Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Witches on Wednesdays - Law and Order in Lowlands Scotland

So what would happen if a person was accused of witchcraft in Lowlands Scotland, under the law of King James IV/I?

First, the local Bailiff (justice keeper/sheriff/magistrate) would be called. The accused individual would be incarcerated in the Tolbooth (ie in a jail cell) until trial. The term Tolbooth describes a town hall or guild hall where tolls would be paid and where a cell/s would house criminals. Witch Hunters (ie specialist magistrates) were called in to examine the accused for signs of the devil – marks or blemishes that indicated they were in league with devil. Often that was enough evidence, without a trial. Bad news if you had a birthmark, ay! The punishment under the law of King James was death, first by hanging and then the body was burned – just to be sure.

This is the Edinburgh Tollbooth on Cannongate. It was built in the late 1500's and the building now houses the People's Story MuseumThis collection focuses on the everyday folk of Edinburgh over the centuries. Whilst small in comparison to the main museums in Edinburgh, it's a terrific collection and gives a real sense of life over the centuries. It also houses some items that were used to maintain law and order and an original cell to give visitors an idea what it was like in past times. 


One of the first things you see on entering the museum is this official notice enforcing the law against throwing stones at the executioner and prisoners during an execution. Were the stone throwers in favour of the criminal, or aiding the deliverance of justice by showing their anger at the wrongdoer, or did they enjoy it as a show? A mixture, I suspect. It gives a sense of what the scene might have been like...

In my reading on the Scottish witch trials I learned that in one instance the villagers stoned an accused woman then trampled her body to death beneath a wooden door, such was the fear and persecution surrounding "evil" witchcraft.These factual stories influenced the way I described the death of the Taskill's mother, which was also the moment when the three young siblings (Jessie, Lennox, and Maisie,) were torn apart. The scenes haunt all three of the Taskill Witches, inevitably, and it is Lennox above all who wants justice and battles injustice wherever he sees it--and he often gets a mite hoteheaded when he does.

Lennox swallowed down the shock he felt. She'd hidden herself very cleverly all through their time together. He realized that now. Hiding her shame, keeping the secret. Tracing the scars with his fingers he attempted to hold back the anger he felt when he felt pain there. It was as if he'd been thrashed, not her. It pumped into his fingertips, and it was not just this beating, but more. The anger he felt in response to the images that flared in his mind would not be kept in check—images of Chloris, and images from his childhood, pictures of his mother being stoned.
Chloris flinched at his touch on the raised skin.
That made his anger worsen. Forcing back the images of his own mother, lying on the ground stoned and bloody, frustration bit into him, his ire rising all the while. He voiced his opinion. "You wish to fall pregnant to a man who does that you?"
Her head lifted and she stared over her shoulder at him, dismayed.
"Answer me!" His indignation was making him unreasonable. He could see that fact reflected in her eyes, but he couldn't help being angry.
"It will not happen again," she snapped, "if I fall pregnant."
Lennox cursed aloud. "If you believe that then you are a fool."
Chloris jerked back in astonishment. It was she who looked angry now, the shame that had marked her expression quickly changing as she pulled her clothing into place, covering the scars she had so cleverly concealed during their relationship. "What do you know of me and my situation?"
Lennox felt that old anger and frustration, that which was borne of powerlessness, the mood that turned into white heat in his veins. He saw the men who stoned his mother almost to her last breath, then hauled her bloodied body upright so that she could take the final steps to the gallows where she would be hanged and burned. He'd cursed them all, until they bound and gagged him, but he had never forgotten the looks on their faces. Their fear twisted into glee, that ugly thing that turned them to animals. It disgusted him. "A man who does that to a woman will never change. There will be another cause for him to beat you, another day."

Below are some of the tools of the trade from the 1700s, including shackles and a neck braceI was particularly freaked out by the pitch fork looking item on the left, which clicks around the neck of a criminal on the run. Yikes!





Part of an old cell in the People's Story Museum is maintained just as it was in the 1770s. The first time I saw this, it inspired me to include a cell scene in one my Taskill witch stories. That became chapter two of THE HARLOT, which is set in Dundee Tolbooth earlier in the 1700s. In the scene Jessie has been incarcerated on a charge of witchcraft, and awaits the arrival of the witch hunter who will examine her for the marks of the devil. She fears she will end her life as her mother did, but a rescuer is nearby... 

Now, whilst the cell inspired the scene, I did take some liberties with my version, and I'm woman/author enough to admit it. ;o) In actuality these cells would have been tiny and airless, with multiple occupants, strong wooden doors and little if any light source. For the purposes of the novel, I described the cell as having iron bars, in order that Jessie Taskill could see her rescuer, Gregor Ramsay, by the candlelight that falls form a sconce in the corridor outside. 

Here's a snippet from the scene in THE HARLOT:



Rising to her feet, Jessie stalked into one corner where she stood with her arms folded across her chest. When the guard rattled his key and shoved it into the lock, she looked at it longingly. She could easily make it drop from his belt as he walked away, but she could not take the risk right at that moment, especially not with two of them watching her.
“Luck is on your side, Jessica Taskill,” the guard said. “The minister has risen from his bed to sit pray with you awhile.” 
Jessie pressed her lips together while she battled the urge to tell them her beliefs did not match theirs. She managed to resist sparring out of bad humor, because she knew that if she kept quiet and acted penitent, he would be gone all the sooner.
The minister stepped into the cell and the guard locked the door behind him. The guard gestured with the candle he held aloft in his hand. “If she gives you any trouble you be sure to call out, Minister. I will hear you.” 
Jessie looked at the Minister for the first time. He wore a wide brimmed hat and his head was lowered, which made it difficult to see him. Squinting in the gloom, she ducked her head a little, trying to catch sight of his face.
Then the guard set his candle in a sconce outside the cell. The light filtered in and she was able to properly assess the build of her caller. He was a large man, tall and bulky around the shoulders, unlike any minister she had ever seen. He wore the long somber cassock of the church, true enough, and it was buttoned from collar to hem, but she spied a fine ring snaked around his little finger, and expensive leather boots on his feet—silver-buckled boots.
“Thank you,” the minister replied. “I will say a few prayers with the sorry lass, and I’ll call you when I am ready to leave.”The guard nodded and lumbered off.The other man kept his head lowered until the sound of the guard’s footsteps scuffing along the hallway faded. What little candlelight fell into the cell from the hallway beyond was not aiding Jessie’s quest to study his face, and she leaned closer, her curiosity lifting by the moment. His jaw was solid and when he turned his head to listen to the guard’s retreat, she saw his mouth. Wide and passionate it was, and scarred from one corner to his cheekbone.
Recognition flared in her. “That guard is a fool,” she whispered. “No minister would wear fancy boots such as those.”

To close today's post I've included a snap of the museum's notes on the actual occupants represented here. So much inspiration in history! Next time I'll post about some of the factual stories around the witch trials in Scotland and England that inspired me.


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