Janet Horne - The last witch in Scotland

Written by Chris Thornton | 14th of September 2022
Janet Horne - The last witch in Scotland

Janet Horne was the last person to be executed in Scotland for being a witch. This is a very sad story of a poor old woman with senile dementia who was burned alive for "consorting with the devil".

Scotland was one of the worst places to be accused of being a witch, with an execution rate five times higher than the rest of Europe.

Let's look at the story of Janet Horne.

Who was Janet Horne?

Her actual name is unknown, "Janet Horne" or "Jenny Horne" was the name given to all Scottish witches. Given that the "Janet" in our story suffered from severe mental health problems, the authorities who ordered her death likely did not know her real name.

What could be found out about our Janet Horne is that she was a maid for a lady and travelled abroad to Italy with her before settling down in Dornoch. Janet married and had a daughter who was unfortunately born with deformed hands and feet resembling a pony's hooves.

Moving to Kintradwell

Janet relocated to the village of Kintradwell just north of Borora in north Scotland. This was the beginning of the end for poor Janet; the locals saw her as an "incomer" and looked at Janet with suspicion and hostility. Who knows why the locals were so aggressive towards Janet? Perhaps she took someone's job or lived in a home that someone else wanted. There must have been some incentive behind her witch-hunt.

Accusations of witchcraft

In the 1700s, the local population still believed in fairies. Children born with physical deformities were known as changelings or children taken by the fairies and replaced with a deformed alternative. Deformed children were often held over fires as a form of exorcism or left on the beach to drown.

In the case of Janet, the locals accused her of transforming her daughter into a pony, her hoove-like hands given as proof of a failed attempt to restore her to human form.

Her neighbours accused Janet of "Riding her daughter like a pony after she had been shod by the devil".

Captain David Ross

Both Janet and her daughter were incarcerated within the Tolbooth in Dornoch, which was once the chapter house of the nearby Dornoch Cathedral.

Deputy Sheriff David Ross put Janet and her daughter on trial, exceeding his authority on the matter and failed to inform the King's Advocate - Robert Dundas of Arniston - who may have put an end to the charade of a trial.

Dornoch Jail.  Stone version.
Dornoch Jail, now a retail unit and tourist attraction.
 
Dornoch Cathedral, Scottish history. Witchcraft acts were repealed.
Dornoch Cathedral would have bore witness to the horrible event of Janet's execution, 300 years ago.

Witches Trial

One of the tests Janet had to pass was to recite the Lord's Prayer in Gaelic; unfortunately, she made a mistake:

"Ar n-Athair a bha air neamh" - "Our Father who wert in heaven".

Instead of:

"Ar n-Athair a -ta air neamh" - "Our Father who art in heaven".

This simple error was regarded as positive proof that Janet was in league with the Devil; she was sentenced to death for violating the Witchcraft Act 1563.

There is a good chance that Janet had senile dementia and would have been wholly incapable of passing any tests given to her or being of sound mind to defend herself adequately.

Janet's daughter managed to escape knowing full well the fate that awaited her had she remained with her poor mother - Janet had been sentenced to be burned alive the following day.

Janet Horne's Burning

Janet was stripped naked, covered in tar and dusted with feathers, then carted around Dornoch within the tar barrel. She was taken to Littletown, part of Dornoch, and upon seeing the fire that would be her end, she commented, "Eh, what a bonny blaze" - furthering the theory she had no idea of what was about to happen. She commented that it was "such a good fire" and that her neighbours who gathered around it made such a "cheerful sight".

Janet Horne did not understand what was about to happen and warmed herself by the fire.

Most witches were first strangled to death before burning, but it's said Janet Horne was burnt alive.

Janet Horne Memorial Stone - The Witches Stone

Known locally as The Witch's Stone, it commemorates the burning of Janet Horne and marks the location of the fire that killed her. No one knows who erected the stone, but the date of 1722 engraved on the stone is accepted as being incorrect; the burning occurred in 1727. This could mean the stone was placed there much later, with no one knowing the exact date Janet was executed.

A board provided by Historylinks Museum exists near the stone. There is a quote claiming she testified against her impending death:

"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?".

I find this quote suspicious. If her real name, her daughter's name and other facts about Janet Horne did not survive, I doubt such a long quote would have survived over hundreds of years. All of the known evidence points to her suffering from senility; it's doubtful she could defend herself with that short but eloquent speech.

