and, after an interview with Them, she informed her who had them. And Lady Blair similarly sought her advice concerning the recovery of a quantity of clothing which had been theftuously taken from her.
Passing over a number of parallel cases, Bessie's "familiar" is found acting the role of adviser. The daughter of William Blair of the Strand, was shortly to be married to the young Laird of Baidland, Crawford by name; and to the bride elect Thom had a warning message to send. It was to the purport that, " if she married that man, she should either die a shameful death, slay herself, cast herself down over a crag, or go raving mad." This terrible prediction effectually brought the betrothal to a close, but the young laird simply transferred his affections to his former intended's sister, whom he wedded without any such dire consequences being foretold, or, what is of more importance, happening, to mar his wedded bliss.
As a rule, Thom Reid, though quite indistinguishable from the ordinary flesh-and-blood denizens of this earth, does not seem to have cared to mingle with them. On two occasions, however, Bessie saw him in the throng, once in the churchyard of Dalry, where he was going up and down among the people, and again on the streets of Edinburgh on a market day, where he comported himself in a manner similar to those about him. He preferred rather to confine himself to the society of Bessie Dunlop herself, and to impart to her such knowledge as he was permitted to teach her. Her connection with the fairy folk, other than that already referred to, was very slight. A stout woman called upon her, took a drink of water from her hands, and told her that one of her children would die. This, Thom explained, was none other than his mistress, the Queen of Elfame. And while walking one day by the side of a loch a great company of riders carne by, making a din as if heaven and earth had gone together, and disappeared in the loch "with many a hideous rumble." These were the happy wights of the Court of fairyland, and among them was the Laird of Auchinskeith, who had died nine years previously.
Bessie had consulted her familiar concerning what was likely to eventuate as the result of her acquaintance with spirit lore. He told her that she would be called to account, but that she was to seek an assize of her neighbours, and that no evil should befall her. But, trusting to Thom, she leaned upon a broken reed; for, taken before the High Court of Justiciary, the jurors unanimously found her guilty of the crimes laid to her charge, and she was sentenced to be burned at the stake. There is no record of the sentence having been carried out, but that she paid the penalty due to her witchcraft, sorcery, and incantation, call hardly be doubted. The most notable feature in her case is that not even her enemies accused her of having done any harm to her neighbours or to those who consulted her, and she seems to have fallen a victim to practising on the credulity of the simple and to a knowledge of medicinal herbs.