Joan Biggar recounts the strange life of Christian Shaw, from witch to head of an 18th-century textile empire.
article first appeared in the Scots Magazine in May 1998.
SHAW, the eldest daughter of the Laird of Bargarran,
was inaptly named. At the age of 11 she began acting as though possessed by the
devil. During what the family came to dread as one of her turns, she would throw
herself on the floor in contortions, rolling her eyes heavenwards, and acting as
though she had completely taken leave of her senses, as she appeared deaf,
blind, and dumb for whatever length of time the strange attack lasted. But
‘the most alarming symptom by far, and the one that made her mother scream in
fear and caused her father to mount his horse at top speed and head for the
doctor’s house at a gallop, was that Christian
vomited during her fits, and instead of expelling the contents of her stomach,
spat out all sorts of rubbish. Hay, barley straw, bones, rags, even coal and
candles were amongst the miscellany, and her horrified family never knew what
was coming next.
The doctor could not help, although it wasn’t for the
want of trying. The Shaw estate, situated on the road from Bishopton
to Erskine Ferry, was small, but it was well respected so, when his
purges and masters had no effect. the physician remarked that little Miss
Shaw appeared to have been bewitched, rather than confess himself beaten,
or have the temerity to suggest that Christian was
an attention-seeking little besom, jealous of the way her parents spoiled the
wee ones in the family.
Bargarran was completely
dumb-struck! The year was 1696, and every sensible body, including
himself, took every possible precaution against witchcraft. Rowans were trained
to arch over the doors, elder’ trees bordered his estate, .and horseshoes were
nailed above the byre doors, all with the purpose of preventing trespass by both
male and female witches. It was deduced that there must be an enemy within,
living in the household and practicing the black arts.
It did not take long for the Shaws to determine who
this was. Shortly before the appearance of the fits. A Highland girl in the
Laird’s employ had turned on young Christian (who, even before contracting her
strange malady, would have tried the patience of a saint) and shouted: “May
the devil harl your soul to hell!”
When this curse was recalled, the Laird turned from’
the doctor to the minister of Erskine who brought up the strange case of Christian
Shaw at a meeting of Paisley Presbytery on 30th December, 1696,
and the result was a far-reaching witch hunt.
Questioned closely by several distinguished adults, Christian
had words put into her mouth, instead of the rubbish she had collected from the
kitchen midden to frighten every-one with her fits. Now she named names,
sometimes those suggested to her, sometimes of people employed by her father,
those who had scolded her or complained to her parents about her childish
Imprisoned, tortured, deprived of sleep and with heads
shaved in the case of women, since it was believed witches’ familiar spirits
clung to their hair when the beldames took to the air on broomsticks, the first
people to be accused implicated others, often unintentionally. All were given
into the hands of the witch prickers with their
brass bodkins who invariably found the “devil’s claw mark” as this could
take any form, and who was without blemish? It might be a wart, a mole, a
birthmark, even a freckle in a place untouched by the sun. The witchhunt became
extended to include the whole of Renfrewshire and, in due course, 21 people were
brought to trial at Paisley, before a special commission of no less than
17 judges headed by Lord Blantyre.
So far as some of the accused were concerned, there
turned out to be safety in numbers, as the judges were not to be influenced by a
bullying counsel for the prosecution, or indeed by one another. Fourteen of the
prisoners were declared “not guilty” and immediately released.
The remaining seven, including the Shaws’
maidservant, were condemned to be burned at the stake on Paisley’s Gallow
Green on 10th June, 1697, but in accordance with Scots law they were
strangled before the flames reached them. Also, their number was reduced to six,
as one of the accused, John Reid, who had spoken at
his trial of being led to the devil by a black dog, strangled himself in his
cell. His body was buried at a crossroads under a large causey-stone in which a
horseshoe was embedded, as it was believed that, since he was a witch, his
spirit would not be able to pass cold iron.
It is probable that Christian
Shaw was a witness to the burning of the witches, since it was customary
to take children to view executions, not only as an Awful Warning that they had
better be good, but as a “treat”. An execution made a good day out, if a
rather expensive one, as there were all sorts of sideshows from jugglers to
gingerbread sellers and purveyors of hot pies. Those who enjoyed themselves
most, though, were the judges, who were made honorary burgesses of Paisley and
entertained at the enormous cost, in 1697, of 50 pounds, which was more than a
good tradesman earned in a year.
