Highlands & Islands

Spell binding: 'Witch's' power to wow 351 years after death

Painting from Alexander Goudie Trust Image copyright Alexander Goudie Trust
Image caption An Alexander Goudie painting portraying part of Robert Burns' poem Tam o' Shanter

One of Scotland's most famous alleged witches continues to be a fascination for artists. But who was Isobel Gowdie?

The acclaimed Scots painter Alexander Goudie was bewitched by witches, says his son and fellow artist Lachlan Goudie in a new BBC programme.

The figure that interested him the most was Nannie in Robert Burns' poem Tam o' Shanter and, for the last 20 years of his life, Alexander Goudie told The Bard's chilling tale in pictures.

But Lachlan also tells of his father recounting stories of Isobel Gowdie.

Writing for the BBC, the artist said: "My father's penchant for the spectral may have had its origins in our own family bloodline.

"He relished telling his boggle-eyed children that in 1662 the 'last witch burned at the stake in Scotland', Isobel Gowdie shared our surname."

'Stunningly beautiful'

Alexander Goudie was not alone in being drawn to the story of the 17th Century witch, who is believed to have witnessed a bloody battle and years later told an elaborate fib about dealings with the devil and fairies in the hope of saving herself from torture and a violent death.

Her witch trial inspired Ayrshire-born composer James MacMillan to write The Confession of Isobel Gowdie in 1990. He has described the music, a commission for the Proms, as the big breakthrough in his career.

The 1662 trial is also explored in a book by academic Emma Wilby.

The book, The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland, was shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish History Book of the Year 2010.

On the internet, there are websites dedicated to her.

The site Witchvox says Gowdie was "stunningly beautiful, with flaming red hair" - a description that could be applied to the Nannie in some of Goudie's Tam o' Shanter paintings.

Gowdie grew up in Auldearn, near Nairn.

Image copyright Martyn gorman/geograph
Image caption A dovecot marks the site of the 1645's Battle of Auldearn

When she was a girl she is thought to have witnessed 1645's Battle of Auldearn.

The clash marked a major victory for Scottish Royalists over Covenanter army, and local legend tells of some of the casualties being buried nearby in a place still known today as Dead Man's Wood.

A dovecot now stands at the site of the battle.

'Unusually creative'

In 1662, Gowdie was suspected of witchcraft and over the course of a six-week trial she gave a vivid and detailed account of making a pact with the devil.

She also told of being part of a witches coven, that she shot arrows made by elves and had feasted with the king and queen of fairies.

It has been suggested that she made up the stories, telling the trial what it wanted to hear, to spare herself from a more violent interrogation.

Promoting the publication of her book, academic Emma Wilby said: "My research suggests that Isobel's confessions contain so much vividly-described folkloric detail because she was an oral performer or village bard, while her interrogators, for their part, were particularly curious and attentive.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Iosbel Gowdie told her trial that she was a member of a witches coven

"As a result, her interrogation sessions were unusually creative."

The devil is said to have foretold Gowdie that a farm at nearby Culbin would be smothered by sand.

Interestingly, sandstorms do occasionally blow up from time to time on that part of the Moray Firth coast.

In 1694, a sandstorm raged at Culbin, burying homes and ruining an estate.

Marram grass that had kept the long and wide stretch of sands from shifting had previously been ripped up for thatching roofs and as fuel for heating.

Brian Fagan in his book The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 wrote of the local laird becoming a pauper in a matter of hours and appealing to the Scottish Parliament for tax relief.

And John Martin, of Elgin, wrote of the storm at the time: "The wind comes rushing down through the openings between the hills, carrying with it immense torrents of sand, with a force and violence almost overpowering.

"Clouds of dust are raised from the tops of the mounds and are whirled about in the wildest confusion and fall with the force of hail.

"Nothing can be seen but sand above, sand below and sand everywhere. You dare not open your eyes but must grope your way about as if blindfolded."

Earlier this year, sandy soil was blown off fields and coated the interiors of buildings in Nairn.

Following her trial, Gowdie is believed to have been strangled and then burned at the stake.

James MacMillan has said that his music sought to offer her the "mercy and humanity" that she was denied in the final weeks of her life.

And as Lachlan Goudie has shown, her name lives on more than 350 years after her execution.

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites