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  • Writer's pictureKaren M Edwards

The Witches of Pittenweem

Updated: Jan 22, 2019

When I decided to write this story set in Pittenweem where my Scottish grandmother was born, I didn’t really know much about its history. But the place itself added another layer to Effie’s story when I found out about the witches even though they were harrassed almost a hundred years before 1813. I wanted to show how superstitions persist and were another reason why the villagers would be nervous of Effie. My grandmother and hence my mother carried on certain superstitions. For example, my mother freaked out when my sister brought a bunch of white flowers to the home; white flowers in the home were bad luck apparently. People today still cling to superstitions, for example, that black cats are lucky (UK and Japan) (“The Scots believe that a strange black cat's arrival to the home signifies prosperity”) or unlucky (USA and other cultures). “Black Cats,” Wikipedia

The story about Jean Cornfut and other witches are true and you can see more information about them in the links below. The book published in 1820 has original letters published at the time of Jean's murder and gives a lot more detail. It's interesting that there was a rebuttal to the two letters from the administration in Pittenweem justifying their treatment of the witches.

The Celts also believe in the “second sight” or being “fey” (fey relates to fairies) and it was not uncommon for people who had premonitions to be thought witches. See link to Helen Duncan below.

Herbs and Witches

Herbs were used extensively for healing before the days of pharmaceutical companies and were aministered by men and women but most often it was women. Many witches in Europe came under attack because of their knowledge of herb lore and were often known as Wise Women or White Witches. Maybe they became a threat to the new interest in medicine which was mainly a man’s domain. A vestige of this could be found in the term, Old Wives Tales, denigrating many of the healing potions as the “scientific method” came into play. Yes, there may have been strange superstitions passed down by the “old wives,” but early medical practices were based on superstition as much as science. And a wise woman’s healing practice would have come from knowledge passed down as well as observations of interactions in healing arts.

The interest in herbs for culinary as well as medicinal purposes was standardized with the formation of the Royal College of Physicians (London in 1518) and, in Scotland with the Royal College of Physicians (Glasgow in 1599 and Edinburgh 1681). All three cities had a physic garden attached to the hospitals. Nicholas Culpeper’s Compleat Herbal was published in 1653 which is still available today. Culpeper was also accused of dabbling in witchcraft because of his association with herbs and astrology. The Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries tried to stop Culpeper’s publication.

In the 1700s-1800s, the Royal Navy brought back information and samples of flora and fauna as they found themselves in far flung parts of the world. They contributed to the physic gardens of the three main medical centers in Britain: London, Glasgow and Edinburgh. You can still visit these historic gardens: Kew Gardens in London, Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, and Glasgow Botanic Gardens. I based Calum Moncrithe’s plant collecting on such botanists as Archibald Menzies who served with the Royal Navy and brought back the Monkey Puzzle tree to Britain from Chile.

In rural areas not so long ago and even today, Wise Women are still helping people though there is an interest in herbal healing in urban areas too as pharmaceutical companies come under suspicion. My Welsh grandmother could have been called a white witch as according to my cousin, Ena, she was known in the tiny village of Llanboidy as an herbalist. My father told me his mother and he were the only people in the village who didn’t get sick with the 1918 flu epidemic. He accompanied his mother who ministered to the sick villagers probably with her herbal potions. Ena said she wished she had written down her remedies as they seemed to work. I wish I had them too.


Pittenweem Witches

· Colville, Iain. 2011. “On this day in Scotland”

· Fleming, D. Hay. 1886. Guide to the East Neuk of Fife

- Gutenberg E-Project. 2013. A Collection of Rare and Curious Tracts on Witchcraft and the Second Sight. With an Original Essay on Witchcraft Originally published in Edinburgh in 1820. On page 69 two letters and a rebuttal give a lot more information on Jean Cornfut's murder.

History of Witches

Witches? Were they wise women who used healing herbs or were they in league with the Devil? Information on the notorious Malleus Maleficarum written by two German Dominican priests—a book that sold more copies than the Bible—and witch hunts in Europe from mid-1400s to early 1700s. Also includes Salem Witch Trials.

Real Witches

If you don’t mind gruesome details, here is a collection of stories called “Real Witches in History.”

But this site failed to include Jean Cornfut and other named Scottish witches. Then there’s Helen Duncan, the last witch of Scotland who was tried under the 1735 Witches Act in 1941. The act was finally repealed in 1951. I don’t know why I love this quirky story so much; it just goes to show how we haven’t changed in all these years even in so called sophisticated and modern countries.

Witches and Herbs

This is an excerpt from this site:

“Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting; Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing…. For a charm of powerful trouble, like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

So goes the famous quote from the wild witches in Shakespeare’s magical play Macbeth. Interestingly enough, the ‘wyrd’ sisters were not adding actual animal parts to their bubbling cauldron – they were brewing up a magical concoction of herbs. Eye of newt is another name for mustard seed, which when placed under your front doorstep keeps intruders away, while toe of frog refers to a type of buttercup which is used in healing spells. Adder’s fork is another name for a fern that’s helpful in healing bruises.

A Pittenweem wynd

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1 Comment

Meg Grierson
Meg Grierson
Feb 06, 2019

What fascinating history! It never ceases to amaze me how much research a historical novel requires. I felt a particular connection to this post, though, as my Apache great-grandmother was also a known “curandera.”

We’re all white witches at heart, yes?

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