In The Devil’s Name: The Last Confession of Isobel Gowdie – Veiled Women Series
I shall goe until a hare
Wi sorrow and such meikle care
I shall goe in the Devil’s name
And while I come home again.
I am Isabel Gowdie. There, I freely say it and I always did. And I tell ye true, that all I speak today is freely given too – nobody had to tickle it out of me wi’ their tortures. I was arrested for my sins in April of the year 1662 – this very year – and I was tried in front of witnesses in the Kirk of Aulderne. I confessed four times over! Some, they have been taken away and tortured for nought. Nought I say! Old, ugly women. Spinsters. They had nought to their name and were taken as witches. Witches I say! But them poor fools, they knew no magic. They knew not the witches full power and yet they were killed for it still. But some of us? We are not old and we had warm marriage beds. And I tell ye something more – some of us knew the ways of the Devil himself. Them wicked ways.
Aye I said it to ye and I will say it again, lest you didn’t ken me. We know the witches ways and we deserve our name.
I tell ye true that I renounce and repent them ways now. Them witches ways. Them dark ways. But if I should be burned then I shall go as a Martyr. I will be like the Saints of old! Though I hope that my confessions will save me from the Gallowhill. Though ye tell me this be my last confession afore I am taken to my eternal rest, there may be hope yet.
I have slept precious little in this dank and filthy tollbooth, and even to the end they kept on asking me their questions, the minister Forbes and all his men. Though I confessed in front of witnesses in Kirk of Aulderne they still asked again and again. At first they always liked to probe me when my eyes were heavy, my lids thick wi’ sleep. They grabbed handfuls o’ my long fiery hair and shook my skinny bones awake. Like I was no more than a dusty rag being shaken out of a window. If I still did not fully wake then they used their feet to rouse me. Employed, my face as a mud scraper they did – but tis not just mud on them boots, I tell ye that. For us in our cells must let out our waste whenever and wherever we are. And so my eyes and mouth would sometimes clog up wi’ whatever muck was on the bottom of them boots as they roused me. And then if I screamed or complained they’d tell me that when I slept the Devil was close – for he may come for me in my dreams and I may fly away wi’ him – so they must ask me all I ken afore he stole me away. That’s what they said, at least to begin wi’.
So I told them everything and more. It spilled from me like water from a broken pale. First a trickle and then, as I cracked open more, it rushed out in a torrent. I spoke it out and then they let me sleep. Just a while.
So feel free to ask me again, for I know most of it by heart. Ask me about what I did. About what I saw. For though I lay upon this floor weak wi’ exhaustion, I am fair used to having no sleep. And don’t ye be worrying about the state o’ me for I am used to this biting cold floor and its filthy straw – it has been my bed for a long while now. Days, weeks, months – I have lost count of how many moons have risen and fallen since I’ve been in here. So ask all you want and it will spill from me like rye from an overfull sack. And maybe you will enjoy what you hear more than ye think? Perhaps my last confessions may thrill and excite ye? And, don’t be shy about it – for they also got excited when I told them my tales. Why else would they gasp and groan as they did, if not in some fit of ecstasy? Inflamed, they were. Always eager for more.
In the name of God did I go wi’ the Devil ye ask me? They asked me that too, many times over. At first I denied it but now I remember it different. Aye, I know him – I cannot deny it. He came to me in the year of 1647, more than fifteen years afore now. I met him as I was going between the farmsteads of Drumdewin and the Heads wi’ Margaret Brodie. So I made my covenant wi’ him. He baptised me in his name right then and there in the Kirk of Aulderne wi’ his hand held upon a black book. He marked me as his own on the shoulder. Cut it wi’ a bite. Then he sucked my blood from that cut wi’ his very own mouth, I bare his mark. Ye can see if ye wish. And then soon after, in the New Wards of Inshoch, he came to me again. I were only a young thing, barely wed but I remember it in such detail.
