Re-writing the trial of Jonet Rendall
  • Ashleigh Angus

In early modern Orkney it was widely believed that the hills and tumuli across the isles housed a temperamental race of fairies. This belief is documented throughout Orkney’s witch trial records, within which numerous accused witches claim a special relationship with the fairy folk. The way fairies are depicted in these trials suggests they could be used by women to cope with certain situations both in and out of the courtroom. One such instance took place on the Hill of Rendall. There, Jonet Rendall, tried in 1629, claims to have met a man in white clothes, with a white head, and grey beard, called ‘Walliman’; a description which aligns him more closely to a fairy or brownie than the Devil. Walliman gives Jonet, a beggar, an offer she can’t refuse: to teach her to win alms by healing the townsfolk, and to harm those who refuse to pay her for her services.

My short story ‘Walliman’ is a fictional depiction of Jonet Rendall’s trial and the events preceding it. This text utilises a creative practice as research methodology to explore how Jonet may have manipulated fairy folk belief in her life and trial to gain authority when she otherwise had none, thus demonstrating the uncanny power Orkney’s fairy hills held over those who lived beside them. 

Keywords: Historiographic metafiction — Creative writing — Witch trials — Orkney — Scotland — Folklore 

 

Communities of fairy folk were thought to dwell inside Orkney’s hills, investing them with an uncanny power which influenced the way the townsfolk navigated the landscape. To walk the hills alone was to risk encountering malevolent fairies, who were particularly active at twilight or night; times when one was more likely to return from hills sick, injured, or in some cases, not at all–to be ‘taken by the fairies’. In a witch trial held in Birsay, Orkney, 1629, Jonet Rendall confessed that twenty years previous she was travelling upon the Hill of Rendall when a man named Walliman appeared to her. He was clad in white clothes, with a white head, and grey beard, a description which aligns him more closely to a fairy or brownie than the Devil, who was commonly clad in black. Walliman offers Jonet all she desires: to teach her how to win alms by healing the townsfolk, and to punish those who refuse to pay her for her services. Jonet, a vagabond, may have travelled upon the Hill of Rendall many times and returned unharmed, making it seem as though she had special powers or a fairy protector. Either by accepting the stories told about her or creating one for herself, Jonet aligns herself with the hill by claiming a special relationship with one of its inhabitants, and in doing so, gains a similar kind of influence over the townsfolk. My short prose work ‘Walliman’ is a fictional depiction of the trial of Jonet Rendall. This text utilises a creative practice as research methodology to explore how Jonet may have manipulated folk belief in her life and trial to gain power when she otherwise had none.

It is often argued that in witch trial documents, the words of the accused are indistinguishable from the words of the inquisitor. Carlo Ginzburg contests this in Ecstasies, arguing that by looking for ‘the anomalies, the cracks that occasionally (albeit very rarely) appear in the documentation, undermining its coherence’ we can begin to identify the idiosyncratic voices of witch trial victims (1991: 10). I drew on this method when analysing Jonet’s trial, in order to determine her character and narrative.

There are several gaps in Jonet’s trial document. Firstly, information such as her age, family, and background is unobtainable, and therefore can be filled with creative speculation. Whether Jonet truly believed Walliman was real or not is also unknowable. Thus, in my creative piece I leave this up to the reader. The first discrepancy in Jonet’s trial appears after her opening accusation, which details how she met Walliman. Her response to each allegation is recorded at the end of her trial document. These were made presumably in answer to ‘do you confess to this point?’ Her reply rejects an important detail in the first charge and would have been little help to her inquisitors who were focused on constructing a coherent narrative. Therefore, we can assume that the answer is her own. It reads: ‘The panel present confest Walliman cam to hir first in Nicoll Jockis hous in Halkland and sho maining yt sho was poor and haid nothing, he said to hir yt sho sould leive be almiss’ (Black and Northcote 1903: 108). Jonet contradicts the first charge, insisting that Walliman did not appear to her on the Hill of Rendall, but in Nicoll Jock’s house. This break in consistency suggests that the hill was her inquisitor’s addition. Hills were likely places for spirit encounters, therefore this detail may have been forced on Jonet’s tale to dispel any doubt that Walliman was a supernatural being. Her answer may have also been an attempt to deny the charge in any way she could, thus undermining the court’s integrity without altogether denying Walliman. For if Walliman was a means to power in her life, in the event that she escaped a guilty sentence, she would not live long as a beggar without him. Her following responses are similarly indirect. She denies the judge a clear admission or denial by meeting each accusation with something along the lines of ‘Walliman did it’. She seems to be deflecting blame when she answers: ‘Walliman gared [caused] the kow fall over the craig’, ‘Walliman slew the meiris and the man’, ‘Walliman was angrie at it and gared his wyff pairt with child’ and so on (Black and Northcote 1903: 109). In answer to the twelfth point, Jonet admits she does not know if John Rendall’s calves died or not, but confesses ‘giff [if] they deit Walliman did it’ (Black and Northcote 1903: 109). Jonet provides Walliman with his own set of motives and reasoning. He is a body operating outside of her control, therefore she cannot be blamed for his actions. These answers display a certain cunning in Jonet, and if she used Walliman as a means of directing blame away from herself and manipulating others in her trial, it stands to reason that he served a similar purpose in her life.

