Accused Witches of Fife: Issobell Kelloch
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
Healer and accused witch from Dalgety in Fifeshire, executed in 1649.
Dalgety was located in the Parish of Dalgety within the District of Dunfermline in Fifeshire, on the Firth of Forth. It was about three miles south-west of Aberdour, two miles east from Inverkeithing, and adjoined the other small hamlets of Hillend, St Davids, Fordel and Crossgates. (The village is now called Dalgety Bay.) It was a prosperous area at the time of the Scottish witch hunts owing to large coal deposits of high quality. Coal was mined in this area as far back as 1291, and additionally the parish had good rich loam for farming. The Dalgety Kirk Session was the court of the parish where all accused witches were first brought for interrogation.1
St Bridget’s Kirk was on the outskirts of Dalgety. It was here in 1641 that the Reverend Andrew Donaldson was removed for his hard-line Presbyterianism. Soldiers, sent by Archbishop Sharp, had to drag him before the Privy Council and off to prison after he was sacked and refused to leave. However, he was allowed to return when the political system changed and Presbyterianism came back into favour. It is entirely likely that it was this minister who presided over the trial and execution of Issobell Kelloch, and other accused witches from Dalgety.
1649 in Scotland
The year 1649 saw massive political, economic, and religious readjustments in Scotland: the Scottish army was defeated in the second English Civil War; the Kirk Party took office (which was the radical arm of the Presbyterian movement) under the Covenanter regime; the Act of Classes 1649 was legislated; the new Witchcraft Act 1649 was passed giving even more power to presbyteries to seek out and execute accused witches; and King Charles I was beheaded in England. These factors should not be underestimated in the way they effected every-day life in Scotland. The tyrannical control of The Church tightened even more. For instance:
The years 1649 and 1650 saw some of the greatest interest in religious fervour and discipline, with the Synod of Fife ordering all presbyteries to seek out those who celebrated ‘the Yuile day’, or went to ‘wellis denominati from Saintis’ 2, or took secret oaths or used ‘the Meason word’. 3
While England was breaking free from centuries of superstition, Scotland still trembled in subjection before her Church and the power of its clergy. They controlled many private aspects of domestic life with the intent of overruling any expression of individuality or opinion contrary to its teaching. The ruling Kirk Party was now totally committed to purging the land of sorcery, witchcraft and evil in order to create a Godly society. Kirk Sessions had taken over, and so, one of the most brutal and manic periods of the Great Scottish Witch Hunt was underway – the fourth wave.
The court system in 1649 in Scotland was divided into three main types:
The Court of Justiciary (only in Edinburgh) presided over by judges and professional lawyers;
Circuit courts held in various shires in the counties;
ad hoc local courts held under commissions by the Privy Council. Records reveal, based on ‘known’ outcomes, the local courts had a much higher rate of execution – 90% of those tried.4
In Dalgety, Kirk sessions first decided whether an accused person should stand trial and go to court (Privy Council). Kirk sessions were run by the parish elite (i.e. ministers, clergy, property owners, businessmen) and as history has proven, most people accused of witchcraft were sent to trial (after they had confessed) and received a death sentence.
Issobell Kelloch (c.1589-1649)
Daughter of Robert Kellok and wife Margaret Cunyngham, Issobell was born c. 1589 in Dunfermline, Fife. Her parents had married in 1585 and she had five siblings: William (1585), Robert (1586), Allison (1592), Thomas (1598), James (1602).5
In 1621 Issobell Kelloch married Thomas Whyt/Whyte also from Dunfermline.6 They had two known sons: James (1624-1665) and Thomas (1630-1680). The eldest married Grissell Anderson (who was executed as one of the Seven Witches of Torryburn, 11 November 1666). It may have been from her mother in-law that Grissell learnt the skills of healing, herbal remedies, spells, and whatever else she engaged in, as these kinds of traditions were passed down from generation to generation, particularly through females.
From Dalgety Kirk Session records we learn that Issobell was a healer. Later in 1649, at the time of her interrogation, one of her co-accused confessed to consulting with Issobell to have a pain healed.7 In the same session, it is recorded that Issobell was known as such in nearby Aberdour, a distance of only three miles. We also read she was ‘poor with a reputation’.8 It is difficult to say exactly how she had come to have a bad reputation – it may have been because she had patients die after her treatments, or that she had debts, or that she was impoverished and ostracised for seeking charity, or did she cuss, or sell her body?
Issobell, like most poor, accused women of that era, had no friends in high places.
