The Mystery of the Mearns Witches’ Toadstone

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A student post by Nadine Fussi, MSc Museum Studies student at the University of Glasgow.

Introduction by Hunterian Education Manager, Ruth Fletcher.

In another contribution from our Student Voice team, here is a piece by Nadine Fussi, Masters student of Museum Studies. Nadine moved to Glasgow after finishing her BA in Archaeology at Freie Universität Berlin. An intersectional feminist and fascinated by witchcraft, she was inspired to write this by fellow student Elisabeth Nagy, whose social media content complements this piece.

Round brown and white stone used as a pendant on a necklace. A silver metal band that connects the stone to the necklace reads: "Toad Stone the Charm long used by the Mearns Witches. Bequeathed by the last of them to Jean Donald and by her to James Maxwell Graham Esqr in 1813".

In celebration of Women’s History Month, this post commemorates those accused of and prosecuted for witchcraft.

After a few witch trials during medieval times, the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 started a new wave of witch hunts, which – over the course of less than 200 years – accounted for approximately 4000 victims. While some of the accused were men, who should definitely not be forgotten about, a vast majority of at least 84% were women, many of whom were considered elderly in their time.

The object we’re having a closer look at today is a toadstone (GLAHM:C.103), which is said to have belonged to the Mearns witches. Toadstones were believed to grow on top of a toad’s head, but now we know that they are actually fossilised fish teeth. Thought to be a powerful antidote to poison, up until the 18th century, these mythical stones were set into necklaces as a means of protecting oneself.

The Mearns witches were five women and one young man living in what is now Newton Mearns, East Renfrewshire, who, after being accused by a young witch-hunter called Janet Douglas, were put on trial in 1677 for “bewitching” Sir George Maxwell of Pollok to fall ill. According to official records, they were not under torture when admitting to consorting with the devil, to planning on killing Maxwell, and to performing a ritual that consisted of burning and sticking pins into a wax figure representing the man. Jonet Mathie, her 16 year old son Jon Stewart, her 14 year old daughter Annabell Stewart, her in-law Margret Jackson, as well as her friends Marjory Craig and Bessie Weir were all found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death. Annabell survived, though; as she was underage, she was pardoned and the Archbishop sent her to receive spiritual guidance.

It is said that Maxwell, a strict Presbyterian and also their landlord, was disliked by the whole group of the accused and some people believe the actions they were charged for to have been a protest against him. Supposedly, he punished Janet’s other son Hugh for “breaking his yard”, the meaning of which is not further explained and neither is the scale of his punishment. Originally, I interpreted this as Hugh entering Maxwell’s property without his permission, but then I found an article about someone in 1727 breaking another man’s yard muscle. After a bit more research, I discovered that yard used to be a slang word for penis, so do with this information what you will.

On 20 February, 1677, between 2 and 4 PM four women and one man were strangled and their bodies burned on Paisley’s Gallow Green. 20 years later, the Paisley witches would suffer the same fate at this exact spot.

As for the stone, the silver band around it reads: “Toad Stone the Charm long used by the Mearns Witches. Bequeathed by the last of them to Jean Donald and by her to James Maxwell Graham Esqr in 1813”. James’ sister Ann, who donated it to the museum in 1877, stated that Jean claimed to have been gifted the stone by one of her ancestors, the last witch of Mearns. As most of the witches of Mearns were executed in 1677, it seems impossible that one of them gave it to her. This could mean either

a) she lied, or
b) the person who gave it to her lied, or
c) she was – albeit very briefly – alive at the same time as Annabell, or
d) those women did actually practise a form of witchcraft or folk magic that they taught their children, who kept this tradition alive until sometime before 1813.

As documentation from those times is often very sparse or even non-existent, I unfortunately couldn’t find any information on the victims’ lineage or on that of Jean Donald.

Someone I did, however, find a family tree of is James Maxwell Graham. Turns out he is a descendant of none other than Sir George Maxwell of Pollock, the man the Mearns witches were brutally murdered for. What was James’ connection to or relationship with Jean? She must have been aware of his heritage and James obviously knew of hers (if she was telling the truth about the stone), so why would she give him a family heirloom that belonged to someone his ancestor had killed? Were their families sworn enemies? Is this a story of reconciliation? Did they both believe in the protective power of toadstones? Was James scared of being poisoned and Jean decided to help him out? And what would Sir George Maxwell, outspoken witch opponent, think about his descendants owning magical paraphernalia? As with so many things in life, there are more questions than answers.

It doesn’t matter if they were actual witches (i.e. folk healers, cunning folk, white witches) or a group of women and a man coerced into falsely incriminating themselves. They – alongside thousands of other people – were treated horribly by the Scottish government and, at the very least, deserve recognition and an official apology for being punished for crimes they didn’t commit. This petition by Witches of Scotland, which closes 17 March, calls for exactly that and is definitely worth supporting.

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