Christian Shaw And The Paisley Witch Trials

Buried in Edinburgh’s Grey Friars Kirk are the bones of Christian Shaw. Christian came from a fairly wealthy family, and in her adult life became an industrialist who pioneered the invention of thread. Because of this, she’s regarded in relatively high esteem, alongside other Scottish inventors who helped shape our country and economy. But Christian is also famous – nay, infamous – for a reason which takes us all the way back to events much earlier in her life.

For, you see, Christian Shaw was responsible for the deaths of at least eight innocent people.

Haunted Edinburgh

How is this possible, you might ask? What could a young girl have possibly done? Well, one first needs to remember what Scotland (and the world) was like back then. It was a time of paranoia, panic and ignorance. Fear regarding the supernatural and hell was rife. It wasn’t so easy to disprove rumours without the technology we enjoy today, so one person being vilified as a witch was apt to cause widespread panic and hate at the individual in question – and we all know about the witch trials which have taken place throughout the centuries. This was a time when people were genuinely scared that they were living next door to someone who could turn them into a toad.

So, when Christian Shaw began accusing her fellow neighbours of witchcraft, there was inevitable horror to follow.

In August 1696, when Christian was just eleven years old, she suddenly took ill. As her father, John Shaw, was a wealthy land owner in Renfrewshire, she was able to be taken to the nearest hospital in Glasgow and obtain a real medical diagnosis. Only, you know where this is going already, right? The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. Not so surprising considering we’re talking about 17th century medicine – but apparently it mattered little either way, for Christian herself had an answer: she’d been cursed by a witch.

Her story was that she had caught the family maid drinking from a bottle of milk in the kitchen, and she knew that that wasn’t allowed. The milk didn’t belong to her, it belonged to the family, so it was stealing. Christian told the maid right there that she would inform her father about it, at which point the maid apparently laid a curse on her. She told Christian that she “wished the devil would haul her soul through hell”.

Christian Shaw, Paisley witches, Bargarron witch trials

The Shaw House

A few days later, Christan stumbled into a woman named Agnes Naismith – a woman rumoured around the area to be a witch. This seemed to confirm Christian’s belief in the curse – it would, after all, make sense for the devil to send a witch to carry out the job of completing the curse.

Following this encounter, Christian became completely bedridden with an illness which nobody around her could diagnose – still not even doctors. She would supposedly writhe around, screaming in agony, and pass out for hours at a time. But that wasn’t even the strangest part. After continued unsuccessful diagnosis, people who visited her room would begin to claim she had been throwing up random objects which don’t belong in the human body – things like gravel, straw, pieces of charcoal, bones and feathers.

This would be weird to see today, but it would be much easier to investigate and use simple logic to figure what was going on (can’t kids eat things when no-one’s looking?). Back then, however, the only thing they could come up with was that it was, after all, the result of a curse. One day during this, Agnes Naismith appeared at the Shaw home to visit Christian, claiming that she was there to pray rather than continue to perpetuate the curse (which she tried to assure people, without much success, she wasn’t even responsible for).

John eventually took his daughter back to Glasgow once more to consult with the family physician, Matthew Brisbane, who ended up presenting an idea to the family. Since he’d been unable to figure out what was wrong with her via medical means, he came to the conclusion that Christian was indeed fighting with a demon trying to take control of her soul. Considering the mass hysteria over Satanism and hell at the time, this seemed like a good enough explanation for what the girl was going through, so people were quick to accept the diagnosis: Christian Shaw was possessed.

As Christan continued to writhe in agony for weeks on end, she would begin to gasp out the names of the individuals she believed to be responsible – or at least have had a hand in the curse. As she did this, her father, angry and confused, desperately kept a note of the names. He ended up taking those names to the local authority and demanded that justice be done – that the people responsible for his daughter’s supernatural ailment were found and taken.

A special council was subsequently set up to investigate. Surprisingly, the first woman to be captured confessed to acts of witchcraft (whether this was because she was tortured or she felt it would be the easiest way out is unclear) and she went on to name others like her. That is, other names which were also on Christian’s list.

Now, let’s remember that the infamous Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts had occurred just a few years earlier, and almost undoubtedly had a big impact on the way events unfolded in Paisley. By the following year, a huge number of individuals were captured and questioned in regards to witchcraft. Townspeople were called in to give witness statements and character references about those accused, and for whatever reason, a lot of these references were really horrible, dooming the accused to their fate. Was it personal agendas which lead to such cruel lies? Perhaps the townspeople were just afraid that witches really were present within their society? Whatever the reason for such unjust testimonies, we’ll never know.

Paisley Witches, wreath, ceremony,

300 years later, Paisley still holds a wreath-laying ceremony on the site the ‘witches’ were executed. Photo via Flickr | paisleyorguk

Over the course of the investigation, some of the accused were actually released after their innocence was proven. But eight remained – including Agnes Naismith. One man killed himself while in captivity, and the rest were sentenced to death by hanging. The barbaric act was carried out in Paisley, and after the bodies were burned (because hanging might not be enough to kill a witch), the ashes were buried inside a stone circle shaped into a horseshoe – an ancient symbol used to ward off magic and evil spirits. They were so especially scared even after the executions because of something Agnes had said just before she dropped. She cursed everything – the town, the Shaw family, the whole investigation. Somewhat sadly ironic, given she knew she wasn’t a witch and had done nothing but pray for the little girl.

In the end, it turned out that Christian Shaw had been making the whole thing up. There was no curse or demon – she had just wanted to get rid of their maid and it had spiralled from there. At least that’s what they say. Her true motives remain something of a mystery. Maybe she was just bored. She may have ended up pioneering the world’s first thread company, the Bargarran Thread Company in Paisley, but the real pertinent fact is that her lies caused the deaths of eight people.

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