My short prose work, ‘Walliman’, utilises techniques of historiographic metafiction to make an informed speculation on Jonet’s character and situation. The inconsistencies and dual voices in Jonet’s testimony, as well as the possibility that torture was used, make it difficult to unearth any kind of concrete truth about Jonet’s life from this document. Like witchcraft records, historiographic metafiction, a term conceived by literary theorist, Linda Hutcheon, often ‘blur[s] the line between fiction and history’ (1988: 113), which is why this kind of novel is an ideal medium for exploring trial evidence. Historiographic metafiction novels do not attempt to answer historical questions, they only seek to expose those questions; to raise them, knowing they cannot be resolved (Hutcheon 1988). Furthermore, historiographic metafiction, like history, is often fragmented (Hutcheon 1988). ‘Walliman’ is comprised of short sequences organised by date, often with large time jumps between each section. This imitates the disjointed structure of witchcraft records. Furthermore, my prose work incorporates several voices and characters to highlight the multiple voices that compose Jonet’s trial document. Finally, Hutcheon characterises ‘the protagonists of historiographic metafiction’ as ‘anything but proper types: they are the ex-centrics, the marginalized, the peripheral figures of fictional history’ (1988: 113-14). Through Jonet, we have the opportunity to understand seventeenth-century Orkney from a perspective that has hitherto been overlooked and disregarded in history, just as she was in life.

 

Walliman

The Trial of Jonet Rendall, Birsay, November 11, 1629.

‘In the first,’ begins the clerk, reading out a long string of impressive words and phrases which not many can understand, least of all Jonet Rendall, who has not slept in fourteen days. Her eyes are sunken, purple bruises. She is hunched in her seat, trembling with terror and exhaustion as she hears her story told in the cold, uninterested voice of Harie Aitkin.

‘Twenty years since and more, ye being above the Hill of Rendall, having sought charity and could not have it, the Devil appeared to ye, whom ye called Walliman, clad in white clothes with ane white head and ane grey beard, and he said to ye he should learn you to win alms be healing of folk and whosoever should give ye alms should be the better either be land or sea. And those that give ye not alms should not be healed. And ye, having trusted him, entered into a pact with him, and he promised that whosoever should refuse ye alms, whatever ye crave to befall them should befall them, and thereafter he went away in the air from ye, whereby ye practised many and sundry points of witchcraft and devilry, and specially the points following.’

 

January 1607.

A veil of frost lies over the ground. It seeps into Jonet’s shoes as she walks towards her mother, whose cries circle in the air like crows. Why is her mother bent over a pile of wrinkled wool? She knows the wool is her father of course – his shovel sticks up from the earth beside him – but she refuses to believe it. Her mother, sensing Jonet, lifts her head and pulls back the black curtain of her hair. There lies Jonet’s father. His skin is like hardened wax, his mouth is stiff and gaping, his eyes never to blink again. Jonet’s gaze drifts to the soil, where she sees starvation, sickness, and more death.

 

August 1607.

Jonet tugs at the strings along her mother’s spine, imprisoning her in a blue wedding bodice. With each tug she secures her own cell too; in a few hours, both of them will belong to Bothwell Alebuster.

‘What sort o’ man is Bothwell?’ asks Jonet.