You ask how did he appear to me? Well now, I can tell ye this – He was a big, dark, hairy man, I remember that. Aye, he was very cold, as his member grew large and urged inside of me. He was cold as his great belly pressed hard against my warm one. And he was cold as his driving hips lifted and fell over and over and over upon my soft flesh. And his seed that was cold too. Twas as cold wi’in me as spring well-water. Does that detail quicken your heart? Does it make you quiver wi’ a sudden emotion? Aye, I think it may. And I have more to say on this subject, if it pleases ye. What do ye think o’ that? He came back to me plenty o’ times. Aye, he lay wi’ me many more times after that – stirring me up wi’ his meickle heat and filling me up wi’ his wicked seed.
Sometimes he wore boots and sometimes he had shoes on his feet – like them soldiers who fought in the Battle of Auldearn. But his feet were always forked and cloven beneath them boots, I don’t doubt it. Am I sure o’ it, you ask? They asked me that too. Was I sure o’ his cloven feet and would I swear to it? But o’ course I’m sure! I would swear that his feet were split – whether my eyes saw them or not. And I tell ye why: Twas the Devil that came to me so many times. And I ken the Devil has cloven feet so whether I saw the wi’ my own eyes or not, I am sure his feet were split and hoofed. Like a goat or a roe-buck.
What did I do in the Devil’s name? Oh, they asked me that too. More times than ye can imagine! And if I wouldn’t answer they would grind my scarce meals under their heels. Though my empty belly growled out as if it were possessed. Twas as if I had shaped into a beast, that rumbled and bellowed my hunger! But if I lamented the loss of my food I knew the blunt end of those boots again so I soon learned to speak up and speak out. Aye, I would speak out in the Devils name and they lapped it all up and swallowed it all down like starved dogs. So I shall tell ye what I told them: I did much in the Devil’s name.
First in the churchyard in Nairn we raised the corpse o’ a wee bairn. An un-christened child lifted from its grave. And at the end of Breadley’s cornfield, just opposite the Milne of Nairn, we hacked it up into little pieces wi’ clippings from our finger and toe nails and wee drops of all sorts of grain and some kale leaves. We mixed them all up together and took it to put among the dung heaps on Breadley’s land – for our mixture took away the fruit of his corn. But that were just he beginning o’ the mischief we got up to! And that’s what I told them, too. So they wanted to hear more.
And ye want to hear more too, do ye? Have I whetted your appetite some? Aye, I see that I have. Well, I have plenty more to say, so that’s all well and good.
I told them of the healing we did. The charming for the boneshaw, the healing o’the fevers and the mending o’ bones but this was not the work they wished to hear of. It did not interest them. So I shall not bore you wi’ them details neither, not if they hold no interest to ye.
Ah, but they enjoyed hearing of my coven and our shape-shifting. Did ye hear that, a coven! There was 13 o’ us who would play at our witchcraft. And we all became his beasts, if we chose to. Aye! For ye should believe me when I tell that I could become a Devil’s beast! I told ye afore how I would growl and moan, laying upon my belly or crawling upon my hands and knees in my own filth, here in the tollbooth. That scared them! But their fear beat me black and blue and it threw my food away.
But I tell ye this – afore I was locked up in my shackles I would go into a hare, wi’ sorrow and sigh, and meickle care. But if not a hare then a cat, wi’ sorrow and sigh, and a black shot. And if not a cat then maybe a crow – wi’ sorrow and sigh and a black throw. From women to animal we would go. And when we were in the shape o’ a cat, a crow, a jackdaw, a hare we could go to any our neighbours’ houses, and being witches we would say:
“I conjure thee, Go wi’ me!” and they would instantly turn into whatever shape we were and go wi’ us wherever we wanted. Is that not fun? They would have to do our bidding, no matter what they wanted. So we would straddle a winnowed straw or maybe a beanstalk and shout:
“Horse and hattock in the Devil’s name!” then raise a wind in the his name too and o’er the fields we would go, on our merry way – always calling out in the Devil’s name. Have ye heard such tales as these? I wager not. And nor had they, and it made them hungry to hear more of my stories. They stood wi’ their mouths agape and their fat tongues lolling. I know o’ men’s desires.
But I see your tongue isn’t lolling yet so I know ye can listen for a moment or two more. And let me tell ye how we would shoot the Devil’s arrows! Bolts forged and shaped by the hand o’ the Devil himself. Him and his hollow and boss-backed elf-boys. And though we had no bow to shoot wi’, we would spang them from off our thumbnails. Sometimes we would miss. But if they touched another, be it beast or man or woman, it would kill them stone cold dead, even if they had a coat of mail on them. And we’d say:
“I shoot that man in the Devil’s name,
He shall not whole win hame.
