Witch Hunt

11th of November 2018

For the Four Blokes upcoming night in Rothesay (Friday 19th October) I thought it might be worth creating a Bute themed short story. Based on a true story, I may have taken a few liberties with some facts.

Witch Hunt

(Inspired by a true story)


Gordon Brown

The rain was sweeping west, a tail of smir soaking the coat of the bald-headed man. He had waited for hours, still, looking. The cloud cover was full. Light was limited. The sea, a few feet from his feet, was invisible. The sluicing of gentle waves on the rocks the only indication it was nearby. His eyesight was good. Better than most. His flock of sheep tended to wander and his livelihood depended on getting every one of them to market. Spotting an escaping animal, high on the surrounding hills, or a thief out to snatch, was his best weapon against the hunger a bad market day brought.

He was fixated on a small, intermittent glow bobbing in the mid distance. It was sliding north, past Ettrick Bay, into the Kyles of Bute. The man wiped the rain from his pate, eyes never leaving the light. He knew there was a ship out there. The rain covered the sound of the boats’ progress. The cloud and lack of moon rendered her invisible.

The man knew what had to be done. He rose up the rocks, each step a careful movement on the slippery surface, his thin leather soles ill-equipped for the job at hand. He gained the turf that bordered the rocks and listened. The hard breathing of his horse gave him direction and he walked towards the sound, laying a hand on the beast’s side a few second a later.

The horse grunted as the man mounted her. It was dangerous to travel in the dark but he would cross the island because the woman he loved was ensconced in the belly of Rothesay Castle and Malcolm Turnbull knew that one of the men on the boat was here to kill her.


Deep in the castle, Jonet McNeil lay in her own filth. Pressed against her were Margaret McLevin, Margaret McWilliam, Janet Morrisonand Isobell McNicoll. All crammed into a cell designed to accommodate one person. A sixth inmate, Jessie Rayland, had died three days earlier. She had only been removed last night.

The recent rain was a blessing in disguise. Freely pouring through the cell’s only window it had washed some of the excrement and urine into the crude drain. At the storms height all five had taken it in turns to let the waterfall of rain, falling from the window, cascade over their hair. Trying to wash away the dirt and lice. All five had removed as much of their clothing as they could bear. Rinsing their soiled cloth in the torrent. With no food for days they had drank their fill. Gaining small respite.

All were weak.

All were to be executed the following morning.

The trial had been a trial in nothing but name. A Commission of Justiciary formed that paid little heed to the facts. John McFie, a local land owner, had accused Margaret McWilliam of witchcraft. He had claimed, following what he called an altercation, that Margaret had ‘pained him like that of birth’ for three long months. Witch hunts, spreading from the east the year before had reached Bute in early 1662 and McFie had fed his accusation into a populace afire with stories of witches and devilment.

Thirty years earlier five woman had died of starvation in the same cell Jonet lay in; they too accused of witchcraft. At that time they had denounced Margaret as a witch, a label that had stuck with her for three decades. When McFie added the death of his child to the accusations, Margaret was incarcerated in Rothesay Castle along with five others, including Jonet. In the dim light of day, the cell’s original inhabitant’s initials could still be seen scratched in the wood of the door.

The commission felt starvation a fitting punishment, but McFie, as was his right, had demanded a quicker death.

The law required an official to oversee the execution. The verdict had been despatched at the conclusion of the trial, but a storm had blown in and no boat could land for three days. With witch hunts in full flow the official had further delayed his arrival on Bute to attend to other executions. Tomorrow he had to officiate at two hangings in Tighnabruaich, at dawn, before he could cross to the island. It was his ship that Jonet’s lover had been watching slip through the Kyles.

Jonet knew there was to be no reprieve for any of them. Margaret had told her how McFie had at first courted her, with small gifts and pleasant words. How her coldness had transformed him. How only the intervention of her father had stopped John from raping her in the field. As John had fled, Margaret’s father had chased him, stumbled and cracked his head open on a stone. Killing instantly the only witness to McFie’s abhorrent intent.

With the official delayed, even though the commission had dismissed Margaret’s account, McFie feared the truth would get out and took to sleeping in the guard house to prevent visitors. McFie stopped food from being delivered to the woman’s cell, gifting the guards the bread and potatoes meant for the prisoners. Add in a few bottles of ale each day and the guards left him well alone.

