The Entry of a Witch Finder into Glasgow, Samuel Pepys and the Second Sight


The entry of Janet Douglas, a famed dumb seer and discoverer of witches, into Glasgow in early 1677 led to a wild reception as ‘the people in great numbers ran out to meet her’. Her later reception by ‘vast crowds’ at Edinburgh was even greater. One can only imagine the chaotic and hysterical scenes that followed, as she levelled accusations of witchcraft against several people…

George Hickes

George Hickes

George Hickes, the private chaplain to John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, recorded the arrivals of Douglas and his interview with her when she was imprisoned in Edinburgh in his correspondence with the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys.

Extract of a letter of George Hickes to Samuel Pepys
London 19 June, 1700.

‘At the same time [in 1678?] there was a girl in custody at Edinburgh, whose name was Janet Douglas, about 12 or 13 years of age, famous for the Second Sight, and the Discovery of witches, and their malefices and enchantments thereby. This girl first signalized herself in the Western Islands [probably an error for ‘lands’, as she operated in Renfrewshire in late 1676 and early 1677], where she discovered how one Sir G[eorge]. Maxwell was tormented in effigy by witches. She was not known there where she made this, which was her first discovery, but from thence she came to Glasgow [in early 1677], whither her fame having got before her, the people in great numbers ran out to meet her.

As she was surrounded with the crowds, she called out to one man, a goldsmith, as I remember, and told him that of so long a time he had not thriven in his trade, though he was very diligent in it, because an image was made against him, which he might find in such a corner of his shop; and when the man went home, there he found it where she said it was; and the image was such, both as to matter and form, as she had described it, viz. a little rude image made of clay.

She told another, that he and his wife, who had been a very loving couple, of late had lived in great discord, to the grief and astonishment of them both; and when the man asked the reason, she answered as she did before, that there was an image made against them.’

While she was in Glasgow, a gentleman paid for an interview with Douglas

‘I have forgot whether she named the witches who made those images, as she did those who made that in which they tortured Sir George Maxwell. But by these, and other such discoveries, she made such tumults and commotions among the people of Glasgow, that the magistrates thought fit to confine her, and sent an account of her to the Privy Council at Edinburgh, who sent for her up in custody; but when she came near the city the people went out to meet her in vast crowds, and as she was surrounded with them, she accused several persons of witchcraft, which obliged them to put her in close confinement, to keep the people and their minds quiet from the commotions she had raised in them.

This happened a little before the Duke of Lauderdale went the last time as High Commissioner into Scotland, in May 1678, when I had the honour to attend him as his domestic Chaplain.

Hearing these and many other stories of this girl, I had a desire to see her and discourse with her; but it was some time before I could obtain leave to go to her, because an order had been made in Council, before we came into Scotland, that no one should be admitted to her.

In the interim, upon an invitation by the then Lord Archbishop of Glasgow, Dr. Burnet, of honourable memory, afterwards made Archbishop of St. Andrew’s, I went to see Glasgow, where I had the happiness to meet Dr. Rosse, then Lord Bishop of Argyle, who afterwards succeeded Dr. Burnet in the Archbishoprick of St. Andrew’s, of which he was deprived, with the whole order, soon after the Revolution.

It was from him ]Rose] that I had the stories above related concerning Janet Douglas, with many more which I have forgotten, from her first appearance in the Highlands [actaully Renfrewshire] to her coming to Glasgow. My Lord Archbishop is still living, and if my Lord Reay would please to inquire of him, and many others yet alive, about that girl, he would be able to give you an account of her much more worthy your knowledge than any thing I can now write of her, at so great a distance of time.

One thing I must not omit to tell you,—that in all her marches from Sir George Maxwell’s [in Renfrewshire] to Edinburgh, nobody knew her, nor would she discover to any one who she was.’

Canongate Tolbooth

Edinburgh;s Canongate Tolbooth

‘After I returned from Glasgow, I renewed my petition to my Lord Duke for leave to see Janet Douglas [who was held in the Canongate Tolbooth], which he granted me. My desire of seeing her arose from a great curiosity I had to ask her some questions about the Second Sight, by which she pretended to make all her discoveries.

I took a reverend and learned Divine with me, one Mr. [Robert] Scott, Minister of the Church of the Abbey of Holyrood, now the Palace of the Scottish Kings. [See Scott, Fasti, I, 24.]

When we were first brought to her, I found her as I had heard her described, a girl of very great assurance, undaunted, though surprised at our coming, and suspicious that I was sent to betray her: this made her very shy of conversing with us; but after many and serious protestations on my own part, that I came for no other end but to ask her some questions about the Second Sight to which she pretended, she at last promised she would freely answer me, provided I would use my interest with my Lord High Commissioner [i.e., Lauderdale] to obtain her liberty, upon condition she went into England, never again to appear in Scotland; which I promised to do.

Upon this I began to premise something of the baseness of lying and deceiving, and especially of pretending to false revelations, and the dangerous consequences of such practices, which made all such lying pretenders odious to God and man; and then requiring her in the presence of God to tell me nothing but truth, she promised me with a serious air to tell me nothing but the very truth. I then asked her, if indeed she had the Second Sight, and if by that she knew those things she had discovered: to which she answered in the affirmative.

I then asked her if she thought it proceeded from a good or evil cause; upon which she turned the question upon me, and asked me what I thought of it. I told her plainly, I feared it was from an evil cause; but she replied quickly, she hoped it was from good.

