The Witches of Pollok House
Janet calmly proclaimed that the Lord’s illness was a dark spell laid upon him by witches. Her return to speech lending her some kind of alluring mysticism, she led servants from the manor to the house of Janet Mathie, the midwife of the nearby village of Pollokshaw.
Words by Roisin McCrimmon, Image from Wikimedia Commons
Lord George Maxwell of Pollok saw himself as a man of god. He took his ordained mission seriously and did not resent the long nights away from the warm hearth. You see, there were witches to hunt.
Maxwell was an avid witch hunter, so of course, it was not long before the terrible beasts turned their eyes upon him. In 1676, Maxwell had returned from a successful witch trial, his nostril hairs still delightfully singed from the heat of the flame, his ears still ringing from the sweet screams. His good humour was not to last. He fell ill with a “hot and fiery distemper”, describing agony akin to being stabbed in the side.
As the servants bustled about the stately home, about an hours walk away from the centre of Glasgow, one young woman looked on. Janet Douglas was deaf and mute, but she worked hard, and mute servants hardly ever complain. But Janet, like her Lord, also felt a calling. Miraculously, her voice returned to her. What should she do with her newfound gift? Why, find the witches responsible of course.
Janet calmly proclaimed that the Lord’s illness was a dark spell laid upon him by witches. Her return to speech lending her some kind of alluring mysticism, she led servants from the manor to the house of Janet Mathie, the midwife of the nearby village of Pollokshaw. Raising her crooked finger imperiously, Janet opened her mouth and croaked – not using your voice for a year has to take its toll of course – “you shall find the dark relic in the house of this witch”.
Upon searching the cluttered abode of the bewildered women, the men did indeed report that they had found a wax figurine hidden behind a portrait by the fire place.
Yet Janet was not quite finished yet.
Bessie Wier, Margaret Jackson, Marjory Craig, Mathie’s son John Stewart, her 14 year old daughter Annabel Stewart all stood accused of the vilest crime- witchcraft.
And so the torture – sorry, reasonable and well-evidenced investigation began. Each confessed to meeting with the Devil, citing their hatred of Maxwell as their bond in casting the curse upon him. Janet housed the meeting, John stuck pins in the doll, Bessie turned the spit and spoke the words. Of course, all of these events happened in a confusing chronological pattern, but witches are notorious for their bad timekeeping.
Mother accused son and sister accused brother. Marjory’s mysterious past in Ireland became a witch fleeing her terrible crime. Bessie’s widowhood the cause behind her seduction by the devil. Margaret… well Margaret was an in law but they’re just as bad.
Their trial took place in 1677 and all but one was strangled and burned on Gallows Green in Paisley. Young Annabel was given reprieve, expected to thank those who burned her mother alive and shipped to a convent for spiritual healing.
What of Janet Douglas? Well, soon after the trials she vanished, her nostril hairs delightfully singed by the warmth of the flame. Some say she travelled to Edinburgh on her divine mission. Others? To Salem, curing the world of more vulnerable women in the witch trials a mere 7 years later.
Maxwell died of course, not long after 5 others died on his orders.
Perhaps the real witch in all of this was Janet – bent on avenging her sisters and not caring about the cost along the way. Perhaps it was another, a highland woman mentioned by Annabel in her confession. Maybe it was the dark creature inside of all men, wanting to burn out any sign of difference or strangeness, epitomised by a woman who spoke too loud, or too soft. Who liked the boys, or didn’t like them enough.
If you are feeling brave, why not ask the witches themselves? They still wander Pollok House even now, forever searching for Janet Douglas.