Interview: Anne Downie, author of The Witches of Pollock
Published Date: 18 September 2010
By Jackie McGlone
WHAT DOES the Hollywood star Sarah Jessica Parker have in common with one of the most shocking, secret and shameful episodes in Scotland's dark past? The answer lies in the terrible tale of the trials of the 17th-century witches of Pollok – and the cruel deaths by burning at the stake of four women and one man.
Award-winning Glaswegian author and actress Anne Downie says with an apologetic laugh: "It's only wild speculation," before explaining that she shuddered while watching an episode of the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? featuring Sex and the City star Parker
Parker discovered that a female ancestor, Esther Elwell, had been named as a witch on a warrant during the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, which Downie says uncannily mirror those of the Pollok witches.
Although the Scottish trials have been largely forgotten, they reflect the sheer horror of the story of the Salem trials, in religious bigotry and intolerance, the snooping and sniping, and terror and torture.
In 1677, one Janet Douglas, an apparently mute (the legends use the word "dumb") young serving girl arrived at the Pollok estate of Sir George Maxwell of Auldhouse, who had suddenly become seriously ill.
She "miraculously" regained the power of speech, pointed the finger at five people, as well as a 14-year-old girl, accusing them of witchcraft, and therefore of being responsible for the Laird's sickness. Downie, whose first novel, The Witches of Pollok, is based on this terrible tale, says that it is one she can't seem to let go; in 1990, she even wrote a play based on it.
To this day Douglas – who was later employed in the Maxwell household – remains an enigma. Like the hysterical teenagers who sustained the Salem witch hunts in the US, Douglas is said to have held power as "a witchfinder" over the residents of Polloktoun – the town was eventually demolished in 1798, disappearing from maps of Glasgow. Incidentally, says Downie, these dreadful events unfolded close to where the Burrell Collection is displayed today.
Just as Sarah Jessica Parker's ancestor was alleged to have murdered a neighbour in "phantasmal form", the five witches of Pollok were, according to Douglas, guilty of consorting with and making pacts with the Devil. Later, Douglas herself was put on trial for spreading "malicious mischiefing", although she was never tried as a witch despite the fact that her knowledge and obsession with such matters was uncanny.
"The judge ordered that she be deported to the colonies – almost certainly to America," says Downie. "Did she fetch up in Salem perhaps? Was she among those who accused Parker's ancestor of witchcraft?" muses Downie. "One thing's for sure, she'll have caused mayhem wherever she ended up."
Downie – currently rehearsing with Karen Dunbar and Sharon Small at the National Theatre in London, for her role in Ena Lamont Stewart's Scottish classic Men Should Weep – says that this shadowy "dumbie" as Douglas was described, exerts a powerful hold on her imagination, because, bizarrely, the girl recovered the power of speech, speaking fluent French, Latin and Greek.
Twenty years ago, Downie's compelling play, The Witches of Pollok, was commissioned for the Tron Theatre by Michael Boyd – now artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company – as part of Glasgow's City of Culture celebrations. The production gave Annan-born actress Ashley Jensen one of her first stage roles before she went on to international stardom first in Ricky Gervais's Extras then the American TV series Ugly Betty.
• Pollok House
Twenty years ago, Scotland on Sunday's critic found The Witches of Pollok "a strange and disturbing story…(told] with economy, craft, and a tinge of the white magic that pure theatre can conjure." Today, it seems even stranger and even more disturbing, for Downie has seamlessly woven fact and fiction to conjure a truly gripping novel.
Why does this story – it's been called a Caledonian Crucible, a reference to Arthur Miller's play about the Salem "witches" – continue to intrigue and haunt her? Downie – who is the mother of a grown-up son and daughter and grandmother of two small children – replies: "I first stumbled on the story when I was commissioned by Wildcat to write a Glasgow comedy. I went to the Glasgow Room at the Mitchell Library searching for inspiration.
"I came across the story of Janet Douglas, who had pointed the accusatory finger at five people who were burnt at the stake, in a book called Old Glasgow Tales. There was a letter from an Edinburgh minister saying that she had been beaten through the streets of Edinburgh, then banished to the colonies. It told briefly how she had been a mute who spookily recovered her speech and accused five people of witchcraft. No-one knows who she was or where she came from. She just turned up at Pollok House, home of Sir George Maxwell, the Laird of Nether Pollok."
