open country

On the side of a hill above Selkirk, in a small enclosure, there is a solitary grave. When you walk out of the stands of Douglas firs, Sitka spruce and larch there is a small group of hardwoods in silhouette, at the edge of a grazed sloping field. These mark the place where the Selkirk townsfolk brought the body of Tibbie Tamson, picture, top of page.

Tibbie died in 1790. The facts surrounding her death and interment have been obscured by time. Our relative detachment from a more superstitious age makes us keen on the theory that Tibbie was executed for witchcraft.

However, it is possible that she committed suicide. Even more sinister,she may have been murdered. This act could have been made to look like suicide. Either way, any of these deaths would have meant that this poor woman could not be buried in a Christian graveyard. One thing was certain – the people of the town had sufficient feelings for her that they carried the body up to this beautiful viewpoint, buried her and marked her grave.

Greek myth contains one of the earliest references to witches in the form of Hecate. She was said to be the child of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (sky). When Zeus made moves to take over the kingdom of heaven, Hecate was the only Titan who was allowed to keep her powers. Like Zeus, she could give and take from humans at will.

Apparently acting as midwife at Zeus’ birth, she became associated with birth and the rearing of children. Her association with the use of healing herbs is what gives her that recognisable witch trait.

Another witch tied in to Greek myth is Medea. Like the gods, she used her powers to seduce but ultimately showed human qualities in their most destructive way. She assisted Jason in his quest to attain the Golden Fleece. She gave him spells to placate fire-breathing oxen and a sleepless dragon, and an enchanted stone to turn warriors away from killing him.

Despite her loyalty, Jason abandoned her to marry a princess of Corinth. Her jealousy led her to fashion a poisoned wedding gown that killed the bride. Not content with this act of evil she burned down her palace and killed all the children that Jason fathered with her.

From ancient tales, it is clear that witches have long been associated with good and evil.

“Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is it that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.’”

The archaic idea that women are the root of all evil has its foundation in this scene in Genesis. With the large majority of witch trials involving women it is clear that the fantastical accusations are born out of distrust of women, a fear that they may have more knowledge than men.

After all, is not lust or love likened to being beguiled by another, having a spell put on one?

The group on my walk to Tibbie Tamson’s grave looked quite serious standing against the dyke, listening to my synopsis of the history of witches. The plague in the 1400s was one of the catalysts that drove the frenzy for witch trials. Tragedies were believed to be caused by a spell-mongering woman in the community.

Occasionally a man would be tried. A famous example is the North Berwick witch trials. A young school master, Dr John Fian, was one of three “witches” tried for causing a storm which wrecked James VI’s ship. To extract a confession, the man’s legs were crushed in “Spanish boots”, pins were stuck into his tongue and his fingernails were drawn out and more pins inserted there. James VI witnessed these trials. Rather than being repulsed by them he added more severe punishments to the act of parliament dealing with witches.

What is clear is that witch hunts are still prevalent in our society today. People take a dislike to someone. If their character is of a certain type they become obsessed with defaming a person – famous or not.