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History of Caithness
J. T. Calder
Appendix No 2 - Superstition



Pref. 2nd Edition

Publishers Preface

Memoir of Author


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Appendix 1

Appendix 2 Roads

App 2 - Superstition

App 2  - Houses, Dress

App 2 - Extracts

App 3 - Extracts


Notes To 2nd Edition


Caithness In 1887


Perhaps in no county in Scotland, with the exception of Orkney, did superstition more abound than in Caithness. The clergy tried to grapple with the evil; but in some respects they were as superstitious themselves as the people.  One imaginary source of crime in the existence of which they firmly believed was witchcraft, and to it frequent reference is made in the Presbytery records.  For instance, in 1698, “the Presbytery being informed that sorcery and witchcraft abounded much in the parish of Wick, and that sorcerers banished out of Orkney lurked there, recommend seriously to the heritors and magistrates to banish all such out of the town.”  Again, in 1719, “several persons in Thurso being suspected of witchcraft and formal compact with the devil,” the Presbytery ordered the minister to write to the sheriff and church agent for commissions to try them.  The Presbytery, at the same time, resolve to hold a general fast “on account of the abounding of all vice, and the practice of that mysterious wickedness of witchcraft, sorcery, and other handiworks of the devil.”  “The circumstance,” says Dr. P. B. Henderson, “which gave rise to these proceedings was the story of Margaret M’Gilbert.  The tradition is that a person named Hugh Montgomery, in Scrabster, was much annoyed at the unaccountable consumption of his ale.  Resolved to ascertain the cause, he one night kept watch in his cellar, and at last saw a company of cats stealing into the room.  He waited patiently for a time, but when they commenced an attack upon his ale he could contain himself no longer.  He valiantly assaulted the intruders with his sword, and cut off the leg of one of them.  Very soon after a rumour arose that a venerable dame living at Oust, in the narish of Thurso, who had long the reputation of being ‘no canny,’ was ill in bed and without a leg.  Conjecture ripened into belief, anti it was speedily decided that she was the identical cat that had been deprived of her leg in Montgomery’s cellar.  She was forthwith apprehended and conveyed into town.  The sheriff was soon on the spot, and took a precognition of the affair.  This, the most nonsensical, says Sir W. Scott, in his work on ‘Demonology,’ of all the nonsensical papers ever written on such a subject, was remitted to the Lord Advocate (Robert Dundas), who severely censured the sheriff for taking up the case, and ordered the proceedings to be quashed.  In the meantime the poor old creature had been left neglected in prison, and actually died of the ill usage she had experienced.”  Pennant, who heard of this ridiculous story when making the tour of Caithness, gravely asks what part of the old lady would have been wanting had the cat’s tail been cut off?  To this very puzzling question Robert Mackay, the historian of the Clan Mackay, indignantly replies, “Both the inquiry itself, and the question whether or not it was witty, might have been suspended until it was ascertained that such cats had tails!”

Dr. Charles Mackay, in his “Popular Delusions,” gives a different version of this story, which I slightly abbreviate.  He says that Montgomery was a carpenter who had a mortal antipathy to cats, and somehow or other these animals generally chose his backyard for their caterwaulings.  He puzzled his brains for a long time to know why he above all his neighbours should be so pestered.  At last he came to the sage conclusion that his tormentors were not cats, but witches.  The next time the unlucky tabbies assembled in the backyard he rushed out among them with an axe, a dirk, and a broadsword, mortally wounded two of them and maimed the leg of a third with his axe, but did not capture any of them.  A few days afterwards two old women of the parish died with the marks of wounds on their bodies.  The third, Nanny Gilbert, was found in bed with her leg broken.  She was brought to Thurso, and being put to the torture, confessed that she was indeed a witch, that the two old women recently deceased were witches also, besides about a score of others whom she named.  From the ill usage she had received she died the next day in prison.  Happily for the persons she had named in her confession, Dundas of Arniston, at that time the King’s Advocate General, wrote to the sheriff-depute, one Captain Ross of Littledean, cautioning him not to proceed to trial, the “thing being of too great difficulty, and beyond the jurisdiction of an inferior court.” He himself examined the pre­cognition with great care, and was so convinced of the folly of the whole case that lie quashed all further proceedings.


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App 2 Roads