And this shall be also true –
Not a bit of him shall be on lieu.”
We shot a man dead in such a way, can ye believe that? Between the plough shafts. And he fell to the ground onto his nose and his mouth, as dead as midnight on a mid-winter’s night. And then the Devil gave me an arrow and made me shoot a woman in those fields, which I did, and she also fell down dead.
But what o’ our husbands, you ask? What o’ my John Gilbert? What o’ them that should keep us in check? Ah, they are poor fools, if ye don’t mind me saying. For they were none-the-wiser and they slept on as we had our fun. Lest they should find us out of beds, we put a besom in beside them. Aye, that’s right! Nought but a three-legged stool – stubby and wooden and hard. So unlike a woman it seems such a joke. But they wouldn’t ken the besom wasn’t us, for we would say three times:
“I lay down this besom, in the Devil’s name – Let it not stir until I come home again!” and it immediately the besom seemed like a woman beside them, softly asleep and dreaming. Is that not a pretty trick? So wi’out our husband’s knowledge we could sneak in to any house to steal food and drink or we fill up the barrels wi’ our own piss. Or we could meet beyond the Meickle Burn and all go dancing in the Earlseat Hills.
One time, in fact, I rode out on the Devil’s errand as a hare but was chased by a pack o’ dogs. Sharp tooth, hot breath, pointed claw and bubbling spittle as they nipped at my heels. Oh, how they bayed for my blood! I was close to being caught but I was cunning as a fox and swifter than a deer, so I leapt wi’ all my might from house to house until I could turn back again.
Strange how it feels as if the hounds have hunted me down and caught me at last. Here ye are, wi’ ye sharp ways, biting at my heels, come to take me to my death after all. The Hounds of God.
Did I do more, ye say? Aye, for that were not even the half o’ it. If ye want more from me, then more I shall give, for I hate to disappoint. I learned when they came to me afore my trial that they hated to be disappointed. I don’t want no torture machines to coax ought from me! What I say, I say freely – so as not to disappoint! Ye see, their disappointment bruised my flesh black and made my bones crack wi’ pain. Their disappointment pulled my hair out in great clumps and crushed my face into the floor! But the more I spoke, the more excited they became then the less they kicked and beat! And they supped up my tales – supped them up wi’ relish like a dog sucks out the marrow from a bone. So I know now not to disappoint. I learned that quick enough.
Ye ask me what else did we do in the Devil’s name? How about this, then. We made a clay image for to kill the Laird o’ Park’s male children. What do ye make o’ that! Have ye ever heard o’ such a thing? When the clay was made, we used water in the Devil’s name, and kneaded it hard until it looked like rye dough, and then we made it in an image of the Laird’s sons. It had all the parts and features of a child – head, eyes, nose, hands, feet, mouth and little lips. It wanted none of a child’s features, and its hands were folded down by its sides. Its texture was like a crab or a scraped and scalded piglet.
This is what I told them, when they came to the tollbooth. And I said it again to them at the Kirk in front of witnesses from Aulderne and Nairn. They wished for me to swear upon it all. So I told them, as I tell ye now. I told them how we put the clay child’s face near the fire until it shrivelled wi’ the heat, then we put it amongst the hot embers until it glowed red like a coal. After that we would roast it now and then; every other day a part of it would be well roasted. Why? Because the Laird made eyes at me – he wanted a taste o’ wha I had to offer – and when I spurned him he called me vile names and refused to do repairs upon our home. So I wanted the Laird’s male children to suffer by it for payment. Why else?
Do ye think me wicked? I can see it in those eyes that stare at me as if I am the dirt riddled under ye fine shoes. I know that look. I have seen it a hundred times. But I mind it not. For if I speak out to ye as I have, ye may be gentler on me. If I speak out and confess it may soften ye heart that I have been reformed. I can hope that ye ken me and then ye will change their minds on my behalf.
