The Paisley Witch Trials
Christian Shaw was the ten-year-old daughter of the Laird of Bargarran near Erksine. She was described as a “sensitive child”. In August 1696, she caught her servant Katherine Campbell stealing a drink of milk. Christian duly reported the incident to her mother, and Katherine was reprimanded. Katherine apparently had a temper and responded by blessing the child out and was reported as saying she wished the Devil would “”haul [Shaw’s] soul through Hell.” Soon after Christian fell ill with violent seizure, convulsions and unresponsive trances. She was supposed to have vomited up straw bins, eggshells, orange pills, hair, excrement and bones. Pinch marks were found all over her body and she contorted herself impossible positions. She was also reported to be able to fly. According to a famous doctor in Glasgow she was taken to, Christian vomited up burning coal as large as a chestnut and too hot to touch. It was clear to the doctor. The child was bewitched. Many today speculate Christian suffered from Munchhausen syndrome or conversion disorder, however, those things were not known of by doctors at the time.
When questioned, Christian placed the blame for her affliction on a coven of witches in town, who was led by her former servant, Katherine Campbell. By the time she was done, 35 people were accused of witchcraft. Despite the wide net of accusations that Christian cast, only seven people were tried for practicing witchcraft. These included Katherine Campbell, Agnes Naismith, Margaret Lang, Margaret Fulton, John Reid, John Lindsay, and James Lindsay. The Lindsay brothers were only eleven and fourteen years old. Despite the fact they all vigorously protested their innocence, they were all found guilty and were condemned to die. John Reid killed himself by hanging himself in his cell. Legend says that the two young brothers were garroted together as they held onto each other’s hands. The rest were hung then their bodies burned. They did not go quietly. Katherine Campbell was carried struggling and screaming and called down the wrath of God and the Devil on her accusers. Agnes Naysmith laid “a dying woman’s curse” on all at the scene and their descendants. One account says a few of the condemned were not dead when their bodies were put into the fire and an executioner borrowed a walking stick to push the victims back into the fire as they tried to crawl out. All in all a harrowing tale.
Christian Shaw recovered and went on a European tour with her mother. On this tour, they smuggled pieces of a “Spinning Jenny” back to Paisley under their skirts. This theft led to the beginning of Bargarran Threads, which was the beginning of industry in the area. However, several local disasters, including the Paisley Canal disaster in 1810 which took 85 lives, were attributed to Naysmith’s “witch’s’ curse”. Something had to be done. The remains of the seven condemned were buried at Maxwellton Cross, where the intersection of Maxwellton Street and George Street are today. The grave was marked with a horseshoe to keep the curse in check. Things seemed to settle down and Paisley was quiet.
However, in the 1960’s the horseshoe was removed and lost during roadwork. The economic decline of Paisley beginning in the 1970’s has been blamed by some on the curse. In 2008, a new monument with a horseshoe was replaced with a plaque which reads “Pain Inflicted, Suffering Endured, Injustice Done.” The burnings at Paisley were the last of the major witch hunts in Europe. May the victims rest in peace.
Sources available on request