Witch's Stone information board.
The Witch's Stone information board provided by Historylinks Museum.

Instead of a place of quiet contemplation of the horrors that occurred here 295 years ago, the site of the stone is often mobbed by tourists gobbling icecreams purchased in the now tourist-oriented Dornoch. Janet's death has become a local legend and a tale of horror to delight in, designed to attract more tourists.

Using these horrible tales to increase tourism never sits well with me; the same happened on a tour of the underground vaults in Edinburgh, with the tour guide gleefully telling us about child torture.

Where is the Witch's Stone located?

The Witch's Stone can be found on Carnaig Street within the garden of number 13. It is within easy walking distance from the centre of Dornoch or from Dornoch Beach/caravan site.

Dornoch Witch's Stone - 1920. The stone marks the location of Janet Horne's execution.
The Witch's Stone as seen in 1920, the date is clearer here but should say 1727.

Janet Horne's daughter

Little information exists on what happened to Janet's daughter; why did she not take her mother with her? Where did she go? Could Janet's daughter have been involved with the memorial stone?

The Countess of Sutherland is said to have written an account of the story of Janet Horne to Sir Walter Scott. She mentions that the daughter's grandson lived on her family estate and had the same genetic hand malformation, so perhaps the rest of her life was filled with love; I really hope it was.

Very little is known about Janet Horne's husband.

Repeal of the Witchcraft Act 1563

In 1736, nine years after Janet Horne's shameful burning, Parliament repealed the statutes against witchcraft acts - it was no longer an offence punishable by death. However, you could still be arrested and imprisoned if accused of witchcraft.

Some factions of the church did not agree with the parliamentary act exclaiming it was a "national sin" and "contrary to the Law of God" as within the bible, Exodus Chapter 22, v18 says, "Though shalt not suffer a witch to live".

Despite the law being relaxed, Dornoch was still a very superstitious place. Donald Mackay killed a woman in 1738, claiming she could transform into a hare and therefore was a witch. He was hung for this crime, and a plaque marks the spot of his death at Gallow Hill. It's a sad state of affairs that the name of the murdered woman was not recorded, but the story of Donald Mackay remains.

Surprisingly the Act of 1736 was not completely repealed until 1951 with the "Fraudulent Medium's Act".

An official apology

It's thought that as many as 4000 innocent women were found guilty of witchcraft in Scotland, and around 2500 were executed, according to a study by the University of Edinburgh.

This year, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon formally apologised to women accused of witchcraft between the 16th and 18th centuries.

“At a time when women were not even allowed to speak as witnesses in a courtroom, they were accused and killed because they were poor, different, vulnerable or in many cases just because they were women. It was injustice on a colossal scale."
Nicola Sturgeon

Edwin Morgan's Poem

Edwin Morgan was made "Scots Makar" in 2004 and wrote this poem named "Janet Horne":

In Dornoch there was a burning
With no sign of mourning
That January morning

This was the final solution
The last execution
Of an ancient persecution

For they called it witchcraft
An old woman's stitchcraft
Or a bit of leechcraft

Century of enlightenment
Still thirled to torment
Thumbscrews and judgement

Janet made a pony
Of her daughter, says the story
Rode her for Satan's glory

They tarred her and feathered her
Bound her and gathered her
Screaming and barrelled her

Burning in the peat-smoke
While the good Dornoch folk
Paused briefly for a look

Dear God were you sleeping
You were certainly not weeping
She was not in your keeping

Today there is a garden
Where a stone stands guard on
The spot she was charred on

O heart never harden!

What could lead to an accusation of witchcraft?

It would take very little for a woman to be accused of witchcraft. Here are just of few of the reasons for women to be named witches:

  • Being a healer/midwife and having knowledge of herbs to make medicine.

  • Having a physical deformity such as a hunched back or facial wart.

  • Being over 40 and living alone.

  • They had no children. Childless women were often blamed for the sickness or death of children in the community.

  • Having sex outside of marriage.

  • Talking to yourself.

  • Not dressing smartly enough.

  • Associating with someone else accused of being a witch.

  • Being left-handed.

Conclusion

How lucky are we to live in a time where people can get a fair trial and aren't just executed on the whispers and superstitions of evil neighbours? It's a sobering thought that Janet Horne's story is just one example of witch-hunts in Scotland out of thousands.

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