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  • Writer's pictureGreg Stewart

Accused Witches of Fife: Helen Eliott

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

Greg Stewart returns to introduce accused witch, Helen Eliott.

Photo of present-day Culross, where Helen Eliott lived.

An incident one dark evening in 1684 is said to have left a permanent scar in the coastal village of Culross in Fife.

A woman named Helen Eliott sat imprisoned in the town’s steeple, guarded by two local men, John Shank and John Drummond. Having been found guilty of witchcraft, Helen’s fate had been sealed, and she was due to be burned at the stake the following day. Facing such horror, when John Drummond began to tire of his duties watching Helen, she seized a desperate opportunity to free herself. Drummond decided he would go to a neighbouring room, where there was a fire burning, to warm himself and to smoke his pipe. John Shank decided to join him, and they secured Helen’s feet into stocks while they were gone.

The description given is that the stocks were locked ‘as well as might be’, yet apparently, they were not secured sufficiently. A short while after they had retired to their warm, comfortable room to rest, they were startled by screams from outside. They rushed to check, and found Helen lying on the ground outside the steeple, with her legs broken and severe injury to her abdomen. It seems that she had managed to free herself, and had tried to leap from the steeple.

The two men may have feared punishment for the failure in their duties, but need not have worried. In this period of witch hysteria, an unbelievable story could be presented to explain what had happened. It was recorded that while left alone, the Devil had appeared in Helen’s cell and freed her from her bindings. He flew with her out of the steeple, yet Helen had been terrified and asked ‘Oh God, whither are you taken me?’. Startled by the reference to God, Satan had dropped Helen, resulting in her falling to the ground. It was said Janet was found about the breadth of a street in Edinburgh away from the steeple, no doubt a ploy to make most townsfolk think she had travelled far further than she could have leapt, as few would have ever visited Edinburgh and could only imagine how wide the streets were.

It can never be known whether Helen hoped to escape or take her own life. In her despair, either would have most likely seemed preferable to what she faced.

It can never be known whether Helen hoped to escape or take her own life. In her despair, either would have most likely seemed preferable to what she faced. She was taken back into the steeple prison and the next day, executed as planned. As she was unable to walk due to her injuries, she was bound to a chair and carried by four men to the waiting fire. At the place of execution, she was strangled to death, finally ending her agony, before her body was thrown on the fire to burn.

Culross Town House, where Helen Eliott was imprisoned.

It was later noticed that at the point Helen had fallen, there were indentations caused by her heels hitting the ground. Over the years these remained visible, as no grass would grow on them, and it is written that they were seen by thousands of people, indicating they became a bit of an attraction bringing people to the village to see the ‘Witch’s Footprints’. Eventually, after around 7 years, a stone wall was built over them to hide them, resulting in the exact location being lost.

Greg Stewart published his book Witch Memorials of Scotland in 2019, which you can purchase here.


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