Isobel Gowdie[a] was a Scottish woman who confessed to witchcraft at Auldearn near Nairn during 1662. Scant information is available about her age or life and, although likely, it is uncertain whether she was executed or allowed to return to the obscurity of her former life as a cottar’s wife. Her detailed testimony, apparently achieved without the use of violent torture, provides one of the most comprehensive insights into European witchcraft folklore at the end of the era of witch-hunts.
The four confessions she made over a period of six weeks included details of charms and rhymes, claims she was a member of a coven in the service of the devil and that she met with the fairy queen and king.
The early modern period saw the Scottish courts trying many cases of witchcraft and witch hunts began in about 1550. The parliament of Mary, Queen of Scots, passed the Scottish Witchcraft Act in 1563, making convictions for witchcraft subject to capital punishment. Mary's son, James, wrote Daemonologie in 1597 after his involvement with the North Berwick witch trials in 1590 and the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597, a nationwide hunt that started in Aberdeen. In common with other European witch trials, major Scottish witch hunts occurred in batches; historians offer differing opinions as to why this should happen but generally agree that military hostilities and political or economic uncertainty play a part coupled with local ministers and landowners determined to seek convictions.
Adverse weather conditions caused a sustained period of poor harvests from 1649 until 1653. The execution of King Charles I took place in 1649 and an extensive witch hunt started that year. Charles II was declared the monarch of Scotland in 1660; most historians connect the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661–62, the last but most severe wave of prosecutions, with the Restoration. Writing in 1884, Scottish antiquary Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe opined "Whatever satisfaction the return of King Charles the Second might afford to the younger females in his dominions, it certainly brought nothing, save torture and destruction, to the unfortunate old women, or witches of Scotland." According to Emma Wilby, a British historian who has undertaken a comprehensive study of Gowdie and her confessions, she was one of probably seven witches tried in Auldearn during this witch hunt.
Records provide no information on Gowdie before her marriage to John Gilbert, who had no involvement in the witchcraft case. Wilby speculates that she would have been brought up in the Auldearn region as she alluded to locations in the area. Likewise no detail is available concerning her age; at the time of her trial in 1662 she may have been aged anywhere from fifteen – although this is unlikely as she claimed to have participated in sexual activities fifteen years before her confession – to well into her thirties or fifties but she was certainly of child bearing age despite there being no records of her having any children.
Gowdie and her husband lived in the area around Loch Loy, some two miles to the north of Auldearn. During the 17th-century the sea loch was larger than it is now and was surrounded by woodland, hills and sand dunes. Gowdie's husband was a farm labourer, possibly a cottar, hired by one of the tenants of the Laird of Park; in return for his labour he would have been provided with a cottage and the use of a small parcel of land. According to Wilby, their lifestyle and social status could be compared with present day developing countries. Unable to read or write, Gowdie possessed a good imagination and the ability to express herself eloquently. Her daily life was spent undertaking basic household chores and tasks such as milking, making bread, weaving yarn or weeding.
Gowdie made four confessions over a period of six weeks; the first is dated 13 April 1662 at Auldearn. It is uncertain why she came forward; the historian John Callow, who authored her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article,[b] suggests it was because of her involvement in a conspiracy to torment the local minister, Harry Forbes, a zealous, impatient man who had a fear of witchcraft and was less reluctant than others to attribute manifestations to magic. Forbes was a witness at each of Gowdie's four interrogations. Accusations against Gowdie would have circulated for a lengthy period before she confessed. She would have been detained in solitary confinement, most probably in the tollbooth in Auldearn, throughout the six-week time span of her confessions.
Her first confession described an encounter with the Devil after she arranged to meet him in the kirk at Auldearne at night. Naming several others who attended including Janet Breadhead[c] and Margret Brodie, she said she renounced her baptism and the Devil put his mark on her shoulder then sucked blood from it. Other meetings took place at several locations, for instance Nairn and Inshoch. She touched on having sexual intercourse with the Devil who she described as a very cold "meikle, blak, roch man". He had "forked and cloven feet" that were sometimes covered with shoes or boots. Details were given of taking a child's body from a grave and spoiling crops together with information about covens and where they danced. She explained that brooms were laid beside her husband in his bed so he would not notice she was absent. The coven ate and drank the best of food at houses they reached by flying through the air on magical horses and entered via the windows. They were entertained by the Queen of the Fairies, also known as the Queen of Elphame, in her home at Downie Hill[d] which was filled with water bulls that frightened her. Gowdie claimed to have made clay effigies of the Laird of Park's male children to cause them suffering or death and that she had assumed the form of a jackdaw and, with other members of the coven who had transformed into animals like cats and hares, visited the house of Alexander Cumings.
A little over two weeks later, on 3 May, Gowdie's second confession was transcribed. She expanded on details about the coven by providing the nicknames of its members and as many of the spirits that waited on them as she could remember; her own servant spirit, dressed in black, was called the Read Reiver. Claims included having the ability to transform into animals. To turn into a hare, she would say:
- I shall go into a hare,
- With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
- And I shall go in the Devil's name,
- Ay while I come home again.
(sych: such; meickle: much)
To change back, she would say:
- Hare, hare, God send thee care.
- I am in a hare's likeness now,
- But I shall be in a woman's likeness even now.
