‘The Hid Works of Darkness’: The Mysterious Death of John Schaw and the Paisley Witches

Devils Witches Dance

The Reverend Law attributed many strange events to the hidden works of darkness, i.e., to the works of Devil or his servants, witches. The unearthly death of John Schaw of Bargarran in winter was no exception. Several years after both Schaw’s unexplained death and Law wrote, Christian Schaw, Bargarran’s granddaughter, made accusations which led to the famous case of the Paisley or Renfewshire Witches of 1696 to 1697, the last mass execution of witches in Scotland. The Paisley Witch Trials are the subject of a historical research project, the RWH1697.

The story of the death of John Schaw by ‘works of darkness’, which took place before Christian was born, may have been a significant influence on her and shaped the environment in which she grew up in.

It is not clear when John Schaw died. Law places the case in a winter context and after an event in 1676, roughly around the time of the violent frost, but it is not clear if Schaw’s death took place earlier, at around the same time, or later. The last entry in Law’s narrative is in April, 1684. Christian Schaw was born in c.1685.

Servants played a role in both cases. In the later witch hunt, Christian Schaw was allegedly cursed by a servant that the Devil would haul her soul through Hell. In the story of Bargarran’s death, it was his man, his servant, that left him to his fate.

Other local people also played a part in Bargarran’s death, they either failed to find his body, or they allegedly pursued false claims against Christian’s father. Christian would widen her accusations of witchcraft to others.

Was it revenge? Perhaps not.

Christian was allegedly cast into fits after a servant’s curse and she encountered a witch. The earlier family trauma of her grandfather’s mysterious and gruesome death, according to Law allegedly by dark or Satanic forces, may have prompted fears, or dread, that led to her physical response. For the Schaw family, the Devil’s works may have been tangible and had directly disrupted their home.

Bargarran House

Bargarran House

Law records:

‘I will make known to the reader a very remarkable storie that fell out a few yeirs past, There was a gentleman, John Shaw of Bargarran, in Arskin parish;’


Today, the site of Bargarran House lies below this building in Erskine.

Map of Site of Bargarran

‘he always used to ryd[e] the water of Gryf, which is ‘twixt his house and Paisley, deep and late, and being at Paisley on a nyght, he comes late out of the town to go home, a thing ordinar to him, and it being very dark, he comes to the water syd at the foord, viz. ~Allan’s foord;’

Allans was a farm on the north side of the River Gryfe. Today, the site of the farm is occupied by the Rolls Royce building.

Allans Ford almost certainly lay to the south of the farm, where tracks met at the River Gryfe by an island, or two islands on Roy’s map of the 1750s.

Aerial View of Allans Ford

‘he calls to his man that was riding with him to take the water. His man told him it was full water, and also very dark; he tushes at that, and so put spurr to the horse, in steps he. His man thinking him too adventurous stays behind, waiting to hear what might come of him; when he is mid-water, he hears him groan heavily, but heard no more of him, suspecting he might have won throw; but draws back to the nearest house [Easter Yonderton?], and abydes all night. Meanwhile, Bargarran his horse goes home his alone with brydle and sadle on him, without his master, about 11 or 12 hours at night. His lady and children are amazed at this, and concludes he’s perished in the water.

Betymes in the morning his family and neighbours come to seek him, and not only seek him be the way fra his house to the water, but gets botts and searches all the water down to Clyd, and searches Clyd near to the sea, but found he cannot be; whereupon they give over seeking.

A quarter of yeir after that his body is found near two mylles of the water, and a myle fra his own house, in a ditch at the end of a moor, in the spring tyme, (which ditch gentlemen about declared that in their hunting in the winter they had searched, and found nothing lyke him in it); but that which was remarkable, his ryght hand was cut off; his privie members Were cut off; his cloths and boots no wett, nor any way spoyled; his papers in his pocket all dry; his gold which he used to wear about him are found on him; (among which papers there was a discharge of accompt he had payed to a merchant in Paisley, who, supposing his discharge had been lost with himself in the river, did knavishly suit his son[, John,] for the same count already payed); his hat layed beside him, and his lather-cap upon his head, and the string of his hat about his collar, which was ordinar to him when he ryds in dark nights or windy nights; and his body found als fresh, as if he had been newly dead; at the off-taking of his boots, one of his heels bled. All men were sensible that he was brought to that untymely end and death by the hid works of darkness; but how to make a search after it his relations knew not.’ (Law, Memorialls, 111-112.)

Barochan Moss

Barochan Moss

Schaw’s body was probably found in the vicinity of the eastern side of Barochan Moss, which covered a greater extent in the seventeenth century. Today, the area is largely occupied by the BAE/Royal Ordnance complex at Bishopton.

Map of former site of Barochan Moss

For more wonders of late seventeenth-century Scotland, see here.

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Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please link to this post on Facebook or retweet it, but do not reblog in FULL without the express permission of the author @drmarkjardine

~ by drmarkjardine on March 4, 2015.

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