(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..
- 1939: Edmund Jankowski, Olympic rower - 2020
- 1842: William Caffee, Mineral Point spook - 2019
- 1946: Arthur Robert Boyce, the king's housekeeper's lover - 2018
- 1922: Francisco Murguia - 2017
- 1929: Habibullah Kalakani, Tajik bandit-king - 2016
- 1833: Ira West Gardner, creepy stepfather - 2015
- 1938: George Brain, Wimbledon murderer - 2014
- 1822: David Lamphier - 2013
- 1912: George Redding, making Emile Gauvreau's career - 2012
- 1943: Not Anatoly Kuznetsov, insignificant little chap - 2011
- 1943: Six POWs, inscribed on a ouija board - 2010
- 1463: David of Trebizond and his heirs - 2009
- 1920: Kevin Barry - 2007