The individual chants used to turn into a cat, horse or various other animals were also supplied. Gowdie testified the Devil handmade elf arrows and instructed they were to be fired in his name; no bows were supplied so the arrows were flicked by thumb. Spells used to inflict illness and torment on Harry Forbes, the minister, were also described.
It is unclear whether Gowdie's confession is the result of psychosis, whether she had fallen under suspicion of witchcraft or sought leniency by confessing. Her confession was more detailed than most and was inconsistent with much of the folklore and records from the witchtrials. At least two other confessions (those of Andro Mann and Allison Peirson) reported encounters with the Queen of Elphame. There is no record of Gowdie being executed.
In literature and music
Isobel Gowdie and her magic have been remembered in a number of later works of culture. She appears as a character in the biographical novels The Devil's Mistress by novelist and occultist J. W. Brodie-Innes, Isobel by Jane Parkhurst and the fantasy novel Night Plague by Graham Masterton.
- Her surname is sometimes spelled Gaudie or Goudie; women in Scotland did not assume their husband's name.
- Gowdie is one of only a handful of witches who have an entry.
- Janet Breadhead was detained at Inshoch Castle and confessed to witchcraft the day after being named in Gowdie's first confession.
- One of a series of mounds near Nairn.
- Wilby (2010), p. 117
- Stevenson & Davidson (2001), p. 398
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- Levack (2008), p. 42
- Wilby (2010), p. 30
- Wilby (2010), pp. 30–31
- Cullen (2010), p. 17
- Levack (2008), p. 55
- Levack (2008), pp. 81–82
- Levack (2008), p. 82
- Goodare (2013), p. 7
- Wilby (2010), p. 31
- Wilby (2010), p. 10
- Callow, John (2007), "Gowdie, Isobel (fl. 1662)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.), Oxford University Press, retrieved 18 March 2017 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
- Wilby (2010), p. 12
- Wilby (2010), p. 155
- Wilby (2010), p. 6
- Wilby (2010), pp. 8–9
- Wilby (2010), p. 9
- Wilby (2010), p. 35
- MacCulloch (1921), p. 237
- Wilby (2010), pp. 35–36
- Henderson (2016), p. 121
- Winsham (2016), p. 89
- "Dr John Callow", University of Suffolk, 4 July 2016, archived from the original on 16 April 2017, retrieved 16 April 2017
- Wilby (2010), p. 4
- Wilby (2010), p. 107
- Wilby (2010), p. 32
- Wilby (2010), p. 34
- Pitcairn (1833), p. 603
- Pitcairn (1833), p. 604
- Wilby (2010), p. 3
- Pitcairn (1833), p. 605
- Pitcairn (1833), p. 606
- Pitcairn (1833), p. 607
- Pitcairn (1833), p. 608
- Pitcairn (1833), p. 609
- Hutton (1999), p. 225
- Winsham (2016), p. 90
- Lachman, Gary (20 August 2007), "A Blondie bewitched", The Sunday Times, p. 3 (subscription required)
- Booth, Roy (2008), "Standing Within The Prospect Of Belief Macbeth, King James, And Witchcraft", in Newton, John; Bath, Jo, Witchcraft and the Act of 1604, BRILL, ISBN 978-9-0041-6528-1
- Cullen, Karen (2010), Famine in Scotland — the 'Ill Years' of the 1690s, Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 978-0-7486-4184-0
- Goodare, Julian (2001), "Witch-hunts", in Lynch, Michael, The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-211696-7
- Goodare, Julian (2013), Scottish Witches and Witch-Hunters, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-1-137-35594-2
- Henderson, Lizanne (2016), Witchcraft and Folk Belief in the Age of Enlightenment Scotland, 1670–1740, Palgrave MacMillan, ISBN 978-1-137-31324-9
- Hutton, Ronald (1999), The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0198207441
- Levack, Brian P. (2008), Witch-hunting in Scotland: law, politics and religion, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-39943-2
- MacCulloch, John Arnott (1921), "The Mingling of Fairy and Witch Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Scotland", Folklore, 32 (4): 227–244
- Marwick, Ernest Walker (1991), Robertson, John D. M., ed., An Orkney anthology: the selected works of Ernest Walker Marwick, Scottish Academic Press, ISBN 978-0-7073-0574-5
- Pitcairn, Robert (1833), Ancient Crimal Trials in Scotland, 3, part 2, Bannatyne Club
- Stevenson, Jane; Davidson, Peter (2001), Early Modern Women Poets (1520-1700): An Anthology, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-924257-3
- Wilby, Emma (2010), The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland, Sussex Academic Press, ISBN 978-1-84519-179-5
- Winsham, Willow (2016), Accused: British Witches throughout History, Pen and Sword, ISBN 978-1-4738-5004-0
- Davidson, Thomas (1949), Rowan Tree and Red Thread: A Scottish Witchcraft Miscellany of Tales, Legends and Ballads; Together with a Description of the Witches' Rites and ceremonies, Oliver and Boyd
- Maxwell-Stuart, P G (2007), The Great Scottish Witch-Hunt, Tempus
- Valiente, Doreen (1975), An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present, St. Martin
- Waters, Colin (1994), Sexual Hauntings Through the Ages, Dorset Press 1994
- James Macmillan's "requiem" for Isobel Gowdie was broadcast by BBC Radio Three in 2010 . The composer said in an interview he believed Gowdie's confession was obtained by torture, and that she was burned at the stake for witchcraft.