The Accused Women and Men of Ayrshire: An Introduction
Updated: Sep 8
Local historian and campaigner, Heather Upfield, has kindly shared some of her new research.
Early in 2022, I was presented with a beautiful piece of original artwork by a good friend from Aberdeen, who paints under the name Ivo Von Engine. He had been deeply affected by reading of the fate of The Five Women of Kilwinning, having read my booklet. It inspired him to respond with a painting, which he sent to me as a gift. In April 2022, I formally presented it to Kilwinning Heritage on permanent loan, where it forms our Memorial to The Five Women of Kilwinning, in the Abbey Tower Heritage Centre, in perpetuity.
I should add, that over the past two years, Kilwinning Heritage has had long debates about Memorials, and we decided that anything outside in the grounds of the ruined Abbey, would be vulnerable to vandalism, which I am sorry to say, is not uncommon. For this reason, we opted for a Memorial inside the Heritage Centre. When Ivo’s artwork was received, there was agreement that it made a perfect tribute to The Five Women of Kilwinning Accused of Witchcraft in the 17th Century.
When I started researching the Accused Women of Kilwinning in North Ayrshire, in June 2020, it was a small and modest project for Kilwinning Heritage, our local history society. The thrust of the research was aimed at proving once and for all, that the Bessie Grahame of Kilwinning legends and tales, were true. And I found she did exist, she was accused and imprisoned in the old Abbey tower and was convicted and burnt in 1650. The research also found four other women of Kilwinning, about whom far less is known. This is how The Five Women of Kilwinning came to be written.
But having started the research with Kilwinning I also picked up on many others throughout the Lands of Cunninghame, as North Ayrshire was known back in the seventeenth century. From Irvine to Largs and all villages in between, there were other women and men under the jurisdiction of Irvine Presbytery, who were also caught up in the purge. Some of them I have included in The Five Women of Kilwinning.
But I wanted to record all the North Ayrshire names that I could find, and so the first spreadsheet, for North Ayrshire, came to be compiled. Having done that, it became something of an imperative for me, to look at the wider picture for the original County which was once just called Ayr. As well as North Ayrshire, this includes East Ayrshire and South Ayrshire. And so the second spreadsheet for Others in Ayrshire was generated.
The spreadsheets give locations, names and dates, and information about the cases where it is known. They are intended to memorialise the names of the women and men of Ayr but not intended to be an in-depth study. They are a record and starting point for anyone who would like to dig deeper.
There are a couple of points in connection with locations in the North Ayrshire spreadsheet:
I have included entries for Dunlop, Fenwick and Kilmaurs. They are now in East Ayrshire, but in the seventeenth century they came under the jurisdiction of Irvine Presbytery
In the Largs section, there are several entries for women from Greenock, now in Inverclyde. However, again, back in the seventeenth century, part of Largs was in the Parish of Greenock. But these women were tried under the jurisdiction of Irvine Presbytery
Although the Isle of Arran is now part of North Ayrshire, I have not included their names, as originally the Isle was part of Argyll & Bute
And here I have to debunk a myth! I have not included Sarah Vincent of Saltcoats, despite several websites claiming her as a Saltcoats witch. The confusion began with a grave marker in Saltcoats Kirk graveyard, which is so badly eroded that its detail is incomprehensible. It was long thought that it read “The Burning Place of Sarah Vincent of Saltcoats” and was thus purported to be the name of a convicted witch. However, as no accused witch would have been burnt in a Kirk setting, it seemed most unlikely to me. I could find no record of a woman with this name being accused and I took it up with the Cultural and Heritage services of North Ayrshire Council, who agreed with me. They too, had done their own searches. Eventually, I received notification from a Director of University of Edinburgh database, that there is no record of a Sarah Vincent anywhere in Scotland until the late nineteenth century. The whole myth has been based on the misreading of a corrupted text, which originally would have read “The Burying Place of Sarah Vincent of Saltcoats”. Innocent!
But the story needs to finish with Dorothy. At the time of writing The Five Women of Kilwinning, she was a 99 year old Kilwinning resident who had spent many years campaigning for their story to be told. It was her persistence and dedication to the cause, that saw Kilwinning Heritage ask me to do the research, which I did in 2019. Since then, I have kept Dorothy up-to-date with all the progress that has been made, especially her presence on Facebook group Remembering the Accused Witches of Scotland! It was a great pleasure to receive an invitation to her 100th Birthday Party, which was held on 13 November 2021, in Kilwinning. Before I left, I was able to get a photograph of Dorothy and myself, with the booklet The Five Women of Kilwinning, as a permanent record of this happy collaboration and birthday party. After I had posted the photo on Facebook, there were 170 Likes/Loves and a number of personal “Happy Birthday Dorothy” comments. Thank you everyone, the comments will be passed on to her, when I next visit. Bless Dorothy for never giving up!
Download Heather's spreadsheets:
Sources: Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database and Maps from University of Edinburgh online resource. Larner, Hyde Lee & McLachlan (2005).
A Source-book of Scottish Witchcraft, The Grimsay Press, Glasgow.
Other local historians who have shared their findings: Billy Kerr of Irvine and Laurna Cron of Troon.
Heather's booklet, The Five Women of Kilwinning, is available to purchase via Kilwinning Heritage.