At Halloween, ‘witches’ make their annual appearance in our streets as door-to-door guisers or as party-goers. However, to be accused of witchcraft was of course a very serious matter indeed throughout Britain and Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Ayrshire has its share of recorded trials and executions.
Many tales concerning one particular practitioner of the black arts, Maggie Osborne, were in circulation in Ayr in the early part of the nineteenth century. In due course they came to be set down in print, both in poetry and prose. No woman of this name can be found in the surviving records dealing with prosecutions for witchcraft, although there are large gaps in these records for the period in which she is said to have lived.
The legends tell how Maggie came to bear a grudge against a particular family, and caused their house to be engulfed by snow. The only survivor was a sailor who happened to be away at sea, so a storm was conjured up which sank his ship with all hands. Maggie soon began to suspect that her maid had discovered her secret. One night, while the maid was brewing beer (Maggie kept an inn) a gang of ferocious cats invaded the outhouse and threw themselves at her, trying to tumble her into the boiling vat. Grabbing a ladle, the girl splashed the steaming liquid over her assailants, giving special attention to their leader. Next day, Maggie (who was an adept shape-shifter) stayed in her bed, and it turned out that she had been badly scalded. The maid told all she knew to the town’s minister, William Adair, and Maggie was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be burned at the Malt Cross.
Maggie’s peculiar last request was for two pewter plates from her house. The devil had promised her that if she placed these on her shoulders they would, provided they had been kept dry, serve her as wings. With the plates in position, Maggie triumphantly achieved lift-off in front of the astonished crowd. However one of the plates, having been dropped in a puddle while being brought to her, and having only received a quick wipe, failed to perform as well as intended. This enabled a quick-witted town officer to hook Maggie’s skirt with his halberd and haul her back to earth, and so the crowd was not cheated of the spectacle of her immolation.
To turn to recorded fact, the Reverend William Adair was Ayr’s minister from 1639 until 1682, during which time many alleged witches were brought to trial. The Osbornes were one of Ayr’s most prosperous merchant families during the seventeenth century, three of them attaining the office of provost, although how a lady of this name came to be the subject of so many folk-tales cannot now be known.
The legends claim that Maggie was the daughter of the laird of Fail. If this was so, her family name should have been Wallace, and a Margaret Wallace is on record as having been burned for witchcraft at Ayr in 1629. It has been suggested that this lady might have been married to an Osborne, although prosecuted under her maiden name. On the other hand, the laird of Fail was also celebrated in local legend as a notorious warlock, and it is likely that story-tellers simply added him to their tales of Maggie Osborne to provide her with a suitably diabolical upbringing.