Isobel Gowdie was a young Scottish woman tried and executed for witchcraft in 1662. Her trial is particularly notable because of how much of the record survives, providing a detailed account of her confession—theoretically gotten without the use of torture, an uncommon occurrence at the height of the witch-hunting era of European history. It is entirely possible that torture was still involved in the trial and confessions but was unrecorded. Her confession and trial have inspired works of poetry, prose, and musical compositions.
Gowdie was said to be very beautiful and quite educated; she was born Catholic, but her family later converted to Protestantism. Gowdie lived in the Scottish highlands, in a small village called Auldearn. The time was a difficult one for Scotland, and Isobel probably witnessed a major battle in 1645. As a young woman, Isobel was forced into marrying a tenant farmer by her father. It is quite likely that her marriage contributed to the events that led to her trial, as the match was a poor one both in terms of economic class and geographical proximity to her former friends and neighbors.
The confessions that Gowdie made about her involvement in witchcraft were incredibly detailed, and she repeated them several times over a six-week period. These confessions are not only remarkable for their detail and their sometimes poetic, elevated language, but also for their consistency–Isobel’s accounts are all so remarkably similar that it seems unlikely she delivered them entirely under duress or in a fit of madness. It is possible that leniency was promised if Isobel confessed fully to her crimes.
Gowdie testified that after meeting Margaret Brodie, another of the townswomen, she began learning the dark arts She claimed to have met the devil at a crossroads on her way home from the initial meeting with Brodie, and to have embraced the devil, becoming the leader of a powerful local coven and the devil’s own mistress and cavorting with the Queen of Elfhame and other fairies. She claimed to have the power to transform into an animal, and she gave recounted spells that had allowed the coven to do so.
Some of the most compelling testimony of the trials is related to Isobel’s landlord, the Laird of Hay. The man had made sexual advances on Isobel, but she did not return his affection. He slandered her in the community, and he was remiss about completing repairs and maintenance around her family’s home. Isobel claimed to have cursed his family, preventing all male children from reaching adulthood—and indeed, record suggests that none of Laird’s sons survived.
Much of what we now know and assume about witchcraft at the time comes from Isboel Gowdie’s accounts. But they are remarkable, both in their scope and in their content.
Though it is likely that Isobel was hanged and burned at the stake (they liked to be sure their witches were dead, you see), there is no record of her execution. Perhaps she survived, but there is also no record of her survival. Like many other things about Gowdie, we simply do not know what happened to her.
But maybe that makes her story all the more compelling.