The townsfolk talk of him constantly: what a good man, he helped my cow give birth, he brought me butter, he gave us milk when we had nae any. But who is he really?

‘He has a large croft, three ky, and two mares,’ replies her mother. ‘Does it matter what sort o’ man he is?’

Jonet sighs. She hopes what the folk say has verity, and it was the man’s impulse to help others that compelled him to propose to her mother when they were about to lose their croft. Her mother couldn’t say no. Bothwell doesn’t even seem to mind that she is a widow.

Jonet ties a knot at the small of her mother’s back and begins to circle her, smoothing down her dress. Her skirt is a lie, she thinks. It is the colour of fresh snow: untouched.

 

October 16, 1607.

Jonet stands outside Bothwell’s house. She lifts the churn handle out of the thickening cream, twists, and pushes it back down. Her movements are steady, hypnotic. Lift, twist, push; lift, twist, push. Her skirts rustle on the ground with each movement. She hears footsteps behind her.

‘Mother? Is that ye?’

The steps do not falter. The silence irritates her. The invisible feet are at her back.

Mother?

A hand slips around her waist – her hands fly from the churn handle. Bothwell pokes his head over her shoulder and presses her against him. His wet lips slide along her neck. She flails like a fish caught in a net, elbowing him in the stomach and slipping from his hands but he grabs a fistful of her hair and yanks her back towards him. Pain crawls over her scalp.

Ma!

‘She’s nae here. What, ye think you can live under my roof for nothing?’

 

October 17, 1607.

Her mother won’t listen. She wants to scream do you know what your good-man did to me? But the words catch in her throat where they expand and press against the back of her tongue.

‘He touched me.’

Her mother pokes the hearth fire.

She can’t even look me in the eye.

‘What would ye have me do?’ her mother mumbles. ‘If not for him we’d be out of a home.’

Jonet steps back. The woman before the fire is not her mother; she is a cruel, unfeeling changeling, with red fire glowing in her eyes.

How easy it was for her to do nothing. Within an hour it was as if Jonet hadn’t said a word, within a week her mother had learned to ignore the way Bothwell’s hands brushed Jonet’s waist as he walked past.

Jonet hates his shiny skin, his swollen hands. She hates that he has forced her to hate her own mother. She hates how her limbs turn to water against him when all she wants to do is squeeze the breath from his neck, to make his roaming eyes still. 

 

March 1608.

Jonet stumbles through thick grass, glancing madly back at the direction she came; towards Rendall, her birthplace, her childhood, her mother. Any moment Bothwell’s shadow could appear beside hers. Every fulmar, wandering sheep, or gust of wind is him. But when she looks over her shoulder the hill is empty. 

She moves unthinkingly towards Birsay, pushing thoughts of where she will sleep and what she will eat away. All she is sure of is that she has to leave. Part of it was her fault. She had let Bothwell use her; she had not fought hard enough against him. Part of the sin was hers, and to stay would have only added to the weight already in her soul. The further she is from Bothwell, the closer she is to convincing herself it did not happen, it was not real: I dinnae remember.

 

Morning December 4, 1608.

It is not the fear of God that brings Jonet to the Kirk of Birsay on Sunday, but the simple need for food and warmth. She leans heavily on the back wall of the Kirk. The thick air, made by the shared breaths of the townsfolk, dissolves the beads of snow on her woollen blanket and thaws her aching bones. She wants to melt to the ground, to pull her damp shawl about her ears and sink into a deep sleep, but pride keeps her standing – this is church after all. Alex Thomesone and his wife turn and eye her disapprovingly from the back row. In their whispers she hears Bothwell Alebuster: who let her in here? She’s a liar, a whore, a witch. They think a woman who has no father, husband, or house, must have also lost her ability to see, hear, and speak.

Outside, the wind howls and rattles the heavy wooden door and salt-caked windows. Inside, the Kirk swirls with the sounds of folk talking over one another, bairns squealing, pews screeching backwards. The minister bellows out a welcome. After several pleas for silence the folk take notice of him and quiet down.

