In Robert Pitcairn’s ‘Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland’ is a very interesting transcription of an assizes court record for May 1588 from Byrehill, Fife, of a woman named Allison Pearson (‘Alesoun Peirsoun’) who was accused of Sorcery and Witchcraft, for which she was subsequently executed by garrotting and burning.
The trial is interesting on two counts – firstly to historians of Elizabethan/Jacobean political and religious intrigue, as there was a scandalous connection between Allison and the deposed Bishop of St Andrews, Patrick Adamson. Alesoun’s trial was just two years before the famous North Berwick witch trials, presided over by King James himself, who interviewed the traditional healer Agnes Sampson – a character no doubt like Aleisoun in her beliefs. James VI showed an inordinate interest in witchcraft during the 1590’s – a period of great political suspicion and instability. Of the Peirsoun case, it is interesting that a polemic poem The Legend of the Bischop of St Androis Lyfe (supposed to have been written by William Sempill) appears to have been written mentioning the case and making a salubrious innuendo that Aleisoun was caught giving sexual favours to the Bishop in his chamber!
Secondly, and most relevant to us, because of the details it records about Pearson’s account of ‘going’ with the court of the fairy queen and dallying with her entourage, and how they taught her special knowledge of healing herbs. This was interpreted as ‘sorcery and witchcraft’ but the details of her confession as presented in the surviving court documents tell a tale of fairy belief, illumination from the otherworld and the frightening and terrifying regard in which these spirits were held…
The items of her conviction were detailed as follows … for those not up to reading Middle Scots and ‘yoghs'(3) etc, I provide my own translation:
Source: ‘Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, Compiled from the original records and mss, with Historical illustrations &c Volume 1, Part 3, 1584-1596’ by Robert Pitcairn; Pub. Edinburgh 1843 The Bannatyne Club. pp.161-165
“… VERDICT: The said Alesoune, being put to the knawledge of ane Assyis of the personis aboue writtin, wes conuict be thair delyuerance of the vsing of Sorcerie and Wichcraft, with the Inuocatioun of the spreitis of the Dewill, speciallie in the visioune and forme of ane Mr William Sympsoune, hir cousing and moder-brotheris sone, quha sche affermit wes ane grit scoller and doctor of medicin, that haillit hir of hir diseis in Lowtheane within the toun of Edinburghe, quhair scho reparit to him being twell 3eiris of aige, and thair cuming and ganging be the space of sewin 3eiris, quhen scho wes helpit of hir seiknes quhilk scho had quhan hir poistee and power wes tane fra hir hand and fute, continewing thairby in familiaritie with him be the space foirsaid, dealing with charmes and abusing of the commoun people thairwith be the said airt of Wichcraft thir diuers 3eiris bypast… ”
“… VERDICT: The said Alesoune, being put to the knowledge of an assize of the persons above written, was convicted by their deliberation of the using of Sorcery and Witchcraft, with the invocations of the sprites of the Devil, especially in the apparition and form of one ‘Mr William Sympsoune’, her cousin by her mother’s brother, who she affirmed was a great scholar and doctor of medicine, that healed her of all diseases in Lothian, within the town of Edinburgh, where she repaired to him at the age of twelve, and with whom she had dealings for seven years, and was finally cured of a paralysis affecting her hand and foot, continuing in familiarity with him in that time, and afterwards dealing in charms and abusing the common people with these for many years afterwards…”
The preamble is unusual as it states that William Sympsoun was both the devil and her cousin, suggesting that he might be a living person. Also, it states that Aleisoun was only 12 years of age when she arrived in Edinburgh. Things get more interesting as the record proceeds…