Downie's curiosity was piqued. She discovered that Sir George had been a staunch Covenanter, who had travelled across Scotland to witness or even take part in various witch trials. Indeed, he'd just returned from a trial in Greenock, Renfrewshire, in October 1677, when he fell ill, with severe pains along the right side of his body.
"Then, out of the blue, Janet Douglas appeared," says Downie. Douglas claimed that the tiny community of Polloktoun had cursed the Laird. She named a widow, Janet Mathie Stewart, her son John – "the warlock of Pollokshaws" – and her 14-year-old daughter, Annabel, as servants of Satan.
Three other servants from the manor house were similarly accused. "All their homes were searched and wax effigies, pierced with pins, were found where Janet Douglas said they would be. She alleged they were of Sir George and the cause of his suffering."
All six were taken to Paisley, where they were tortured, "confessed" and put on trial. They were sentenced to death by strangulation and "condemned to the fire to be burned and their effigies with them."
Throughout, they maintained their innocence. Only young Annabel was not sentenced to death. Within a few months, the Laird himself was dead, but not before he'd had Douglas interviewed by George Hickes, a friend of Samuel Pepys, and the Reverend Scott, a minister from the Palace of Holyroodhouse. "Amazingly, she addressed Hickes in several languages.
He said she had second sight, while Scott thought her 'an impostrix'," says Downie.
"Later, she married a minister and moved to Edinburgh where she saw more witches. She was undoubtedly a 'witch obsessive.' Virtually everyone she met was in league with the Devil." Weary of her endless accusations, the authorities arrested her in the capital. At her trial, she told the judge she knew who he had been in bed with a few nights earlier – "a muckle devil".
Downie, who lives near Pollok House, often walks with her husband, John, in its grounds.which are now run by the National Trust for Scotland. There is a witch's wood, where people can go to put a curse on their enemies, tying messages to the trees.
"There's definitely a very strange atmosphere there even today," insists Downie, who remains frustrated that she can find so little information about Janet Douglas. "Some thought she'd been born 'on the wrong side of the blanket' into an aristocratic family, but it's not known whether she was even Scottish. When I first came across the story, I went to the Law Courts but drew a complete blank. Now, though, with the internet, there's so much more information available.
"My late brother, Jim Delaney, who lived in Canada, and who was a whiz at IT, managed to find Janet's charge sheet and a lot more background information than I'd had when I wrote the play, which was a dramatic, Gothic tale. I've been able to explore the story in much more detail in my novel and I think I've been able to throw some light on Janet."
In fact, Downie became so steeped in the period that she enrolled on a course in Scottish history at Glasgow University.
Downie was educated at Holyrood School, in Glasgow, and Langside College, and studied creative writing at Glasgow University, before she began wrtiting plays and scripts for Take The High Road, The Bill and Taggart, among many other popular TV series.
Ultimately, Downie says, it's the story's resonances with today that ignited her novel, drawing contemporary parallels with the latent tyranny of a repressive society and the dangers incurred in dissent.
"You can't feel superior by saying, 'Oh, these were just 17th-century people torturing confessions out of innocent people,'" she warns.
"You think of Guantanamo Bay and you wonder whether we've really advanced all that much. OK, we don't burn witches, but we still torture people. It seems there's no end to man's inhumanity to man – and woman."
• The Witches of Pollok, by Anne Downie (Capercaillie Books, £8.99). Anne Downie will read from her book at a free, ticketed event Blackwells Bookshop, South Bridge, Edinburgh, October 7, 6-7pm. Men Should Weep opens at the National Theatre, London, October 18.
The American Trials
• The Salem witch trials occurred in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693.
• Two hundred people were accused of witchcraft. Twenty nine were convicted, with 19 – 14 women and five men – hanged.
• One man who refused to enter a plea was crushed to death under heavy stones in an attempt to force him to do so.
• In 1702, the trials were declared unlawful and four years later, Ann Putnam Jr, one of the chief accusers, publicly apologised for her actions in 1692.
• The colony passed a legislative bill restoring the rights and good names of those accused of witchcraft in 1711.
• Salem Village was renamed Danvers in 1752.