In the middle of a rich green garden in Littletown, Dornoch sits an unremarkable, squat stone. What may seem to be a simple piece of masonry is in fact the memorial to the most brutal and hysterical of executions. It is not an understatement to say that the Witch Trials of the 16th and 17th centuries were a blight on the world’s history, where superstition, religious fervour and an unsurprising persecution of women culminated in the brutal public murders of around 1000 individuals in the UK alone. Over 90% of these recorded individuals (numbers do not account for all rural and vigilante crimes) were women.
In England, accused witches were hung. This was no pleasant death, but positively merciful when compared to the plight of the condemned in Scotland.
Janet Horne and her daughter were two such women arrested in Dornoch (the administrative capital of Sutherland in Scotland), all based on the accusations of their neighbours.
Janet was a lady’s maid in her youth and travelled across the country alongside her mistress. After returning home, she married and had a daughter, after which her story drops off until the trial. We know that late in life Janet and her daughter moved to the small community of Loth, 20 miles north of Dornoch.
In 1727, Janet and her daughter were jailed and dragged before a jury accused of consorting with the devil, charged with ‘bewitching pigs and poultry’. It was said that Janet had turned her daughter into a pony and ‘ridden her until lame’, causing disfigured limbs. The mother rode her daughter to meet with the Devil where Satan himself fitted the daughter with horseshoes.
The trial was over in no time at all, as the local depute sheriff, Captain David Ross, the sheriff-depute of Sutherland, deemed both women to be guilty and condemned them to death. According to a Scotsman article, at her trial, Janet Horne said “I’ve tried to lead a good life, but my people are strangers to me now. My girl has a twisted hand and they whisper terrible things about us. Why do they hate us so?”. As part of her trial, she was asked to recite the Lord’s prayer in Gaelic, but was old and infirm, and stumbled over the first line. This misstep sealed her fate.
The local courts sought to burn both women at the stake, but her daughter was able to escape and flee to safety, but Janet was not so lucky. Most supposed ‘witches’ were strangled before burning, but Janet was not to have this meagre mercy. Janet was stripped naked, covered in boiling tar and feathered before thrown on a barrel and paraded through the town before finally being burned alive.
Were the women witches, evil or corruptive women? Of course not. Its clear that at the time of the trial Janet Horne was suffering from a form of dementia that left her confused and vulnerable to her circumstances. Her daughter also reportedly had a deformity in her hands and feet, a condition that was passed down to her son. For centuries since – on into Bond films and the like – physical disabilities and differences have long been seen as sinister or a sign of ungodly intervention and, of course, such beliefs have no foundation.
According to neighbours, Janet’s daughter’s hands and feet were said to have resembled hooves, hence the escalation to a satanic pony in their cruel fantasies. They told the sheriff that these ‘hooves’ had remained on the woman as her mother had failed to fully transform her back after using her as transport for her witchcraft.
While her daughter was able to escape despite her impediments, Janet was confused as to what was happening after the guilty verdict had been passed. After she had been dragged through the streets, she was said to have smiled and warmed her hands on the fire that was set before her, saying “Oh, what a bonny blaze”, not knowing that it was to consume her.
It was nine more years before the witchcraft acts were repealed in Scotland. Many scholars have looked back at the trial and deemed it unlawful for the time, as the depute sheriff who took the reins of the trial did not have the authority to conduct proceedings, or pronounce on their fate.
For all of the trial’s brutality, it is unclear what Janet Horne’s real name actually was. Janet or ‘Jenny’ Horne was a popular nickname for witches in the north of Scotland for many years and over time, the woman’s real identity may have been lost or conflated by contemporary writers who didn’t understand the popularity of the nickname.
The stone at Littletown is now housed in a private garden, but can be seen from the road (although it has weathered considerably over the years). At some point it was carved with the date 1722, which should read 1727. The modest ‘Witch’s Stone’ is one of few witch memorials across Scotland, but a poignant reminder of the dangers of religious fervour, scaremongering and demonisation of the ‘other’.
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