” … (2.) ITEM, for hanting and repairing with the gude nychtbouris and Quene of Elfame, thir diuers 3eiris bypast as scho had confest be hir depositiounis, declaring that scho could nocht say reddelie how lang scho wes with thame; and that scho had freindis in that court quhilk wes of hir awin blude, quha had gude acquentance of the Quene of Elphane, quhilk mycht helpit hir: bot scho wes quhyles weill and quhyles ewill, and ane quhyle with thame and ane vthir quhyle away; and that scho wald be in hir bed haill and feir, and wald nocht wit quhair scho wald be or the morne: And that scho saw nocht the Quene thir sewin 3eir: And that scho had mony guid freindis in that court bot wer all away now; And that scho wes sewin 3eir ewill handlit in the Court of Elfane, and had kynd freindis their, bot had na will to vifleit thame eftir the end: And that itt wes thay3 guid nychtbouris that haillit hir vnder God; And that scho wes cuming and gangand to Sanct Androus in hailling folkis thir saxtene 3eiris bypast … “
“… (2.) ITEM, for associating and staying with the ‘good neighbours’ (fairies) and the Queen of Elfland during many years past, as she has confessed in her disposition, albeit that she cannot recall for how long she was with them; And that she had friends in the Fairy Court who were relatives of hers, who were also on good terms with the Fairy Queen, and offered her assistance. She realised that while she was with them she was well, but when away from them she was sick; Although she would retire to bed in good form, she might wake the next morning and not know where she was. During this period of seven years she did not see the Queen herself, but encountered many dead friends, although eventually grew tired of visiting with them. And, that it was these ‘good neighbours’ who healed her by God’s will, and for the past 16 years, she has been coming and going to St Andrews to heal people… “
That some of these ‘good neighbours’ were known to Aleisoun as family members, who offered her help is an important aspect to the Gaelic fairy mythology. As we shall see, Aleisoun found sympathy from these members of the Seelie Court, but those who were not her relatives were of a more sinister nature in their behaviour to her. The court deposition further details the family member she alleged to have met.
“(3.) ITEM Conuict of the said airt of Wiche craft, in sa far as be hir Depositioune, scho confest that the said Mr Sympsoun quha wes hir guidschire sone, borne in Striuiling, his fader wes Kingis smyth, lernit hir craft; quha wes tane away fra his fader be ane mann Egypt, ane gyant, being bot ane barne, quha had him away to Egypt with him, quhair he remanit to the space of tuell 3eiris, or he come haine agane and that his fader deit in the meane tyme for opining of ane preist buik and luking vponne it. And that the said Mr Williame haillit hir sone eftir his hame cumming…”
“(3.) ITEM Convicted of the said art of Witchcraft by her own deposition, she confessed that the said Mr Sympsoun, who was her godfather’s son, born in Sterling where his father was the King’s blacksmith, taught her the craft; He was taken away from his father by a man of Egypt (AR: ‘gypsy’), a giant, when he was but a child, who had him away to Egypt with him, where he remained for the space of 12 years, before coming home again after his father was killed for professing his Catholic faith. And that the said Mt William healed her after his homecoming….”
The theme of being ‘stolen away by gypsies’ (the word gypsy means ‘egyptian’) was a common motif in medieval and early-modern folklore. ‘Gypsies’ – like ‘fairies’ – were often used as an explanation for both abduction and the learning of hidden knowledge. Another ‘out-group’ with a similar reputation who might be blamed were Jews, and in Elizabethan/Jacobean England and Scotland – Clansmen and their Romish kind... Here, we see the court explaining Simpson as ‘gypsy-taught’, although his disappearance might have had as much to with the political fallout and murders around the time of the death of Mary, Queen of Scots. His father was royal armourer – a high status individual. This would make Aleisoun herself of reasonably high status too, perhaps explaining why she ended up at the Bishop’s court…
In Item 4, she admits – at around the age of 12 – to having had what sounds like a possibly sexual encounter with fairies (although they might possibly have been humans). The jolly man dressed in green is a coded way of describinging a man from the fairy world in medieval and later folklore.
“…(4.) ITEM that scho being in Grange-mure with the folkis that past to the Mure, scho lay doun seik alane and thair come ane man to hir cled in grene clathis quha said to hir, ‘Gif scho wald be faithfull he wald do hir guid’; and that scho seing him cryit for help bot nane hard hir; and thane scho chargeit him, ‘In Godis name and the low he leuit one’, that if he come in Godis name and for the weill of hir saull, he sould tell; Bot he gaid away thane and apperit to hir att ane vther tyme, ane lustie mane, with mony mene and wemen with him: And that scho sanit hir and prayit, and past with thame fordir nor scho could tell; and saw with thame pypeing and mirrynes and gude scheir, and wes careit to Lowtheane, and saw wyne punchounis with tassis with thame: And quhene scho tellis of thir thingis, declarit scho wes sairlie tormentit with thame. And that scho gatt ane fair straik the fyrst tyme scho gaid with thame, fra ane of thame quhilk tuke all the poistie of hir car syde fra hir, the mark quhairof wes blae and ewill faurrit; quhilk mark scho felt nocht and that hir syd wes far war…”
“…(4.) ITEM that she being in Grangemuir with the people that held that estate, she lay down sick by herself, when a man dressed in green came to her and said that ‘if she would be with him, he would offer her boons’, and that on seeing him she cried for help, but no-one heard her; and then she confronted him, (saying) ‘In the name of God and the Law he lives under’, that if he came in God’s name and for the good of her soul, he should tell. He went away then, but appeared to her another time, a merry man in the company of many men and women. She sained herself and prayed, and accompanied them, losing track of time; They were playing pipes and tambourines and making merry, and she was swept along to Lothian, when they took out wine puncheons and began to (?)make (sexual) teases. And when she told of their actions, declared she was sorely tormented by them. And, that she was struck hard the first time she went with them, for one of them caused her to lose power down her left side, causing a bruise of ill-disposition, yet which did not hurt and it was her paralysis which concerned her more…”
The initial encounter sees Aleisoun feeling sick and then lying down, when she encounters a green-clad man who makes her feel uneasy and vulnerable. She eventually follows him and an entourage on a number of gallivants, culminating in the arrival in Lothian when a dangerous encounter follows: The phrase ‘and saw wyne punchounis with tassis with thame’seems to suggest the party plied Aleisoun with wine and began ‘teases’ (tasses) which might imply sexual molestation or interaction of some sort. Whatever happened, these ‘people’ who were subsequently violent with her and made threats, and she suffered the condition known as ‘fairy stroke’ – unilateral paralysis. A relationship of secret trust had been established, perhaps initiated with the sexual encounter, from which she was to gain some powers, albeit under the threat of harm for breaking their trust. Subsequent to these ongoing encounters and a sickness they engender, she begins to learn the healing arts from them, assuming the sequence of the indictment reflects her own confession:
(5.) ITEM, that scho saw the guid nychtbouris mak thair sawis with panis and fyris, and that thay gadderit thair herbis before the sone rising, as scho did. And that thay come verry feirfull sumtymes and fleit hir verry sair, and scho cryit quhene thay come. And that thay come quhyles anis in the aucht dayes, and quhene scho tauld last of it thay come to hir and boistit hir, saying scho sould be war handlit nor of befoir; and that thaireftir thay tuke the haill poistie of hir syde in sie soirt, that scho lay tuentie oulkis thaireftir. And that oft tymes thay wald cum and sitt besyde hir and promesit that scho sould newir want gif scho wald be faithfull and keip promeis, bot gif scho wald speik and tell of thame and thair doingis thay sould martir hir. And that Mr Williame Sympsoun is with thame quha haillit hir and teichit hir all thingis, and speikis and wairnis hir of thair cuming and saulfis hir and that he was ane 3oung man nocht sax 3eiris eldar nor hirselff, and that scho wald feir quhene scho saw him, and that he will appeir to hir selff allane before the Court cum, and that he before tauld hir how he wes careit away with thame out of middil eird. And quhene we heir the quhirll wind blaw in the sey, thay wilbe commounelie with itt or cumand sone thaireftir, than Mr Williame will cum before and tell hir and bid hir keip hir and sane hir, that scho be nocht tane away with thame agane for the teynd of thame gais ewerie 3eir to hell…”
(5.) ITEM, that she saw the ‘good neighbours’ make their salves with pans and fires, and that they gathered their herbs before sunrise, as was now her practice. At times they would appear to her in a frightening way and scare her badly, causing her to cry when they came. And they came until once, at the Octave (?of Easter or Pentecost), she decided to tell people about it, and they then came to her and scolded her, threatening that they would handle her more roughly than before, and this time they left her completely paralysed down her side, causing her to be sick in bed for 20 weeks. Often during this period, they would come and sit beside her, telling her she would want for nothing so long as she kept their trust, but that if she would speak and tell of them and their doings, they would murder her. And that Mr William Simpson came to her during this time and was the one who healed her and taught her all things, and speaks and warns her of their coming, and makes her safe; and that he was a young man not six years older than her, and that she overcame her fear when she saw him, and that he would appear to her alone just before the (Fairy) Court appeared, and he told her that he himself had been carried away from the land of the living. And when we hear the whirlwind blowing across the sea, this is made by them, and they will be coming soon after; then William will come before and warn her, and bid her and keep her and sain her, so that she not be taken away with them again, for the tithe/tenth of them goes every year to hell…“
The account of her ‘rescue’ from the tormenting fairy mob by William is at once touching, tender and romantic. Remember, she was only 12 years old when this started and claimed that she was ‘away’ 7 years suffering her fairy illness. During this time, William (who had been abducted from middle eird – middle earth – by the fairy cavalcade – by which she means dead in this world) teaches her and heals her and makes her whole again before apparently eventually tasking her with the healing of Bishop Adamson.
