Featured in my new fiction collection, The Crow Witch and Other Conjurings, The Malan Witch concerns a haunting by two of the most evil witches you could ever wish to encounter. They were burned at the stake for heresy during a time when witch-hunts were in full swing, thanks in no small part to the activities and beliefs of the then King, James VI of Scotland, who later became James I of England in 1603. His book, Daemonologie, gave carte blanche to self-styled witch-finders everywhere, but it was Scotland that took witch-hunting to a new level, giving it the dubious distinction of having executed more witches than any other country in Europe.
Thousands of people – mostly women – were accused, tried and convicted of witchcraft in Scotland. Many then faced the horror of being burned alive at the stake. Some were granted the mercy of strangling, before their lifeless bodies were set to the flame.
One infamous case occurred in a remote location. Situated off the north coast of Scotland, across the wild and unpredictable Pentland Firth, lie the green and peaceful islands of Orkney. The countryside is an artist’s dream, the pace of life tranquil. Yet appearances can be deceptive. It may be idyllic now, but Orkney has known a turbulent history. In the late 16th century, they were ruled over by the notoriously ruthless and cruel Orkney Earl – Patrick Stewart. Hated and feared by most of the populace, it was hardly surprising that someone should attempt to kill him.
The plot to poison the Earl was allegedly instigated, by his brother, John, Master of Orkney. But it was his servant – Thomas Paplay – who was arrested and imprisoned. The torture he endured in the attempt to extract a confession out of him was barbaric in the extreme. For 11 days and nights, he was kept in “the caschilaws” – an iron structure that was gradually heated until it burned the skin. Then the torturers stripped him naked and flayed his skin with ropes. Hardly surprising that he ‘confessed’. In doing so, he named a woman called Alison Balfour as an accomplice – a “known notorious witch”.
Alison was arrested, but pleaded her innocence so, once again, the torturers were enlisted. Earl Patrick had no love for his brothers, who threatened his power, and wanted them implicated, so that he could rid himself of them once and for all. In fact this botched poisoning had rendered him an opportunity to settle old scores with a number of people who had annoyed him over the years.
The man to wring a confession out of Alison was chosen - Earl Patrick Stewart’s close friend, the parson of Orphir – Henry Colville.
Colville concentrated his attention on a piece of wax in Alison’s possession which had been given to her by Patrick Bellenden, the Laird of Stenness. Alison insisted Bellenden had given her the wax so that she could create a charm known as an “implaister”, the object of which was to rid Lady Bellenden of a troublesome stomach complaint. Colville would have none of it. There must be a much more sinister purpose behind the wax. Normal interrogation failed to provide the desired confession, so she, like Paplay before her, was put into the “caschilaws” and tortured. Two days later, with no confession, the torturers decided on another means to their diabolical end. They brought in her husband (whose age is variously given as 81 or 91) and two children.In front of Alison’s eyes, they crushed her husband in the “lang irons”. 700lbs of weight were piled on him, but still she wouldn’t confess.
They started on her son. His legs were placed in the notorious “boots”. Wedges were driven into them, crushing the feet and legs. 57 mallet strokes were delivered, but still Alison held firm.
Finally, her seven year old daughter was brought in. They crushed her fingers in the “piniwinkies” – a thumbscrew. This proved too much for Alison and she broke down and confessed to witchcraft.
She was sentenced to be burned in Kirkwall on December 15th 1594, but at the scaffold she retracted her confession, stating that she had only made it to stop the torture of her husband and children.
There was no pity shown. She was strangled and then burned at the stake.
In 1596, John Stewart was tried in Edinburgh for “Consulting with witches, for [the] destruction of [the] Earl of Orkney”. He was acquitted.
The evidence that had seen Alison Balfour executed was thrown out of court as it was deemed to have been obtained under torture – illegal in Scotland. Sadly, that was two years too late for the tragic Alison Balfour.
Maybe she wrought her revenge from beyond the grave though, for the evil Earl did not die peacefully of old age. In 1615, Patrick Stewart was executed for treason.
Let us hope that helps Alison Balfour rest in peace.
As for the characters in the stories contained within the pages of The Crow Witch and Other Conjurings… Let’s just say you will need to make your own minds up. Oh, and do make sure you read the story entitled The Crow Witch first. It may help you on your journey…
As the nights draw in and the temperature plummets, beware the witch's curse. And stay out of the shadows, for far more lurks there than you could ever imagine...
Two witches, burned for their evil centuries earlier, now hellbent on revenge. A woman who seems to step out of an old Hollywood movie, and a castle with a murderous past. A seer whose lost and deadly prediction was hidden away for a future generation. A mysterious portrait that is far more deadly than mere paint and canvas. An old woman only the foolish would ridicule, for she knows the secrets of the land and how to harness its power.
All these and more abound, and you would do well to remember…
When the seeds of revenge are sown, beware the harvest.
The Crow Witch and Other Conjurings
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Cyrus Wraith Walker and Weird House Press