Accused Witches of Fife: Maggie Morgan
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
Author Greg Stewart introduces another of Fife's accused witches.
The story of Maggie Morgan is a difficult one to untangle. While the later trials of the East Neuk area of Fife are well documented, Maggie’s case took place in 1651, before the frenzy of the witch hunts spurred by King James VI. Much of what is written about her is done so in a dramatical manner, and so needs worked through. Her name, particularly her surname, may not even be correct such was the lack of any compassion towards those accused of witchcraft.
Maggie was, by all accounts, a quite beautiful young lady, which made her stand out, and she found herself in a position where one of the younger members of Elie House started to make advances towards her. Despite any attraction she may have had towards him, a relationship between someone of his standing and a local woman of no status would never be permitted in these times, and so she resisted. Yet the more she resisted, the more he pursued her, until eventually she gave in. Their secret romance ended up with the inevitable outcome, and Maggie found herself pregnant. With reality hitting home, her lover abandoned her, and while she gained some sympathy from the townsfolk, she was considered to have ruined herself.
When the baby was born, the church began to ask questions surrounding the father of the child. She was called, along with the father, to address the church elders, however, he did not attend and again left Maggie to face the consequences of their actions alone. Her claims of the identity of the father were judged to be untrue, as were her claims that the minister had visited his household the night before her hearing. Having been found guilty, she was condemned to make amends and ordered to stand in the entrance to the church for 3 successive Sundays as the parishioners entered. She was to wear nothing but an old sack and, as a bell rang, repeat the phrase ‘Fause (false) tongue that lied’. If this was not enough humiliation for poor Maggie, she was then placed on the Cuttie Stool, a wooden chair that would be hoisted high above the congregation for all to see, while she was berated by the minister in a torrent of abuse. Having carried out her sentence, her guilt was forgiven by the church, but her life was destroyed with her being shunned by the community.
She did however still present a problem. As long as she was around there would always be local gossip. She was said to be left bitter over her experience, devoid of all emotion other than that of revenge, and whether that was true or not, it offered the basis on which a case against her could later be made.
It is important to emphasise the following is based on the allegations made against Maggie, rather than true events.
It is important to emphasise the following is based on the allegations made against Maggie, rather than true events. The list of crimes she was accused of was long, starting from after her ending her period of repentance. It was said that as she sat pondering her misfortune a great storm swept across the village. With her hovel home illuminated by the lightning above, Maggie saw a woman appear before her, who was her spitting image. The woman told Maggie that she should go to Pittenweem Loan, an area of land outside a neighbouring village, at 10 o’clock at night on the 5th day of the following week, and she would be granted the powers to take full revenge on those who had wronged her.
The night Maggie was to visit Pittenweem Loan was a memorable one for all in the area. King Charles II was travelling through the area and to stop at Pittenweem. Although in these days most people stayed within their own town boundaries, the news of the King’s visit resulted in almost the entire population of St Monans travelling to the neighbouring town, which gave easy cover for Maggie to make the journey unnoticed. The minister and one of his clergymen were amongst those swept up in the hysteria which turned out to be quite a spectacle. The authorities were all present in their finest robes, carpets laid on the street and the King was treated to a feast outside a building known since as King’s Halt, now renamed Kellie Lodging.
The King’s departure was marked with a 36 canon salute from the walls of Pittenweem and once he was gone, the minister from St Monans, his clergyman and their wives retreated to a local tavern where they drank late into the night.
For the events which followed, we must rely upon the information provided leading to the conviction of poor Maggie. When the minister and his companions left it was noted to be a moonless and starless night, making it abnormally dark. The journey back to St Monans was uneventful until they were approaching the town, when they found themselves suddenly surrounded by a thick mist, reducing visibility further and causing them to stop. As they stood, frozen to the spot, there was a streak of white light towards them and they spotted a white rabbit which ran around them a total of 7 times. Watching the rabbit rapidly circle them in the darkness further confused their senses, having a hypnotic and disorientating effect. With the light from the rabbit dazzling them, each thought they saw the other spin, so their feet were pointing towards the sky and their heads to the ground, and they found themselves starting to laugh uncontrollably until they were exhausted and fell silent to the ground.
The sound of sweet music swept through the area, suddenly replenishing the groups energy, and they leapt to their feet, before following the music, singing and dancing as they went. They found themselves once again approaching Pittenweem, where they stumbled upon a gathering of what were described as witches and demons. What happened was not documented, it is suggested they refused to discuss it possibly out of fear having sworn the events to secrecy in return for their freedom. Finally, they found themselves surrounded by a thick, dark smoke with flashes of blue light, and after feeling themselves being lifted from the ground, they discovered that they were back to where they had encountered the rabbit, just outside St Monans.