“…(6.) ITEM of hir confeffioune maid: That the said Mr Williame tauld hir of ewerie seiknes and quhat herbis scho sould tak to haill thame, and how scho sould vse thame, and gewis hir his directioune att all tymes. And in speciall scho said that he tauld hir that the Bischopof Sanct Androus had mony seikneffis, as the trimbling fewer, the palp, the rippillis and the flexus, and baid hir mak ane saw, and rub it on his cheikis, his craig, his breast, stommak and sydis. And siclyke gaif her directiounis to vse the 3ow mylk, or waidraue, with the herbis, claret wyne and with sume vther thingis; scho gaif him ane sottin fowll and that scho maid ane quart att anis quhilk he drank att twa drachtis twa sindrie dyetis…”
“… (6.) ITEM of her confession made: That the said Mr William told her of every sickness and what herbs she should use to heal them, and how she should use them, and gives her his direction at all times. And escpecially, that he told her that the Bishop of St Andrews had many sicknesses, such as the trembling-fever, palpitations, rigors and gastroenteritis, and bade her make a salve and to rub it on his cheeks, chin, chest, abdomen and loins. And suchlike gave her directions to use the milk of a ewe and Woodruff, to give him claret wine with the herbs and some other things; she ?made a drunken fool of him, giving him a quart to drink in two draughts, between each of his assembly sessions…”
The story of what we know of her life appears to end sadly, mired in the vicious intrigues and politics of late 16thC Scotland and England, when she apparently provides a cure for a malady (?an ague) suffered by the controversial Bishop of St Andrews, Patrick Adamson, for whom she was presumably in service by the time of her prosecution. The fact that the bishop had many enemies (for reasons tied up in the battles for episcopal conformity and regnal politics) was probably a factor in selecting Allesoun for prosecution.
Allison’s own culture-normative accounts of how she acquired healing abilities (as well as her sexuality) were ultimately to damn her to death, convincing the court she had indeed consorted with devils (sorcery) and therefore committed witchcraft. Unfortunately, the court had no insight into her fairy beliefs, and her claim that the fairies taught her because God allowed it fell on unsympathetic ears. They had secured ‘evidence’ that she had made a pact with the devil (with requisite quasi-sexual aspects) and was carrying out magic taught her by devils, even though a ‘rational’ modern reading might suggest evidence of a bout of mental illness, perhaps bought about through rape and abuse. A multitude of factors might have informed her interpretation of events in her life:
Firstly, hers is a typical origin story common to many forms of exceptional or occult knowledge in the ‘Gaelic’ world. The abduction followed by a return after seven years bearing wealth or knowledge is a standard motif of fairy-encounters, and occurs frequently in the folklore and medieval mythological literature of Atlantic Europe. Her physical (and possibly sexual) maltreatment is another feature of Gaelic fairy lore, explaining both bodily marks and disease itself – pinches, strikes and blasts. Nonetheless, she gains from her disquieting association with the Otherworld denizens a higher form of knowledge. Exceptional poets, musicians and craftsmen might have a similar tale ascribed to the acquisition of their skill, and in Allison’s case the supernatural acquisition of powers would have been a useful ‘marketing tool’ to confirm her legitimacy as a traditional fairy doctor by the time of her arrest.
Her ‘illness’ appears to have been a combination of paralysis and delirium which, in the case of a young girl of 12 years of age, could be explained by the possibility of either psychological and emotional disturbances precipitated by an act of rape, or the deleterious effects upon the nervous system of Syphilis contracted from her possible attackers. Other possibilities include transverse myelitis and polio, TB abscesses of the spine etc.
