(Thanks to historian and witchcraft expert Louise Yeoman for this guest post on an obscure and once-forgotten “witch” whose human tragedy all but leaps off the page. This post was originally an article prepared for the National Library’s now-defunct journal Quatro. Her work has appeared in many more high-falutin’ places than this here blog, and she is a co-creator of the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.)
On the trail of Anna
If you look in Christina Larner’s Sourcebook of Scottish Witchcraft, you won’t find Anna Tait. That’s because she was one of many accused witches whose names were unknown to the compilers of the sourcebook. The details of Anna and almost a hundred others were recorded in a National Library of Scotland Advocates manuscript, which was overlooked many years ago when the huge edition of Scotland’s Privy Council records was in preparation. In the closing years of the last century, the editors of the Privy Council volumes carefully combed the holdings of the National Archives of Scotland for their material. What they didn’t realise was that a single volume of the Register of Commissions for the years 1630-42 had escaped them. In it were hundreds of records of Privy Council commissions to try criminal trials.
In it was Anna Tait.
I first came across Anna and Adv. Ms. 31.3.10 when my friend and fellow researcher Dr Michael Wasser of McGill University, Montreal showed it to me in the Library’s North Reading Room. Michael was (and still is) a historian of crimes of violence in 16th-17th century Scotland, and he was instantly aware of the significance of the manuscript. Almost the first thing he pointed out to me in it was a remarkable story of family tragedy. Out of hundreds of records, this one tale of domestic misery, horror and a woman’s life stood out. It stood out to the clerk who wrote the volume too. A commission is normally a bare record of who is accused of what crime and who is to try them. But the commission to try Anna contained harrowing detail. Almost straight away I agreed to transcribe her commission and to edit it for Scottish History Society. Why was it so remarkable?
Anna Tait ‘alias ‘Hononni’, was in the Scots of the original ‘thrie several times deprehendit putting violent hands to herself at her awne hous,’ in Haddington in 1634. In other words, she was caught trying to kill herself.
In 17th century terms suicide was one of the most heinous acts one could commit. It was like witchcraft, considered to be a particularly odious crime against God’s law and it was punishable by forfeiture of the entire goods of the victim and by a dishonourable burial in unconsecrated ground. What drove Anna to such terrible lengths?
The rest of the commission made the reasons clear. When Anna was apprehended for attempted suicide, she told a terrible tale of adultery, poisoning, domestic murder, unwanted pregnancy, botched home-abortion and death. Here is this part of the commission slightly adapted and with the spelling modernised.
She was for that cause, upon the 18th of December, taken and committed to ward within the tolbooth of the said burgh where being demanded and examined why she put hands to herself, she answered that the intolerable trouble of her mind, which she conceived for the murder of her first husband called John Coltart, nolt driver [cattle drover], and for the murder of her daughter, moved her thereto.
Confessing plainly that about 28 years ago, she being married to the said John, ane aged man, before the marriage she had sundry times committed fornication with William Johnston, her present husband, and that within the time of the marriage she had likewise committed adultery with him. To be quit of her first husband, she consulted with the Devil for his destruction, and that the Devil having directed her to make a drink of foxtrie leaves [foxglove leaves], she did the same, and gave it to her husband to drink who within three hours departed this life.
Concerning her daughter, she confessed that the daughter being with child, and she [Anna] having a purpose to murder the infant in the mother’s belly, at last she consulted with the Devil. He gave her direction to buy wine and to mix it with salt and give it to her daughter to drink, which she having drunken, she shortly thereafter departed this life.
So far, so sadly comprehensible, except for the inclusion of a character whose presence might seem unnecessary to modern readers — The Devil. The Commission finally proceeds ‘upon the 8th of December instant; she had carnal copulation with the Devil in her own bed, and that upon the 11th of December the Devil came to her bedside, gripped her by the hair of her head and did nip her cheek’. Suddenly a classic case of domestic murder and family tragedy is turned to that strangest of all 17th century phenomena to the modern mind: a witchcraft accusation. This was not just a case of three in a marriage, but three plus the Prince of Darkness. However, this wasn’t a strange notion to 17th century people. Where two, three or even just one person were engaged in works of wickedness, it went almost without saying that Satan was somehow present too. Anna was tried not as an adulteress or a murderer but as a witch – the commission was the licence to the magistrates of Haddington to try her, but where was her trial?
Records of such witchcraft trials held in local, rather than central, courts rarely survive. Whilst I was working on the commissions, I happened by chance to be helping someone with a totally different enquiry. Dr John McGavin was researching records of early modern Scottish drama. We discussed his research on poet and minister James Melville and Melville’s account of a dramatic performance in St Andrews. Hearing that John was soon going to be searching through the Haddington Burgh records in the National Register of Archives, I asked him if he would keep an eye out for Anna and any other witches he might happen to spot. To my delight, I soon had an e-mail from John telling me that her trial records were in the Haddington burgh court book.
Researching witchcraft cases can be an intense mixture of horror and delight for a historian. On the one hand to find unexpected light on a unique case is a matter for rejoicing. On the other hand, the details I found in the court book were even grimmer than those of her commission.
Anna had tried several times to hang herself using her own head-dress (her curch). When she was taken into custody, her suicidal behaviours became even more extreme. She attempted suicide again, both by trying to cut her own throat and then ‘when your hands were bound and your feet maid fast in the stocks, no other meanes being left to accomplish your devilishe designes, ye knocked your heid to the wall and stocks, wherby thinking to dispatch your self.’ The court book went into more detail, it claimed that Anna had sex with the Devil in the form of a black man and in the form of the wind and had made a covenant with him. Shape-shifting was a not uncommon piece of Scottish popular belief about Auld Nick, but on top of it were overlaid the sinister assumptions of European theories about demonic pact. One didn’t just meet the Devil according to the demonologists, one had sex with him, took his mark and swore one’s soul away to him. Anna was explicitly accused of all three actions.
The trial also gave more personal information about Anna to add to that from the commission. Taking both sources together we can say a little about her. She had married her first husband John Colthard, the cattle drover, 28 years ago at a place called ‘Furd Kirk’ in England in 1606. Cattle drovers went far afield in the course of their work and Anna had obviously travelled too. Interestingly enough she was accused of having made an appointment to meet the Devil at ‘Ellerslie’. The only places of this name are to be found over in the West of Scotland and not near her home in Lothian. Given 17th century spelling this may also have been the little Lanarkshire village of Elderslie, famed as the birthplace of William Wallace. Whichever it was, Anna’s world clearly stretched well beyond the confines of Haddington.
Age of marriage could be quite late in 17th century Scotland, so Anna was probably about or just under 50 years of age. Her second husband William Johnston was a miller who had lived at Winram, nearby Anna and her first husband. The proximity had assisted their illicit affair. Millers and cattle drovers could be prosperous members of an early modern community, so it is likely that Anna too had some standing in her community to keep up. She was probably very far from the stereotypical portrait of an accused witch as a poor begging woman going door to door looking for alms.
At sometime in her life Anna had acquired the alias ‘Hononni’, a Scottish variant of the English ‘Hey nonny no!’ a popular nonsense refrain in songs. It was an ironically jolly nickname for someone whose life was characterised by murder, tragedy and despair. We find the name of her beloved daughter too –- Elizabeth Johnston who died from the botched abortion. The records of this are chilling
The said Elizabeth, being as ye confessed with child (to whom, few but yourself knows and neither will ye reveal the truth of it), and apparently being loath to let it be known to whom the child belonged, she and ye sought all means to kill, to murther the child in her belly, that it might not come to light who was the father thereof, or how it was gotten, whether in adultery or incest, or what other unlawful way.
To that effect ye consulted with diverse of your confederates fra whom, ye got sundry feall [evil] counsel and by their advice, administered feall drinks to your daughter. But these not doing your turn and all other means failing you, ye went to your old maister the devil … who gave you advise to buy ane mutchkin of white wine, and mix a pint thereof with salt and minister the same unto your daughter, and it would do your turn. The which cruel and devilish counsel ye willingly obeyed and fetched the wine, mixt with the same with salt and gave it to your daughter to drink. By which she presently swelled and shortly thereafter both she and the child died.
In token wherof, you have confessed that the devil gave you as much money in true and real turners [small copper coins] as would buy the said mutchkin of wine and salt. And this deed only of all the devilish and abominable actions has most troubled you, and been the greatest cause of your desire to murder yourself.
In trying to cover up her daughter’s unwanted pregnancy, Anna ended up killing her child. Blaming herself for Elizabeth’s death, Anna no longer wanted to live. She tried repeatedly to kill herself. When it was put to her that the Devil had advised her do all this and that she had become a witch, it seems she barely bothered to defend herself. After all, even though she might have wanted to avoid the shameful death of being strangled and burned at the stake, at least it would have the virtue of ending her life. When the court asked whether she wanted anyone to speak in her defence, she answered ‘none but God in heaven’.
To modern eyes, Anna’s situation seems clear-cut. She had done some terrible things and for very understandable human reasons she wanted to die. Even in 21st century Scotland we would insist that, at the very least, Anna should go to jail for murdering her first husband and that she should be prevented from killing herself. Yet in 21st century Scotland, Anna would have been able to obtain a divorce from her first husband and her daughter would have been able to obtain an abortion (whatever you think of that). So the whole catalogue of tragedy might not have happened at all, or then again, perhaps it might. Was Anna a victim of a society which stacked the cards against women through its interpretation of the Bible or was she the sort of callous person who might have murdered a spouse despite all the advantages of a modern legal system? After all, the murders of spouses still occur. These are questions the historian can only raise and cannot answer.
Even in today’s society, however, a female criminal who had committed crimes of violence comparable to Anna’s would be unusual. To a 17th century society she was such a paragon of horror that the Devil had to be invoked to explain her conduct. In a society which stressed a woman’s subordination to her husband and saw her only rightful adult roles being those of a wife or a mother, Anna was a monster. To her community, she was not only an attempted self-murderer but also an adulteress and the unnatural murderer of her husband, daughter and unborn grandchild. By confessing to witchcraft, she had just about collected the set of the most appalling crimes a 17th century woman could commit. To be regarded with such horror in contemporary society, a woman would probably need to be accused of a string of serious offences against children or young people.
However Anna’s case also raises the question of her mental state and how issues of mental disturbance and suicidal urges were dealt with in her society. Such a suicidal defendant in a modern case might be found unfit to plead, but how did Anna’s contemporaries see her mental distress? Anna was ‘trublit in conscience’ and this points to the beliefs which probably helped to seal her fate. Despair as to whether one was part of the Calvinist ‘Elect’ or whether one was going to hell was a perfectly respectable state in Early Modern Scotland –- even to the extent of repeated suicidal impulses. This can be seen from the diaries, books, letters and sermons of radical Presbyterians and Covenanters. It was a very common phase of the Calvinist conversion experience of the 17th century. Demonic or even suicidal temptations were an almost a normal complication of the road to heaven. To despair over committing terrible sins worthy of hell-fire was not seen as being mentally unstable but as being eminently sane. Any reasonable Bible-believing person might think that way.
So Anna’s despair may have made her seem more culpable, rather than less culpable, to her interrogators whose beliefs would be that in her agony she had done utterly the wrong thing and turned in absolutely the wrong direction. She had, in their minds, turned to the Devil and not to God. Instead of despair proving to be a half-way stage for Anna on the road to conversion and eternal glory, Anna, it seemed by her confession, had failed to choose eternal life and had instead perversely chosen the ultimate dead-end: Hell. This was an offence made all the more horrible, as heaven in its Calvinist form, was no doubt being held out to her every Sabbath in their local church. Perhaps the reason it was necessary to punish the despairing so emphatically was pour encourager les autres; to make sure that when people experienced despair, they would in the Church’s eyes make the right choice: that they would resist the temptation and intensify their piety until the threat was overcome.
Faced with the reality of burning large numbers of accused witches amongst whom they found the suicidal and the mentally disturbed, later generations of Scottish Privy Councillors increasingly doubted the wisdom of this approach. In 1662 in the midst of a nation-wide witch-panic the council issued commissions under strict orders that to proceed with executing a convicted witch, it must be found that ‘At the tyme of their confessions they were of right judgement, nowayes distracted or under any earnest desyre to die’. Almost 30 years after Anna’s death, Scotland’s elite were becoming sensitive to the issue of attempted suicide by witch-confession and the mental state of the accused. It came much too late to affect Anna and because of her murder confession wouldn’t have saved her anyway, but it shows a little how things moved on even in that relatively short time frame. For Anna there could only be one ending — execution. Because she had confessed she was not burnt alive [burning alive tended to be reserved for those who died ‘impenitent’ ie. they refused to confess]. Her sentence was as follows:
It was given for doom [sentence] by the mouth of William Sinclair dempster [pronouncer of sentence] that the said Anna Tait should be taken, her hands bound behind her back and conveyed by William Allot, lockman [executioner] of Haddington to the ordinary place of execution, and there wirried [strangled] to the death at ane post and thereafter her body to be burnt in ashes, desuper act.
Note on sources
The commission for Anna’s trial is edited from Adv.Ms.31.3.10, f.102v. Her trial records may be found in National Archives of Scotland, Haddington Burgh Court Register B30/10/13, fos.24r-26v. A calendar of the witchcraft commissions in Adv. Ms 31.3.10 (including transcriptions of Anna Tait’s commission and her trial records) has been prepared by the author for Julian Goodare (ed.), Miscellany XIII, Scottish History Society, forthcoming.