In the last decade of the 19th century an old weaver in Kilbarchan was heard to say ‘I knew a man who knew a man who saw the last witch burnt in Paisley’. He was referring to a man who witnessed the burning of the Bargarran Witches in Paisley in 1697. It seems unlikely that this statement could be true two hundred years after the event. The question is – who was this man who witnessed the burning of the witches?
In 1697, when the witch trial and the burning of the witches took place in Paisley, there was still a strong belief in witchcraft and a widespread fear of witches. The trial came about because Christine Shaw, the eleven year old daughter of John Shaw of Bargarran in Erskine Parish, was suffering various torments and was believed to have been bewitched by one of her father’s servants and other local people. The Presbytery of Paisley was determined to eradicate all superstitions and witchcraft and local ministers, doctors and the gentry were consulted. They were all of the opinion that the child was certainly bewitched. This led to the trial in Paisley where seven innocent people were accused of witchcraft. The seven “Bargarran witches” were found guilty and condemned to death. One subsequently committed suicide by hanging himself in his prison cell. The other six were hanged and burnt on Gallow Green in Paisley. Although this event was not in fact the last sentence of death for witchcraft, it is generally regarded as the last mass execution of Witches in Western Europe.
At the time a ten year old boy, Robert Semple, was staying with his parents, the Semples of Belltrees, in Pollock Castle the home of his uncle Sir William Pollock. The hanging and the burning of the Barragan Witches was scheduled to take place on Gallow Green in Paisley on the 10th of June, 1697, and young Robert was keen to witness the spectacle. To prevent him from going, his parents hid his shoes. However, this didn’t stop him. He managed to leave the house, and walk barefoot to Paisley where he joined the immense crowd who had gathered to watch the spectacle. The memory of this eventful day stayed with him all his life and was a tale often recounted in his old age.
But where’s the Kilbarchan connection? In 1777 Robert Semple bought land on what was then part of Milliken Estate in Kilbarchan and built Belltrees Cottage, naming it after his family’s former estate. He died in Belltrees Cottage in 1789 at the ripe old age of one hundred and two. Robert Semple was the Kilbarchan man who had witnessed the burning of the witches. His longevity gives credibility to the old weaver’s assertion, ‘I knew a man who knew a man who saw the last witch burnt in Paisley’.
© 2014, Helen Calcluth