The aspects of possible rape may be overplayed, and her tales to the court of fairy abuse, followed by ‘rescue’ by a young and handsome daoine sith lover who teaches her secrets might just represent aspects of a budding and romantic teenage sexuality frustrated by illness. Allison was, according to the indictment, only 12 at the time of the start of her formative ‘otherworld’ experiences and illnesses, and these supposedly continued for 7 more years.
The fact that Aleisoun could have been mentally ill is another factor that needs to be examined. She could well have been experienced a transient delusional mental illness (with beliefs congruent on normative ideas in late 16thC Scotland) during a period of physical, psychological and emotional recovery following a traumatic experience of rape or even possibly being orphaned. Indeed, by her own confession she was ill during her seven years stay in Elfhame, and claimed that the fairies (her relative William in particular) made her better, just as they had made her sick in the first place. However, this story may just be her justificatory narrative to explain her supposed curative powers that she was using at the time of her arrest, some time in early adulthood by which time she was apparently confident enough following her childhood traumas, to find time to massage healing oils into the chest and abdomen of one of Scotland’s most prominent clergymen while plying him with wine!
To quote the words of the poem The Legend of the Bischop of St Androis Lyfe:
Scho being in the bischopis cure,
And kepit in his castell sure,
Without respect of warldlie glamer,
He past into the witchis chalmer,
Closing the dure behind his bak,
And quyetlie to hir he spak,
And said, his work lome was not worthe,
Lowsing his poyntis, he laid it furth.
Scho sayned it with hir halie hand ;
The pure pith of the pryoris wand :
To help that raipfull scho hes rest him,
Whairfore, ye say, my ladie left him.
For scho had sayned it tuyss or thrise,
His rubigo began to ryiss :
Then said the bischop to Jhone Bell,
Goe, tak the first seye of hir yor sell.
The witche to him her weschell gave,
The Bischops blissing to resave.
What dayis of pardone then scho want
The relicques of that holie man
Micht save her saule from purgatorie.
His wyfe, coceiving jelowsie,
Cryed out his deid, when it was done,
Ran through the tovn, and tauld it sone.
I will leave the Scots translation to you, but needless to say it contains an indicator of why Aleisoun was probably bought to trial. The Bishop’s enemies would not fail to see the simile between the ‘adoration’ by this young woman of the Bishop’s body and draw a parallel with the body of Satan, with whom witches were supposed by the Christian doctrines of the day to have sexual relations… Aleisoun appears to be the confident aggressor in this matter (at least in the poem) and both the poem and the court transcript seem to suggest she was a well-established local traditional healer, so she cannot be portrayed as a weak and feeble-minded victim. She was a strong character!
Perhaps the most interesting part of Allison’s confession, apart from the suggestion of sexual initiation with fairies, is that she met her dead ancestors while in fairy land! This feature of fairies as departed ancestors was later hinted at in Robert Kirk’s ‘Secret Commonwealth’, although he evades expressing it as a creed directly, not in the least because he was a ‘bright young thing’ on the evangelical clerical scene of his day. Kirk mentions the ‘spirit-doubles’ and ‘ghosts’ of the living and dead (seen by those with second sight) as if in continuity with descriptions of otherworld experiences with the ‘Sith’, and further discusses fairies as fore-runners who once farmed the hilltops where men no longer can, but he stops short of equating them with ancestors. I refer you to read this document yourself (follow the links!).
After the Jacobite rebellions and subsequent land-clearances of the 18thC, the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders’ rapidly-disappearing traditional lifestyles and beliefs became a thing of interest to scholars and authors seeking to capitalise on the popularity of James MacPherson and Walter Scott. James Browne had this to say about their fairy beliefs in the early part of the 19thC:
“…According to the traditionary legends of the Highlanders, the Shi’ichs (AR: Sheogues) are believed to be of both sexes, and it is the general opinion among the Highlanders that men have sometimes cohabited with females of the Shi’ich race, who are in consequence called Leannan-Shi. These mistresses are believed to be very kind to their mortal paramours, by revealing to them the knowledge of many things both present and future which were concealed from the rest of mankind. The knowledge of the medicinal virtues of many herbs it is related has been obtained in this way from the Leannan-Shi. The Daoine Shi of the other sex are said in their turn to have sometimes held intercourse with mistresses of mortal race…”
From: p.112 “History of the Highlands & of the Highland Clans, Volume 1, Part 1” By James Browne (Pub. Glasgow, A. Fullarton & Co 1834)
This opinion seems to concur with the court account of Allison Pearson who apparently gained magical healing powers after a sexual encounter with men of the Otherworld. The contra-sexual aspect of tutelary human-fairy relationships is another example of the otherworld-inversion principle. It might also be noted that in the Gaelic world, a healing charm/piseog/pishag/ortha was often supposed to inherited from woman to man and vice versa.
