On this day, in 1697, Evil came to church. The accused witch’s bloodstained, grey skirt dragged over the worn oak doorstep as she was hustled into Greyfriars Kirk by two burly soldiers. Plain white plastered walls, roughly hewn pews, six small windows, was all that God required for the Kirk in 17th century Scotland.
In the gallery above the entrance, devoted churchgoers were jostling for the front row. The timbers creaked as if giant rats were trying to be stealthy but they couldn’t stop gnawing. Even the rats wanted a good view of the witch. Along the centre aisle the dark wooden pews were filled with thrilled believers. Tweed shawls, grey skirts, tartan scarves, sturdy brown work jackets, patched trousers, caps clutched tightly, the whole God-fearing town pressed towards the aisle to get a better look. But the little children hiding behind their mother’s skirts were just like scared baby rabbits afraid of being spotted by the witch’s evil eye. The aisle ended with a trestle table in front of the raised pulpit and here were seated the chief magistrate of Edinburgh and four church elders in long black robes.
Above the pulpit was a simple wooden cross, a symbol of the Kirk’s power over the congregation. A phlegmy cough came from one of the elders whose hands were like turkey feet that he couldn’t stop rubbing together. Tripping over the torn hem of her blood-stained skirt, she threw out her hands to break the fall as she hit the floor. Searing pain shot up her arm, although not as excruciating as the agony, the witch pricker had bestowed upon her on his quest for the devil’s mark.
Roughly jerked to her feet, she grasped the soft sleeve of the soldier’s woollen jacket. Cold blue eyes met her gaze. Stumbling down the aisle, with snot dribbling into her mouth and sweat stinging her eyes, she knew God would not save her. Initially there had been a quiet hush, as she hobbled down the aisle, then an intake of breath just before the taunts were hurled. Curses, jeers, flowed like a torrent after a thunderstorm.
The air was so charged with fear and anger that it hummed like a swarm of bees.
“Witch, whore, fornicator” filled the Kirk.
The scent of body odour, old clothes and sheep manure wafted towards her along with the cruel taunts from her good neighbours. This Christian congregation would torture, hang and burn her, because that is what they did, on this day.
At the end of the church aisle, to the right of the trestle table where the magistrates sat, rose a slightly elevated prisoner’s box. Shoved into the box, she fell to her knees but struggled to her feet. Gripping the rough wooden railing as hard as she could, her knuckles as white as snow, it seemed as if she was trying to snap it like a twig. Slowly turning to the right, her gaze fell upon the simple wooden cross hanging above the pulpit. Thunder rumbled. Dark grey storm clouds blocked the last golden beams of sunlight from streaming through the six small windows.
On this day, her last day, the accused witch smiled knowingly at the silly old men sitting at the trestle table just below the pulpit, and at Beelzebub who loomed behind them.
Patricia von Holstein-Rathlou