McFie had tried to enter the women’s cell many times. They had fought him off. But it was getting harder.


Malcolm Turnbull tied his horse up on the gatepost of the Tollbooth. Now that the official’s boat was headed for Tighnabruich he knew his loved one would surely die the following afternoon. Jonet’s cell lay deep in the bowels of the castle. The moat, thick walls and guards meant any attempt at rescue was doomed. But he had other plans.

Malcolm pulled the blanket from the wicker basket that hung on the horse. In the darkened lee of the building he carefully extracted an oiled cloth. Shielding it from the last of the rain, he unfurled the material and extracted the flintlock that lay inside. A small leather pouch tumbled to ground and Malcolm snatched it up, eyes flitting around, fearful he had been seen. Opening the pouch, he lifted two tiny musket balls from the powder within. He placed them in his pocket and, with care, began to prime the weapon.

Pouring the powder slowly into the barrel, he tamped it down. He did not insert a ball. For what he had in mind there was no need. Another smaller pouch provided the finest ground of gunpowder for the striking plate. Loaded, he pulled the gun’s cock into the firing position. When he pulled the trigger, it would snap along the L shaped frizzen, creating a spark as it pushed the frizzen out of the way, revealing the gunpowder filled pan. The spark would ignite the finer powder on the pan, the flame would travel through the touchhole in the barrel and ignite the gunpowder, firing the gun, normally pushing the ball out. Malcolm wasn’t about to waste a precious ball. He simply needed the noise.

Placing the gun beneath his cloak Malcolm stepped out onto the street. He walked, trying to stay out of sight, until he reached a small, squat wooden house, near the castle’s main gate. Behind him the ground dropped away sharply. With a quick look to ensure he was on his own, he raised the gun in the air and pulled the trigger.

The gunshot echoed off the castle walls. A dog barked. His horse whinnied and Malcolm leapt down the slope, lying flat. Hidden from the castle he waited. Silence fell. Malcolm waited some more. No one came. The guards, relieved of their duty by McFie, had drunk themselves into an early morning stupor. The local residents, if they heard the shot, decided that investigation was too fraught with danger. Window shutters and doors remained firmly closed.

When Malcolm was sure no one was coming, he crawled along the slope, back to his horse and reloaded the flintlock. This time tamping in a ball after the gunpowder.

Inside the cell Jonet heard the shot. She roused the others.

They responded with light moans. She doubted her plan would work. The others were sure it would fail. But she had to try.

Jonet stood up, her head inches from the low roof. With what strength she had left she began banging the door. She knew McFie was only a few yards away.

In the Gaelic that the farmworkers spoke she shouted ‘McFie. Tha thu nad rapist agus nad èibhinn.’ McFie you are a rapist and a coward.

She repeated the phrase over and over, interspersing it with weaker and weaker blows on the wood. When she heard footsteps, she stopped. She turned to the others. Their faces were all but lost in the night.

The key rattled in the lock. Jonet felt fear. Deep fear. She placed a hand on the wall to steady herself. The door swung in. When it was half-open she reached out and pulled it. McFie let go. Jonet tried to dive forward but her legs failed her. She tumbled from the cell, McFie easily throwing her to one side. A burning torch, held in McFie’s hand, lit the scene. Jonet looked back, expecting the others to follow. That had been the plan. One mass break out.

McFie smiled.

Reached into the cell.

Closed the door.

Looked down at Jonet.

Turned the key.

‘Nì thu.’ You’ll do.Is all he said.

Jonet tried to crawl away. McFie, a powerful man, reached down and grabbed her dress by the hem. He hauled her up the three stone stairs and through the archway that led to the guard’s room. Placing the torch in a metal holder on the wall he flung Jonet onto the pile of hay that served as a bed for the night shift.

Jonet looked round. Eyes wide with terror.

McFie reached to his waist and pulled the cord from his trousers. Pushing them to the floor he wrestled his stained breeches down. Jonet scrabbled up against the wall. Clawing at the hay and the dirt beneath her as McFie stepped from his trousers and breeches, his penis hard, his smile now one of anticipation. Stepping onto the hay he grabbed Jonet’s hair. She struggled but he had a firm grip. He began to kneel down, pulling her head with him.

Jonet was inches from McFie’s stinking manhood. McFie loosened his grip as he adjusted himself and Jonet shot her head forward. She opened her mouth and took him whole. McFie froze. Jonet gagged. The taste of his penis was appalling. McFie was slow on the uptake. Half expecting her to start sucking he began to lean back. To take his pleasure. Jonet, with her few remaining teeth, bit down. Hard.

