5th August


for Pat, Anne and Angus

The hills above Glen Loth seem low and round and gentle seen from the coast, especially on a fine summer’s day. But there is wild country up there. In bad weather a man could quickly become confused and disorientated, and not easily find his way home again.

There was a minister of Loth, Robert Robertson, of whom it is written that ‘it was during Mr Robertson’s time, and from the parish of Loth, that the last unfortunate victim suffered for witchcraft, being burned to death at Dornoch’. That was in 1727. Her name was Janet Horne. The story of her and her daughter, who only narrowly avoided the fate of her mother, is well known. But it is Robert Robertson who concerns me here.

He did not condemn the poor woman – that was the work of the sheriff-depute of Sutherland – but did he judge her? It is hard to believe he played no role at all. Did he question her accusers? Remonstrate with them? With whom did he sympathise, her or them?

He had a cousin, Francis, minister of the neighbouring parish of Clyne, and they must have been of similar age, because they gained their degrees in the same year, 1710. Did Francis and Robert speak on the matter? Was it out of their hands? Could they not have done something to stop what happened? She was strangled to death and burned in a barrel, for Christ’s sake. Did they condone or condemn it? Or did they say nothing?

I thought of these things today in the graveyard at Clyne, overlooking Brora and the sea, with the hills of Loth to the north, benign and richly clad in heather. We were burying Jack, who’d led a good life and a long one, and it seemed a fine place to leave him in the sunshine, with not a bit of wind or rain to disturb him. A world away from the accusation and condemnation of a demented old woman. This is something, anyway, to be thankful for.

They were my ancestors, Francis and Robert. And Robert had a younger brother, James, of whom all that is known is that he was ‘bred to the sea’.

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
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