Source and activity 6

'Janet Horne' by Edwin Morgan

Edwin Morgan at desk
Edwin Morgan.
© Jessie Ann Matthew

Edwin Morgan was born on 27 April 1920 in Glasgow's West End.

He began his studies at Glasgow University in 1937. In 1940 he interrupted his studies to join the Royal Army Medical Corps. He then returned to university in 1946.

Morgan graduated the following year with a First Class honours degree in English language and literature. He turned down a scholarship to Oxford and later became a lecturer at Glasgow University. Morgan’s first poetry collections were published in the 1950s and he continued to produce a wide range of work until his death

In 2004, Morgan was appointed the Scots Makar by the Scottish Parliament. He died on 19 August 2010 at the age of 90 in his beloved home city of Glasgow.

The real 'Janet Horne'

Janet Horne was the last person in Britain to be tried and executed for witchcraft. In 1727 she and her daughter were arrested and jailed in Dornoch.

Janet's daughter suffered from a deformity in her hands and feet. Neighbours gossiped that she looked as though she had hooves and Janet was accused of turning her daughter into a pony to transport her around the countryside to carry out her witchcraft. It was believed that the hooves were proof of their witchcraft and that they remained in place of hands and feet because Janet had failed to completely return her daughter from pony to human form. 

Dornoch in the 18th century
Dornoch in the 18th century.

Janet's legal options were very limited and her trial was rushed through. Captain David Ross, the sheriff-depute of Sutherland, found both Janet and her daughter guilty. He ordered that they should be burned to death the following day.

Her daughter managed to escape, but Janet, perhaps showing signs of what would be recognised today as dementia, was clearly confused by events. She was tarred and feathered and paraded through Dornoch in a barrel. When she arrived at her execution place, Janet is said to have smiled and warmed herself at the very fire which was about to consume her.

The stone that marks the site of Janet Horne's burning can still be seen in Littletown, although the date on the stone — 1722 — is wrong, it should read 1727. Nine years after her death the Witchcraft Acts were repealed in Scotland and England and it became unlawful to execute anyone for alleged witchcraft.

The poem

Photo of a small standing stone in a garden
Witch's stone, Littletown.

In Dornoch there was a burning
With no sign of mourning
That January morning

This was the final solution
The last execution
Of an ancient persecution

For they called it witchcraft
An old woman's stitchcraft
Or a bit of leechcraft

Century of enlightenment
Still thirled to torment
Thumbscrews and judgement

Janet made a pony
Of her daughter, says the story
Rode her for Satan's glory

They tarred her and feathered her
Bound her and gathered her
Screaming and barrelled her

Burning in the peat-smoke
While the good Dornoch folk
Paused briefly for a look

Dear God were you sleeping
You were certainly not weeping
She was not in your keeping

Today there is a garden
Where a stone stands guard on
The spot she was charred on

O heart never harden!

Further reading

You can find related books, articles and information about Edwin Morgan at the National Library of Scotland. In the search box above, type in 'Edwin Morgan' and select 'catalogues and resources'.

You can also find more information on the Edwin Morgan Archive at the Scottish Poetry Library website.

Edwin Morgan’s manuscript papers are held at the University of Glasgow Special Collections

Suggested questions for discussion

  • What do you think inspired a 20th century poet like Edwin Morgan to write a poem about Janet Horne?
  • Read the poem again, how do you think Edwin Morgan feels about Janet Horne?
  • Do you think it's important that the spot where Janet Horne was executed is commemorated by a stone? If not, why not?
  • Janet Horne was suffering from dementia when she was executed, do you think someone with a physical or other mental disability would have been treated differently from Janet?

Credits

'Janet Horne' by Edwin Morgan is reproduced here by permission of Carcanet Press.

Biography of Janet Horne and witch's stone photo courtesy of HistoryLinks Museum, Dornoch, Sutherland.

Portrait of Edwin Morgan courtesy of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

 

Source and activity 7

 

 

Themes in focus — Witches in Scottish literature

 


Related material at NLS

Find out more about about witches in NLS collections:

 

Listen to Curator Nicola Stratton's filmed talk about items relating to Scottish witches.

 

'Tam O' Shanter' page in Robert Burns web feature.

 

19th-century broadside mentioning the trial and execution of alleged witches in Paisley in the 17th century

 

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