McFie’s scream reached beyond the castle walls.

McFie tried to pull away. Jonet bit harder, cutting through engorged flesh and muscle. Blood flooded her mouth. McFie slapped at her head. Jonet rocked back, her teeth still locked. She pulled him with her as she fell. He had no choice but to follow. He hit her again and she released him. He threw his hands on his injury. In the torchlight blood started seeping between his fingers.

Jonet rolled away, off the hay. McFie was caught between two worlds. Attending to his torn groin or seeking retribution on Jonet.

Jonet stood up, adrenaline fuelling her legs. McFie turned and Jonet pulled the burning torch from its holder and plunged it into his face. His screaming turned to a howl. Jonet let go of the torch. McFie flailed on his back. Hands on his face, his flaccid penis, leaking blood. The torch landed on the hay and the flames leapt quickly across the dry straw. McFie’s cape, wrapped around his neck, caught fire.

Jonet backed away. The door to the castle was open. She jumped through it as McFie’s clothes ignited.

She wanted to go back for the other cell mates. She couldn’t. She was too scared of McFie. She stumbled into the night. To her right the castle’s drawbridge blocked her exit. She stumbled towards it. The sound of snoring coming from a door. She looked in. The giant iron wheel, that controlled the rope for lowering and raising the drawbridge, lay unattended. The guard asleep next door. A large wooden wedge, jammed in at the base, stopped the wheel turning. Jonet saw a lump hammer, lying against a wall. She tried to lift it but she could barely drag it, the metal head screaming as the cobbles resisted its passage. Jonet expected the snoring to stop. It didn’t.

She reached the wheel and holding the hammer in both hands swung it between her legs, aiming at the wedge. The first strike scuffed the ground and stopped short. She re-set, eyes on the sleeping guards’ door, and swung again. This time she got some force into the blow. The wedge shivered but remained in place. She pulled it back for a third time and struck true. The wedge shot from its home. The wooden wheel began to spin. The ropes shrieked and the timber rasped as the drawbridge fell.

Jonet dropped the hammer, her energy all but spent. The guard’s door burst open. Rubbing his eyes, the guard looked at the spinning wheel and at Jonet. She staggered away. Pushing out onto the drawbridge. She wanted to run. Needed to run, but what little life-force she had holding her together, was venting into the greying dawn.

She lurched towards the agreed meeting point at the Tolbooth. Malcolm emerged from the shadows, towing the horse. She collapsed into his arms and he gently lifted her onto the animal. Wrapping her in the horse blanket, he urged the animal forward.

Jonet gasped, her eyes locked on a spot behind Malcolm. She screamed.

Malcolm spun.

McFie stood a few yards away. The guard behind him. McFie was naked from the waist down, his face charcoal black, his clothes burnt rags, a stain of blood ran down both legs. In his right hand he held a knife. Malcolm stepped back, placing himself between Jonet and McFie.

McFie charged. Hand high. Readying the knife for Jonet.

Malcolm collapsed to the ground in shock, the thunderclap of the gun that Jonet had just fired bursting both his eardrums. McFie fell to earth. The gun clattered next to Malcolm. The horse reared and took off, Jonet clinging to the rein, slipping from sight as the morning mist enveloped her.

Malcolm picked up the gun, intending to take chase. The guard stepped forward as more men poured from the castle.

Malcolm would never see his Jonet again.


This story is based on historical events. The names of many of those involved are correct but Malcolm Turnbull never existed. Some of the story is imagination some of it isn’t and I apologise if my depiction of some characters is erroneous.

It is duly recorded that Jonet McNicoll did escape Bute. She is known to have lived, for the next twelve years of her life, in Kilmarnock. There have been numerous theories on why she returned to the island. When she did, in 1673, she was executed for her 1662 conviction along with another woman, the last of such witch persecutions on the island.

If you want one possible answer for why Jonet would come back to what was certain death, pay a visit to the cemetery at the ruin of St Mary’s chapel just outside Rothesay. Spend a little time near the south wall. It’s rumoured that the grave of John McFie lies there. If you find it check out the date he died. The 4thMarch 1673, nearly twelve years after he was shot and by some strange coincidence, exactly the same day that Jonet McNicoll returned home.

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