What ‘magic arts’ made a fisherman knife woman on forehead?
Cutting women on the head in the belief they were witches carried on long after witch hunts were outlawed, writes Alison Campsie
He took a pocket knife and gouged it deep into her forehead, believing she had summoned dark powers in order to destroy his fishing nets.
William Grant, a fisherman from Portmahomack in Easter Ross, ended up in court in July 1845 for the assault against the wife of a fellow seaman.
He believed the woman, likely to have been called Mary Munro and around 70 at the time of the attack, had “dark dealings in sorcery” and put him under some sort of curse.
Not only did he blame the woman for the loss of his new nets and a loss of catch but his crew also refused to go out to sea with him while he was under her powers.
William Grant was arrested after the woman was injured and appeared at Tain County Court in July 1845. He admitted the assault, claiming he had been provoked, with his defence rejected and the case going to trial.
Information about Grant’s case is held by Tain and District Museum. Newspaper reports of proceedings record how Grant went to the woman’s home and inflicted a deep cut “above the breath” – or above her nostrils.
It was believed that drawing blood in this way would lose the woman all power to injure or harm and would effectively draw out the devil.
A report of the case in the Inverness Courier said: “It would seem that a superstitious notion of this sort is prevalent among the Highland people, but the “cut” is generally made by a pin or needle
“In the absence of these, the prisoner used his knife, by which there was an effusion of blood for several hours, until the doctor arrived from Tain, and also confinement to bed for five weeks.”
The Sheriff condemned Grant for the assault on a defenceless, elderly woman and for “exposing the groundless superstition which prompted him to such an act of cruelty”.
Grant was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment at Dingwall.
The report added: “It is hoped that the punishment of Grant will have a salutary effect on the fishermen and villagers of whom, it is said, a great proportion entertain the same superstitious belief in witchcraft.”
Indeed, Grant was not alone in his superstitions although his assault on a woman amid accusations of witchcraft perhaps came later than most.
Another case of a Portmahomack fisherman cutting “above the breath” is recorded in JM Mcpherson’s compendium Primitive Beliefs in the North East of Scotland.
The fisherman, whose boat was wrecked while out at sea, believed his ‘jilted sweetheart tried to drown him by her magic art” and in response cut a cross into her forehead.
“The man was punished for assault, and the woman, ever after, wore a black band around her forehead,” the account said.
At Corgarff in Aberdeenshire, the method of how to cut a suspected witch was well known.
“Take a silver pin, conceal it between the fingers and the thumb of the left hand, try to meet the witch in the morning, pass her on the right side; in passing draw blood from above the eyes. Keep the pin covered with blood and the witch has no power over you,” the account said.
A nail from a horseshoe was once the preferred tool for making the cut and sometimes tree branches were used.
At Elgin in 1647, charges against accused witch Janet Cowie included a claim that she left a John Purs unable to keep any food in his stomach for nine weeks.
“One half of the day, he did sweat and the other half he did tremble, and did never recover till he bled her with a tree,” the account said.
Witch hunting came in various waves across Scotland after the passing of the Witchcraft Act in 1563. The law was repealed in 1736 but, as shown in the case of William Grant, fear and superstition held firm for decades thereafter.