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'Scotland's last witch' burnt alive almost 300 years ago

Janet Horne was one of more than 3000 women killed after being accused of witchcraft in Scotland.

By STV News

Published 26 Sep 2019.

Almost 300 years ago, the last woman to be accused of witchcraft in Scotland was burnt alive.

Janet Horne, an older woman with a daughter and a husband, had become a victim of superstition and whispers in the Sutherland town of Dornoch in 1727.

It is thought Janet had been a ladies' maid and had travelled to Europe, possibly to Italy with her mistress.

Upon her return, she settled in Kintradwell with her husband and daughter, who had three fingers which were fused together. This defect, whether from birth or accidental, began to cause her neighbours to whisper.

"I don't know if that was something from birth, it possibly was an accident, we're not really sure," explains Lynne Mahoney, curator at History Links Museum.

"But the neighbours accused Janet of turning her daughter into a pony and having the pony shod by the devil so that she could ride to the covens on her daughter's back and practise witchcraft."

Janet was one of thousands of people in Scotland who were persecuted, tortured and burned alive after being accused of witchcraft during the 16th and 17th century.

Now the locations and stories of their executions are available to explore through an online map created by the University of Edinburgh.

The study has also attempted to piece together records ascertaining their fates and found a total of 3141 accused witches across the country.

The map proves Scotland was a dangerous place to be accused of being a witch, with five times the number of executions taking place than in the rest of Europe.

"I think it would have been a really frightening time, because if you were slightly different, or you were using herbs to heal, anything like that that people would consider not the norm, then you would be under suspicion really of witchcraft," Ms Mahoney said.

There have also been reports that Janet may have been suffering from dementia and that she wasn't fully aware of the pressure which was mounting upon her thanks to her family's supposed differences.

"I think [Janet's] daughter's hand problem confirmed in the minds of the local people that there was something about the black arts here," Ms Mahoney added.

Both Janet and her daughter were arrested and taken to the Tollbooth in Dornoch and imprisoned.

It would be Janet's next move, a seemingly small mistake that would seal her fate.

"When Janet went to trial, she was asked to say the Lord's Prayer in Gaelic," Ms Mahoney said.

"Now she made one mistake, instead of 'who art in heaven', she said 'who wurt in heaven' and this was enough to condemn her to death."

Women accused of being witches were subject to abject torture.

They were made to stay awake for days on end in order to extract confessions or thrown into water bound by ropes to test their powers.

For Janet, she was humiliated by being covered in tar then rolled in feathers and made to parade through the town.

"The humiliation of that alone is enough to kill you probably, she was an older lady and if she did have dementia, then this must have been the most frighteningly horrific thing for her," Ms Mahoney said.

Janet was taken to the Dornoch Links, which at the time was a piece of waste ground and was burnt to death in a barrel of tar.

Ms Mahoney said there are numerous stories about Janet's final moments and what she may have been thinking staring at the flames.

"Some stories say that when she got to the place she was to be burned, there was already a fire there and she warmed her hands and said 'what a bonny blaze' because she didn't really understand what was going on.

"Others say that she said 'Poor Dornoch, pity you tonight'. She was probably thinking 'you don't know what you're doing'."

Just nine years after Janet's death, the witchcraft acts were repealed in Scotland.

The Witches Stone which lies in the gardens of a cottage in Dornoch marks the place of her execution and serves as a reminder of Scotland's brutal past.