Dye, Sierra (University of Guelph)
International Review of Scottish Studies, Vol 37 (2012)
In early modern Scotland, thousands of people were accused and tried for the crime of witchcraft, many of whom were women. This paper examines the particular qualities associated with witches in Scottish belief – specifically speech and sexuality – in order to better understand how and why the witch hunts occurred. This research suggests that the growing emphasis on the words of witches during this period was a reflection of a mounting concern over the power and control of speech in early modern society. In looking at witchcraft as a speech crime, it is possible to explain not only why accused witches were more frequently women, but also how the persecution of individuals – both male and female – functioned to ensure that local and state authorities maintained a monopoly on powerful speech.
In 1671, Janet McMuldroch and Elspeth Thomsone were both arrested and tried for the serious crime of witchcraft in Dumfries, Scotland. As with many other alleged witches, testimony against these women focused on their quarrelsome nature and their tendency to scold or curse those who entered into disagreements with them. Elspeth, for example, was reported to have quarrelled with Regina McGee and her husband after she was not invited to the birth and baptism of their child; in retaliation she promised “to doe them ane ill turne and to cause them to rue it,” words that supposedly caused Regina to immediately fall ill. In the nearby parish of Girthon, several witnesses testified to experiencing similar negative consequences following the curses and ill wishes of Janet McMuldroch. In one case, Janet “went away cursing” after being kicked by an “accidental tuitch” of John Murray’s foot; she was subsequently held accountable when John lost two calves and a horse several weeks later.