People may have read the famous poem “Tam o’ Shanter” by Robert Burns. It is a narrative poem published in 1791, and describes Farmer Tam who likes to frequent the local Pub in the Scottish town of Ayr, regardless of his wife’s thoughts. One night Tam rides home drunk on his horse Meg during a storm and on the way he sees his local haunted Church lit up and upon further inspection he sees “Witches and Warlocks dancing” and the Devil himself playing Bagpipes. The Witches are dancing and as the music intensifies he notices one of the witches has on a short skirt. I am assuming this pleased him, and he stupidly shouts out “Weel Done, Cutty-sark” (Cutty Sark meaning short skirt). The lights suddenly go out, the music stops and the creatures who had been in the Church chase after Tam. Tam and Meg flee as fast as they can towards the River Doon (as creatures such as these “dare not cross a running stream”). They almost catch Tam but instead just get the tail of poor Meg and pull it off. Tam and Meg escape to the Brig o’ Doon.
You may wonder what this Poem has to do with us here in the North East, but in fact – a very similar story to that of Tam is said to of happened right here in the North East of England, in a local town called Wallsend. Wallsend famous for its ship building (especially the Carpathia which was the ship that helped to save many passengers from the Titanic disaster in 1912), Wallsend Boys Club (Home of Peter Beardsley and Alan Shearer for the Football fans amongst you) and Sting. It is named from its location at the eastern end of Hadrians Wall and was the site of a Roman fort Segedunum. It is also the base of our story below. The Wallsend Witches. So, the story goes……Once upon a time, one of the Lords of Seaton Delaval was returning home from Newcastle after nightfall. He turned up a road past Wallsend and at the bottom of this road stood “the old Church”. As he passed he could see that inside was lit up very brightly. Being a curious little fellow he rode up to the gate curious to see what the lights were from. He got off his horse, left it with a Servant and walked through the Graveyard of the church and peered through the window. Here is where it gets interesting…. As he looked through the window he saw the Communion table. On each corner of the table he saw inverted human skulls containing some inflammable substance that burned brightly, hence the light he could see. From the bell rope at the back of the Church there was said to be a cauldron hanging. As he looked further he could see the corpse of a woman partly wrapped in a sheet. There was a group of “withered hags” chanting spells and in the middle of some sort of charm. One of the women was described as “ugly with bucked teeth, a stubbly beard, red fiery eyes and withered wrinkled skin”** – This woman cut the left breast off the corpse and passed it to another of the women. This other woman then placed the breast into the cauldron and then went out of sight of the Lord. The Lord decided that these “detestably wicked old women” needed to be stopped. He charged the door with all of his might and startled the women. It is then said that each of the women then ran to save themselves by various means. Some went through the door, some through the window and some allegedly climbed to the roof and “took flight” through openings in the Belfry… All but one escaped. The woman who had cut the breast of the corpse was captured, the Lord, despite the woman’s struggles and curses, managed to tie her hands behind her back with his pocket hankerchief. The Lord was outraged at what he had seen and thought they were all fit to be burned at the stake for not only their despicable actions against the woman/corpse, but also for their desecration of a consecrated building. The Lord took one last look at the “devilish preparations for love and hate, charms and incantations”. He bound the captured woman and placed her on horseback behind the servant and took her away from the Church. It is lost in the story where she was brought to trial; whether at the assizes, the sessions or perhaps the Lord’s own court but what we do know is that the woman was fully convicted of being a witch and a sacrilegious person and was sentenced to be burnt on the beach in the vicinity of Seaton Delaval. You thought this story was finished, didn’t you, that the story was bizarre enough… Well let me tell you…. It gets weirder!! So the sentence is to be carried out, and just before, the woman asks one final request, two new wooden dishes. Someone goes to Seaton Sluice and gets these two items for the Woman, not thinking anything of it. The “combustibles were then heaped on the sands” and the woman was tied to a stake. The Dishes were given to her and the pile was lit on fire. As the smoke arose and got thicker and thicker the woman placed a foot in each of the dishes, she said a spell, got herself out of the fastenings of the stake and “soared away on the sea-breeze”…. She went up into the air, THEN…. One of the dishes which supported her lost its efficacy (it is said this is because it had previously been dipped in pure fresh water by the maker), the woman did a few spins and then plummeted to the ground. The people who were there to witness her execution ran to her and immediately threw her back into the pile, where, she perished in the flames.
Now, through much research, it is agreed that an exact time period for this story is pretty sketchy. I have seen some articles where the date mentions 1570, and others that talk about Sir Francis Blake Delaval being the main man in the story. Sir Francis died in 1771, so that time period wouldn’t match. There are no official records, only memories written in books and Folklore stories passed on. Likewise, the “witch” being burned was not the usual way to execute Witches in England. Most were hanged. That said the Berwick Witches of 1590 were burned. A lady named Agnes Sampson confessed to some horrific crimes and these were in a Church, so perhaps these stories were mixed up. Or perhaps this sort of practice was less uncommon in that era than we thought? Much like most Myths and Legends, they all tend to come from some spackles of truth, so I personally choose to believe there is some truth in the story. What do you believe?? Either way – Next time I walk the beach of Seaton Delaval/Sluice – I will think of this story and all of the Men and Women who were persecuted and killed in the name of “Witchcraft”.