Executed Today’s First Annual Report: One Year of Dying Languorously 2001: Mona Fandey, witch doctor

1615: Kate McNiven, the Witch of Monzie

November 1st, 2008 Royelen

(It’s Samhain — the ancient, pagan wellspring of Halloween. Thanks to Royelen for this timely remembrance of a completely undated witch-burning from Scottish folklore.)

A gurgling fountain at the property border announces a gentle place. The fountain has a small pond filled with friendly goldfish which swim your way. They are hoping for morsel of food but it feels like an appropriate welcome to a local herb shop.

The mission is to find a remedy for leg pain. For a few moments the pain can wait while the lemon thyme gets rubbed by fingers gathering up the smell for a delightful inhalation. And then there is the basil, the chocolate mint, the rosemary — and so it goes with rows and rows of little pots of tiny green plants, each fragrant in a unique way. Each creating its own sensation.

When sated with nasal stimulation, it’s time to enter the house. It causes no surprise when cheery sounding chimes ring as the door opens. Inside the walls are lined with shelves. Each shelf is filled with glass jars. Each jar has a different dried leaf. There are many jars. An herb shop employee is happy to help.

“Pain, long-standing muscle pain? In your leg. Uh-huh. It’s possibly a nutritional deficiency, you want to take calcium, two pills twice-a-day. You’ll know in two weeks if this is the cause.”

This knowledge, long forgotten and now denied by Western medicine, may have been the kind of knowledge that got Kate McNiven killed.

Scottish lore has it that Kate McNiven’s community of Monzie in Scotland first sought her out for her wisdom, maybe for her herb cures and curse-ending charms. Then, in the era of witch burnings, her community pulled her from her service and burned her to death. After killing her, Kate McNiven’s community made her a local legend.

Today we might assess Kate McNiven as a real witch based on the power of the curse she left behind — a curse which the generations passed down and which now comes to us across the Internet; a curse which leaves us the tale of a talisman known as the Inchbrakie Moonstone.

Though there are no official records, the curse is said to begin in 1615* when Kate was accused of witchcraft. Having been found guilty, word spread of her immediate execution by fire. A landowner of a nearby estate, having come upon the fire preparations, asked the gathered crowd to stop their execution plan. While he had no success, he did win favor from the named witch.

As the fires around her grew, Kate McNiven began her curse. The landowner of execution site was cursed, then the area known as Monzie was cursed, and finally she honored the unsuccessful estate owner who attempted to stop her execution. She threw from the fires a charm — a blue stone that had been around her neck — and told him that if he kept it close, he would always be blessed with sons and they would always be blessed with lands.

The legend goes that the cursing was successful. The landlord on whose land she died was not able to pass the property on. Monzie withered.

Of course, the land owner who pleaded her case kept the stone near as directed. As the legend goes it always was put on the fingers of the daughter-in-laws and heirs were always produced. Centuries of fecundity were enjoyed until one descendant made the mistake of allowing the stone to be moved outside of the estate. That was the end of the good run and proof of Kate’s powers as a witch.

Is the legend of the Witch of Monzie a romantic retelling of a woman’s death or is it a community reassuring itself that the executed woman was guilty of her crimes? Maybe both. Maybe more.

Swiss psychotherapy pioneer Carl Jung’s theory of the shadow tells us that Kate McNiven’s peers attributed to her what they could not accept in themselves. They found her untrustworthy and capable of doing strange things. For some reason, she of all people was chosen as the one to be the scapegoat. It may have been for no other reason than she didn’t point the finger at someone else. The people of Monzie did not fight for her release, and they likely felt relieved that the pressure was off of them. Their untrustworthiness and strange behaviors were not under scrutiny. For the moment, they were safe.

It’s easy to imagine Kate McNiven as Tessie in Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery”:,

The children had stones already. And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

* Not only the year but the century of Kate McNiven’s — or M’Niven, McNieven or Nicniven — execution is disputed. Sources report both 1615 (in the midst of King James’ witch-sniffing reign), and 1715 (which would make her one of the last witchcraft executions in Scotland).

But there is no original documentation — a University of Dundee archivist has confirmed this for Executed Today — and McNiven is not listed in Scotland’s witch executions database. She was promulgated in a 19th-century text, The Holocaust, or, the Witch of Monzie and could be entirely fictional. (Update: The myth dissected in comments.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,18th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Fictional,Guest Writers,History,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scotland,The Supernatural,The Worm Turns,Uncertain Dates,Witchcraft,Women

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10 thoughts on “1615: Kate McNiven, the Witch of Monzie”

  1. Rob Maxtone-Graham says:

    There are three dates traditionally cited for Kate’s demise; 1563, 1615 & 1715.

    The first comes from the trial of John Brughe in 1643, which relates that he got his knowledge from Neane NiClerich, aged 60, neice of Nik Niven, the infamous witch of Monzie, burnt about 80 years previously.

    The other two dates are mere statements, of unknown origin in the dim & distant past.

    One cannot look at Kate without taking account of the legendary curses & blessings which are intricately entangled with the mystery.

    Let’s start with the curses upon Monzie — that the lands would never pass from father to son & that no heir of line should ever hold the lands now held by him.

    In 1563, Monzie was split between two lairds — Peter Scott held 3/4, whilst Andrew Toscheoch had 1/4.
    Neither of these had a male heir, the 3/4 lands passing via Peter’s eldest daughter’s marriage to James Graham, 3rd son of Patrick Graham, 3rd of Inchbrakie, whilst the 1/4 lands were sold to Archibald Campbell, 1st of Monzie. Peter Scott was probably still a minor in 1563, as he was put in the charge of his uncle that year,(unless he was of unsound mind, which is possible, considering that his parents were married by 1534), leaving only Toscheoch as potential baddie……… and maybe Scott as the village idiot!

    In 1615, we still have two lairds; the above-mentioned James Graham and Archibald Campbell. If the stories of Inchbrakie being blessed, whilst Monzie was cursed, are true we’d have a situation where the father’s on one side, with his son on another. This leaves Campbell as likely persecutor, if we go by this date.

    Both had male heirs.

    In 1715, all portions of Monzie are held by Patrick Campbell, 6th of Monzie. He had a male heir, but after that, things went tits up. He lost his two eldest sons, then his 3rd son Pat 7th of Monzie dsp in 1757, followed by his 1st cousin James 8th who dsp in 1761, then the lands went to a distant cousin Mungo 9th, whose son James 10th dsp in 1777. Then to another distant cousin Robert 11th whose grandson Alexander 13th was the last of the line, dsp 1869.

    In all, since 1563, Monzie ownership has been interrupted at least 10 times.

    Other than the John Brughe trial papers, we have no relevant documentation; does anyone know when the story was first mentioned in print or MS, and what date was put on it then?

  2. G McGregor says:

    It’s obvious to anyone who grew up in the area or knows the people that Kate Nevin was a real person. She may not be recorded because her family – mostly from around Muthill were ashamed of the spectacle or perhaps the recorders of the events were asked to forget it. Either way, she definitely existed.

    The date definitely seems to be around 1715, 1716-1720 because the story is always suited with the rebellion and Crieff being burned by the Jacobites coming back from Sherrifmuir. The local Nevins of Mutill, Braco and Crieff were most likely Jacobites so it can easily be assumed that in an area like Crieff she may be persecuted for coming from Jacobites and being abit strange. Her being a healer may have made her an especially easy target.

    Her name is associated with so many places in the area she cannot be written off as folklore. Her gaelic name was NiCnaoimin. Pronounced “Nee K naiv een”. To link her as borne from the ‘fairy queen’ is silly. It is clearly obvious that the fairy queen story grew up from her.

    Walter Scott based ‘The Talisman’ story on her dying gift to the Graemes and the Graemes incorporated the 3 crescent moons from the Nevin crest into their own – this can be viewed on the Inbrakie House Monument which stands on the site of the old Inchbrakie House.

    The local saying written above by McRobie is known to every family in Monzie.

    Not everything in history is documented

  3. What the crud are these people talking about. It’s like you morons didn’t even read the post. Get with the program already!

  4. J. McRobie says:

    As long as the Shaggie rins crookit and bent
    there’ll be a Witch-o-Mon-ie
    And she’ll never be kent

    old local saying

  5. Alex Graeme says:

    I am glad to report that Kate’s moonstone still exists today, along with the Witch’s relic. We have it in our family, and the prophecy holds true in that I have a son, so the line continues. For further reference and a picture of the stone (set in a ring) and the relic, please refer to the website http://www.inchbrakie.com where my cousins have taken the time to put our family book, ‘Or and Sable’ online. There is a whole chapter on Kate. And in the Spring of next year a book will be published by Geoff Holder, which will give further, in depth information about Kate, along with up to date photos.

