Janet Forsyth - the Westray Storm Witch
The tale of Westray’s storm witch is a well-known one, surviving today as a mixture of myth and historical fact.
Janet Forsyth lived in Westray in the 17th century.
The story begins in earnest in 1627, with a dream in which Janet saw her sweetheart, Benjamin Garrioch, perish at sea.
The following day, Garrioch, along with a number of other men, was due to go out fishing. The day was fine and Benjamin scoffed at Janet’s claims he would meet his end if he sailed.
Ignoring Janet’s desperate pleas to remain onshore, the fishermen set out to sea. Before long a thick fog descended and Benjamin and colleagues never returned.
The Westray folk blamed Janet for the loss of their young folk. Branded a witch, she was blamed for calling down the treacherous fog. The reason the community turned on her to vehemently is not explained in any of the surviving accounts. However it seems likely that, given the later trial evidence, she may already have had an “uncanny” reputation.
But back to the story.
After the disappearance of Benjamin, the heart-broken Janet shut herself away, living a wretched and solitary existence away from the rest of the islanders.
But despite the solitude, her reputation grew - stormy weather was blamed on the wretched woman, along with a catalogue of other misdeeds.
Then, a few years later, a ship was spotted in trouble off Westray.
As the islanders waited for the ship to break-up, thanking their good fortune, Janet tried to rally them to go and offer assistance. None was forthcoming.
So Janet launched her small boat into the storm to go to the aid of the stricken vessel. Despite the tumultuous waves and howling gale, she piloted her boat out to the ship and guided it safely to the shelter of Pierowall Bay.
This act of bravery sealed her fate. Surely no mere woman could go up against a storm like that and come out unscathed? It had to be the work of witchcraft!
On November 11, 1629, Janet Forsyth was put on trial in Kirkwall. She was found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death.
As the sentence was read out, Janet looked out across the gathered crowd. Her eyes fell upon Benjamin Garrioch standing in a naval uniform. He had not been lost at sea, as had been feared, but had instead been press-ganged into the navy.
On seeing her lost love, she allegedly screamed "save me, Ben!" before being dragged from the trial to be held in Marwick’s Hole – the “dungeon” in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.
However, the next day, when she was summoned for execution, the dungeon was empty. Local tradition says she was spirited away from Marwick’s Hole by her lover, Garrioch.