After composing themselves, they hurried back to the manse. Once inside, they started to try to rationalise what had happened when they spotted a large, black mass in the corner. The minister attempted to expel the mass through prayer, but failed. When a horned face appeared within the darkness, growling as it advanced towards them, they finally fled. They were pursued by the darkness, before being once again surrounded by it and falling to the ground exhausted.
When they awoke it was daylight, and looking around they found that they were in a cow field, close to the site where they had witnessed the demons and witches carrying out their ceremony, so decided to make their way to the nearest safest location, that being the tavern in which they had drank the night before. After much discussion and rationalisation, along with concern regarding accusations made against them for the previous night’s activities, the decision was made to try to meet with the King, who had stayed with the Anstruther Family after the celebrations. The minister managed to gain permission, and after telling the monarch of the nights events, he ruled that all 4 of the party were to be immune from any prosecution for any events that took place for a period of 24 hours after he had left Pittenweem the day before.
As they returned to St Monans, the events of the night before truly sank in. It seems the two men had shown more than what would be deemed an acceptable level of affection to each other’s wives, in fact when they had awoken earlier that day, they were in the arms of the wrong wife! Alcohol and lust seemed to have ruled the night, and it was easier to create a story to blame on others than accept responsibility for their own actions. Yet, while they blamed it on being enchanted by witchcraft, they began arguing as jealousy crept in. Reaching the spot where they claimed to have encountered the white rabbit the night before, the two women started to fight, needing to be physically separated by their husbands. Realising that the Kings 24-hour grace period was almost over, they went on their separate ways, their friendship finished.
The following months were quiet. It is likely to have been the minister’s desire that the events of that fateful night were not discussed, yet with a risk that all may be revealed later, a scape-goat would have been considered convenient to clear his name. Maggie was the obvious target, although they would have to wait for the right opportunity. In June, Maggie is said to have spotted her former lover with a new woman as they walked through the village to the harbour where they were to get a boat out to the Isle of May, which sits around 6 miles off shore in the Firth of Forth.
It was claimed that she quickly made her way to Pittenweem where she met with Thomas Brown, better known as Brown of the Braes or Old Cowzie, and widely rumoured to be a powerful warlock who led the local witches. He instructed her to take a bucket full of water to a high vantage point where she would be undisturbed but had a good view of the harbour. When she saw her former lovers boat set sail, she was to place a wooden cup on the water in the centre of the bucket, and stir the water 7 times, while all the time watching the boat sail and keeping her desire firmly in her mind. Once the boat was sufficiently far out to sea, she was to quickly turn the cup upside down, and her wishes would be granted.
Seemingly teleported back to St Monans, she set up as she had been instructed. As she watched the boat sail from the safety of the harbour, she began to stir the water in the bucket around the wooden cup. As the cup began to be thrown around in the bucket by the movement of the water, a storm began to rise from nowhere around the boat, waves tossing it from side to side. As she finished the 7th stir, she grabbed the cup and upturned it, all the time focusing her attention on the ship as a gust of wind caught its sail, and it capsized. Satisfied that she had at last got her revenge, Maggie learned the next day that although the sailors on the boat had managed to safely swim back to shore, the young couple had drowned.
The village was soon rife with talk and gossip of what had happened, with theories and fingers being pointed. Unfortunately for Maggie she was unable to conceal her pleasure at the events, and with her having been seen in Pittenweem speaking to Old Cowzie shortly before the tragic accident, thoughts again returned to her allegations of an affair with the deceased. When word reached the minister, it was seen as an opportunity to finally deal with Maggie, who he still blamed for his own misdemeanours, without having to recall or explore the events of that fateful night again. Within a matter of days, he had managed to have Maggie detained on the charges of witchcraft, being under the control of the Devil, and being able to turn herself into a white rabbit.
Although the documents indicate a confession was forthcoming from Maggie upon her arrest, the reality is this is likely to have been obtained through torture.
Although the documents indicate a confession was forthcoming from Maggie upon her arrest, the reality is this is likely to have been obtained through torture. Any hope that a confession would end her ordeal were short lived. In an earlier witch trial in St Monans, where the accused, Witch Grizzie, was allowed to sleep following her conviction, it was claimed she turned into a droning beetle as soon as she did. This allowed her to escape, and those involved in her trial were forever plagued with the sound of the droning beetle, which resulted in a rule that no witch was permitted to sleep in the period between being convicted and executed (few were allowed to sleep prior to conviction either).
Maggie was kept awake by her guards who would sound a horn directly into her ear, and beat her with a paddle covered in spikes, known as a witches goad. The following day she was taken to a waiting pile, where she was burned for her alleged crimes. Her ashes were then placed in an open loft on the spire of St Monans Church, known as the Burnt Laft, to allow the wind to carry them away and scatter them far and wide.
It seems poor Maggie paid the ultimate price for not one, but at least three men’s wrong-doing, who would rather create fictional tales, regardless of the consequences to others, to protect themselves.