We also know that at the time of her arrest for witchcraft, she lived on Lady Callander’s estate in Dalgety. Gleaned from the same document, is the insightful fact that Lady Callander had been asked by the Presbytery to pay Issobell’s trial and execution costs, but that she had declined. Reading between these lines we may assume that Lady Callendar was not inclined to advocate or help her tenant in any way. Issobell, like most poor, accused women of that era, had no friends in high places.
The imprisonment, trial and execution of accused witches was an expensive business and the Church was generally required to fund costs. For instance, £45 was paid to two men to watch one prisoner for 30 days (i.e. ‘ward’ – keep the victim awake, ensure they did not escape, provide food and drink, ‘encourage’ confession). John Kincaid, the notorious witch-pricker charged £6 per brodding.9 Executing witches was an awfully expensive pursuit but one which The Church considered worthwhile.
Records reveal the costs of Issobell’s trial and execution were £24/4s/4d. Because Lady Callander had refused to pay, the cost was taken out of the ‘church box’. Unfortunately for Issobell and the other accused women and men, 1649 seems to be the only year that Dalgety was involved in a witch hunt.10
Who was Lady Callander?
Lady Callander (the Hon. Margaret Hay) was the Earle of Dumfemling’s11 mother and presided over a large amount of property. She was born into Scottish aristocracy in c. 1592 in Perthshire and through two marriages, firstly to James Seton the 1st Earle of Dunfermline, and secondly to James Livingstone the 1st Earle of Callander, hers was a life of privilege.
She was also bestowed the titles of: Countess of Dunfermline, Lady Livingstone of Almond, and Countess of Callander.12 She had four children with her first husband. Upon her death in January 1660 at age 67, she was interred at Dalgety beside her first husband.13
What was the motivation of Lady Callander in refusing to pay Issobell’s trial and execution costs? Was she just a mean-spirited, rich aristocrat with no time for the poor?
Here is another proposition: did Lady Callander feel that if the Church was going to persecute innocent women, they should pay for it? Did she view these costs as blood money and want no part in it? (Personally, I think this would be my position.) An additional point to be made on this matter, is that her second husband appears to have been quite benevolent. Later in his life he founded a small hospital in Falkirk for the poor and aged. He also ensured provision of food, coal, and tailed-coats to poor families during an epidemic in that town in 1644.14 We will never know Lady Callander’s reasoning, which is why an open mind should be kept about historical matters which are beyond our understanding.
How Issobell Kelloch was caught in a witch hunt
Issobell’s demise began on 22 April 1649, with a fellow called Robert Maxwell. On this date Maxwell was brought from prison before a Dalgety Kirk Session and interrogated on charges of being ‘ignorant’ and a vagabond. This escalated to being a warlock.15 (Case #3199.) A minister and four elders were in attendance and presided over the event.
After torture Maxwell confessed - in some circles he was referred to as the ‘Warlock of Dalgety’. A commission to send Maxwell to trial was granted. Prior to his execution, he named John Murdock (case #2540) of Dunfermline who was in turn arrested, warded, and by 6 May had also confessed to being a warlock. A week later, Murdock named Christian Smythe (case #3201) as a witch; she was apprehended and warded.
At this point the witch hunt gained momentum – it reached Aberdour and Inverkeithing with more arrests, torture, and names given (including that of Isabell Peacock and Bessie Wilson who lived in rural parts of the parish). Most of the above-mentioned folk had been executed and burnt by 3 June. In fact, between April – June 1649, 20 people were accused of witchcraft.
In the first week of June however, The Church’s attention turned towards Dalgety and three women whom Maxwell had ‘given up’ on the eve of his death: Issobell Kelloch (case #2543), Margaret Orrock (case #3202) and Issobell Scogian (case #3224). Notes from their Kirk Session interrogation, reveal that The Church was mainly focused on Issobell Kelloch, who must have been seen as a ring-leader. By 17 June – roughly a fortnight later - she had confessed.
Also implicated around this time in Dalgety were Issobell Bennett (case #3203), Isobell Glenn (case #3206) and Christian Garlick (case #3205). The latter had confessed to seeking Kelloch’s help with healing a pain; rather strangely, on the surface at least, it appears this was the only incriminating evidence against Garlick. And while this seems incredibly unjust, two months earlier at the Synod of Fife on 3 April 1649, an Act had been passed ‘against anyone consulting or seeking health from witches.’16 However, some historians state there is no evidence of any consulters with witches being prosecuted under this new Act expressly at this time; all were tried for the straightforward crime of witchcraft.17 Whatever the case, Garlick went to trial and was executed.
Bennett was also noted as having a disreputable ‘evil’ character – ‘…this long time under an ill report’.18
Another source that confirms Issobell Kelloch’s arrest for witchcraft in Dalgety appears in A Calendar of Cases of Witchcraft in Scotland 1510-1727, which states she was ‘‘blotted’ for ane witch’ (‘blotted’ as in noted, recorded with ink).
Issobell Kelloch was found guilty of witchcraft and was burnt at the stake in Dalgety on 1 July 1649 – it had taken less than a month from the time of her arrest to execution.
... history would reveal she had all the qualities of a stereotypical victim.
Unlike her entitled and titled landlord, Issobell Kelloch lived in poverty, a healer, most likely a widow, with a poor reputation in the community, and probably reliant on charity. She had been caught in the web of a classic witch hunt which had a domino effect, and history would reveal she had all the qualities of a stereotypical victim.
Unlike her rich landlord, the Lady Callander, there are no gravestones that memorialise her last resting place or epitaphs that speak loving words; there are no gold-framed paintings by famous artists; there are no biographies that record wealth, privilege, peerage, and rich husbands. But some 350 years later she does have justice advocates that know her and speak her name, and who are fighting hard for her innocence and pardon.
You will soon rest in peace, Issobell Kelloch.
By Janet Schipke
1. Gazetteer of Scotland, 2002-2020, ‘Dunfermline’, Websource: https://www.scottish-places.info/towns/townhistory78.html
2. Possible reference to wells or bodies of water that are sanctified or seen as holy; possibly papist/catholic origin.
3. Macdonald, S 1997, Threats to a godly society: witch hunt in Fife, Scotland 1560-1710, Thesis University of Guelph, p. 347.
4. Levack, BP 1987, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, p. 87-89 Longman, London, from wikipedia.org
5. Disclaimer note: despite my due diligence to determine parentage, this remains unproven.
6. Maiden or birth names in Scotland were used life-long and through to death, e.g. gravestone inscriptions.
7. Macdonald, S 2002, ‘The witches of Fife: witch hunting in a Scottish shire 1560-1710’, Sub note 76, from Benson, South-West Fife, App. 2, p. 271.Websource: https://www.google.com.au/books/edition/Witches_of_Fife/kaC8BQAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Issobell+Kelloch+accused+witch,+Dalgetty+1649&pg=PT104&printsec=frontcover
8. Macdonald, S 1997, Threats to a godly society: witch hunt in Fife, Scotland 1560-1710, Thesis University of Guelph, pp. 188-189.
9. Patterson, L 2013, ‘Executing Scottish witches’, Ch. 11, pp. 196-214, in Goodare, J (eds), Scottish witches and witch-hunters, Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic. Palgrave Macmillan, London, Websource: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137355942_6
10. Macdonald, S 2002, ‘Witch hunt in the presbytery of Dunfermline’, Witches of Fife: witch hunting in a Scottish shire 1560-1710, Ch. 7.
11. ‘Dumfermling’ in old manuscript is now ‘Dunfermline’.
12. Geni.com, ‘Margaret Oliphant Hay’, Websource: https://www.geni.com/people/Margaret-Hay-Countess-of-Dunfermline/6000000002116138050
13. Lamont, J 1810, ‘An. Do 1660’, Lamont’s Diary - Chronicle of Fife: being the dairy of Mr John Lamont of Newton from 1649-1671, p. 150, Vol. 4795, George Ramsay & Co, Edinburgh, Digitised National Library of Scotland, Websource: https://deriv.nls.uk/dcn23/7885/78857690.23.pdf
14. Wikisource, ‘James Livingstone’, Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 33, p. 401, Websource: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Dictionary_of_National_Biography_volume_33.djvu/407?action=edit
15. Warlock is the male version of witch.
16. Macdonald, S 2002, ‘The witches of Fife: witch hunting in a Scottish shire 1560-1710’, Sub note 66, from Benson, South-West Fife, App. 2, p. 271.Websource: https://www.google.com.au/books/edition/Witches_of_Fife/kaC8BQAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Issobell+Kelloch+accused+witch,+Dalgetty+1649&pg=PT104&printsec=frontcover
17. Hughes, P 2013, ‘Witch-hunting in Scotland 1649-1650’, in Goodare, J (eds) Scottish witches and witch-hunters, Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic. Palgrave Macmillan, London, Websource: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137355942_6
18. Macdonald, S 2002, ‘The witches of Fife: witch hunting in a Scottish shire 1560-1710’, Sub note 77, from Benson, South-West Fife, App. 2, p. 271.Websource: https://www.google.com.au/books/edition/Witches_of_Fife/kaC8BQAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=Issobell+Kelloch+accused+witch,+Dalgetty+1649&pg=PT104&printsec=frontcover