Halloween part two: Witches and the Scots-Irish

In my last post I promised to revisit two topics that I didn’t get time to cover: Witches and the practice of carving vegetables to look like severed human heads.


The figure of the witch with her pointy hat, broomstick and cauldron have become synonymous with Halloween. I had been musing that on the face of it, why Halloween had survived (was even popular) among the largely Presbyterian Scots (and their Scots-Irish progeny in Ireland and the USA) appears a bit of a mystery. Suggestion 1 involved the fact that going back centuries to time immemorial, the festival celebrated at this time of year was important to the people of Ireland and Scotland. I believe witches are a second factor.

King James VI of Scotland was famously obsessed with witches. On his way back from his wedding in Denmark he was told that a storm that delayed them was an attempt to kill him by witches. Taking it very personally, James set out on a one-king crusade to eradicate witches. Evil Queens, supernatural women and women who deal in secret magic were a feature of Irish and Scandinavian folklore from time immemorial but the Scots and subsequently the Scots Irish seem to really have taken witches to heart.
Illustration of witches in North Berwick

Scotland already shared King James obsession as witch hunts were breaking out all over the place. With James at the helm though, wholesale persecution and murder of unpopular or slightly odd women who failed to fit into society really took off. With the death of Queen Elizabeth I, James the IV of Scotland became James I of England and he took his obsession with witches south with him, notably inspiring William Shakespeare to include the witches in his “Scottish Play”. James also instigated the Plantation of Ulster, a replay of his failed policy to replace the Gaelic-speaking Catholic Highlanders with Protestant lowland Scots, this time played out with more success in Ireland.
Despite James’ later scepticism of the veracity of witches, the Scots took their fear of magical crones with them and soon witches were starting to crop up under Ulster beds as well. The mania carried on for a century. During this time a minister from Magherafelt, County Londonderry, who revelled in the wonderful name of Increase Mather decided to take on board St. John D. Seymour’s advice that “Irishmen succeed best out of Ireland” and took himself off to the New World. Increase did well in the Commonwealth of  Massachusetts, becoming President of Harvard College. He and his son (who he decided to name Cotton for some reason) were both thought and religious leaders in the New World. Though they later tried to distance themselves from it, their involvement and influence is undeniable in the mania that resulted in the execution of 20 people -mostly women- for witchcraft in Salem between 1692 and 1693. Cotton Mather wrote his book "Wonders of the invisible world" during the trials and the illustration below is from the 1693 edition, showing that the stereotype image of the witch had pretty pretty much solidified by then:

The Salem witch trials, like the demise of Mathew Hopkins in England, were eventually ended by an outbreak of common sense and brave stances by several men of strong principle. Back in Ireland, the Scots-Irish were otherwise engaged in the 1690s so it took a couple of decades before the judicial punishment of witchcraft fell out of fashion. The last trials happened in Carrickfergus in 1710-11, in what became known as the case of the Islandmagee witches.
The incident started with some genuinely weird and quite spooky occurrences but these eventually deteriorated into the usual pattern of a hysterical teenage girl delighted to find herself the centre of attention directing clearly fabricated accusations of witchcraft at a set of older women who didn’t quite fit the image of a good citizen.
Seven women from Carrickfergus and Islandmagee went on trial - Janet Mean, Jane Latimer,,  Margaret Mitchell,  Catherine M'Calmont,  Janet Liston, Elizabeth Sellar, and Janet Carson. 
The reason they were singled out seem to be that they were social misfits, not good at attending church or just that they liked a drink. Some appear to have simply frightened their accuser, Miss Mary Dunbar, with their ugly appearances. 
An eighth “witch”, Jane Millar of Irish Quarter, Carrickfergus, also fell under suspicion but was never arrested. Why she managed to get away is now unknown. My mother was born a Millar from Irish Quarter, Carrrickfergus and I often wonder if there was a connection.
Perhaps as a  signal of the changing times, the witches were not executed, but jailed for a year instead, as well as spending some time being pilloried in the town square. Interestingly, the “Witchfinder General” involved in the case was an  Edward Clements.  Like the Mathers, the Clements family later sailed West and did well in the New World. Within a couple of generations one of them, Samuel Clements was making a name for himself as a writer under the nom-de-plume of “Mark Twain”.
Thankfully the Islandmagee trials marked the end of the witch trials in Ireland. It would be great to say that it marked the end of the madness associated with it and a new age of rationalism dawned. However, earlier this year (2015)  a proposal was put forward to erect a memorial to the unjustly accused women and a councillor in Larne objected on the grounds that the women were justly convicted and an memorial might become a shrine to the Devil. 
So there you have it - the witch and how she has inspired fear, suspicion and paranoia in the normally stoic Scots-Irish psyche for generations.
I didn’t get time to write about the severed heads. That will have to be another post I’m afraid. 

In the meantime, if you want a chilling read for Halloween, my new novel set in Victorian Belfast, “The Undead” is available now on Kindle. 


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