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  Witchcraft in the Orkney Islands

The torture of Alesoun Balfour

Perhaps one of the most disturbing accounts of a witch trial in Orkney centres around one Alison – or Alesoun – Balfour of Stenness.

In the late 16th century, Balfour was implicated in a plot to murder the notorious Orkney Earl, Patrick Stewart.

The earl’s brother – John Stewart, Master of Orkney – was said to be behind the failed poisoning plot, which led to the and led to the capture, and imprisonment, of his servant, Thomas Paplay.

Paplay was kept eleven days and eleven nights "in the caschilaws” – an iron frame which was gradually heated till it burned into the flesh to extort a confession.  And “confess” he did.

After suffering at the hands of the torturers, which also saw him stripped naked and scourged with "ropes in sic soirt that they left nather flesch nor hyde vpoun him", Paplay named the “known notorious witch” Alison Balfour as an accomplice.

Alison was seized and pleaded innocence. So the instruments of torture were called upon again - it was essential to get enough evidence to implicate Patrick's brothers and get them out of the way.

Charged with wringing the "truth" out of Alison was one Henry Colville, the parson of Orphir, and Earl Patrick Stewart’s close friend and chamberlain.

Colville was particularly interested in a piece of wax found in Alison Balfour’s possession and especially that it had been given to the “witch” by Patrick Bellenden, “the Laird of Stenness”.

The questioning seems to have been a definite attempt to implicate Bellenden in the poisoning plot. Although Alison was adamant that the wax had been given to her to create an “implaister” to cure Lady Bellenden of a stomach problem, her torturers were sure it must have had a more sinister purpose.

So, Alison Balfour was taken to the Kirkwall Castle and tortured.

Like Paplay, her legs were put in the caschilaws, but after 48 hours no confession could be wrung from her. Then her 81-year-old husband and two children were brought in.

Her husband was placed in the "lang irons" – a device designed to crush its victim. Fifty stones (700lb) of weight were piled upon the old man but Alison remained steadfast.

Her son was next. His legs were placed in "the boots". This saw wedges driven into the device, crushing the victim’s foot and leg. In this case, 57 mallet strokes were delivered to the wedges. Yet this, too, failed - no confession was forthcoming.

So, last of all, Alison’s seven-year-old daughter was taken and her fingers crushed in the “piniwinkies”  - a thumbscrew.  This proved too much. Watching her daughter suffer, Alison’s resolve broke and she confessed to witchcraft.

The confession secured, she was sentenced to die at “Heiding Hill”  - presumably Gallow Ha’ - in Kirkwall on December 15, 1594.

Before she died, at her place of execution, Alison retracted her confession, stating that it had been issued to spare her husband and children further torture.

But the execution went ahead and she was strangled and burned at the stake.

As a footnote, in 1596, John Stewart, Master of Orkney, was charged with “Consulting with witches, for [the] destruction of [the] Earl of Orkney”.

He was tried in Edinburgh but acquitted. The evidence that had led to the execution of Alison Balfour was thrown out of court on the basis that it had been obtained under torture.