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Excerpt for They Wur Cheust Folk by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

They Wur Cheust Folk



13 poems for some of those accused of witchcraft







Copyright 2019 Helen K Woodsford-Dean (text / words)

Copyright 2019 Ragnhild Ljosland (text / words associated with victims’ trial information)

Copyright 2019 Mark Woodsford-Dean (images and photographs)

All Rights Reserved

Published by Helen K Woodsford-Dean at Smashwords





Smashwords Edition License Notes



This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favourite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of these authors.

Thank you

This project would simply not have happened without a great deal of patience, encouragement, time, generosity and support. Thank you. Apologies to anyone inadvertently missing off this list – it is not exhaustive and not in any order other than alphabetically by surname (contact us if you would like your name to be added).



Orkney Heritage Society

Orkney Islands Council

The Orkney Library and Archive in Kirkwall (and all staff)

The Orkney Museum

St Magnus Cathedral

Orkney Builders Ltd

Kirkwall and St Ola Community Council

Highland Park Distillery

Tesco (Kirkwall)

BBC Radio Orkney

The Orcadian

The Orkney News

St Magnus Players

Centre for Nordic Studies

The Church of Scotland

Voluntary Action Orkney

Orkney Interfaith

The Scottish Pagan Federation

The communities of Kirkwall and Orkney



Andrew Appleby

Jon Barker

Bernie Bell

Hazel, Allan & Nikola Borland

Jeanne Bouza Rose

Corwen Broch

Lynn Campbell

Alistair Carmichael

Amber Connolly

Ramor Craigie

Kate Fletcher

Gina Flett

Fran Flett Hollinrake

Robbie Fraser

Lucy Gibbon

Sarah Jane Gibbon

Sheena Graham George

Fiona Morag Grahame

Dave Gray

Hayley Green

Andrew Hollinrake

Stephen Kemp

Helen Kennedy

Innes Kennedy

Dan Lee

Marita Lück

Fraser Macnaughton

Liam McArthur

Tanya McGill

David McNeish

Tim Morrison

Tom Muir

Sarah de Rees

Jocelyn Rendall

Hev Richard

Spencer Rosie

William Tait

Colin Watson

Robert Wells

Sarah Wilkins

Liv Willumsen

Mark Woodsford-Dean

Table of Contents

Orkney’s Memorial to the Historic Victims of the Witchcraft Trials – a brief summary

The victims and poems:

Barbara Boundie

Marable Couper

William Scottie

Jonet Reid

Elspeth Cursetter

Katherine Craigie

Jonet Forsyth

Magnus Grieve

Christian Gow

Katherine Grant

Still Here

About the Authors

Orkney’s Memorial to the Historic Victims of the Witchcraft Trials – a brief summary of the project to date (December 2018)

Helen K Woodsford-Dean



At the top of Clay Loan, amidst a housing estate and with a magnificent view over the city of Kirkwall, there is a bare patch of green land, mysteriously undeveloped (HY 453 104). This is Gallow’ha, the site of public executions in Orkney, but unmarked as such.





Most of the stories of Orkney witches and their associated witch trials date from the early seventeenth century; mainly occurring between the 1590s and the 1650s. This was a period in which there was a genuine and widespread belief in the existence of witches and when no one seemed to expect God to do good in compensation. These beliefs were fuelled by superstition, high mortality, and poor access to health care, and propelled by a particularly twisted theology and a judicial system that was constructed around it.

Witches were believed to derive their supernatural powers from the devil or from evil spirits such as the fairies, and it is this association which was the issue upon which witches were tried, whether that was in a theological or legal proceedings. Any mysterious happenings, or coincidences, could be used to infer this relationship, or witches could have been seen in the devil’s or fairies’ company, or might confess to it.

Orkney was one of the places in Scotland where the witch crazes were particularly rife, given the relative size of the population.

Since 2013, Dr Ragnhild Ljosland and I have been working to install a small memorial to the victims of the witch-trials. The original inspiration for our project came from a lecture given by Professor Liv Willumsen at Orkney College in 2012, in which she made comparisons between the witch trials in Northern Norway with those in Scotland, and spoke about the modern memorial at Steilneset in Finnmark, Norway.

Although an installation of the scale at Steilneset was unlikely to be viable in Orkney, I was aware that memorials to those accused of witchcraft have been introduced elsewhere in the UK, where they have tended to attract quiet approval with the public. For example, the memorial at Forfar Loch Country Park, where a headstone has been erected in a clearing simply inscribed with the words ‘The Forfar Witches, Just People’, and the brass horseshoe plaque laid at Paisley to commemorate the execution of seven people accused of witchcraft in 1697.

When Ragnhild and I first proposed the construction of a memorial to the historic victims of the witchcraft trails in Orkney, we both felt that the undeveloped area at the top of Clay Loan was the natural location; our preference was for the installation to be sited directly within the circular area of box hedging which allegedly marks the site of the town gallows in the past.

We discussed a number of ideas and materials; we both favoured a sun-dial because of the combined symbolism of sunlight as a natural, positive image, together with time as a healer. We initially pictured the sun-dial as being made of a single piece of blue-grey Orkney sandstone, shaped like one of the Standing Stones of Stenness, inscribed with ‘Just People’, or similar wording, perhaps rendered in Orcadian dialect.

The original concept is shown in the photo-montage.





Ragnhild and I started by entering a phase of raising awareness and interest in the project by consulting with interested parties including local officials, heritage charities and organisations, community representatives, faith representatives, and residents.

On investigation, we discovered that the land at Gallow’ha belongs to Orkney Islands Council (OIC). It was suggested that we put our proposal to their Asset Management Sub-Committee, in the form of a detailed report to be discussed by elected members. At the same time we were advised that OIC’s preference was to communicate via a ‘lead organisation’ who would represent our project. Given their previous interest and approval, we approached Orkney Heritage Society (OHS) to be our ‘lead organisation’; OHS seemed the natural choice given their excellent reputation in Orkney and their prior (and current) experience of successfully delivering heritage projects. In addition, their founder member, Ernest Marwick, was probably the person who has done the most research on the Orkney witch trials and made the court records available in transcription.

We presented our project in a detailed form to OHS’ Committee and, although they were supportive, their prior experience of similar installs led them to raise practical concerns about the costs, future maintenance, viability, insurance and, most importantly, the health and safety issues associated with a metal gnomon sticking out at eye-level.

So, Ragnhild and I reviewed our project and suggested instead a much-reduced and simpler memorial. Our revised suggestion was to exchange one of the existing flag-stones, leading up to the circular box-hedging area, with a carved flag-stone. This flag-stone to be a single piece of blue-grey Orkney sandstone. This met with approval by the OHS and our proposal was put to OIC’s Asset Management Sub-Committee on 2 June 2016, when it was approved by the elected members.





The sun-dial design is still central but is now rendered in a symbolic and abstract form. The particular design was taken from the grave-slab of Patrick Prince (died 1673), which can still be seen in the south side of the west end of the nave of St Magnus Cathedral. The main wording is: ‘they were just folk’, written in Orcadian dialect.







At this stage, Ragnhild and I were joined by Tanya McGill, who offered to share her experience of making funding applications. A few members of Orkney Heritage Society then formed a sub-committee for the purposes of advancing this project. Spencer Rosie kindly chaired the sub-committee, and we were joined by Lucy Gibbon and Hayley Green – making us six in total.

Early in 2018, Tanya led our funding application to OIC’s Cultural Fund, applied for via OHS. We were gratefully awarded £1000; this amount to cover the install, a creative day, and inauguration events.

OIC further advised that no additional permissions were required from them. The proposed installation was now of a form that Planning Permission was not required, and the permissions already granted by elected members in 2016 still stood. OIC’s remaining stipulation was that the physical installation of the paving slab should be to the standard expected by OIC and that this would be most easily achieved by using an OIC approved builder.

From the beginning of the project, Ragnhild and I have been keen to make reference to the cathedral as much as possible, mainly because many of those historically accused of witch-craft may have been tried and imprisoned there (one of the many unique features of St Magnus Cathedral is that it is the only cathedral in the British Isles to have a dungeon incorporated into its fabric: namely Marwick’s Hole, a bottle-neck dungeon, still visible in the south transept). Thus our immediately choice for stone-mason was Colin Watson, who had been the cathedral’s stone-mason (now retired).

At our request, Colin procured a suitable stone, shaped it, and carved our design upon it. Colin is a speaker of Orcadian dialect and he translated our phrase ‘they were just folk’ for us. Colin advised changing the sun-dial design slightly, with our full approval, and he completed the carving early August 2018.





Orkney Builders Ltd generously offered to complete the install free of charge. The physical install is due to take place early in 2019.

We chose Tuesday 30th October 2018 for our creative workshop day as it was the nearest date to Samhain that also fell within the school holidays – our intention was to make the day accessible to families. Ragnhild and I facilitated a day of creative and reflective activities around the whole concept of witch-trials. The focus of the day was on making this creativity relevant to our contemporary society; we aimed to do this by reflecting on how easily people still ‘blame’ others. We were assisted by many of Orkney’s talented writers, artists, musicians, and story-tellers who performed or ran participatory workshops. These included: Sarah Jane Gibbon, Sheena Graham George, Jeanne Bouza Rose, Amber Connolly, Marita Lück, and Corwen Broch.

In the morning, historical background information was provided as a stimulus to creativity. This was sourced from material from the Orkney Archive (Lucy Gibbon) plus recent archaeological finds (Dan Lee) and presented together with songs (Sarah Jane Gibbon) and story-telling (Marita Lück). We also filled and charged our own ‘witch-bottle’, which was kindly donated by Andrew Appleby (also known as the ‘Harray Potter’ orkneypottery.co.uk).

After lunch we held creative workshops where participants were encouraged to make music, tell stories, write, paint, and print. The primary intention of the day was for our community to produce material to go into a time-capsule which will be buried under the memorial at Gallow’ha; having provided background stimuli in the morning, we all got creative in the afternoon. The focus was on making this creativity relevant to our contemporary society by reflecting on how easily people still ‘blame’ others.

Ragnhild ran one of these workshops; it involved writing letters to some of the accused. In preparation, Ragnhild had taken some silhouettes to symbolically represent some of the victims and listed the ‘crimes’ of which they had been accused. To encourage attendance and publicise this creative day, these silhouettes were posted on our project’s FaceBook page (see below). I started to write a poetic response to each victim, some of which were also posted on-line. The notes on the accused and poetic responses are provided here, in this ebook, together with reading notes where they might be useful.





My original intention had been to respond to each silhouette on a daily basis, as each silhouette was published, but the poem for Jonet Forsyth, also known as ‘The Storm Witch’, broke my intentions because I was too emotionally involved. This story is now part of Orkney folklore and there is a great deal bound up in Jonet’s story, not least whether or not she was rescued by her sweetheart ‘Ben’. Anyway, this poem just wouldn’t ‘birth’ and my ‘muse’ left me ... I decided, with Ragnhild’s encouragement, to publish all responses as a fund raiser and hence this poetry project was ‘completed’ by the beginning of 2019. The poems are presented in more or less the order in which they were written.

Much of the material produced on the creative day was too large for the time capsule, so it has been given to the Orkney Archive to hold. A selection of items were chosen to go in the time capsule, including the witch bottle (made by Andrew Appleby) and a book of prints (designed by Jeanne Bouza Rose but made by many workshop participants). The time capsule also includes a USB drive on which all material produced has been stored digitally. A copy of the material on the USB drive is also stored on a DVD held by the Orkney Archive. Some of the artwork produced on our creative day has been exhibited on our FaceBook page (see below), more will follow, and we also plan to exhibit some of it via an on-line ‘virtual memorial’ which is currently being produced (news of this will be released to our FaceBook page).

At the end of our creative day, we visited the Orkney Museum to view some relevant artefacts, especially some possible witch bottles, followed by some contemplative time at St Magnus Cathedral towards the end of the afternoon. At the cathedral we talked about Marwick’s Hole (the dungeon in which many of the accused may have been held) and Fran Flett Hollinrake played a haunting tune on fiddle ‘Marwick’s Hole’ which she had composed. We also looked at the ‘witch’ marks that had been scratched on the walls, possibly as protection.

Finally, in the early evening, Ragnhild and I provided a guided ‘witchy walk’ through Victoria Street, Kirkwall, to the bottom of Clay Loan. This was the route which is generally agreed to be the one which the condemned took, although they would have continued up the steep hill of Clay Loan to Gallow’ha and their deaths. This tour was originally devised by Fran Flett Hollinrake. Although, from St Magnus Cathedral, it is a more direct route to Gallow’ha via Palace Road, it is possible that the condemned were taken via the road now known as Victoria Street in order to maximise their exposure to the population of Kirkwall – this public condemnation being an important element of the torture and destruction of an alleged witch.

At the time of writing (early January 2019), we haven’t yet held our inauguration day – it will be held on Saturday March 9th 2019. This date was been chosen because it is the Saturday immediately following International Women’s Day, and we wanted to acknowledge that the majority of those accused of witch-craft were women. The itinerary for this day is still being finalised but is likely to include performances from actors, musicians, and writers in the morning, then a reflective ritual in St Magnus Cathedral, with a contemplative walk to Gallow’ha and ‘unveiling’ of the memorial. In the afternoon, there will be a programme of academic lectures. We intend for these inauguration events to be suitable for those of all faiths and none.

Ragnhild and I have been keen to stress from the inception that this project and memorial are not meant as a religious monument, nor to seek any act of contrition from any other parties. Rather, our intention has always been to install a positive memorial with the message of ‘never again’ and to commemorate an important episode in Orkney’s history.

We have always believed that it is appropriate, viable and desirable for Orkney to have its own memorial to the victims of the historic witch-trials. Orkney’s memorial will give a clear and positive message that our community aims to be free of prejudice and remains optimistic about continuing to be so in the future. It will also be an additional, albeit minor, tourist ‘attraction’ for Kirkwall and will highlight a fascinating part of Orkney’s history. The costs of future maintenance should be minimal and the finished install will be handed back to OIC.

Once completed, the install will be, by its nature, minimalist in its design. Although a larger memorial was originally intended, the necessity of its reduction to a plaque has been enthusiastically embraced by us and by our community. The historical events which it will commemorate are painful ones for any community to revisit, and a discrete and modest memorial – one which is perhaps not easily found and which has to be deliberately sought – can hold a different type of potency than a highly visible, monumental one. Implicit in our design is a symbolism that is powerful in its own quiet, strong and persistent way.

If you have any questions about these events, please contact us via our FaceBook page: ‘Orkney’s memorial to the victims of the witchcraft trials’. Any updates and news will be posted on FaceBook.

If you wish to donate financially to this project, please contact the Orkney Heritage Society who are managing the financial side:

www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/OHS/feedback.asp

Victim profile: Barbara Boundie

Accused of:

Speaking with the Devil

Threatening to let the Devil blow corn in the air

Travelling with an unbaptised child

Fainting by the roadside

Being abducted by fairies

Saying she can discover witches

Seeing the Devil with another woman

Witnessing another using a potion

Dancing with the Devil and 99 witches at Moaness in Hoy


The accusations against Barbara Boundie started this poetry project; the line ‘Travelling with an unbaptised child’ just wouldn’t leave my head so ...



Travelling with an unbaptised child’

And a wonky cat whose almost human mew

Brings me weaving and tripping to your door

I carry a burden of demons on my back

Whilst this black strangeling suckles my third teat

The father was a dark man, Christening was not his way

I cannot name him but you’ll ken the bonny snood in my fair hair

Maybe the last farmer forgot to bury it with his wife

And spent it on a quick upright between the peat stacks

What might your husband offer?

The wind’s got up and your door swings on its pivot

One word can kill, so I keep downcast and stifle a yawn

Reading notes:

The whole point of this piece of writing is to be confusing, I want the reader to question who some of the ‘you’ and ‘your’ refers to, hence the last line (which I changed several times), please do ask whose word can kill. The farmer’s wife (presumably) and the speaker (Barbara presumably) are both victims and accusers in this situation, they are both equally vulnerable. Question the time too, is this then or now?

Whose cat is it? And is it a familiar, with that human sound? If so, whose familiar is it?

Weaving is a reference to the norns and witches weaving as spell-casting activities.

Tripping – stumbling, drug-addled, or hallucinating through hunger and cold? Or is it that cat doing the weaving and tripping?

Burden of demons is a reference to ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’.

Demons is a reference to mental health.

Strangeling is an invented word (well spell-checker doesn’t like it) playing on ‘changeling’.

Third teat is a reference to one of the ways by which witches were identified: they allegedly had an additional nipple at which the devil suckled. The speaker is breast-feeding, is she flaunting a malformation? Has she given up caring about her own life? Or is she daring the farmer’s wife to look too closely at something natural? – and this is also a reference to all the modern pish about breast-feeding in public.

Whose child is it? Is it the speaker’s or just one she has collected herself, and carries out of charity, perhaps even with purpose. Or is it a faery child, is there an implicit threat that the speaker might exchange her child with the farmer’s wife’s child? Will this make them both hyper-vigilant during this exchange?

The dark man is a reference to the devil, often referred to in this way, or could equally be a non-white man in a predominantly white population. I was also thinking it might be an Islamic immigrant, in a modern setting, hence him not being into Christening his children, quite legitimately.

I cannot name him – why? Because he hasn’t a name (like the devil), she never found out his name, or will it get someone into trouble? Perhaps this is simply something which is best not known. Or is it because of claiming benefits today – there used to be stupid rules about absent fathers paying for their children.

A snood is a ribbon used to tie up a woman’s hair. We learn that the speaker has fair hair, but is this pretty or very blond? If the latter then, if the speaker is the mother of the child, that father must have been very dark to have a black child. Some Orkney witches used snoods from dead women in their magic.

Peat stacks are a store of fossil fuel, they’re also dark and kept outside, dirty and cold.

Spent is both a sexual reference and an economic one.

The wind’s got up – Orkney’s witches were notorious for controlling the wind.

Swinging is a reference to hanging – a constant threat. The speaker knows she is playing against the weight of the theological and judicial system. Or perhaps the farmer’s wife is now employing her own magic?

And yawning – Orkney witches had the reputation for casting spells whilst yawning, perhaps because it is contagious. Or perhaps she really is bored by it all now.

I also want to question whether the speaker has any powers, or is she just playing on her reputation, or is the farmer’s wife (presumably) projecting onto the speaker, or are both of them ‘witches’?

The speaker is a sexual threat too; women beyond the norm always are. The farmer’s wife might want to be rid of her quickly for this reason – and will be keeping a close watch on her own husband, upon whom her own socio-economic situation depends.

Victim profile: Marable Couper

Accused of:

Often bothering her neighbours, David and Margaret

Causing David and Margaret’s cows to lose their good milk, one cow to die in calving, another not to get pregnant with calf, causing a cow and two calves to die

Making David ill by offering him ale to drink, thereafter curing him again by witchcraft

Causing David’s kiln to go on fire, burning the grain

Quarrelling with Margaret, who called Marable a witch and blamed her for her illness; giving Margaret hot ale and thereby restoring her health

And several more accusations of the same kind


Marable was sentenced to be handcuffed, carried to the top of the Clay Loan, there tied to a stake, strangled to death and burnt in ashes.


Well, Marable Couper, you and me lass, and I know I'd be burning with you if it wasn't for a couple of centuries’ difference.



Often bothering her neighbours ...’

Do I bother you?

With your fascination with aspiration

Your inherited wealth and taxing by stealth

Your mobile ‘phone and holiday home

Your winters spent south and fortunate health

Do I bother you?

With my prepost’rous dreams and limited means

I just cannot bear your failure to care

I pray daily for hope but mainly to cope

When I suggest that we share, you chant: ‘life’s not fair’

Do I bother you? I hope I do.


Do I bother you?

With your racist ‘larks’ and sexist remarks

Your superior sneers towards gays, trans and queers

Your hankering rage for a past golden age

Your crocodile tears and threatening jeers

Do I bother you?

Those living in muck who are plain out of luck

I don’t fault the poor nor the sick or the sore

They’re not all to blame, it’s a political game

But you fear that us poor will always take more

Do I bother you? I hope I do.


Do I bother you?

Your disdain for the planet and all that inhabit

This earth – the perfect fit that we treat as shit

Your casual discard of glass, tin and shard

Not caring one bit for the whale, hare or tit

Do I bother you?

When I haven’t a need for your corporate greed

On this I’ll be quoth, for here is my oath:

You can keep your shares and your cheap plastic wares

Perpetual growth, or the world, but not both

Do I bother you?

I f***ing hope I DO!

Victim profile: William Scottie

Accused of:

Transferring illness from a cow to a cat by stroking the sick cow and then stroking the cat, which fell down dead

Curing someone of pain in the side by laying his hand on the person, then on the hearthstone; it cured her in an hour

Going the wrong way around a man’s house, after which the man’s wife fell sick and lost her milk

Healing her again by laying his hand on her and transferring her illness to a mare foal, which died


William Scottie, I’m not sure whether you were a Paul Daniels, a Derren Brown, or a Merlin, but I suspect you just knew too much. Title is, as always, one line taken from the accusation made.



Curing someone of pain in the side by laying his hand on the person, then on the hearthstone.’

Let’s store a song within a stone whilst pain’s dragged out of broken bone

Perhaps some yellow can be poured or cat calls tied within a cord

If essence can be moved this way, then what is real and what hearsay?

Or is this just a clever trick, a sleight of hand to make you sick?

These things can only happen in a faery universe

Where postures have potential both as healing and as curse

Nothing is as it seems to be, try looking sideways on

And when I’m done, you’re well once more: pay up, and I’ll be gone

Victim profile: Jonet Reid

Accused of:

Offering mint to W Kirkness to keep mice away from his corn

Serving the Devil, saying: ‘I dry this corn to the Devil’

Counselling Robert Sinclair on stopping his disturbing dreams about his dead wife by going to her grave and telling her to leave him alone

Curing three people of a bone or joint complaint by means of physiotherapy and saying a charm

Attempting to cure one of A Linklater’s children of heart disease by means of a charm


Jonet Reid seems to have understood the occult law of reciprocity. This is a little attempt at iambic pentameter: a measure for your pleasure.



Stopping his disturbing dreams about his dead wife by going to her grave and telling her to leave him alone’

(but equally: ‘offering mint to keep mice away from his corn’)

Things respond well when kindly asked or told

Politeness goes far in the spirit world

The dead don’t differ, no need to be tense

I’ll make them an offer in recompense

You dead serve to remind us of our guilt

The hurt we caused you, the pain that we built

That’s why I come now, to speak by your grave

The living scorn, but when asked I must save

It’s time for calm, my dear, to be at peace

You don’t belong here, restlessness should cease

Oh let him sleep, and rest, and dream again

No joy falls to you, to drive him insane

This earth is yours now, away from your farm

In thanks I’ll leave you this token, a charm

We trust you abide in a better place

Those of us left behind must pray for grace

Victim profile: Elspeth Cursetter, 1629

Accused of:

When refused access to a house in Birsay, she sat down on the doorstep and expressed an ill wish; two weeks later, the house owner’s best horse had a fall where it broke all its bones, its thigh bone piercing its bowels

Recommending to someone he should carry the bones of a lapwing in his clothes to preserve his health

Knowing exactly what was served and what was spoken about at a party, even though she wasn’t there; she had shape-shifted into a bee


A nonsense rhyme for Elspeth Cursetter because if it was me on trial I’d be tempted to resort to sarcasm at the ludicrous nature of the accusations (because I’m stupid that way), and that would probably get me into even more trouble.