The minister’s slow drawl settles heavily in Jonet’s ears and her eyes drift closed. The sermon folds into her half-asleep thoughts and the grand deceiver, the Devil, drifts before her eyes. Jonet cannot tell where the minister’s voice ends and her thoughts begin. The Devil’s eyes are snow teardrops, his skin pale. The Devil is ever ready at thine hand – he stretches out his arm – and if men and women, through the weightiness of their sins conceive over-deep a sorrow in their hearts, in this case they would be helped. For, I say, at that time the Devil is present1

Jonet jolts awake to the sound of pews scraping against the floor. The sermon cannot be over already, she thinks, I just closed my eyes. Reluctantly, she peels herself from the wall, braces against the wind, and follows the townsfolk outside.

She finds another wall to lean on and stretches out her hand. ‘Coin,’ she croaks at the folk that pass her. ‘Please,’ her hand trembles with the effort of holding it up. The folk no longer believe giving alms to the poor will lighten their sins and all that falls into her palm is sleet, each drop like a needle on her cracked skin. Despite the weather, the townsfolk congeal around the tombstones. The name William Rendall, is repeated several times, along with fairy-shot. William Rendall’s mare has been struck by a fairy arrow. Such concern over William’s horse, Jonet can hardly stand it. If his beast was struck by a fairy, he had done something to deserve it. The fairies are exact in their revenge.

The longer her palm remains weightless, the stronger the hatred in her breast. In her mind, the stones of the church are falling on the townsfolk. One by one their heads hit the ground and blood swims out of their ears.

 

The Trial of Jonet Rendall, Birsay, November 11, 1629.

Jonet realises the judge is addressing her. The small movement of lifting her head towards him exhausts her. His pale blue eyes are much too bright.

‘I’ll need an answer from ye,’ demands Judge Robert Sinclair. ‘Do ye confess the first point of dittay concerning the Devil appearing to ye on the Hill of Rendall?’

Jonet’s mind swims. She squeezes her eyes shut, think, think. When was the first time ye saw your Walliman? There was snow. She was cold. Numb. Icy fingers reach towards her.

Yes or no?’

‘Nicoll Jock’s house,’ she rasps. ‘Aye. Walliman first came to me there.’ 

‘Where be Nicoll Jock’s house?’

She squeezes her eyes shut again, searching for the answer. ‘Halkland!’ she exclaims.

‘What did he say to ye?’ asks Robert Sinclair impatiently.

‘I was poor and had nothing,’ she says, almost pleading. ‘And he said to me that I should live be alms, and that there was neither man nor beast sick that were not taken be the hand of God, but if I got alms and prayed to Walliman he would heal them, and if I got no alms he would be angry, and make their beasts die.’

 

Evening December 4, 1608.

Jonet’s footprints are two deep lines in the snow. The lines become crooked and bent as the sky darkens. A heavy weight presses against her legs, making her progress slow and her journey longer. The wind’s sharp teeth are at her ankles and shins. Guided only by the thin light of hearth fires in the distance, she hopes she is walking towards Nicoll Jock’s house. He is one of the few folk to have a barn. Most share their houses with their livestock in winter.

She does not know how long she has been travelling when she sees it. The sight sends a thrill through her heels and she scrambles towards the barn faster than she thought she could. She has slept here before, the ky know her and make no fuss. She collapses into the hay away from their hooves and thinks: I may not get up.

She understands the hunger of the rats; how their restless feet scurry back and forth, back and forth in the roof searching for food. She envies the ky who are so full of life; their warmth fills the barn, and their hearts beat heavily.

Snow creeps under the door towards her feet but she hasn’t the will to move. Perhaps I will let it crawl up my legs and cover me like a skirt, she thinks, they say freezing is a kind death, like falling asleep. The snow reaches further towards her—tentatively, curiously. In the silver, moon-lit snow, there seems to be a man reflected. His clothes are white and clean, as is his face. The shadow of the door forms his grey beard. He looks at Jonet with pity; his eyes fill with icy tears. No, fear bubbles in her chest and she twitches away from the snow. I dinnae want to die. The man assures her that she does not have to. She is not surprised when he calls himself Walliman: she has known his name all along. You will no longer walk about with empty pockets, he says. He promises her that she will live by alms, and that, with his help, there is neither man nor beast sick that she cannot heal by praying to him. With him as her master, she knows people will not refuse her coin, for if they do, he will be angry and make their beasts die. 

 

December 5, 1608.

