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In Remembrance of Isobell Young

By Laquitha Glass

Strangled and burned on Castle Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland after a period of imprisonment and a trial for alleged witchcraft.

Art credit Camille Pissarro (1894), from the public domain. This is not an artist's rendering of Isobell Young.

Isobell Young

Isobell Young was not only the wife of a successful tenant farmer (or portioner), she was arguably the central factor in the success of the family business. As a mother of four, Isobell sold crops, dairy and cloth. In addition to this, she also helped to manage the farm by caring for the animals and overseeing up to 15 servants and or staff. Her family had a large influence in her hometown of East Barns, as they also engaged in money lending and other dealings. In 1619, Isobell had her first formal accusation of witchcraft which resulted in an investigation with no further action being taken. However, 30 years later she was accused, investigated and found guilty of practicing witchcraft. After almost 40 witnesses in the community, including her husband George Smith, testified against her, she was sentenced to be strangled and burned at the stake on Castle Hill.

 My Point of View 

After looking over the documentation available about the details of her investigation, it really seemed that Isobell's primary crime was being an assertive, skilled, and highly-efficient manager of a very successful estate during a time when many other farms and businesses were suffering losses and economic decline. The first detail that really jumped out at me was the fact that Isobell was a well-respected and influential member of the community for over 40 years, who it seems many just accepted practiced some form of nature based ideology for interacting with her household. There was apparently some tipping point that took place that led to her actually being brought up on charges in a formal investigation and court proceeding. The majority of the testimonies were directly tied to suspected harm caused after verbal confrontations and conflicts surrounding business dealings with Isobell. It was thought that the financial decline of surrounding businesses were directly caused by witchcraft and spell work performed by Isobell and perhaps a group of other suspected witches. Isobell was also said to have "displayed patterns of both physical and verbal aggression." While verbal or physical abuse is certainly not acceptable in interacting with others in the home or community at large, it certainly does not seem to be an offense meriting a public execution, especially in her mid 60s after being acceptably this way for almost 40 years prior. If Isobell was conducting business as a woman with a successful farm and a bevvy of staff and extended family in today's society, she may have been venerated as a Boss Woman deeply connected to her creative ability to manifest financial abundance for herself and her household, while not being afraid to lean in and hold her own in a male-dominated industry. Unfortunately for Isobell, she was living in Scotland during one of the worst periods of matricide in European history. Another detail of note was the fact that her husband was a key witness who testified against his own wife and the mother of his 4 children. This piqued my interest, especially after 40 years of marriage and truly contributing to his value and position of power in society at the time. According to the documentation, George Smith testified that Isobell threatened to kill him with magic after they 'argued about an unsavoury house guest.' With their large household, including children and their wives and subsequent children, as well as a number of staff at any given time, it would seem that Isobell would be used to guests of various sorts coming in and out of the home. Using my own intuition, I wondered if the gender of the 'unsavoury house guest' was male or female. It would certainly be understandable and not entirely outside of the realm understanding if a wife were angry to the point of threatening bodily harm to a husband over  a woman behaving in an unsavory manner in her home. It could have also been a male gendered individual, but it seemed strange to me that her husband would recall this, out of all the 40 years of actual witchcraft that he surely witnessed if she was indeed a practicing witch, and state it as a slight that could contribute to her being murdered by the governing authorities of the time. I was also curious about why this house guest was staying at the home in the first place, and why the presence of this individual escalated into such a heated altercation that clearly had some resentments still attached to it. I wonder what internal dialogue was happening as he witnessed his wife and the mother of his children being sentenced to be strangled and burned publicly, in part due to his testimony about an argument over 'an unsavory house guest.' During her trial, to which she truly made an effort to defend herself and even carried the defence arguments into the next day, the prosecution cited Aristotle, Durand, and Livius, all philosophers, as authorities in their prosecution of her. To me, this truly illuminated that much of the issue with accused witches was a philosphical one, and in Isobell's case, certainly one with other motives. Given that her sentence to be executed also included that all of her movable property be forfeited, it certainly seems plausible. In the end, I feel that Isobell was primarily targeted by a community that was one part enthralled by her merits as a successful mother, business woman, and community influencer; and one part terrified of it for reasons deeper than the shadow mother wound she may have triggered for those around her.


by D. F. Dutton

These young birches

shriek green laughter up the hill

billow on billow. They

stop as (s)he enters. (S)he

carries h(er) promised absence

carefully and yes

(s)he does seem slow

but the end of life

is dignity what though

birches toss their impatience and

the spring sun’s at h(er) back like a knife.

This wood’s enough

to practise silence in

and let h(er) go.

~+~ Resources ~+~

Survey of Scottish Witchcraft

Scottish History , School of History and Classics

The University of Edinburgh


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