The title is one line of the alleged crime that inspired the rest of the poem.



Knowing exactly what was spoken about and what was served at a party, even though she wasn’t there. She had shape-shifted into a bee.’

If I could shape-shift into anything, it wouldn’t be a bee

If I could borrow another’s mind, and if my choice were free

If I was allowed one day of flight, a fulmar would bring glee

I’d glide and hover on the wind, I’d stare straight back at thee



If I could shape-shift into anything, it wouldn’t be a bee

I do not want to hear your prattle, nor watch you eat your tea

For who would waste a chance to change on attending your party?

Without choice, I would buzz in, but you’d get a sting from me!



Another one for Elspeth Cursetter because 1) you deserve a serious poem as well as a silly one and 2) I love that advice to ‘carry a lapwing’s bones in your pocket’, so I’ve broken the rules (they’re my rules, so I’m allowed to break them) and given this poem a title and used that advice as the first line. All of these practices could have been aspects of sympathetic magic, some of them were, some of them I made up.



A Lesson in Witching

Keep a lapwing’s bones in your pocket

Walk widdershins around stacks of hay

Hold your lover’s hair in a locket

Gathered on the first full moon in May



Hang, above your door, a mermaid’s purse

Taken from between the flow and ebb

Cover mirrors to deflect a curse

And touch the droplets caught in a web



Painted quartz pebbles and puffin beaks

Stones worn with holes and shells from the surf

Are what an expectant mother seeks

All provide aid during childbirth



Never let your peat fire burn low

Nor look into embers feeling tense

None of this should either of us know

And if they ask, we’ll say it’s nonsense

Victim profile: Katherine Craigie

(First trial) Accused of:

On three occasions attempting to heal Jonet Craigie’s husband by heating stones, leaving them over-night under the threshold, then putting the stones in water and washing the patient

Cursing J Craigie so that she developed an ulcer on her cheek

Offering J Traill water to help his bere barley grow better

Offering Issobel Craigie a herb for a love potion


(Second trial) Accused of:

Calming the wind for a payment of cloth; also causing a storm

Using the stone and water cure again; also causing illness in cattle

Getting information from the Devil and more

Katherine was acquitted at her first trial (1640) but at her second trial (1643) she was sentenced to be tied to a stake, strangled and burnt to ashes.


That accusation of ‘calming the wind for a payment of cloth’ really got me thinking about why Katherine Craigie might need cloth? And this is someone accused twice, so I gave some thought to her status between accusations. And then, so many of those accusing her, those she worked magic for, have her surname. So, I put two and two together and came up with this:



Calming the wind for a payment of cloth’

The wind first got up about a week ago

I can get inside it and stir up the haystacks

It came in as suddenly as my son went out

An ill exchange that contented no one

It whips around the eaves and rattles at the roof

He just lies still and greying in the parlour

Straining to smile against the bindings at his jaw



We cannot go out in this wind, not when it’s this strong

Not with the wind up and wild, we can’t possibly go out

To the kirk, to the kirkyard, to open your husband’s lair



So we sit, closed up together, annoying each other

Whilst my son whispers incessantly that he needs

More than a scrap of sacking when he meets his father

I’m just another mouth to feed, of no benefit

To this family whose name I proudly took

I cannot stand this bickering, my offer a resolution:

Good cloth mind, best linen, decent winding cloth



Reading note:

A lair is a grave.

Victim profile: Jonet Forsyth, 1629

Accused of:

Slaying four pigs, which subsequently caused illness in a woman who ate from the pork

Bewitching Robert Reid so that he fell ill while out at sea; healing him by washing him in salt water on the same evening

Bewitching Thomas Port, making him ill, and later well again by transferring the illness to Michael Reid’s horse; when later examined, the horse’s heart was nothing but a ‘blob’ of water

Taking the ‘profit’ (=goodness, fat) of other people’s cows / milk and taking the ‘profit’ of corn

Putting curses on people who refused to give her food or drink when asked for alms


Jonet was found guilty and sentenced to be taken to the place of execution with her hands tied, tied to a stake, strangled to death and burnt to ashes.


This poem, for Jonet Forsyth, took ages to ferment – and I’m still not happy with it. The imagery draws on the ‘Westray Storm Witch’ story and also that weird accusation and evidence:



When later examined, the horse’s heart was nothing but a “blob” of water’

Bestowed with an affinity for water

A reputation that can never be rinsed

An unwanted gift, wise women told my ma

When I broke her waters (not that waters can

Be broken). Bathing me and baptising me,

They did both fast in those days, to cleanse and wash

Away my sins before any were acquired

Set to watch the pot boil whilst skeins of steam sweat

Stirring the bucket, intent, ma swipes the stick

Harshly hard from my hand and the storm subsides

Banished outside I watch the freeze and thaw and crack

Following the dropped ring as it sinks down and

The mirrored surface settles to clarity

Taming the tempest with sighs, riding the tides

The shock of the cold can knock a sadness out

Skimming the waves, drowning within the ebb’s foam

Where does it end and begin, this thin membrane?

