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  Witchcraft in the Orkney Islands

The trial of Bessie Skebister

Described as a “dreamer of dreams”, Bessie Skebister, from Walls, was brought to trial in Kirkwall on March 21, 1633.

But prior to her trial and execution, it would appear that Bessie Skebister was a typical example of an Orcadian spae-wife - a valued and respected member of her community.

A common proverb among her neighbours was, "If Bessie says it is well, all is well."

If the fishing boats were late in returning home, worried wives and parents would hurry to Bessie to see if their loved ones were safe and whether the boats would return home without loss.

On one occasion an oar of one of the Hoy boats was cast ashore on Walls. The good-wife of the Bu, whose eldest son was on board the boat, sent one of her servants to Bessie to inquire if he was all right.

Bessie answered: "Go your way home, for they are all well, and they'll be home afore they sleep."

And so it turned out. The boat came home that same night.

Another account has one James Chalmers encountering a “vision” of Bessie on the island Suleskerry, where she sat with the tears flowing down her cheeks.

She informed Chalmers that she was weeping for the boats, not because they would not return home, which they would (and did), but because of the trouble they were in at that particular time

When people came to ask her concerning the health of absent friends. Bessie would drop a sixpence into a vessel of water. If the side with “the cross” was uppermost when it rested on the bottom, "then they were well, if not, they were not well."

Although her “gift” seems to have been harmless and integral to her community, Bessie was eventually charged with witchcraft after one James Sandison accused her of riding him, with a bridle in his mouth, through the air to Shetland and Norway.

The court heard Sandison’s claims that:

"in his sleip, and oftymes waking, he was tormented with yow, Bessie, and other twa with yow, quhom he knew not, cairying him to the sea, and to the fyre, to Norroway, Yetland, and to the south—that ye had ridden all thes wayes with ane brydle in his mouth”

A second accuser, Margaret Mudie, blamed Bessie for her illness, inflicted by witchcraft after Mudie’s cow wandered into Bessie's grainfield.

The court in Kirkwall heard that Bessie sat down, removed her curtch and shook her hair loose at Mudie:

“and ever siuce shoe hes bein so vehementlie pained, that shoe dwins and becoms wors and wors: and hes nevir bein weill since ye curst hir, or sheuk your hair lous.”

Bessie Skebister was sentenced to be strangled and then burned at Gallow Ha’  - the place of execution at the head of what is now the Clay Loan in Kirkwall.

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Documented Accounts and Trials
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