William Rendall’s horse lies in the field. Frost crawls over the unsheltered mare, turning its black hide grey. Its stomach rises and falls rapidly. The moisture around its nostrils has hardened into beads and its dark eyes are wide and frightened. William desperately shovels hay over its legs and body to keep it warm. He is a stout man, with thick arms and legs. He is so absorbed in his work he does not notice Jonet approach. Only when her thin shadow falls over the horse does he look up in alarm. 

‘Let me alone beggar,’ he says. ‘I’ve nae spare coin or meal.’

Jonet ignores him, tired of hearing these words. She steps around the horse, assessing it.

‘What are ye doing?’ When she does not answer, William turns his shovel around and pokes her shoulder with the wooden end. ‘I said be gone.’

Jonet waves the shovel away and kneels down. ‘There!’ she says, brushing the mare’s hair aside to reveal a pink, raised mark on its neck. ‘That’s where the fairy arrow struck.’

William frowns. ‘How can ye ken that?’

‘A man appeared to me yesterday while I was wondering alone on the Hill of Rendall. He called himself Walliman. He gave me knowledge so I might determine what sickness troubles both man and beast.’ She is surprised at the steadiness of her voice.

William opens and closes his mouth like a fish, and settles eventually on the word: ‘Truly?’ he runs his hand through his beard. ‘What – what did he look like? What did he say – exactly beggar – I want nae tricks.’

‘He was clad in white clothes, with a white head, and grey beard,’ she began. Her face darkened as she spoke and thick clouds reached across the sky. ‘He said to me he should learn me to win alms be healing of folk and whosoever should give me alms should be the better either be land or sea, and those that give me not alms should not be healed.’

‘Was it a demon? The Devil?’

‘No. It was Walliman.’

‘What—’

‘Your horse will be well,’ she says, growing impatient. ‘For alms I am able to cure it be praying to my Walliman.’

William stares down at his mare.

‘It’s yer best horse,’ says Jonet. 

‘Yes—but—I—yes. It is,’ he sighs. ‘Do what ye must.’

‘Walliman won’t hear me prayer if I hold no silver in my hand.’

She waits while William fetches her two pennies for every foot. And with the cold coins now warming in her palm she takes a deep breath and places her free hand on the horse’s mark. Her prayer begins as a tangle of words, which soon unravels, becoming louder and clearer and – ‘Walliman!’ she thrusts her head back, ‘I call on thee to heal this horse.’

As if exhaling after a long held breath, the wind bursts into life around them, flinging Jonet’s hair from her snood, and whipping her skirt about her. The horse whimpers and twitches beneath her hand which William takes to be a sure token that there is a spirit, as thin as air, coursing through Jonet and into the mare. Jonet howls at the sky. The sight is so unseemly, so unwomanly, it inspires such terror in William that his legs shake.

As soon as Jonet lifts her hand from the horse, then wind calms again. She rises, leaning heavily on her knee. ‘In time yer horse will be well,’ she says breathlessly. Then she turns, and starts towards the tavern.

‘In t-time? How much time?’

Jonet pretends not to hear and counts the coins in her hand.

 

December 11, 1608.

So it’s true, Jonet thinks, as she stares at William Rendall’s field. The same black mare that was lying there eight days ago is now standing and pacing leisurely through the grass. The townsfolk have spoken of nothing else all week. It is unheard of in these parts that an animal should recover from fairy-shot. There is a change in the way the folk look at her, they are wary of her, often avoiding her eye in fear, but when she turns away she feels them watching her curiously. She has a fairy, an angel, a spirit lover, a demon, it changes depending on who is speaking. There is no protest from Jonet, she lets them believe what they want. As long as enough coins fall into her pocket to secure her a bed, the townsfolk can talk as they wish. Her outstretched arm feels heavier now that it might hold power. And because talk of her invisible companion follows Jonet wherever she goes, she doesn’t feel so alone. The wind that strokes her side is no longer empty air, but Walliman’s arm brushing hers.

 

October 30, 1622.

Andro Matches stomps into the Kirk Session of Evie, places both palms heavily upon the table before the minister, and demands he listen to his complaint.

The minister doesn’t look up from his papers. He is tapping them into a neat pile. ‘Our meeting has concluded—'

‘It’s of witchcraft.’

The minister pauses. ‘Oh?’ he replies, meeting Andro’s gaze.

The scribe poises his quill above a piece of clean parchment.

‘Whose witchcraft?’ the minister asks.

