5th August

The Noise from Loth

Those hills are not so benign. An old book records that when John, sixth Earl of Sutherland, was travelling with his retinue in the year 1602, his harper, one Donald Maclean, ‘perished in the Glen of Loth from a sudden snow storm’.

I am thinking of Janet Horne, who came from these parts, and was the last ‘witch’ to be executed in Scotland. Mr James Fraser, minister of Alness, writes in April 1727 to his friend Mr Robert Wodrow, minister of Eastwood: ‘Since I saw you in Edinburgh in May last, there has been great noise of witchcraft in the parish of Loth, by which the minister is said to have suffered. He is not yet recovered; however, the thing has been examined into, and the women were, I know, before the presbytery.’

Two years before Janet Horne was tested and found to be a servant of Satan – because, among other signs, she stumbled over the opening words when asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer in her native Gaelic – yet another Church of Scotland minister, Francis Hutcheson, was in Dublin writing treatises on Beauty, Order, Harmony and Design and on Moral Good and Evil. Two years after Janet’s execution, Hutcheson became Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University. He was an intellectual precursor to what became known as the Scottish Enlightenment. ‘That action is best,’ he wrote, ‘which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions misery.’

Two hundred miles to the north, the superstitious and sanctimonious majority would have condemned Hutcheson’s view that humans can distinguish between virtue and vice without reference to, or even knowledge of, God. But though the action of burning Janet in a barrel might have pleased them, surely it cannot have made them happy.

And what of the minister of Loth? He is not yet recovered. Perhaps he never did mend, for he died thirteen years later, still in his forties. Did he carry Janet’s mischief to the grave? Did he feel it crumbling his bones? Did the noise from Loth ring in his ears, even as he left this world and stepped, in assurance or in fear, into the next?

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Guitar: Sorren Maclean
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