From the Archives: The Strathglass Maclean Witch Trial of 1662
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In the year 1662 Most of Scotland was gripped in a witch hunting frenzy. This led to many accusations, imprisonments, trials, and executions across the country.
One such case occurred in Strathglass, when Alexander Chisholm of Comar arrested a group of people on his estate and requested the witchfinder, known as ‘the Pricker’, to come and determine whether they were in fact witches. What was different about this case is that all the accused were of a family of Macleans who had settled in Strathglass generations before. A distraught husband, John MacRorie alias Maclean, sent word to Sir Allan Maclean of Duart, the clan chief in the Isle of Mull, and on their behalf, he presented a petition to the Privy Council to demand justice for them.
The Privy Council requested Chisholm send his prisoners to Edinburgh for trial, but Chisholm was resistant to this idea. In a petition by Alexander Chisolme to the Privy Council dated 1662, Chisholm insisted that, “because of their decrepidness and the length of the journey, [they] cannot, without a long time and much expense, be brought thither; and if they were brought will fix a precedent throughout all the nation, which would undoubtedly burthen the whole lieges with great expense and vast trouble in bringing of them there”. It was agreed that they be brought to Inverness Tolbooth instead to be tried.
In another item from this collection the names of the accused Macleans are listed as follows: “Christian nein Farquhar vic Ewen, Marie nein Alister vic Conchie, Christian nein Phaill, Marie nein Gowin, Bakie nein Ian duy vic Finlay, Janet nein Rorie buy, Donald oure McPhaill, Gormell nein duy, and Murell Dow”. An interesting reference to patronymics noting their father and grandfather’s name in some cases.
According to another document dated 6 October 1662, they were inspected and showed no signs of having been tortured while being incarcerated by Chisholm, however the level of inspection in this regard may have been questionable. There are reports that suggest some died from the torture they received. Although those that did survive are believed to have been let off and did not face execution.
Aside from the intrigue surrounding 17th century witch trials, this case offers a glimpse into kinship of a chief and his clan. Did these Macleans have a connection to their protector in Mull? It is suggested they had been settled in Strathglass for a century or two prior to this event, and their forefathers might have migrated there from the west.
Why Chisholm chose that moment to accuse them all to be witches is purely speculation, but it is thought he was taking advantage of the national situation to get rid of them from his land, over any real concerns about their practices.