Accused Witches of Angus: The Last Witch of Montrose
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
Author Greg Stewart tells the story of Meggie Cowie.
The coastal town of Montrose sits largely on a narrow peninsula of land surrounded on three sides by water, with the North Sea to the east, the River South Esk to the south and a large tidal basin to the west.
This basin is unusual in that it is almost circular. The town originally stood on the opposite side from the present town, until it was destroyed in a Viking attack in the year 980. The new settlement was soon formed and, while it became an important historical town, its position with water on all but one side restricted its growth.
During the 1670’s, keen to obtain more arable land, a proposal was put forward to drain half the basin to provide around 2000 acres of land for farming. The land was owned by the Estate of Dun, yet with a formidable task ahead, requiring a 2 mile long dyke to be constructed across tidal water, ownership was passed to a locally formed partnership.
Work started towards the end of the 1670’s with the dyke being formed by wooden piles being driven into the bed of the basin to form a solid barrier across it. The work was overseen by a Dutch engineer, Dronner, after whom the dyke would be named. While there was little doubt the land reclamation would bring considerable benefits to the town, not everyone was happy. A small group of fisherman raised objections as they would lose their mussel and salmon fishing grounds, yet work proceeded regardless. One of the most vocal objectors was an elderly lady named Meggie Cowie, who was said to have made blasphemous comments to those who were involved.
During the construction, a great storm suddenly hit the area, and destroyed all that had been built. The company involved lost everything, being unable to re-start the works. Rumours soon started to circulate about the storm. It had been just 80 years earlier that King James VI blamed witches on raising a series of storms that nearly destroyed his fleet while returning with his new bride. Could this also be an act of witchcraft to prevent the construction of the dyke?
Attention turned to Meggie, who was said to have long been an objectional old woman, making her a prime suspect for a witch.
Attention turned to Meggie, who was said to have long been an objectional old woman, making her a prime suspect for a witch. A witness came forward stating on the night of the storm, they had seen Meggie poking her long bony finger through the dyke while muttering words that could not be understood. This was sufficient to bring an accusation of using witchcraft to summon the storm and destroy the dyke against Meggie.
The official records do not show the outcome of the trial, but with almost 2 centuries of earlier records relating to Montrose missing, that is perhaps not surprising. Meggie is noted in the official records as facing trial in 1670, with the outcome unknown. Other documents from that time however suggest it was later, either 1677 or 1679. Again, a peril of old handwritten records being misinterpreted when re-written. These documents do however state that Meggie was found guilty, and was burnt at the stake for her crimes.
The remains of the Dronner Dyke can still be seen at low tide in the Montrose Basin, and anyone looking over these calm waters, which is now a nature reserve, should perhaps spare a thought for poor Meggie and her fate.
Greg published his book Witch Memorials of Scotland in 2019. It is available to purchase here.