Field Report: The Witch’s Stone, Dornoch

With less than decent weather, we decided to visit Dornoch on Scotland’s north east coast. A small town with some very swanky cafe action and in the thrall of its ancient golf course, Dornoch is a funny little place.  A much rebuilt medieval cathedral is the centre piece, but it has a few other interesting sights for for seeker of strange.

Dornoch is the home of the Witch’s Stone, which commemorates the burning of the alleged witch Janet Horne in 1727. the stone itself is an unassuming little menhir in the front garden of a house on the eastern edge of town, overlooking the golf course and the rather excellent beach (think the opening sequence of Polanski’s ‘Macbeth’). The tale itself however is somewhat more sordid and miserable.

The story goes that Janet Horne bore a deformed daughter, some say her hands and feet resembled hooves. Allegedly this was evidence enough for some to accuse Janet of transforming her daughter into a pony so that she could more swiftly travel the countryside dispensing the Devil’s work. The failure of Janet to fully transform her child back to human form was clearly on display, they felt, and was due cause for Janet and her daughter to be arrested for witchcraft.

Summarily captured, they were housed in the old Tollbooth at Dornoch, which was once the Chapter House of the cathedral. Janet’s daughter somehow is alleged to have escaped, leaving Janet to be brought alone before the Depute Sheriff Captain Ross of Little Dean. By all accounts, Ross far exceeded his authority in trying Janet, and was remiss in informing the local King’s Advocate. The reasons for this may be diverse, but we can imagine a small posse of angry neighbours, resolute in their outrage, demanding action.

One of the tests which Janet had to undergo was to repeat the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic. She mistakenly said “ Ar n-Athair a bha air neamh” – “Our Father who wert in Heaven” instead of Ar n-Athair a tha air neamh”, the correct version, meaning the continued presence of the living God. This was seen as proof that Janet was indeed disciple of the Devil, seeking the destruction of God and the Church. Interestingly, this same inability to pronounce the Lord’s Prayer, and the “wert” instead of “art”, is referenced in Scottish Fairy Belief:

When the angels fell, some fell on land, some on the sea.  The former are fairies [the latter were often said to be the seals]. A fairy once met a man and asked him if he might be saved. The man said, Yes if you can say ‘Our Father which art in heaven’.  The fairy tried but could only [say], ‘Our Father which wert in heaven’, and went away lamenting. (1)

Though recorded in the Shetlands, it’s likely that this belief has been conflated with witch lore and is an apocryphal addition to the saga of poor Janet.

Janet Horne was duly sentenced to death, to be burned alive as a witch. 

Janet was smeared in hot tar and rolled in feathers before being carried around Dornoch in a barrel. She was then taken to Littletown, where the pyre had been prepared. It is alleged that on seeing the fire prepared for her, she said “ Eh, what a bonny blaze.” She is reported to have continued that “ such a good fire an neighbours gathered round made the most cheerful sight she had seen for many years”. Form this report it is easy to speculate that poor Janet was suffering from some form of trauma or dementia, and was unable to grasp her looming fate. But still, burn she did.

The raising of the stone itself is now lost to memory. The persons responsible and the date are unknown, though the date inscribed on the stone itself is incorrect, being 1722. We have confirmation of the correct date from one Captain Burt, who’s “Letters from the North of Scotland” clearly mention the episode. he writes that in 1727 a mother an daughter of Sutherland were accused, tried and condemned for witchcraft, sentenced to be burned. He mentions that the daughter escaped, though the mother suffered a horrible death  in a pitch barrel, all written soon after the event itself. There is further written evidence of the event in the papers of one Rev. Robert Woodrow of Eastwood.

In 1736, nine years after Janet Horne was burned alive, Parliament repealed the statutes against witchcraft, meaning that it ceased to be a capital crime which carried the death penalty. After this time, people could still be accuse doc witchcraft, arrested and incarcerated, but the charge was no longer punishable by death.  

The 1736 act remained on the books until 1951, when it was amended by the Fraudulent Mediums Act. In Scotland, this drew a mixed reaction.  The  Established Presbyterian Church made only the mildest of protestations, whereas The Auld Lichts, a notorious Seceder Branch, considered the repeal to be a national sin and “contrary to the law of God”. Their Biblical literalism refers to Exodus 22, 18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, itself a much debated point of historical translation. (2)

Dornoch beach

What is remarkable about the case of poor Janet is the late date of her summary execution. The Enlightenment was in full swing, witchcraft was a thing of the past as far as the law was concerned and the proceeding would have horrified many as being the barbaric doings of northern yokels.

One gets a real sense of the small town environs of Dornoch, of the petty jealousies and feuds that could, and still do, erupt in small communities. Though there is little here to truly mark the events, the tale itself is a bleak reminder of group will, and the scapegoating of those who are other than “normal”.

The beach at Dornoch is beautiful. On our visit, the wind was blowing a fair gale and the rain came in scythes. The pale sands were littered with more shells than I have ever seen on a beach, some of enormous sizes. A truly fabulous place to reflect on the horrors of the past.


Notes:

(1) Henderson, Lizanne. Scottish Fairy Belief. John Donald, Edinburgh, 2001. pp. 23-4

(2) For more on this issue of translation and Biblical literalism, see Cursed Britain by Thomas Waters, out in August 2019 on Yale Books.

Fairgreave, Helen. The Witch’s Stone. Historylinks information sheet No.10

Be sure to visit the excellent Historylinks museum in Dornoch, where they have some amazing little displays and dioramas portraying the history of the area.

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