‘That blasted beggar woman, Jonet Rendall,’ bursts Andro. ‘I should tell ye how she abuses the people. The other folk are all too scared of ’er Devil to complain of ’er, but not I. In January last, the woman came to me wantin’ the profit of me milk, as she has done to many others. She told me that if I refused to give her the profit of me milk, her Devil would be angry and make me beasts die. She told me that not two weeks earlier Alex Turk refused ‘er alms which made her Devil angry – so angry that he caused Alex Turk’s ky to fall off a cliff and die. I, being un-feared by her talk, told ’er to be gone. The next day, I came to Sir Johne Buchanan, Sheriff, to make a complaint against ’er. She, somehow – be witchcraft no doubt – knew of me complaint and came to me upon the morn, telling me I should repent yesterday’s work. The same day an ox of mine died.’

 

November 2, 1622.

Andro Matches does not run from Jonet like the other folk. He stabs his shovel into the ground, gripping it in his hard fist. The sight reminds Jonet of her father who fell in the field while his shovel remained standing beside him. She was a different person then. A smile crawls over Andro’s lips as he watches Jonet approach. He is almost forty, but his expression reminds her of a young lad who has escaped punishment for some secret mischief.

‘Jonet,’ he nods. ‘I’m surprised to see ye.’

‘No, ye’re not. Ye knew I would come, I wager ye even wanted me to,’ spits Jonet. ‘Why else would ye be wandering through toun sayin’ to anyone who will listen that ye travelled ta Evie to complain of me to the Kirk Session?’

Andro coughs out a laugh.

‘Ye are always dealing with me and complaining of me and ye should repent it.’

‘What will it be this time, witch, me horse? Me ky?’

‘Perhaps both,’ says Jonet. ‘It is Walliman who will decide, not I. And if ye should give me the blame of it a worse cast should befall ye.’

His smile falters a little. ‘Do yer worst, witch,’ he shrugs. ‘I’ll keep complainin’ of ye till I see yer body burnt in ashes.’

 

February 25, 1624.

Gilbert Sandie stands before the Kirk Session of Evie. Beads of sweat swell above his lip and he twists the top button of his coat nervously.

‘I-I would like to make a complaint against Jonet Rendall,’ he says quickly.

The minister looks at him intently, ‘Go on.’ 

Gilbert looks about him quickly. ‘I-I have your full confidence that she will not find out it was me?’

The minister waves away his concern, ‘Of course.’

‘Thank ye, Minister,’ says Gilbert, pausing a moment to gather his thoughts.

Begin,’ demands the minister impatiently.

‘Yes—um—on Candlemas-even last,’ the scribe scratches out Gilbert’s words, ‘the beggar woman, Jonet, came to my house seekin’ ane pack of silver in alms from me for my mares, so that they might be well over the year. I spoke to me neighbour, David Henrie, and he admitted that she had said the same to him that morn. I said to the beggar that I had neither silver, corn, nor meal to spare and she replied that those who refuse her alms should suffer whatever she craved to befall them on account of her praying to her Devil. I, being feared of her evil, bade me wife to give her three or four storks of kale and she should be gone away. My wife followed her with the kale but she would not take them. And upon two days after, me best horse standing on the floor became wood and felled himself and died, and upon the third day after, my best mare died also.’   

 

July 15, 1624.

There was never so many witches in Orkney as there is now. Marable Couper, a local Birsay woman has been burnt as a witch. She is the third this year, with another, Annie Tailyeour, facing trial today. Details of Marable Couper’s death move swiftly through Rendall, Evie, and Birsay, starting from those who travelled to Kirkwall to watch her burn, and gathering more and more gruesome details as it travels. Two hours to burn, they say, oh but the ale was flowing, and the band didnae stop playing till she was ash. The folk who give Jonet lodging never fail to describe the stench o’ the witch, or what they had heard of it anyway. They are trying to scare her. And though Jonet replies coldly that her Walliman will punish any folk which slander her, her throat is tight with fear, as though there were already a noose around it.

 

Candlemas, 1629.