We become liquid, melting from hostile stares

Suspected of brewing with laying out lave

The rain’s persistence, drumming on roofs and heads

At this time of year nothing fully dries out

Ducking wears away to suck out confessions

And at the end I will dissolve into tears

Victim profile: Magnus Grieve

Accused of:

Going backwards in a harrow to see what wife he should have, and how many children



I cannot help but wonder whether Magnus Grieve may have been found ‘not guilty’ given it was such a trivial accusation of petty divination. I imagined Magnus as perhaps the younger brother, always last in line for the ladies, and desperate to grow up and join in. And where today such a youth might entertain fantasies about ‘pin-ups’, what might be the equivalent 400 years ago?



Going backwards in a harrow to see what wife he should have and how many children.’

Clumsy Kate with the crippled foot!

My brothers teased without remorse

The youngest, left ‘til last of course

Bethie will do, she has a lisp!

You’ll never wed, they laughed, not when

You have no land, no but nor ben

Maggie might suit, she can’t see straight!

I cannot dance, or so I’m told

I’m lacking craft, and trade ... and gold

There’s always Anne, we’ve all had Anne!

But I can dream, and soar upwards,

And paint my wishes with my words



So lure to me a fairy lass!

She’ll lead me to the trowie mound

All time we’ll lose and ne’er be found

Summon up a Finfolk lover!

We’ll turn rough ground to greening curves

And lay a-spell between ploughed turves

Entice me next a mermaid bride!

Together we’ll scythe from the seas

A harvest that is bound to please

And call to me a selkie wife!

Shed your seal-skin into my arms

Turn shells to herds with magic charms



Hence I walk backwards, full of dread

Thrown apple peel shows who I’ll wed

Spin shears in a sieve one hundred

Times, to divine God’s plan instead



Reading notes:

A but and ben is a simple two-roomed domestic house.

A trowie is a supernatural mound-dweller.

The Finfolk are from Orkney folklore, magic users who travel in little boats searching for human captives. There is also a reference here to one of the (several) ways that Finstown (Firth, West Mainland) may have got its name.

The turning of shells to herds is a reference to a children’s farm animal game that used to be played in Orkney, where each of the different seashells represented a different type of domesticated animal.

One form of divination, to discern a future spouse, was to spin a pair of shears in a sieve a hundred times.

Victim profile: Christian Gow, 1624

Accused of:

When William Milne was terminally ill, and his winding sheet lay ready by his head to be put over him, Christian made him instantly whole and well by ‘ganting and whispering’ over him

Cured the Westray minister’s horse with this charm:

Three thinges hath the forspokin

Heart, tung, and eye, almost;

Thrie thinges sail the mend agane

Father, Sone, and Holie Ghost



Christian Gow’s ‘magic’ comprises verse heavily laden with Christian references; when that is what you are accused of, your community has gone very bad indeed and you don’t stand a chance.



Thrie thinges sail the mend agane, Father, Sone, and Holie Ghost.’

Nine blessings tae tak away dee pain:

Sinew tae sinew, vein tae vein

Joint tae joint, bane tae bane

Muscle tae muscle, strain tae strain

Blood tae blood, stain tae stain

Hurt will wane, health will reign

Thrie thinges by thrie sail be mend agane

These thinges sail mend in Geud’s holie neem



Reading notes:

In the mid twentieth century, Ernest Marwick collected many Orcadian folk verses that were traditionally said as a form of charm to cure illness and afflictions – my poetic response amalgamates and cannibalises several of these verses.

Apologies for the terrible rendering of Orcadian, I am not a speaker, and I took phonetic spellings directly from Marwick where available.

‘Thrie thinges sail the mend agane’ was a particularly haunting line incorporated into the song written by Kate and Corwen for this project www.ancientmusic.co.uk

Victim profile: Katherine Grant, 1623

Accused of:

Looking at a man over her shoulder, turning up the white of her eye, making the man feel as if there was a great weight upon him, making him ill

Advising this cure: fill a vessel with sea water, put three stones in it without speaking; this transferred an illness from a wife to her husband

Saying a spell over a sick child; causing the illness to transfer from one child to another by letting them eat the same food, then transferring the illness to a calf – both children recovered but the calf died

Attempting to cure a sick horse with a fire ritual, and a cow by bathing it in the sea

Curing a man by giving him algae to eat and laying her hand on him where the pain was, then on the earth, three times

Causing a woman to go mad after not having been let into her house



Following my habit of trying to discern the underlying story, I put the accusation of transferring an illness from a wife to a husband, presumably on purpose, with that rather poignant and strange accusation of:



Causing a woman to go mad after not having been let into her house’

You won’t let me in, so I’ll stand here and stare

Silently watching, I’ll continue to glare

Your movements so busy, as if you don’t care

Come out and confront me! I know you won’t dare ...