It is impossible to even hazard a guess at what
Christian Shaw’s’ thoughts must have been when she saw the terrified victims
tied to the stakes,
and in the days that followed. The antics which had probably started as a daft
ploy had got completely out of hand and when the case of her “molestation by
evil spirits” came before the Presbytery, she did not dare retract anything
she had said lest she be accused of being a young limb of Satan herself.
But now everyone was patting her head, and saying what
a mercy it was she had been the means of hunting down the witches in their
midst. So, of course, everything must be all right! For all that, there was a
cold, guarded look in the eyes of the smiling adults, and none of the local
lassies wanted Christian Shaw for a friend. They
were still giving her a very wide berth when she entered her teens, and so were
the young men. For, although it might be unwise to show sympathy for the victims
of the witch hunt and their families, There was one thing everyone agreed on --
Christian Shaw was a right strange lassie, and some very decent folk had
come under suspicion as a result of her words and deeds.
Yet anyone seeing her sitting so deuce at her
spinning-wheel must have found it hard to believe she could possibly be regarded
as dangerous company. Time went on, and still she sat at the whirring wheel in
her father’s house, seemingly doomed to be a spinster for life.
She was 32 when at last
someone came courting her. He was a Rev. Miller,
the minister at Kilmaurs, looking for a suitably sedate wife, and
although he was neither young nor handsome, seemed quite “well gathered”
with a tidy bit put by. As a man of the cloth, he was not to be deterred by
tales of her strange behaviour as a child, and the tragic consequences; when he
proposed marriage the lady was delighted to accept him. So for three years. Christian
occupied the manse pew below her husband’s pulpit, in her dress of rustling
silk and cap with lace lappets, Then the Rev. Miller died,
leaving her a widow, still in the prime of life and free as a bird. She
determined to see something of the world and her elderly mother was easily
persuaded to accompany Christian on a tour of Europe. It was, after all, the
fashionable thing to do.
The average young widow visiting Europe with her mother
as a companion was in search of pleasure and perhaps another husband, who might
be encountered during visits to such tourist attractions as castles, cathedrals,
the opera and pleasure gardens. But Christian’s ambitions were very different.
Having gained her freedom and a little money, she meant to keep the one and
increase the other,
Shaw and her daughter toured Belgium and the Netherlands, they
were full of admiration for the scrubbed cleanliness and hard-working habits of
the Dutch. They warmly approved the painted houses, quaint canals and windmills,
sensible clogs and the flowers grown from bulbs, but the thing that brought
Christian’s enthusiasm to fever pitch was the quality of the linen. She
expressed so much interest in the dazzling white aprons and caps that she and
her mother were invited to a textile factory, there to see for themselves the
processes which made Dutch thread the best in the western world.
Christian had always genuinely enjoyed spinning, and
she may have reminded her late, but not greatly-lamented husband of the women in
the Bible who took their domestic responsibilities seriously and whose price was above rubies. And yet, with her white rounded
arm raised and her body arched as he pulled the yarn straight perhaps Salome was
brought to mind.
Now she was not long in
finding out the secrets of what made Dutch thread so special. Christian learnt
the procedures from flax flower to bobbin, then sketched plans of the factory
“machinery, and even managed to acquire - by fair means or foul - some pieces
of the equipment used. She had found something to which she could devote her
boundless energy and practical ability. There were as good and even better
spinners in Scotland as any she met in the Netherlands, and the Scottish climate
was well suited to growing flax. Not least, she was eager to start experimenting
with bleaches to beat the Dutch,
When the minister’s widow
and her mother returned to Scotland they were carrying smuggled goods. Small
pieces of machinery were stowed in their baggage, along with plans for setting
up a small factory. The trade secrets of the Dutch were carefully guarded from
their competitors but who would suspect a deuce Scots widow and her mother of
being industrial spies?
Home again, Christian became determined to put her
father’s estate of Bargarran on the map for the second time. Once it had been
associated with the Renfrewshire witch hunt. Now it would be famed for its
important place in the textile trade. With her mother and younger sisters as
partners, Christian went into business. She installed equipment, hired staff,
experimented with bleaches until she found one which gave dazzling whiteness and
engaged a lady of quality as her commercial traveller, to take the good news to Bath.