Jonet smacks her blanket against the side of Edward Gray’s house. Ice springs off the patterned wool. Marjorie Bewis gave her the blanket two weeks ago, not from any kindness in her heart, but because she fears Jonet, or rather, her Walliman. Her Walliman is the wind that circles her skirt, the ice that melts into her shawl, the shadow that clings to her feet. Every man, woman, child, and beast he has struck dead has been for her. They are his sins, not hers. In return, she is his mouthpiece, spreading fear of him and his evil.

‘Edward Gray,’ his name scratches her throat. ‘Edward Gray, I know ye’re in there!’

Edward’s son, Patrick, opens the door. His eyes widen when he sees Jonet. His neck is thin and his skin yellow. Edward must be struggling, thinks Jonet. The boy is underfed and much too small for his age. He must be nearly twenty but looks twelve. She considers turning away and walking to the next house, but John Thomesone’s is miles away. Night is coming fast and she does not have a bed for the night.

She asks Patrick for alms. ‘Ye’ll be the better for it’, she assures him. ‘And if ye refuse, Walliman will be angry and make yer beasts die.’

‘F-Father!’ calls the boy.

‘Aye, what now?’ asks Edward from inside. His heavy feet stamp towards the door.

‘Jonet,’ says Edward sharply, moving in front of Patrick. ‘I s’pose its alms ye be wantin’?’

‘Aye, and ye ken well what happens to those who refuse me.’

Edward rubs his forehead, ‘Aye,’ he nods. ‘I’ll give ye what I can.’ He tells his son to go back inside but Patrick refuses.

‘I’ll stay and keep an eye ‘er.’

Jonet almost laughs.

‘No, ye’ll go inside,’ says Edward.

‘I’m stayin’,’ says Patrick stubbornly. He nods towards the barn. ‘Go.’

Edwards sighs, ‘Fine,’ and walks quickly to the barn. 

Patrick lifts his chin and fixes his eyes on Jonet. In silent reply, she tilts her head and meets his gaze. She can see thoughts swirling behind his eyes, growing more tangled and rapid the longer he holds her stare. A part of Jonet is impressed. There are townsfolk who go to great lengths to never meet her ‘evil-eye’ for fear it could strike them instantly with deadly sickness. The boy’s pupils begin to twitch; she smirks at his discomfort. His shoulders are trembling and he shuffles feet, as if readying to run if he needs to. Now he’s tugging nervously at his sleeves—

‘Here,’ the string between them snaps and they look towards Edward. He drops two coins into Jonet’s gloved hand.

She looks at him in disgust. ‘These are but shillings.’

‘It’s all I have.’

‘Her Devil—’ Patrick cries suddenly. ‘I’ve seen ‘im in ‘er eyes—she’ll send ‘im upon us—’

A thrill goes through Jonet. They townsfolk often talk about Walliman, but no one has ever claimed to have seen him. She wants to ask the boy what he saw but Edward starts closing the door upon him.

‘We have nae more,’ says Edward, following the boy inside. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Wait—’ the door closes with a thud. Jonet spits on the ground. ‘Ye’ll repent this!’

 

The Trial of Jonet Rendall, Birsay, November 11, 1629.

‘Do ye confess to the third point of the dittay,’ asks Robert Sinclair. ‘Concerning Edward Grey and his umquhile [deceased] son Patrick?’

This particular point of accusation sticks firmly in Jonet’s mind, no matter how hard she has tried to forget it. ‘The coin I got was but shillings,’ she replied. ‘I was not content, so Walliman slew Edward’s mares and his son. As he promised, Walliman was true to me.’

 

September 24, 1629.

The fault is not mine. It was Walliman which struck Patrick with deadly sickness, not I. Still, since that Candlemas, Jonet has avoided looking directly in people’s eyes. She has no trouble striking those who have done her wrong, but it is Edward who deserves the sickness, not his son. Jonet has asked Walliman why Patrick? Many times. But their conversations are one sided, and all she hears is her own voice. Blood creeps over her brown sleeve, where a rock thrown by one of the townsfolk hit her shoulder. They hate her now more than ever. Patrick was a favourite in the toun. He reminds every one of their own sons and grandsons, of the boys they had known in their youth and the boys they had been. The Grays have been sending for her. Everyone refuses to give her lodging until she heals the Gray boy, and so from Evie to the Gray’s house in Howakow she trudges. 

 

September 29, 1629.

‘Ye’re too late, witch,’ croaks Patrick’s mother.

