Janet Cornfoot, accused of witchcraft, was killed by a mob on the 30th of January, 1705.
You may have heard of the ‘Witches of Eastwick’ – now read about the ‘Witches of East Neuk’. To be more exact, the ‘Witches of Pittenweem’, which place is a scenic fishing village in the Eask Neuk of Fife, one of the ‘five pearls’ as they were known; the fishing villages of Crail, Anstruther, Pittenweem, St. Monans and Elie on the east coast of Scotland. James VI & I is said to have referred to them as “a beggar’s mantle fringed with gold” and prior to that, in 1541 BF (before fish), when their wealth and importance was gained from salt and coal, they were granted Royal Burgh status by Shauchling Jamie’s grandfather; the fifth James o’ yon Ilk. Jamie Saxt himsel’ was a persecutor of witches, taking a personal interest in their torture and interrogation, and during his reign, hundreds of accused, in both Scotland and England were cruelly put to death.
In fact, bewitchment remained a capital offence in Scotland until 1737, and the routine punishments for flirting with the devil included being tied to stakes and strangled, before being burned. There were several notorious witch trials in Scotland, including the Aberdeen Witchcraft Trials, the Auldearn Witch Trials and the North Berwick Witch Trials. Some well known witches include the likes of Bessie Dunlop; Allison Peirson; Isobel Gowdie, the subject of a marvellous song by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band; Agnes Sampson; Christian Dore from the ‘pearl’ of St. Monans; Katherine Campbell and six others in the Bargarran Witch Trial; and bonny Maggie Morgan, forced to admit to being “a harlot and a scandalous limmer” and who was accused of having “ta’en up wi’ a witch frae Pittenween” before being burned on Kirk Hill. But, by late 1704, it had been sixty years since the last witch trials in Pittenweem.
Guess what! It wasn’t going to be long before the next one. Two men were to blame for the shameful events that culminated in the gruesome, vigilante killing of Janet Cornfoot (Corphat) on the 30th of January, 1705. Patrick Morton, the impressionable, sixteen years old son of the village blacksmith, was encouraged in his superstitions by the local Parish Minister, Patrick Cowper; no St. Patrick, that’s for sure. Churchmen wielded a lot of power in those days and Cowper, who reigned as Minister at Pittenweem for forty-eight years, was a particularly evil religious bigot. He ranted and raved from his pulpit to fan the flames and fuel the hysteria that grew out of Morton’s accusations of witchcraft. Apart from puir Janet, there were several other victims of young Patrick Morton’s wild allegations, with the first innocent ‘creatur’ being Beatrix Laing, the wife of the Town Burgess and Council Treasurer.
For some reason, said to be the superstition of carrying ‘cauld iron’ to ward off bad luck, Beatrice Laing pitched up at the ‘smiddy’ and asked Patrick Morton to make her some nails. No doubt Patrick was a bit cheeky in telling her to come back later, with the result that Beatrice gave him a telling off, before storming off, mumbling under her breath at the disrespectfulness of youth. She might even have suggested he’d “get what was coming to him.” Whatever transpired between them, the impressionable Patrick, fed on stories of witchcraft by the Minister, got the idea that Beatrice had cursed him by casting a spell. The story goes that he was reinforced in that belief by discovering coal in a pail of water, but dead embers in a bucket would hardly be surprising outside a ‘smiddy’, wouldn’t you say? The other thing you might ask; is why a witch would be looking for ‘cauld iron’ to ward off “the likes o’ her ain sel’?”
In any case, the power of suggestion being a wondrous thing, Patrick worked himsel’ into a frenzy. He lost his appetite and became weak and emaciated; he suffered convulsive fits and spasms, and in his anguish, he screamed out, imploring his tormentor to stop. Encouraged by Cowper, the younger Partick was convinced Beatrice was a witch and claimed that she’d visited the De’il himsel’ upon him. The Minister had the puir woman, despite her high position, locked up in the Tolbooth at the top of Cove Wynd. Or maybe it was the Kirk, the one at the top of the High Street with the studded door at the bottom of the tower. Cowper appears to have revelled in the opportunity to practice some evil tortures he’d learned elsewhere than in the scriptures. Not satisfied with one witch, Cowper wanted more. Unsurprisingly, Beatrice succumbed to torture and was forced to confess and clipe on her neighbour. She named Isobel Adam, who was also tortured, before implicating Thomas Brown. Between them, they named a hauf-coven of Nicolas Lawson, Janet Horseburgh, and Janet Cornfoot; all jailed in the Tolbooth.
Later, both women retracted their confessions, protesting they were made under duress. In Beatrice’s case, instead of being freed as she had hoped, she was subjected to further torture and thrown into a dungeon for five months; perhaps the nearby St. Fillans Cave. Now, there wasn’t a witch trial in Pittenweem, because Cowper’s petition to have Beatrice Laing and her ‘coven’ tried was dismissed by the Privy Council in Edinburgh. But when Janet Cornfoot escaped, the Minister incited the vigilante mob that captured her before she managed to flee. On the 30th of January, 1705, Janet was found and beaten, and dragged by the heels to the seafront. Her hands and feet were bound and she was swung from a rope tied to the bows of the ‘Sophia’ and repeatedly dunked into the freezing harbour water. More dead than alive, Janet was untied and dumped on the shore, but her barbarous ordeal wasn’t at an end. The crazed mob cast her under a heavy door, which they piled high with boulder upon heavy boulder until the weight crushed the life out of her body. Maybe Cowper got that wicked variation of ‘stoning’ from his bible, but the blood lust still wasn’t satisfied. The mob got a horse and sledge to drive back and forth over her corpse, just to ensure she was deid.
Of the others, the elderly Thomas Brown is known to have died in prison in Pittenweem. The Burgh Authorities ignored the ranting Minister and freed Beatrice with a fine, but she was chased out of the village to die alone and friendless in St Andrews. Isobel Adam too paid a fine and may well also have been banished, although her fate is unknown. Janet Horseburgh continued to live in Pittenweem where her grave is marked by a tabletop stone in the graveyard behind the Tollbooth. There is no further record of Nicolas Lawson. Janet Cornfoot’s broken body was refused a ‘christian’ burial, instead being flung into a communal grave at the spot known as ‘Witches Corner’. Patrick Morton was later exposed as a hysterical impostor, but neither he nor the mob were ever brought to justice or punished in any way. Thirty years after Janet Cornfoot’s death, the crimes used to condemn her and Beatrice Laing ceased to be recognised in law.