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Navy Gansey, Week 7: 29 October

It’s almost Halloween, which means it’s time to draw the curtains, gather round the fire and tell tales of the supernatural; and of one Caithness witch in particular—the sinister Graycoat of Thurso, self-professed raiser of the dead. There are numerous stories of witches in Caithness, usually women who could turn themselves into cats to work mischief. And it’s a tempting thought: who in their right mind wouldn’t want to be a cat? Sure, the diet’s unappealing, but think of the savings in toilet paper.

But Graycoat is different: it seems she really existed. We know this because she appears in the minutes of the Thurso Kirk Sessions, the meetings of the elders of the parish. In July 1654 the record says, “Isobell Groat declairs that Graycoat wes in her houses, and hir sonne, William Caldell, being standing at the fyre, she looking to him said he wald be a hard fortunat man, and that he wald die by the sea, which fell out.”

Phragmites by the riverside path

Isobel Groat’s husband George had been on his deathbed, and “she comeing from his house weeping, mett Graycoat in the way, who asked if it was for him she was weeping, and she answered it wes. Therefore she desyred to sie what they wald give her and she wald make him weill, for he was witched. They said if she would have cow or horse they would give, and she ansred she would not have that, but lyff for life.” Isobel properly refused, and said that it was the Lord’s will, she would not meddle with her. (This is why it’s a joy sometimes working with archives: “life for life”, “a hard fortunate man”—people speaking in their own voices, though 350 years have passed.)

Dunnet Beach from Castletown

Meanwhile back in the present, if All Hallows’ Eve is imminent the clocks have gone back and the inexorable slide into winter is gathering pace. The sun already sets at 4.30pm, so it’s a race against time to get this gansey finished before it’s too dark to see what I’m doing. But as ever at this stage, things are coming together swiftly: I’ve finished the front, joined the shoulders, knit the collar (14 rows), and started the first sleeve (136 stitches picked up around the 18-inch armhole). If I crack on I should finish this by the end of November.

Door at Sandside, nr Dounreay

Graycoat turns up again in the Thurso Kirk Sessions in November 1655. This time Katherine Skinner “confest that her husband being [new]lie diseased the said Graycoat cam in to the house [and] offered to heale him for reward, whereupon the said [Kather]ine gave her fortie shillings Scotts money but denyes that [she] knew the said Graycoat to [refer] any incantatione or [cha]rming or that she applied any thing to the diseased person.” As this was a first offence Katherine was let off with public rebuke. (There’s no record of Graycoat being punished—presumably she evaded justice yet again, possibly in the form of a cat.)

But let’s take comfort that even a witch’s prophecy can be ambiguous. Take William Caldell, above: he may in fact have had a long and happy life; finally expiring, 17th century banana daiquiri equivalent in hand, reclining in a deck chair on some Florida beach, at the splendid old age of 97. Happy Halloween everyone!

2 comments to Navy Gansey, Week 7: 29 October

  • =Tamar

    It’s intriguing that her customer, Katherine Skinner, was fined, but Graycoat apparently was not even arrested. Was the defense that she didn’t actually do anything, just took the money?

    Time changes…My watch stopped the other day. Maybe it was giving me a hint.

  • Gordon

    Hi Tamar, the fact that Graycoat isn’t prosecuted makes me wonder if she « existed », ie if she was a known member of the community. Usually these sorts of records say things like, “Agnes Smith, alias Graycoat” – they don’t usually just give the alias. Maybe Graycoat was a mythical figure the people of Thurso blamed for curdled milk etc…?

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