Brown snow falls from Jonet’s shoes as she walks towards Patrick’s bed. There he is, bloated and purple, lying where he died. She can see his blue veins through his lacy skin. They have not moved or touched him. His back is bent at an angle, his hand hangs limp off the bed, and his ear presses upon his shoulder. The ground buckles sickeningly below Jonet’s feet. The boy’s bulging eyes stare up at Jonet accusingly. The last time she looked into those eyes, he had stared back in fear. Now they are hollow, and she is the one trembling.

Edward and his wife stand as far from Jonet and the boy as possible. Edward’s clothes are grey and creased like his skin. He leans heavily against the wall. She knows it is the only thing keeping him from sinking to the ground – she has leant that way upon the church wall many times. His wife’s eyes are wide and red. Her chin is set hard and she stares at Jonet with anger.

‘It was nae me—’ begins Jonet. ‘Walliman—he—’

‘Enough,’ spits Patrick’s mother. ‘You evil witch—look at ‘im! Look at what ye’ve done. He’s—my son is—’

Edward’s face crumples and tears leak from his eyes.

Jonet looks at her feet, the floor, the door—I could just run out of here. Oh, what have I done?

‘John Buchannan will be ‘ere soon—’

No,’ breathes Jonet.

‘I would nae bother running, ye won’t get far.’

‘I promise ye – it was Walliman – ‘e was angry. I did nae ask for this,’ Jonet pleads. ‘Ye’re sendin’ me to my death—’

‘My boy is dead!’

Jonet steals a glance back at the boy. Her stomach reels. He reeks of death. How long has he been lying there? Why haven’t they moved him – have they been waiting for her? They wanted her to see him, she thinks soberly. Was he even still alive when they began sending for her? She wants to straighten the poor boy out. 

‘What are ye doing?’

Tenderly she takes the boys hand – cold and stiff – and moves it onto the bed.

‘Don’t touch ‘im!’ yells Patrick’s mother. Suddenly, she lets out a shrill, inhuman scream.

‘What—what is it?’ asks Jonet frantically. She looks at the boy. Her breath catches. A steady stream of thick, black blood crawls out of Patrick’s ear. 

Patrick’s mother cries against her husband’s shoulder.

Edward turns his eyes on Jonet – they are as empty as his son’s. ‘It is a sure token,’ he nods numbly, ‘that ye are the author of his death.’ 

 

The Trial of Jonet Rendall, Birsay, November 11, 1629.

‘The assyss [jury],’ announces Chancellor Hew Halcro, ‘all in one voice, ffyles [finds guilty]—’

The audience erupts in a cheer.

‘—the panel, Jonet Rendall, of the whole special points of the dittay, conforming to her confession.’

The witnesses applaud and pat each other on the back, seeing her guilty sentence as a personal victory – they, in part, have defeated the witch.

‘And in the general,’ the chancellor booms, ‘she was ane deceiver of the people and gave herself forth to have knowledge to do evil, and if ever she promised evil, evil befell.’ 

Jonet’s ears ring. The townsfolk move as if through water, their mouths twisting into slow grins. Their faces begin to tilt, the floor lurches beneath Jonet, and suddenly the world is sideways. There is a pain in her left temple and she is sick on the floor. A hand clamps around her elbow and pulls her up from the ground. The lock-man moves her head for her, making sure she is looking at the judge when he says:

‘I accept the determination of the assyss and ordain the said Jonet Rendall to be taken be the lock-man and convoyed to the place of execution with her hands bound behind her back and strangled at the stake till dead and burnt in ashes.’

The lock-man wraps a rope necklace around Jonet’s throat. She rests her heavy head upon the stake behind her and looks towards the white sky. Wet snow falls in her eyes – Walliman’s tears.

 

Note:

1. Taken from a sermon by Robert Bruce on the second chapter of Timothy 2, recorded in Sermons in the Kirk of Edinburgh (1591).

 

 

Works cited: 

 

Black, G F and T W Northcote (ed.) 1903 County Folk-Lore – Volume III – Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning the Orkney and Shetland Islands, London: David Nutt

Bruce, R 1591 Sermons Preached in the Kirk of Edinburgh, Edinburgh: Walde-grave

Ginzburg, C 1991 Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches Sabbath, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, New York: Pantheon Books

Hutcheon, L 1988 A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, New York and London: Routledge