The Paisley Witches
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
Author and RAWS Steering Group member Greg Stewart introduces Catherine Campbell and Agnes Naismith, accused witches from Paisley.
In the centre of a cross-roads, which is one of the busiest road junctions in Paisley, near Glasgow, sits a memorial to one of the darkest periods in the town’s history.
In August, 1696, Christian Shaw, the daughter of John Shaw, the Laird of Baragarran, accused one of the house servants, Catherine Campbell, of stealing milk. As a result, Catherine was severely scolded and issued with a warning, and in a fit of temper, the servant later told 11 year old Christian that she hoped the Devil would drag her soul to Hell. This seemingly minor incident would have severe reprecussions for many. Just a few days later, after a chance meeting with a local woman rumoured to be a witch named Agnes Naismith, Christian began to have seizures and complain of pain in her sides.
Her concerned family sought the advice of Dr Matthew Brisbane, a much-respected doctor from Glasgow. While under his care, the seizures ceased, as did her pain, and after 10 days she returned home from Glasgow to Paisley. It was, however, not long before her illness returned, and she was once again taken to Glasgow to be treated by Dr Brisbane. While travelling, Christian had a seizure, during which she began coughing and produced a ball of hair from her throat. The records say this was not her hair, but a mixture of hair of different colours, some pleated, some straight, and in great quantity.
Over the following months, Christian began to produce a wide range of items from her mouth during her seizures, including hot coal, straw containing pins and small animal bones, pieces of wax candlesticks, bones, feathers, eggshells and small stones. She began to struggle to cough these items from her throat, and the medical staff who aided her described that as they tried to pull the items from her mouth, it was as though an unseen force was trying to pull them back into her throat. Between seizures, Christian seemed completely well.
During a later seizure, Christian went into a trance like state, and asked for a bible and a candle. She then continued, as though addressing Catherine Campbell (the servant she had told her mother had stolen milk) directly, even though she was not present. She told Catherine that she would not allow her to force the stick she held into her throat, before quoting scripture from the bible and warning that Catherine would never take her life.
Christian continued having seizures for several more days, during which she was seen to be thrashing around as though fighting someone off, while shouting out names, before they suddenly stopped again. After a week of monitoring her health, she was allowed to go home on 8th December. Her seizures soon returned however, with her continuing to appear to be fighting off invisible assailants. Curiously, after one such incident, she opened her hand to reveal a piece of red torn cloth, which she said she had ripped from her attacker’s clothes while trying to push him away. She also named Agnes Naismith and Catherine Campbell as being her main tormentors.
The family arranged for Agnes to be brought to the house, and were surprised given her reputation when she prayed for Christian, after which the young girl said Agnes no longer came to her during seizures. They asked Catherine to also pray for her, yet she refused. Some reports say instead she uttered that she hoped the Devil would never release Christian. Finally, the family alerted the authorities.
Catherine was arrested, and a ball of mixed coloured hair was said to have been found in her pocket. It was destroyed in a fire, and Christian stopped having coughing fits during seizures. It was not the end of it though, she started going into trances and walking out of the house, across the courtyard and to the gates. Some described it as being as though she was floating. After several such incidents, she told her parents that a group of up to 10 people were trying to carry her away. At the thought of invisible assailants physically taking their daughter, her terrified parents contacted the church for help.
Two ministers were sent, with their initial prayers during seizures being met with laughter from Christian, before her seizures once again turned violent and she started coughing up pins. She began walking to the basement during trances, later stating she had been trying to get underground to meet the Devil, and also claimed that her tormentors were going to try to get her out of the window in the hall and to the well in the courtyard to drown her. She was found later that day in a trance, trying to climb from the window.
With no end in sight, on 4th February, 1697, the authorities started to question all of those named by Christian during her seizures, a total of 35 people. After questioning, 7 were charged with using witchcraft to harm Christian. Amongst those charged were Catherine Campbell and Agnes Naismith. One of the accused, John Reid, committed suicide while the rest were executed on 10th June, first by hanging before their bodies were burned. The hanging was not however successful, with it being said one of the executioners took a walking stick from a spectator to push the victims back into the flames as they tried to crawl out. The youngest of the accused were just 11 and 14 years old (reports vary, with some saying they were strangled rather than hung, and others saying they fortunately escaped).
Both Catherine and Agnes are told to have uttered curses before they died. Catherine told that all her accusers would face the wrath of both God and the Devil, while Agnes went further to curse all those present, and their descendants. To try to counter the curses, a horseshoe was placed in the ground above where the ashes were buried. As for Christian, her seizures stopped before the executions, and she went on to make a full recovery and she went on to live a happy and successful life.
The town of Paisley has grown considerably over the centuries, yet the Witches Curse remains on the minds of many, with it still being blamed for any bad luck. During the 1960’s, the horseshoe was removed to carry out roadworks and the town went into a period of severe decline, which the locals put down to the curse. The horseshoe was quickly replaced, surrounded by a fitting memorial known as the Maxwellton Cross, and the town started to recover.
To find out more about the Paisley Witch Trials, please check out the incredible The Renfrewshire Witch Hunt 1697 (SCIO), who recently organised an online memorial event on International Women's Day 2021.