We're happy to welcome back author Greg Stewart, who has shared more of his research into the lives of accused witches in Scotland. Here he explores the accusations made against Alison Pearson, who was born near St Andrews in 1533.
Alesoun Pierson (Alison Pearson) lived in the tiny village of Boarhills, just outside St Andrews, and was known as a gifted herbal healer. She is likely to have come from a family of healers, as she had suffered ill health as a child yet had defied the odds to grow into adulthood. This was however something that would come back to haunt her.
Her reputation as a healer is said to have reached Archbishop Hamilton of St Andrews. At that time, he was suffering from a mysterious disease that the best physicians in the land had failed to heal, and so he sent for Alison. In a house in South Street, St Andrews, she administered a potion and ointment she had prepared, and the Archbishop made a speedy recovery.
It was said that Alison had not only used witchcraft to heal him, but that she had transferred his illness to a white horse, which subsequently died.
With the Protestant Reformation growing, the Archbishop did however have many enemies, and as word spread of his recovery, so too did the rumours. It was said that Alison had not only used witchcraft to heal him, but that she had transferred his illness to a white horse, which subsequently died. As a result, she was arrested and taken in for questioning, leaving the Archbishop in an impossible situation. Queen Mary’s Witchcraft Act of 1563, made it not only punishable by death to consult with a witch, but equally punishable by death to aid a witch. Hamilton could not speak up in her defence during the trial, or he too would have been locked up and questioned.
He seemingly had no option but to await the outcome of the trial, yet a twist of fate saved him. The order was given for Alison to be imprisoned in the Archbishop’s castle while awaiting trial, and on that very night she somehow managed to escape! There is little doubt that the Archbishop had ordered her guards to release her, a possible act of kindness to the woman who had cured him, yet also an act of self-preservation. With Alison only being accused of, but never being convicted of witchcraft, he could not be accused of consulting with a witch.
Alison was not heard of again until 1588 when she was captured in Edinburgh and again accused of witchcraft. At her trial, she confessed to learning her healing ways from the faeries. She claimed that when she had been 12 years old she was out picking herbs at Dunino, close to her home, when she fell desperately ill. Her deceased cousin, William Simpson, had appeared to her in the form of a green man, and offered to heal her if she agreed to come with him to Elfhame, the legendary Faerie Kingdom, to learn the art of herbal medicine. She agreed, and was taken there by her cousin who introduced her to the Queen of Elfhame. Over the following years she was transported back and forwards between her home and Elfhame until she completed her studies. During this time she made a complete recovery from her own illnesses. Alison was found guilty and sentenced to death and, on 28th May 1588, she was first strangled and her body then burned to ash, some reports say in Edinburgh, others in St Andrews.
Some of the records of the accusations made against Alison in fact refer to her treatment of the mysterious illness killing the Archbishop ... a clear indication of the way facts could be manipulated and twisted to secure the conviction.
Looking back at the story of Alison, not only are the accusations absurd, but the timeline seems wrong. Which Archbishop Hamilton she is associated with is unclear. Archbishop John Hamilton is recorded as having suffered from a seemingly incurable disease, but this was treated by the Italian physician Gerolamo Cardano, reputedly around 1553. John Hamilton was later hung in 1571 for being associated with the assassination of James Stewart, the Earl of Moray. This was 17 years before Alison’s eventual conviction, and although he was succeeded by Gavin Hamilton, he also died in 1571. Some of the records of the accusations made against Alison in fact refer to her treatment of the mysterious illness killing the Archbishop, likely a reference to Gavin Hamilton, and a clear indication of the way facts could be manipulated and twisted to secure the conviction. Alison was also named in later trials, with it being said her ghost lured women to Elfhame to be trained by the Faeries.
Greg published his book Witch Memorials of Scotland in 2019, which you can purchase here.