Lady Blantyre, wife of the
lord who had presided over the panel of judges at the witch trials, had been
much intrigued by Christian and kept in touch with the family. She visited the
fashionable English spa every year to take the waters, and was prevailed upon to
show samples of Bargarran thread and the articles of fine lawn and
cambric it had been used for, to anyone who might be interested, from
aristocratic friends to small shopkeepers. Lady Blantyre
gladly agreed to all this touting for business for no other reward than the
satisfaction it gave her to confound anyone who thought Scotland rather a
primitive place by producing one of Christian’s samples, delicate as a cobweb,
to show just how skilled the Scots were in fine textiles.
Visitors to Bath seemed to inhabit a
quite different world from that where sedate housewives could be condemned to
death for witchcraft, because they had the “devil’s claw mark” or were
found wanting when weighed in a balance against the massive kirk Bible. The only
thing that concerned the fashionable throng of the Bath Assembly Rooms were the
latest novelties - rice paper fans printed with the figures and music
for the latest dances, hoops made of reeds to support the richly-colourful
skirts which were becoming too voluminous for comfort, beauty spots in the
shapes of ships, crescent moons, stars and even stagecoaches (what would the
witchprickers have made of those!) and, for women who prided themselves on their
impeccable taste, dainty cambric articles from Scotland embroidered with white
thread on a white back-ground.
Orders began to pour steadily into Bargarran, giving
rise to the flourishing cottage industry of floorin (flowering). Ladies’ caps,
babies’ bonnets and Christening robes, Sunday-best handkerchiefs, wedding
nightgowns and other feminine finery were thickly embroidered with the famous
whiter than white thread, as strong as it was fine, worked on snowy lawn and
cambric. No two designs were exactly the same, and skilled needlewomen toiled
over the scalloped edgings, eyelet embroidery, drawn thread-work, and other
Soon English embroiderers living as far south as Devon
would use only Bargarran thread for their work. It never broke or rotted, and
anything sewn with it was destined to become an heirloom.
Christian again wielded power, as she had done as a
child, but for a very different reason. She had become a business tycoon, with a
factory in Johnstone, and was a public benefactor, too, since she provided so
much employment. Flax growers, weavers, spinners and process workers in her
factory, fine embroiderers and tambour workers who toiled for her in their
cottages, earned regular wages for themselves and substantial profits for
Christian. Her famous thread was in constant demand, and everything embroidered
with it, white on white, had a look of purity that made it seem fit to be
raiment for angels.
Christian had few staff problems; most people still
remembered the witchcraft trials and this was enough to convince them that she
would make a bad enemy! But she could not prevent her trade secrets being found
out, and other manufacturers cashing in on the fact that Johnstone was
famed for thread. Her competitors, too, opened factories, and in neighbouring Paisley
as well, which became populated with weavers and filled with the sound of looms.
But, try as they might, nobody has ever been able to beat Christian
Shaw at spinning a good yarn!
There was a strange sequel to the story of John
Reid, the convicted wizard who committed suicide in his cell to escape
the stake, and was buried at the crossroads with a horseshoe as a gravestone, A
local joker nicknamed Pate the Pirate prised up the
horseshoe one night in the course of a drunken spree and took it home.
Within a week, an alarming number of textile workers
hanged themselves, and this wave of self-destruction continued until Pate, now
thoroughly alarmed, handed over the horseshoe to the local magistrates, who had
it replaced in its rightful setting. It looked almost as if John
Reid’s spirit had been released when the cold iron was removed from
over his grave, but if so the ghostly attempt to ruin Christian
Shaw’s business came a little too late. For the strange suicide
epidemic occurred early in the 19th century, and by that time there could be no
turning back for the thriving thread industry, even though the woman who had
started it all - clever, calculating Christian,
eldest daughter of the Laird of Bargarran and widow
of the minister of Kilmaurs, now lay in the
At least her body lay there. There were differing opinions as to where her soul had gone. There was something uncanny about a woman industrialist, and maybe she was the biggest witch of the lot, with her factory and all those orders. After all, the de’il was said to be good to his own!
May I bring to your attention this recently
published book? It is called: The Kirk,
This book is about the famous outbreak of
witchcraft allegations and prosecutions associated with Christian Shaw, the
so-called ‘Bargarran Impostor’ in
Although they are of great interest in their
own rights, the
The interpretation on your web-site of ‘Bargarran’s Daughter’ is, I would suggest, dubious. At the very least, there are alternative interpretations that are more plausible and more interesting.
Dr. Hugh V. McLachlan
0141 331 3486