Tain’s Horrible Histories - Janet nein Gibbie Gow

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The story of Janet nein Gibbie Gow - a grim tale of witch trials and crimes of sorcery.

Tain Burgh Books, 18th March 1662

‘That today we consider it necessary to call for a trier of Witches to this burgh it is ordered that an address be made to the magistrate of Inverness . . . and their advice taken.’

This request for a witch trier from Tain came as Scotland was in the grip of witchcraft hysteria, during 1662, embarking on one of its largest-ever witch hunts. As arrests and accusations grew in the south, the fear of witchcraft rapidly spread across the country, and the Privy Council of Scotland issued commissions to try all suspected witches.

The first reference to ‘Jonet nein Gibbie Gow’ is on the 27th of February 1660, when her family and friends are warned against helping her. But it is only an entry in the burgh books three years later that we learn that Janet was; ‘accused of the odious crime of sorcery and imprisoned and now like to starve for want of maintenance.’ The burgh only decides to write to Inverness requesting a ‘tryer of Witches’, after Janet has been imprisoned for over two years. This request in March is likely the reason for the arrival in Tain, only a month later, of John Dickson the Witchpricker.

We know nothing of poor Janet’s treatment, but on arrival in Tain John Dickson turned on the wrong person - a sixty-six-year-old man called John Hay who was accused of witchcraft by a “distracted woman”. Mr Hay strongly protested against his treatment and successfully petitioned the government informing them that; “ane cheating fellow, named John Dick, to fix ane blott of perpetuall infamie upon the petitioner by shaving all the parts of his body, and ther after pricking him to the great effusion of his blood and with much torture to his body”. Dickson was eventually captured and imprisoned in the Tolbooth of Edinburgh. Here it was discovered that John Dickson was really a woman named Christian Caddell, who had for several years been dressing as a man in order to be a Witchfinder. On 4 May 1663, Christian was sentenced to transportation to the plantations of Barbados and was never heard of again.

Janet, a poor elderly victim of superstition, has been arrested, denied any help from her family and friends; accused of witchcraft, likely faced the horrific treatment of the Witchpricker and is starving in prison three years after her initial arrest. We don’t know what happened to poor Janet and there is no further mention of her in any records.