Tales from the Witches Sabbath
In March 28th, I said farewell to a true Leith legend. My old mum was born in Cromwell Street back in the good old days of 1936. She would proudly declare the date necessary for Leithers to be born that year. The bank at the top of her street gifted all children born that year a bank account with a small deposit to start them off, a true sense of community spirit.
Mum was fickle and would rarely back down when challenged about any of her many Leith tales. For years I have argued the legitimacy of many of her stories; Where exactly was The Tally Toor, and what was the Copie Building? However. the most intriguing of them all went something like this.
Around the corner from Cromwell Street is St Ninian’s Manse, thought to be Leith’s oldest building, which was constructed in 1493 and is topped by Edinburgh’s sole surviving 17th-century timber steeple. It formed part of the original entrance to St Ninian’s Chapel, which was mostly demolished during the 19th century when the site was converted to industrial use as a mill.
Both buildings were commissioned by the Abbot of Holyrood, the abbey having been given a substantial portion of land in Leith at its foundation in 1128.
In 1590 King James VI married Anne of Denmark. On return from Scandinavia to Scotland, severe storms battered the king’s ship, and it was suggested that his enemies were using the dark arts to prevent him from returning safely to Scotland.
This incident was the alleged work of the North Berwick witches who confessed, after torture, to acting with the Devil against James. Scotland would become a hotbed of accusations of witchcraft. Many local locations, including Queensferry, Bathgate and Tranent, would suffer at the hands of the sinister wrath of The Witchfinder; Leith was no exception.
One Leith woman named Marioun Linkup was cited for allegedly using a cat to raise wind and storms in rituals. Another Leither, Helen Clark, was accused of being a witch in 1643. Evidence used against her included her ‘devil’s mark’. The St Ninians Manse would serve as the court where many witch trials were held.
Authorities hired a ‘Witch Pricker’ named James Scobie to examine those accused. Prickers stabbed accused witches with special instruments, and it is believed a witch would not bleed from a ‘devil’s mark’.
Records indicate that James Scobie originated from Musselburgh but participated in witch trials in Leith. Other unfortunate Leithers to be tried under the 1542 Witchcraft Act include William Murray 1599, Alesoun Dempstar 1628, Geilles Gilchrist 1649 and John Scott 1679 (a possible relative of your humble writer).
Another piece of Edinburgh folklore features Major Thomas Weir. A decorated man who, on his death bed, admitted to sorcery, practising despicable acts and devil worship from the confines of his house on Victoria Street.
The title of ‘The Wizard of West Bow’ would follow him to his execution at Leith’s Gallowlee in 1670. The landowner, an early-day entrepreneur, sold the ashes of the accused to construct sections of Edinburgh New Town.
The last known execution for the crime of witchcraft in Scotland occurred in Dornoch in 1727. The accused, Janet Horne, was paraded through the street tarred and feathered before her terrible burning at the stake. Her daughter, who suffered from a deformed hand (described as a hoof) would escape that dreadful day.
Do the echoes of these tragic men and women exist today? It would seem so. Modern pagans have continued to practice the old ways. The subject of witchcraft is alive and well in Edinburgh today more than ever before.
A Wiccan group titled ‘The Source Coven of The Blue Dragon’ would meet in Niddrie Street vaults for many years. The 2004 repeal of The Witchcraft Act enabled like-minded Wiccans to marry within its dark confines.
This year saw The Museum of Magic, Fortune-Telling and Witchcraft open its doors to the public. The museum on The Royal Mile features suitably esoteric items for those interested.
Leith’s own Witchcraft Market can be found at The Arches, off Leith Walk. The latest of the city’s ‘Witch’ attractions is a brand-new shop in the shadow of the leafy meadows.
Pop into ‘Wheel of Fate’ for everything from tarot readings to workshops and broom-making classes.
The spirit of the witches shall reach the sandy shores of Portobello this Halloween. I shall join award-winning traditional Scottish musicians Joss Cameron and Amy Dudley in a brand new 90-minute performance in storytelling and songs of the Tales From the Witches Sabbath, which will convey the stories of The Scottish Witch Trials over the weekend leading to the year’s spookiest night. ■
Info: Tales From the Witches Sabbath, Bellfield Celebration Hall, Saturday October 28th at 7.30 Tickets at Eventbrite (for all ages and those brave enough to attend!)
McGregor & Co Quayside Mills Leith Ltd, which was restored to its original St Ninian’s Manse by SHBT between 1996 and 2002