That Pearson believed she had met dead ancestors in the Seelie Court may be an aspect of a phenomenon commented on by James Browne’s contemporary, Donald MacPherson (of the (in)famous Gaelicist MacPhersons), who discussed the Highland beliefs in the migration of souls into hills after death:
‘Melodies from the Gaelic, and original poems: with notes on the superstitions of the highlanders &c’ By Donald Macpherson. Pub. London 1824, Tomas and George Underwood)
OPINIONS RESPECTING THE STATE OF DEPARTED SPIRITS
…The admixture of Christianity with the ancient religion of the Gael created infinite confusion of ideas with respect to the state of departed souls. Heaven and Hell were sometimes mentioned from the pulpit, but the nurse spoke daily of Flath inis, and the Hills of their departed kindred to the children at her knee, and ancient tales of those who had been favoured with visions of the state of the dead prevented the Christian idea of heaven and hell from ever being properly established. It was supposed that only the souls of the supremely good and brave were received into Flath inis and those only of the very base and wicked were condemned to the torments of Ifrin. The Hills of their fathers were in an intermediate state, into which the common run of mankind were received after death. They had no notion of an immaterial being, but supposed that each spirit on departing from this mortal habitation received a body subject to no decay, and that men in a future state enjoyed such pleasures as had been most congenial to their minds in this, without being subject to any of the evils that flesh is heir to. The belief in the Hills of Spirits began in general to give way soon after the reformation and in some parts of the Highlands it soon disappeared altogether. Others however proved more tenacious of it, and among some clans and branches of clans it lingered until very lately. The Orc, a high conical hill in Inverness-shire, was regarded by the House of Crubin, of the clan Macpherson, as their future inheritance, and the House of Garva of the same race believed that their spirits should inhabit Tom mor. On the entrance of every new inhabitant, those hills were seen by persons at a certain distance in a state of illumination. Tom mor was seen on fire for the last time, I believe, about thirty years ago and it was confidently asserted that some member of the house of Garva was passing from this into a better state of existence. But no death being heard of in the neighbourhood for some days an opinion already on the decline was on the eve of being consigned to utter contempt when to the confusion of the sceptics news arrived that the daughter of a gentleman of the house of Garva had expired at Glasgow at the very moment Tom mor had been seen on a blaze. But into whatever state the departed spirit passed it had for a time to return to perform a sacred duty on earth. This was – FAIRE CHLOIDH – the grave watch It was the duty of the spirit of the last person interred to stand sentry at the grave yard gate, from sun set until the crowing of the cock every night, until regularly relieved. This sometimes in thinly inhabited parts of the country happened to be a tedious and severe duty and the duration of the Faire Chloidh gave the deceased’s surviving friends sometimes much uneasiness…
Both MacPherson and Browne would have been well aware of Robert Kirk’s recovered manuscript (first published in 1815 by Walter Scott and friends), and were influenced by the writings of (and Donald’s case, family connection to) James MacPherson (he of ‘Ossian’ fame). MacPherson’s description appears to be saying that ‘fairy hills’ might be the ancestral hill of a highland clan. Although unsaid, Peirsoun’s account of the boon given her by her departed relative seems akin to MacPherson’s ‘Faire Chloidh’, which was also known in the Isle of Man as the Keymagh (‘stile guardian’).
Even though Pearson’s account of herself retold at her trial is from a lowland source, it appears to have been bathed in the same legendary lore as the accounts of Kirk, Martin, Browne, MacPherson and from records of more ancient provenance elsewhere in the Gaelic-Atlantic world. That her reports of going with fairies to learn secret knowledge were repeated by others both before and after her are testament to a tradition shared by those persons who would become known as Fairy Doctors.