In 1697, Paisley was the last town in western Europe to conduct a mass execution for witchcraft. Some still believe that the town has been cursed since that day…
Our tale begins with 11-year-old Christian Shaw, daughter of the Laird of Bargarran. One day, the girl complained of being tormented by some local witches; they included one of her family’s servants, Catherine Campbell, whom she had reported to her mother after witnessing her steal a drink of milk.
Shaw became violently ill with fits, similar to the symptoms reported a few years earlier in the infamous Salem witch trials. Shaw’s parents took her to see the eminent Glasgow physician Matthew Brisbane, who could find no cause for her symptoms.
But the symptoms persisted and, by the time the family had returned to see Dr Brisbane, she had begun to pull balls of hair out of her mouth, claiming they had been put there by those who were afflicting her. Soon, she began to pull other objects out of her mouth, including straw, coal, gravel, chicken feathers, and cinders. During her fits, she was sometimes heard to be talking to the invisible Catherine Campbell, pleading for a return to their former friendship.
With the doctor unable to provide any rational explanation, her family and their local parish minister concluded that she must be possessed and being tormented by witches. The church set up a weekly fast and prayer meeting at Bargarran House, and Shaw’s father appealed to the authorities that those named by his daughter as tormenting her should be arrested. She had initially identified only Catherine Campbell and Agnes Naismith – but as time wore on she implicated others, and eventually 35 were accused.
Seven people were eventually summoned to appear before a commission in Paisley: Margaret Lang, John Lindsay, James Lindsay, John Reid, Catherine Campbell, Margaret Fulton, and Agnes Naismith.
James Hutchison, a local minister, delivered a sermon to the commission; it was commonplace at the time for a member of the clergy to preach to the court in Scottish witch trials. Hutchison emphasised the presence of witches’ marks on the bodies of the accused, and cast doubt on the natural explanations of those marks offered by some physicians.
The jury, confronted by a threat from the prosecutor that if they acquitted the defendants they would be “accessory to all the blasphemies, apostacies, murders, tortures, and seductions, etc., whereof those enemies of heaven and earth shall hereafter be guilty when they get out”, found all seven of the accused guilty. One of those convicted, James Reid, committed suicide by hanging himself in his prison cell, using his handkerchief attached to a nail in the wall. The remaining six were hanged and then burned on the Gallow Green in Paisley on 10 June 1697 – the last mass execution for witchcraft in western Europe.
And Christian Shaw? She would go on to leave her mark on Paisley in other, even more significant ways. She became a successful businesswoman involved in the manufacture of thread. Her Bargarran trademark thread became a mark of quality, and as others in the area began to emulate her techniques, they started an industry in which Paisley would become dominant globally.