Was Isobel Gowdie Truly a Witch? Come Decide for Yourself!

If you lived in the seventeenth century, during the Witch Trial Times, and were accused of witchcraft, would you be so quick to confess? Perhaps to escape torture or death? And if you were to confess, how long and detailed would that confession be? I would venture to say not very long and as simple as possible. Which is quite the opposite of Isobel Gowdie, a Scottish woman who readily and elaborately confessed to witchcraft during a time when people were being executed left and right. In this thought provoking post, we meet the woman called The Devil’s Mistress. And we allow you to decide whether Isobel was truly a witch.

Isobel Gowdie: A Hardworking Woman in Uncertain, Tumultuous Times

Before we get into Isobel’s life, let me set the scene for you all as far as the Scottish political-religious climate at the time. Isobel lived during a time when Witch Hunts in Scotland were quite common. This is partly due to Mary Queen of Scots’ Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 and the continuation of the superstition of witchcraft by her son King James.

King James wrote a couple works about witches and malificia and was heavily involved in witch hunts and trials. including the North Berwick Trials of 1590 that saw at least 70 people convicted and executed and the great scottish witch hunt of 1597 where at least 400 people were convicted (number of those executed is conveniently unknown). The belief and fear of witches during the Early Modern Period in Scotland was prominent. And fueled by the Church and government alike. In addition, the more “rural” areas of Scotland had not yet been touched by staunch Presbyterianism, and some folks still held strong to the old beliefs in fairies and folklore.

Isobel’s Life or What We Know About It

Isobel was a Scottish woman who lived in the seventeenth century. We assume she was born sometime between the 1620’s and 1640’s since there are no records of her birth. When she comes on record is when she’s accused and stands trial in the early 1660’s. Scholars say she could have been in her late teens but was likely in her 20’s or 30’s at trial.

Isobel lived with her husband in Auldearn Scotland, on a lord’s land and worked the land with her husband. They were likely tenants and laborers on this lord’s land. The crops there were likely grains like bear (a form of barley), oats, and rye.

Since Isobel was of childbearing age, her primary concern was likely to bear and raise children as was the custom at this time and the woman’s “role”. This also means she was just as busy as her husband since this was a time without modern technology. Isobel was likely milking, making bread, preserving foods, weaving, weeding, etc. plus caring for the children on a daily basis. Let it also be noted that Isobel was not literate and could not read nor write. Yet we will see with some of her confessions that she had a vivid imagination, at the least, and was able to express herself eloquently.

The lord on whose land they lived was well known to have had a few of his family members claim to have been injured and/or killed because of malevolent witchcraft. However, it’s not known whether he believed in witches nor whether he was part of the accusations that brought in Isobel. As was typical for many people accused of witchcraft in those days.

These are an example of a Witch Trial document. This is not one from Isobel’s, however.

How Isobel Came to Trial

No one knows exactly what events led to the accusations that brought Isobel to trial, but there is a belief she was accused of a conspiracy to “eff” with the local minister. Apparently this was a man who was a religious extremist and had an incurable phobia of witches. My guess is in addition to the rumors that Isobel had it out for the local minister, I’m sure she missed a Sunday church service and/or didn’t tithe. Or any other number of small offenses that led to her arrest.

Over the course of a few days, Isobel Gowdie confesses to many things including meeting and having sex with the devil. She names at least two other women who were also witches, and admits to taking a pact and allowing the witch’s mark to be put on her body to suckle the devils, spoiling crops and grave-robbing with a coven, being entertained by the Queen of the Fairies, using healing remedies, as well as shapeshifting into animals like the hare, jackdaw, cat, horse, etc. As well as having a familiar spirit she called Read Reiver. 

What made Isobel Gowdie’s trial so extraordinary?

Here’s the deal. Here’s why Isobel’s case is so much different than the others and why Emma Wilby (British scholar) has studied her confessions over the years.

Isobel doesn’t just confess to being a witch, but she confesses in ELABORATE, flowery detail. She is asked a series of open ended questions, to which we all know requires more than just a “yes” or “no”. BUT instead of giving one sentence or two or simple answers like “I don’t know” or “not that much”, she goes into a monologue. Or full prose-mode.

Scholars Find Isobel’s Confessions Startling?

Over the past two hundred years since the confessions were first transcribed, various scholars have used words like “startling”, “striking”, “sensational”, and “extraordinary”, to describe Isobel’s confessions. A few reasons they’re called this: they are long and elaborate, in fact they are the longest on record, they’re the only confessions recorded in first person and comes off more like a monologue, they cover a rich and wide variety of subject matter, and that Isobel didn’t just describe events and people and spirits but did so in distinctive linguistic and narrative style.

And lastly, according to Wilby, “her confessions are exceptional because they are one of the small minority in which the passages pertaining to harmful magic are so vivid and idiosyncratic that they point firmly beyond the artifice of the interrogators or the projections of neighbors to the possibility that Isobel herself believed herself to be a malevolent witch.”

Knowing this, and before we go into the confessions, let it be known that I believe there are many factors to this case and it could be any number of things that led to the confessions. Including a theory that Isobel herself didn’t even confess but someone wrote these things as her confessions. I don’t know if Isobel was a witch or thought herself a witch, but I do have an opinion.