    Whether anyone else wishes to believe the legend of Kate McNiven or not, the Graeme family certainly do!

  6. Louise Yeoman says:

    PS. I should add that the ‘1615’ date given in the Perthshire Diary site you link to is not the normal date given, and that it doesn’t fit either. 1615 was a low point in witch prosecutions – only four in the entire year and none of them in that area. I would guess that having realised it couldn’t have happened in 1715 someone thought it must be a mistake for 1615 and changed a digit.

  7. Louise Yeoman says:

    I was part of the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft which you mention, and I investigated the Kate NicNiven story at an earlier point. I also catalogued the Graeme of Inchbraikie papers at National Library of Scotland. She is a mythical witch character. To say that she was executed is like saying someone executed Hecate. She appears in 16th century Scots poetry as a mythical figure and the nickname sometimes gets attached to real 16th century witches, such as one executed in St Andrews in 1569, but there’s no actual Kate Nicniven (NB. Nic=daughter of, Mac = son of, McNiven is a later misunderstanding)

    The 19th century folklore about Monzie, however is another thing. It’s deeply confused – claiming she was a real person executed in 1715, but there were no executions in that area in 1715. The same family folklore that gave the 1715 date, gave the laird of Inchbraikie as ‘Black Pate’ who was active in the Montrose wars of the mid 17th century (d.1687) – so he’d have had to have risen from his grave to be involved. The story of the curse and the stone only surfaces in the mid 19th century, where I saw it in the family papers, by which time the influence of Sir Walter Scott and his ‘Letters on Demonology’ had made having such stories in the family very trendy. The blue stone could well have been a charm stone or healing stone, as were once common in Highland families, which simply had the fictional story attached to it – but that doesn’t make Kate any more real. You cant execute a mythical character.

    Now you could take Kate as being emblematic, as a mythical character standing for all the real women who were executed but the fictional scenario being outlined above is very misleading and not at all what the witch hunt in Scotland was about. Where you do get healing mentioned in witch trials, it’s usually because the accusation is being made that someone used their healing powers for evil : eg. that they magically charmed a disease off X and gave to Y who is making the accusation. When people are accused solely of using dodgy charms that the church isn’t too happy with, the normal stipulation is that if they’re punished for their ‘superstitious practices’ and that it not extend to ‘life or limb’. You don’t get burned as a witch for rubbing thyme on someone’s leg, you wouldn’t even get penance as a charmer, because you haven’t said a charm or used anything ‘superstitious’ ( herbs don’t count as superstitious because they had known medicinal ‘virtues’ in the early modern pharmacy)

    If you were going to write a fictional scenario about this, it would involve popping down to your friendly herbalist’s shop to find out if they know any good rituals which would take the disease off you and give it to the next person who came along. But healing is actually not a common or normal motif in the Scottish witch trials at all, despite it popping up in the high profile Agnes Sampson case.

    From the Survey of Scottish witchcraft FAQ:

    “Q. Were the witches midwives or healers?
    A. Not usually. We have recorded 9 individuals whose occupation was recorded as being a midwife, and for 10 people midwifery practices were included as part of the accusations of witchcraft levelled against them. This is a tiny percentage of the overall total. Folk healing was more common and featured in the witchcraft accusations of 141 people—about 4%. Even so, it was not something that the typical witch seems to have engaged in—though the beliefs that underpinned folk healing were closely related to witchcraft beliefs. If magic could be used to heal, it could also be used to harm.”

    I’m a huge fan of this blog which I read on my RSS feed,so congratulations in your recent anniversary, but please can we have more real Scottish witches, not fictional ones?

    1. Er Louise Kate was summarily executed by the landowner of the little river Shaggie, Monzie, with a lynch mob of villagers. There was no trail. Landed gentry at that time had the powers to murder if they had the wherewithal to accuse their victim of witch craft. When school children “sing a song of roses” they do so for historical reasons. Those words are sung every year in some school playgrounds since these same times. The village school in Monzie sing, “as long the shaggie rins crooked and bent, there will allus be a witch of Monie, and she’ll ne’er be kent”. If you can identify a single long standing playground song not grounded in history I will not make the obvious point, or warn you of the lack of wisdom in attacking a legend grounded in Inchbrakies motto above the three cresent moons on the coat of arms there, “not all history is written.” Especially when it challenges church hegemony. Blessed be.

  8. Lane Brooks says:

    Oh, so that’s what that blue stone was for. Oh well….

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