Alison Pearson was tried for witchcraft and burnt at the stake, on the 28th of May, 1588.
The bewitching tale of Alison Pearson appears in several sources, notably in ''The Legend of the Bischop of St. Androis Lyfe' and the Survival of Scottish Poetry', by David J. Parkinson of the University of Saskatchewan, and Sir Walter Scott's 'Minstrelsy of the Scottish border', in his introduction to the tale of Tamlane; 'On the fairies of popular superstition'. Scott summed up Pearson's story very well, when he wrote, “For this idle story the poor woman actually suffered death.” What he meant, of course, was that stories of witches and suchlike are mere 'idle tales'. Nobody believes in fairies.
The trouble was that in post Reformation Scotland, plenty
people did. It wasn't a crime to believe in witchcraft and fairies, because, if it was, nobody would ever be prosecuted, for the obvious reason. It was, however, a crime to be a witch and as many folks, both high-born and peasant, ostensibly believed, consort with the 'The Queene of Elfhame' – the Faery Queen of Elvenhome – and her band of fairies. Those spiteful creatours were euphemistically and somewhat contradictorily known as the 'Gude Nychtbouris' (Good Neighbours). They are referred to as “gude wychtis” in the records of puir Alison's testimony, when she was condemned for “hanting and repairing” with those very imaginary creatures.
The telling part of the story relates that Alison Pearson (Alesoun Peirsoun), from Byrehills in St. Andrews Parish, in Fifeshire, was introduced to the world of fairies by her cousin, Mr William Sympsoune. Once upon a time, when Alison was twelve, she was out on Grange Muir. The puir childe grew sick (she'd caught a chill, having forgotten her cardigan, no doubt) and collapsed. Suddenly, out of the mists on the moor, the cousin appeared as a 'green man' (aye, there were lots of those; just ask Scott) and told her he would help her if she would believe in him. Not waiting for her affirmation, Sympsoune vanished, only to reappear later with a group of fairies in tow. They all took Alison to some secret glade, whereupon it magically transformed into Elfhame, with everyone indulging in the kind of merrymaking frolics you'd associate with the Faeries.
During their lengthy, but ultimately fatal, association, the fairy folk were unkind to Alison. She was “fairlie tormentit” and once, she “gatt ane sair straik” that “tuke all the poistie [strength] of hir car [left] syde fra hir” and left a mark that was “blae and ewill faurrit [livid and ill-favoured].” Nevertheless, Alison was initiated into the fairy secrets and shown how to use herbal remedies, and make the “saws” [salves] that could kill or cure as desired. Subsequently, Alison gained a reputation for healing powers as she was “comeing and going to St Andrews to haile folkes thir many years past.” Beyond the locals, who no doubt benefited from her ministrations, that profile eventually brought her into contact with the high and mighty.
One of those was Patrick Adamson, 'the [Arch]Bischop of St. Androis', who was a seemingly deserving target for the ire of the Presbyterian faction. As an illustration of the tit-for-tat, heretical accusations of the time, between 1586 and 1588, Adamson was twice excommunicated. Adamson had been created Archbishop by James VI in 1576, a year after having been appointed by the General Assembly as one of the Commissioners to settle the jurisdiction and policy of the Kirk.
Alison Pearson was introduced to the Archbishop sometime in the spring of 1583, when he suffered a “serious illness” that she is said to have cured. According to Andrew Melville, Principal of St. Mary's College at the University of St. Andrews, Adamson was “indisposed” and couldn't attend the Assembly held in the April. By the end of May, the Archbishop had miraculously regained his health. Pearson described Adamson as having suffered from, amongst other ailments, “the trimbling fewer [ague], the palp [polyps]” and “the rippillis [gonorrhea]” all of which would seem to be par for the course for a 16th Century popish divine, married or not.
Some details of Alison's case are found in Scott's 'Minstrelsy' and in the satirical poem, 'The Legend of the Bischop of St Androis Lyfe callit Mr Patrik Adamsone' by Robert Sempill, but those latter, especially, are surely apocryphal. Alison's problem seems to have been that she became an unwitting pawn in the great game of Reformation Chess. Alison was used by his enemies as a means of 'getting at' Adamson. If she'd been of any use to Adamson as a quack doctor, Alison surely suffered for his pains. When Alison was accused of witchcraft, Adamson was caught between the proverbial. He had to show willing in the proceedings against Alison, whereupon gratitude for her ministrations was subdued, as his opponents wanted to tarnish him, alleging an association with the witch.
By the August of 1583, Alison, “allegit to be ane wiche” and “presentlie impresonat” [imprisoned], was the subject of interrogations by investigators from the Kirk Session. Surprise, surprise, the examiners found Alison to be a witch “in thair judgment” and she was “giffen to the Bischope to be keipe in his castle for execution.” It's then recorded that Adamson “sufferit hir to slipe away,” which was surely the decent thing to have done. Alison then seems to have eluded further attention for a while, other than by allusion, and that in December, 1583, when Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary to Elizabeth I, spoke of Adamson's “extraordinary favour towards a witch in saving her from due punishment.”
Five years later, in 1588, Alison Pearson underwent another trail for the same charge of witchcraft. At Alison's second trial, the “Presbyterie” of St. Andrews was shown 'evidence' gathered in Fife by James Melville for the purpose of “dittay” [indictment] against her. Alison Pearson was convicted of witchcraft on the 28th of May, 1588, and after being “wirreit [strangled] at ane staik,” she was “convicta et combusta” [burned].
That same year of 1588, the Kirk settled its score with Adamson when he was excommunicated for the second time. His sentence was once again remitted, but the revenue of his See was awarded to Ludovic Stewart, the 2nd Duke of Lennox, and for the rest of his life, Adamson was supported by charity. Adamson died in 1592.