the witches of Dirleton

Dirleton Kirkyard

Dirleton can claim to be one of the most beautiful villages in Scotland, and in fact, visiting this wee beauty you might start to wonder how you ended up in a Scottish episode of Midsomer Murders. Gardens are blooming everywhere, little houses are well-kept and people live happily ever after. Murders exist on TV only, in Midsomer Somewhere. Think again again, Dirleton has murder connections of its own: the nearby Dirleton Castle has a so-called murder hole, an opening above the entrance gate through which one could tip all sorts of deadly things onto invading enemies. Dirleton Castle is a ruin; the 13th century castle suffered heavily in the border wars over the centuries.

idyllic Dirleton Kirk

King David I gave the land to the Norman family, the de Vauxs. There are not many older walls to be seen in Scotland than those of Dirleton castle. The fortress was besieged and destroyed by Cromwell’s troops in 1650. But the ruin still has a very special charm. There is still a Victorian garden next to it, laid out in the French formal style.

In addition, the beautiful Dirleton also has a special example of the particularly common building in this region, the Doo’cots. These are elabourate houses for pigeons. The animals were kept to be eaten, but also for their eggs and their droppings, which were used as dung. Often, they are round like the one in Dirleton. The dovecote in Belton, though, is rectangular and quite large and dates back to the late 17th or the early 18th century. 13 holes in the roof allowed the pigeons to fly in and out. There were once more than 1,300 nests here – an impressive number of eggs to collect!

But Dirleton is not all paradise. Cruel things happened in Dirleton. This fits in with the Midsomer Murders theme. The murders are just older. In the middle of the 17th century, more than 600 people were accused of witchcraft in South East Scotland in one year. Six of them came from Dirleton.

One of those pitiable women in the Dirleton Castle dungeon was Manie Halieburton. She had been accused by another “witch”, her own husband, and she confessed to an act she had allegedly committed 18 years before the trial. When her daughter had been sick, the devil had come to visit and pretended to be a doctor. The devil aka doctor was supposed to have slept with her the next morning, as soon as her husband, Patrick, had been out of the house. 18 years later, Patrick accused his wife of cheating on him with the devil.

She had to answer at a witch trial. Both were examined with pinpricks to find numb spots on their bodies that could provide information about their contact with the devil. The examination revealed areas where the two felt no pain and did not bleed. They were guilty. How they died is not known. Accusing his wife of consorting with the devil did not save the husband’s life.

Witches were not buried in holy grounds. The graveyard was for others, including those who had part in the accusations, the abuse, the torture and the killings for they were sanctioned by the church.

Liked the read? There’s more here…

The stories of this book have been discovered and gathered for my blog, Graveyards of Scotland, over many years. Find treasure all over Scotland with my latest book. I am Nellie Merthe Erkenbach, journalist and author.The fairy hill in Inverness, a nitrate murder on Shetland, a family of left-handers, wolves, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace shown in a new light, the secret bay of the writer Gavin Maxwell, a murdering poet and so many things you didn’t know about Scotland, its clans and its history.

My main sources were historical travel guides from the 18th and 19th centuries, where the finds were scary, beautiful, funny, and sometimes, cruel. 

This unusual approach to a country’s history has produced amazing results. You don’t have to share my passion for cemeteries to enjoy this book; only a small number of the stories in this collection take place in graveyards, though they do all end in them, so perhaps it helps. 

Scotland for Quiet Moments is available @Amazon ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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