You won’t let me in, so I’ll stand here and stare

I’ve plenty of time to remind you of where

We placed stones in a vessel, three did it bear

He became ill and was prepared for his lair



You won’t let me in, so I’ll stand here and stare

My presence reminds you of what we will ne’er

Tell others we did, in silence so rare

Let me into your house! Don’t be unfair ...



Reading note:

A lair is a grave.



So much material from these trial notes, so here’s a second poem for Katherine. This one is a little wishful thinking on my part, but also pragmatically realistic about the ‘evil eye’.



Looking at a man over her shoulder, turning up the white of her eye, making the man feel as if there was a great weight upon him, making him ill’

If my gift was a glance which could paralyse

And if we all held power within our eyes

If only looks alone could kill

Justice would be dispensed at will

I’d glare at folks who cheat and steal

At those who take and those who deal

All men who rape without remorse

(And Judges who acquit, of course)

I’d focus on the politicians next

And those who bully via text

I’d stop the rot by staring hard

I never would let down my guard

I’d roll my eyes and gawk again

Until the world was purged from pain

The hunted fox, the homeless guy

The hungry child, the war-torn sky

Finding all who’d evil perpetrate

Just like an optical magistrate!

At last two wrongs would a mighty right make

The weak would be safe, the corrupt would quake

But how would I fare when you looked back in turning?

Would I too be crushed by the weight of your yearning?

Still Here

I find the sonnet the hardest form to write, but this demanded it. Ending with a sense of hope and the potential for transformation. Written for a friend.



Still Here

Holding office behind a porous cell

Days pass whilst hopes seep into rosied stones

Sink into dust with each toll of the bell

The guardi’an absorbs it into her bones.

Early on she taught me how to stop time

Select the axe-key and tread spiral stairs

Follow dense tocks, relentless ticks, just climb

Whilst it watches, waits, weighs how much she cares.

On descending, lights a candle and prays

To concealed saints and a green wild god

Bows to the Sheelagh who boasts of her ways

Grinning, she gives the beard-puller a nod;

Without spae sensings we would be bereft

The witch in the cathedral never left



Reading notes:

Spae means being a bit intuitive, sensitive, psychic even, able to see into the future.

About the Authors

Ragnhild Ljosland was born in Norway, where she studied Scandinavian Language and Literature, obtaining a PhD in sociolinguistics in 2008.

'Raggie', as she is best known, has had a keen interest in Orkney's language, history and culture since she first visited the islands in 2000 as a young undergraduate student of Orkney & Shetland Studies. In 2009, at the age of thirty, she moved permanently to Orkney to take up an academic post and join her husband in returning to his native island. Her special interests lie in the Norn and Scots languages and Orkney dialect, Orkney literature, history, folklore, traditional customs and folk beliefs, and the culture of Orkney in its Scottish and Scandinavian contexts.

Ragnhild also has a particular interest in runic inscriptions. She is the author of several books and many articles, both academic and non-academic.

In addition to her academic work, Ragnhild enjoys working as a Scottish Tourist Guides Association qualified guide for Orkney where she, amongst other things, offers Viking-themed adventure tours.

From her own kitchen she works as a chocolatier, where she recreates archaeological artefacts from the Stone Age, Pictish period, and Viking Age in delicious Belgian chocolate.

She can be contacted via her web-site at brodgar.co.uk



Helen K Woodsford-Dean comes from southern England where she lectured in archaeology, specialising in the prehistory of the British Isles. In her early 40s she decided to move to Orkney because she thought it would be lovely to get away from the ‘rat race’ and live on a ‘remote’ Scottish island.

Helen is a member of the Scottish Pagan Federation. As well as providing open ceremonies to celebrate the turning of the year, Helen also offers life rituals such as baby-namings, legal weddings, and funerals on request

She is an active member of the Scottish Green Party and believes that politics and spirituality need to be interlinked to be fully effective and ethical.

Also a Scottish Tourist Guides Association qualified guide for Orkney, she specialises in providing tours for those visitors to Orkney who come on spiritual pilgrimage with an interest in prehistoric archaeology.

She can be contacted via her web-site at www.spiritualorkney.co.uk



Helen and Ragnhild are close friends; they met via this project and have worked together on it throughout. They share a mutual love of social justice, fairness, laughter, story-telling, archaeology, and cake.



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Thank you for reading this book, we hope you enjoyed it as much as we enjoyed producing it. Please take a moment to review it at your favourite retailer and your donations to our project are very much appreciated.

Thank you,

Helen & Ragnhild


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