Isobel lived in Northern Scotland, a wild and untamed place.

Isobel Gowdie’s Shocking Confessions

These confessions are available for the public to read, and more specifically are broken down and analyzed by Emma Wilby in her book “The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland”. Of which we highly recommend if you’d like to dig further into Isobel’s case.

Please also note these confessions have been translated and obviously don’t represent the original in its entirety. We are merely pulling tidbits here for you all to examine.

Isobel and the Devil

    One major confession was centered around Isobel’s meeting the devil. She not only confesses to meeting him, but explains his appearance in detail. And talks about how he felt during intercourse with him.

    Q: Interrogator asks Isobel “What was the devil like?”

    A: Isobel answers, “He was a tall, rough, black hairy man, very cold. And I found his nature as cold within me as spring well water. Sometimes he had boots and sometimes shoes on his feet, but still his feet are forked and cloven. He would be sometimes with us like a deer or a roe.” and it goes on but this is a tidbit of it.

    Isobel’s Confession to Meeting the Faeries

      Another theme behind Isobel’s confessions had to do with faeries and being taken to faerie land. You have to remember, at this time in rural Scotland, many people still believed in the Sidhe or the Faeries. And often faeries were considered “devils” by the Church. So this was also damning evidence that Isobel readily confesses to.

      Q: Did you visit the fairy folk?

      A Isobel answers: I went to the Downie Hill and got meat there from the queen of the fairies, more than I could eat. The queen of the fairies is barely clothed in white linens and white and brown clothes. The king of the fairies is a braw man, well favoured, and broad-faced, there were elf bulls rowting and skoylling up and down there which frightened me.

        Isobel Also Confesses to Using Benevolent, Healing Magic

        In the second confessions, Isobel discusses healing charms and rituals which actually puts her confessions into the minority of witch trial documents in which beneficial magic is discussed. Benevolent, healing magic is a rare topic in Witch Trials overall. Which makes me wonder if she indeed was originally a cunningwoman, midwife, or folk healer before the accusations and trial.

        In this confession Isobel speaks of sickness transference from a sick child or baby into a dog or cat, which was a common belief of cunningfolk at that time.

        Isobel confesses: “and if a child be forespoken, we take the cradle (damanged/missing words)….child throw it thrice and then a dog throw it and shakes the belt above the fire (more damaged/missing words) down to the ground, till a dog or cat goes over it that the sickness may come (damaged words) cat.

        Interesting there’s missing words in this part of the trial, right?

        We don’t know what happened to Isobel after the trial.

          A Few Theories Behind What Actually Happened in Isobel’s Trial

          Some scholars posit Isobel Gowdie was suffering from some form of psychosis. Perhaps she was already mentally ill, or perhaps she was tortured unknowingly. Deprived of food and sleep. Which led to her dramatized, elaborate confessions at trial.

          Was it ergot poisoning? Possibly…

          Another common theory as to what made Isobel Gowdie confess so readily is ergot poisoning. This is a mold that grows on rye and, when eaten, can sometimes cause neurological symptoms like visual hallucinations. It is also called Ergotism and has been noted in people as well as animals over the years. It was a large theory as to what happened to cause the Salem Witch Trials, but was disproved by scholars later due to a specific kind of nutrient in the Salem settlers’ diet. But as for Isobel’s case, she did not live near the ocean and therefore may have lacked the nutrients to fight off ergotism. And since rye might have been grown on the land she tended, this is a real possibility, IMO.

          Someone falsified the confessions…or?

          Someone wrote this and falsified the entire thing. This is a seemingly logical explanation for the full confessions. However, scholars like Emma Wilby and modern witches can’t help but notice the uncanny familiarity behind some of Isobel’s confessions. For example, her description of the Otherworld and her detailed healing remedies. These confessions seem to point to the idea that Isobel believed herself to be a witch, as Emma Wilby notes in her book.

          Maybe Isobel was a Midwife…

          Could Isobel have been a midwife or cunningwoman who was wrongly accused of witchcraft? This is a common theme during the Witch Trial times, especially for midwives who were particularly popular or well-loved in a community. The only indication we have is the confession of Isobel’s pointing to a form of healing called transference. But I think this is a real possibility. And perhaps her confessions were either elaborated or falsified by the court/church. OR she was not in her right mind during the trial. Another potential is she knew she was going to be found guilty and wanted one last hurrah. I mean, why not, at that point?

          The Art of Poetry and Song was Common Practice Then…

          Lastly, it seems that Isobel was well-spoken and well-versed in the bardic arts. Meaning, she was a great storyteller. It was actually common practice back then to sing while people worked, sing as a form of telling stories around the fire, and to preserve memories, etc. Remember we had no Television or radio in those days. So entertainment came through our own use of words, poetry, dance, etc. And I believe this meant most people were better at singing and rhyming in those days.

          We don’t know whether Isobel was executed following her trial. And whether this dynamic woman was truly a witch is up for debate. It is something you should decide for yourself. But one thing is for sure – she has gone down in history as one of the most famous witches of her time. And of all time. She made her mark on the world.

            Leave a Reply