Accused Witches of the Highlands: Janet Horne
Updated: Sep 7, 2021
Author and RAWS Steering Group member, Greg Stewart, returns to introduce us to Janet Horne.
Janet Horne is often said to be the last (accused) witch to be burned in Scotland, although of course she was in fact an innocent victim of the fear of witchcraft.
With it being such a late execution, there are fortunately documents relating to it, including notes written by Captain William Burt, a government rent collector who also aided in overseeing the military roads being constructed under the guidance of General Wade to allow a swift Government response to any further Jacobite uprising.
Janet worked as the maid for a well-off family, travelling across Europe with them before returning to Scotland and settling in Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands. She was married, although little is known of her husband, and they had one daughter, who unfortunately had a deformity to her hands and feet (which were said to either be a birth defect or as a result of being badly burned as an infant). With many in the Highlands still very much believing in witchcraft, suspicion fell upon Janet. To add to the local rumours, as Janet aged she began to show signs of what we would now recognise as dementia, and her unusual behaviour caused by this was reported to the authorities.
As Janet aged she began to show signs of what we would now recognise as dementia, and her unusual behaviour caused by this was reported to the authorities.
Both Janet and her daughter were taken to the tollbooth in Dornoch, where her muddled responses to questions resulted in her being accused of witchcraft. It was claimed her daughter’s hands and feet were not deformed, but were in fact hooves created by the Devil, to allow Janet to change her daughter into a pony and ride her to secret meetings with him. She was blamed for all local crop failures and animal deaths and it seems, in her confused state, Janet readily went with the fantastical story. To prove her guilt, she was asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer, and a simple mistake in doing so was seen as proof of her guilt.
Janet’s daughter escaped the night before the execution, which must have been a heart-breaking decision to make to leave her mother knowing what she faced. Janet’s execution took place just outside the town boundary, with her being stripped and covered in tar and feathers before being made to walk through the town while being abused by the residents, before being burned in a tar barrel. Although local legend tells that when she arrived at the waiting fire, she had warmed herself at it and commented to others that it was a ‘braw fire’, this is unlikely as the fire would not normally be lit prior to the accused being in position.
A stone now marks the spot of Janet’s execution, although unfortunately it shows the date as 1722, rather than the correct year of 1727.
The Scottish Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1735, yet belief in the Highlands remained high, particularly in Dornoch. In 1738, Donald MacKay killed a woman he said was a witch, claiming she had turned into a hare just before he killed her. He was executed for the crime, and a plaque marks the spot on Gallow Hill where he was hung. It is quite telling of the times that although Donald is remembered, the woman he murdered is forgotten.
Greg published his book Witch Memorials of Scotland in 2019. It is available to purchase here.