For wi’ all my heart I want no fire to tickle my bare toes nor crackle my flesh from my bones like a suckling pig on a spit – who wants to die that way upon Gallowhill wi’ so many people to watch it? So I shall not mind the looks that ye give me as long as ye promise to hear me out. For let me tell ye this – bad looks don’t kill a woman; they don’t strangle her throat nor burn at her flesh till she is nothing more than a lump of charcoal nor do they gobble her up in great flames. They don’t hurt, so I will take them, wi’ no mind at all.
I have silenced ye a last? Even in the dark of this cell I can see your scorn – ye face says it all. But I ask, do ye want anything more from me? For I have still more to say, if ye will hear it. I can tell a good story, can I not? Tis something I am good at. Spinning a yarn. I would often do so, afore now. I may not be able to ken words that are writen down, but I can speak them as good as the next person. Better than many, I wager. The villagers, they always liked their stories and so I gave them mine. And I see ye like stories too. And if ye care to hear it, perhaps ye will like this one?
I have consorted wi’ the fairy. Aye, that’s right. And not just any fairies but their King and Queen. Perhaps I was enchanted by them? Let me tell ye what I saw: the earth opened at Downie Hill and the Queen of Elfhame received us in her hall. She was wi’ the King who was a braw man. He was well-favoured and broad-faced, much as ye would imagine. And as for the Queen of Elfhames’? Ah well she was brawly clothed in white linens. And nor can I forget the elf-bulls that rollicked and roistered up and down for they scared me! And we feasted and danced under them Fairy Hills. And that’s not all!
Artful fairy spirits would come to us in the coven. Sly ones. I knew them all one by one. We would call upon them and they would wait upon us, if ye please! Let me see if I remember them for ye – for names o’ the fairy are important and the names they give us more important still. Aye, they christened us wi’ fairy names too, that was part of the pact.
There was Swein who was always dressed in grass-green who waited upon Margaret Wilson and named her ‘Pickle Nearest the Wind’ – on accounts of her pissing into the wind! There was Rorie who was always clothed in yellow – he waited upon Bessie Wilson and named her ‘Through the Cornyard’. There was The Roaring Lion who dressed in sea-green – he waited upon Isobel Nichol and called her ‘Bessie Rule’ and young Mac Hector was a sly one who dressed always in grass-green when he waited upon Jean Marten. He gave her the nickname ‘Over the Dyke Wi’ It’ because when we would dance gillatrypes and the Devil leapt she would say “Over the dyke wi’ it!”
Shall I go on? For there were more fairy spirits that I can tell ye about. Your silence is enough and your eyes bright wi’ interest, so I need no more encouragement than that. There was Robert The Ruke dressed in faded dun and Robert Jacks – a ridiculous old cur. There was Laing and Thomas-a-Fairy and then o’ course The Red Reiver, who was my personal spirit. He waited upon me and was always dressed in black. Ah, there were more still but I see ye grow impatient. And I ken the fairy spirits unsettle ye. Perhaps so, perhaps so – for in some ways they unsettled me more than the Devil himself.
I ken ye are wearied from my stories. Uneasy too. They have tickled at your mind and flustered at your britches. Pretty tales they may be but I see from the way the sweat trickles down your face that they have given your nerves a good rattle. I see it behind the hard expression of your eyes: Who is this Devil’s whore? This witchy woman. And ye call through the bars upon the men that have me shackled here, to open my door so ye can go. Aye, ye say your prayer and mark a cross over me, and place the bible on my forehead but I ask will that save my soul? Please…listen! Stay a wee while longer. For the dark is no comfort to me tonight, my last upon this earth. Is the fire is to be my fate? But no… ye turn your back upon me and close the door. I hear your footsteps as you walk away.
No…no, don’t go! For I have made my full confessions, sprung from my own tongue willingly. I am ready to be pardoned! I am ready to be forgiven for all my sins….I do not want to be thrown into the fire and eaten by the flames! I beg ye…
But ye are gone and wi’ it all hope. So I lay here in the bitter dark of my cell to face the fear of my flaming death, alone. And I shall weep in the Devil’s name, wi’ sorrow and such meickle care.
Artwork: The Spirit Witthin by Karen Davis
Isobel Gowdie’s unprecedented confessions of witch-craft in 1662 were allegedly given without torture. Nothing is known about what happened to her after her trial, although it is likley that she was executed as a Witch.