Stephen Maltman and the Fairy Folk – an accusation of witchcraft, March – April 1628

This post, another in our series to celebrate Scotland’s Year of Stories, concerns a man accused of witchcraft in the 1620s.

Stephen Maltman was brought in front of the Stirling Presbytery Court first on the 6th March 1628. The minutes recording this occasion read as follows:

“At Stirling the sixth of March, the third, the tenth and seventeenth of April 1628, in the presence of the brethren there assembled. The which day appeared Stephen Maltman in Leckie Parish of Gargunnock who in presence of the brethren there assembled being accused of casting charms and other points of witchcraft. Confesses freely that for the said last eight or nine years he had set himself to charming [away] sundry diseases. And it being demanded of him from whence he had his skill of healing and how he had learned the practices which he had used, confessed that he had them from the fairy folk whom he had seen in bodily shapes in sundry places…”

The Scottish Church had been very concerned with following up accusations of witchcraft since the notorious trial of 1590 in North Berwick, which was overseen by King James VI. James was obsessed with witches after he was told that it was the work of such agencies that was responsible for the rough seas that had nearly cost him his life on his voyage home after his marriage to Margaret of Denmark in Copenhagen in 1590. James’ obsession led to him researching then writing a book – Daemonologie – in 1597.

In that same year, the Presbytery of Stirling was given a commission to:

“…try, and examine those women already apprehended, and to be apprehended hereafter, for witchcraft, and what they may find to report to the Presbytery that they may judge thereon…”

By the 1620s, the concern over witchcraft in Scottish society was at its height. The allegations were generally made against women, but a few men were prosecuted as part of this phenomenon, Stephen Maltman’s case being one of the more notorious ones.

It would appear from the record that Stephen earned his living as a healer, and travelled around the Forth Valley area to do so. During this case, statements of evidence were taken from people living in Stirling, St Ninians, Logie, Spittal, West Grange, Kippen, Gargunnock and Buchlyvie. There are eleven pages of statements and confessions in the Presbytery minutes.

Stephen used various rituals in his healing including passing sick infants over running water, drawing a circle around two ailing men with a sword and shaking a sword around the head of a poorly child. One of the charms he used the most related to the clothing of the unwell person, and this is something that is commonly found in witchcraft cases. Here, Stephen is recorded in the Presbytery minutes describing how to charm a sark or undershirt:

“Adam Neilson, Burgess in Stirling, being sick and heavily diseased sent his undershirt to him to be charmed by the said Stephen, and that he charmed it in this form: ‘God be between this man that wears this undershirt and all evil in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost’ and put on this undershirt three times in name of the father etc and that he gave him instructions to wash his body in south running well water and commanded that the water with which the said Adam was washed should be cast forth in some deserted place where no Christian soul goes.”

Note the use of the incantation referring to the Trinity and the instruction to do something three times. This was regarded as blasphemy, as it refers to the sacrament of baptism, which could not be administered by any person other than a Minister of the Church.

Stephen also carried what was referred to as an ‘elfarrow stone’. This was a prehistoric flint arrowhead, believed at the time to be a weapon used by the fairies and therefore the repository of supernatural power. Those who became sick were sometimes believed to be ‘elfshot’, ie, they had been shot with an arrow by malicious fairies, which caused their illness. The stone was supposed to enable a healer to reverse the effects of this injury. Stephen used his elfarrow stone frequently as part of his rituals. This extract comes from the evidence taken from Steven during his interrogation:

“Andrew, his wife Jonet Christie being then heavily diseased that he brought some south running water simmered it in a pan and put an elfarrow stone in the water because it was a remedy against the fairies’ shot. That he gave to the said Jonet Christie a drink thereof and immediately after the said Jonet had drunk thereof, the said Stephen caused all the servants to depart out of the house for fear that they should receive harm from her.”

The people in the house with Jonet are asked to leave so that they will not be infected with the fairy ailment as it leaves her after she drinks the potion.

It is clear from the record that Stephen travelled around the area, making his living from his healing work. The payments made to him are mentioned more than once in the evidence given. Although his healing work might be said to be benign, it is evident from the statements given about his activities that local people held him in awe because of his powers and that he was not above threatening them when they did not pay promptly or treat him with the respect that he felt he deserved. In one case, feeling that he had been slighted, Stephen threatened one of his customers, John Foster of Kippen, with a reversal of the healing process previously used on him.

“Likeways confessed that after the said John was somewhat convalesced [of his previous illness] and the said John seemed to be somewhat unkindly to him, that [Stephen] in a menacing was said that the wound that struck him before was still in evidence.”

Stephen is also recorded as having punished a man who failed to pay him in full in this sinister piece of evidence:

“The same day Stephen confesses that he was with James Glen in Abbey Young’s about six years ago and promised to cure him [of] being a lunatic for the which he confesses that he caused the said James Glen to set forth alone between nine and ten o’clock in a winter night and bade him draw a circle about the said James with a drawn sword and that the said Stephen went out on his own into the yard to hold off the fairies from the said James. For the which he had bargained to have received five merks money whereof he [James] gave him the half thereof only. And the said Stephen meeting with the said James Glen upon the last Stirling Fair, and seeking the rest of the money, the said James answered that he [Stephen] had got overmuch [money] for any good that he had done him. Whereupon the said Stephen took the man by the hand and said he should put him in his own place. And so it seems that it transpired for that same night the man hanged himself.”

It is likely that Stephen believed he actually had healing powers and this conviction gave him a great deal of influence over people at a time where there was little knowledge about nor effective treatment for the multitudinous ailments that affected people and their livestock.

Once Stephen was proven guilty in the Presbytery Court, he would have been handed over to the civil authorities for further examination and judgement. There is no information surviving about Stephen’s civil trial but it seems likely that he would have been executed for witchcraft given the weight of evidence in these minutes against him.

If you are interested in witchcraft in Scotland at this time, there is an excellent resource available on the University of Edinburgh website where you can search for individual cases and the evidence that exists concerning them.