I then asked her if it came upon her by any act of her own, as by saying any words, or performing any actions or ceremonies: to which she replied, No.

I asked her upon this, if she remembered her baptismal vow: but she did not understand my question till I began to explain it; and then with great quickness replied, she remembered it, and called to mind that she had renounced the Devil and all his works: and then I told her, that by the devil was meant Satan, the Prince of Devils, and all evil spirits under him, and asked her if she renounced them all; which she said she did.

Then I asked her if she would renounce them all in a form of words that I had provided; which promising to do, I bid her say after me, which she did in the most serious and emphatical expressions that I was able to devise.

I then asked her if she could say the Lord’s Prayer; she said, Yes: I bid her say it upon her knees, which she did. I then asked her if she ever prayed to God to deliver her from the power of the Devil and all evil spirits; but not answering readily and clearly to that question, I then asked her if she would make such a prayer to God upon her knees, which I had composed for her, which she did without any difficulty.

Then I proceeded to ask her at what distance she saw persons and things by the Second Sight: she replied, at the same distance they were really from her, whether more or less. Then I asked her if the Second Sight came upon her sleeping or waking: she answered, never sleeping, but always when she was awake.

I asked this question, to know whether the Second Sight was by outward representation, which I call apparition, or by inward representation on the theatre of the imagination caused by some spirit; or that I may once more use my own terms for distinction, whether these Second Sight folks were Seers or Visionists, or sometimes one and sometimes the other.

Then I asked her if she was wont to have any trouble, disorder, or consternation of mind, before or after the Second Sight came upon her: to which she answered, never, but was in the same temper at those, as at all other times.

Then I asked her if the Second Sight never left any weariness or faintness upon her, or listlessness to speak, walk, or do any other business: to which she also answered, No; adding, that she was always then as before.

These two answers of hers do not agree with some accounts in my Lord’s Letter, wherein, as I remember, he speaks of one who said he had always perturbation of mind attending the Second Sight; but as to this, there may be a difference, from the different temper of the patients, and the different stock and temper of the animal spirits in them.

This girl, as I have observed before, was of a bold undaunted spirit, and might bear those sights, from what cause soever, without any fear or perturbation, which others of more passive tempers, and a less stock of animal spirits, could not so well endure. There seems to have been this difference among the prophets themselves; whereof some, as we read, received the prophetical influx with great terrors, labour, and consternation, of which they complained when their visions or apparitions were over, and desired of God to be excused from the prophetical influx, and the burthen of it: but of others, we do not read they had any such complaints.

One of the last questions I asked this girl was, if she desired to have the Second Sight taken from her: to which she replied, what God pleased.’

John Maitland Duke of Lauderdale

John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale

‘After I had discoursed with her in this manner, as long as I thought convenient, I returned home, and gave the Duke [of Lauderdale] an account of my conversation, with which he was pleased; and I also told him of my promise to intercede with his Grace for her liberty, upon condition she might go into England: but he said that would not be convenient, for certain reasons.

After receiving which answer, I sent her word I could not obtain her liberty; and so she was shut up all the while we were there, but soon after we came away she was set at liberty.

When I heard of it I made all the inquiry I could what was become of her, and how she came to obtain her liberty; but I could not get any further account of her, which made me suspect that she was the child of some person of honour or quality, for whose sake all things were hushed.

When I was with her, I asked her of her parentage, but she would tell me nothing of it: I also told her how I observed how her words and expressions were of the better sort, and asked, her how she, being a Highlander, and in appearance a poor girl, came to speak so well. To this she artfully replied, by asking me why I should suppose it so difficult for her to learn to express herself well. Indeed, her wit and cunning were both answerable to her assurance, which I told you was very great.

I designed to give a second visit, but my first made so much noise about the town, that it was not thought fit; and I did not press for leave again, because I had reason to believe the denial of her liberty would make her sullen and reserved.

The famous Lord Advocate, Sir George Mackenzie, of immortal memory [and opprobrium among the Covenanters], designed to write her history; but why he did not, I can give no account. People were divided in their opinions of her:—some suspected her for an impostrix: but others, of whom I was one myself, thought that she was really what she pretended; being induced to that opinion from the notoriety of the facts which the most incredulous and suspicious could not deny.’ (Braybrooke (ed.), Memoirs of Samuel Pepys, V, 283-90.)

Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys

Pepys, who had a genuine interest in the second sight, replyed.

Extract of a letter in reply to George Hickes from Samuel Pepys,
Clapham 2 August, 1700.

‘The history of Janet Douglas has many things very singular in it, and informing; especially with the improvement it receives from your own conversation with her, and learned remarks upon it: for which, with your pains and patience in collecting and transcribing them at so great length for my single benefit, and at a season so little admitting the interruption it must have been of to your nearer cares, is an instance of your favour I can never enough acknowledge. It is a great pity Sir Geo. Mackenzie let fall, or was prevented in, his purpose of putting together the whole of that girl’s legend.’ (Braybrooke (ed.), Memoirs of Samuel Pepys, V, 292.)

Return to Homepage

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 13, 2015.

One Response to “The Entry of a Witch Finder into Glasgow, Samuel Pepys and the Second Sight”

  1. […] works of the Devil were the cause of particular excitement in Glasgow when a celebrated witch finder, Janet Douglas, was mobbed entering the burgh in 1677. She was later interviewed in Glasgow […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: