A To Z Of Great Scots

The Scots Magazine - - Contents - By LAURA BROWN

Cal­lan­der’s He­len Dun­can, the medium and last per­son tried un­der the Witch­craft Act

RE­MINDERS such as Maggie’s Wall in Perth tes­tify to the witch hunts that saw thou­sands jailed and put to death over two cen­turies.

Janet Horne, of Dornoch, was the last woman in Bri­tain ex­e­cuted for witch­craft In 1727 but the Witch­craft Act wasn’t abol­ished un­til the 1950s. An­other Scot­tish woman was the last “witch” im­pris­oned in the UK – the gov­ern­ment fear­ing she might re­veal mil­i­tary se­crets dur­ing the Se­cond World War.

Grow­ing up in Cal­lan­der, He­len Dun­can’s dark prophe­cies to class­mates earned her the nick­name “Hellish Nell”. She worked at Dundee Royal In­fir­mary and mar­ried war veteran Henry, who sup­ported her psy­chic en­deav­ours. In the 1920s she be­gan hold­ing séances for ex­tra money to feed their six chil­dren.

Aided by her spirit guide, Peggy, spir­its man­i­fested as ec­to­plasm spew­ing from He­len’s mouth. The Lon­don Spir­i­tu­al­ist Al­liance in­ves­ti­gated in 1931 and found the ec­to­plasm to be made of pa­per, cheese­cloth and egg. Some ap­pari­tions had faces fash­ioned from mag­a­zine cov­ers. In 1933, po­lice were called to a séance when it was dis­cov­ered “Peggy” was a white vest.

He­len was fined £10 for fraud. De­spite this, the war was a busy time for her. Fam­i­lies of sol­diers killed in bat­tle at­tended her séances in the hope of con­tact. At one meet­ing in Portsmouth in 1941, she claimed to have spo­ken to a sailor named Sid who drowned when HMS Barham sank in the Mediter­ranean. The Navy were alarmed – the sink­ing of HMS Barham hadn’t been an­nounced. 862 men per­ished, but rel­a­tives were asked to keep quiet to help morale.

“She be­came pop­u­lar for the séances held in her cell

From then on, He­len was on the radar. A lieu­tenant at­tend­ing a séance in 1944 was out­raged when she con­jured up the spir­its of his “dead” aunt and sis­ter. He­len was ar­rested. The trial of the “Blitz Witch” caused a stir in Lon­don. She was sen­tenced to nine months in Hol­loway un­der the Witch­craft Act of 1735, where she be­came pop­u­lar for séances in her cell. Her sen­tence was harsh, due per­haps to wartime para­noia; even Win­ston Churchill sent a memo to the Home Sec­re­tary call­ing her charge “ob­so­lete tom­fool­ery”.

It’s a tale that’s more heretic than heroic, but her case un­doubt­edly led to the abo­li­tion of the Witch­craft Act in 1951. Cam­paign­ers are still call­ing for Scotland’s “last witch” to be posthu­mously par­doned.

Maggie’s Wall

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