The Calder Witches
This main basis of this article is the pamphlet by our former minister Rev John M Povey, MA BD which is available in our publications section. It covers initially the background to the pursuit of Witches in Scotland, and then more particularly in the Parish of Calder. There is also a postscript on Lizzie Brice (Bryce)
Witchcraft in Scotland
Witchcraft in medieval times was an accepted part of medieval life, and a woman with knowledge of herbal cures and "gift of the gab" found it profitable to be a witch.
The Reformation of 1560 however changed that when Witchcraft became a heinous offence against God. Calvin The Swiss Protestant leader that had such an influence on the Scottish Church declared "the Bible teaches us that there are witches and they must be slain" .In 1563 Parliament decreed death for anyone practicing witchcraft or consulting a witch.
There was however relatively few cases initially, however the General Assembly of the Church in calling for a general new reformation of the whole country and a crusade against all forms of immortality, passed acts between 1640 and 1649 and called on Presbyteries and Kirk Sessions to take the lead in searching out and destroying witches. A burst of cases happened in this decade, but by 1700 the Authorities had become disgusted with the whole business and trials after then were almost unknown, although later on you will learn about one that was held in Mid Calder in 1720.
The process was that a woman suspected of being a witch would be denounced and brought to trial. If there was no confession she would be severely tortured by sleep deprivation, thumbscrews or witch-pricking to extort proof of guilt. When a confession was obtained, the woman had to denounce twelve others, as witches were supposed to meet in covens of thirteen, leading of course to more trials.
Between 1560 and 1707 over 3000 witches were put to death in Scotland, and the last recorded burning of a witch in Scotland took place in Sutherland in 1722.
An interesting footnote for those who think that trials for witchcraft were confined to our superstitious ancestors long ago; In 1944, Helen Duncan (1898-1956), a Scottish medium, was the last person to be jailed under the 1735 Witchcraft Act. A court was told she claimed to have conjured up the spirit of a sailor killed on HMS Barham during World War II. The sinking of this ship was supposed to be a military secret and the British authorities decided to prosecute because they reportedly feared that Helen Duncan might reveal plans for the D- Day landings. She was convicted of "pretending to raise spirits from the dead" and sentenced to 9 months in prison. The 1735 Witchcraft Act was only finally repealed in 1951.
Witchcraft in the Parish
The "Calder Witches" were said at the time to be as proverbial as the Lancashire witches in England. Cunnigar hill in the village was known as "Witches Knowe" and was the spot where witches were put to death.
Lizzie Brice, Folk memory had it said she was also a witch, but completely untrue!
Lizzie Brice (Bryce) woman of mystery - Reference an article in West Lothian Courier 07/01/2000 - LOCAL historian Sybil Cavanagh has peeled back the layers of time to uncover the story of an old woman whose name lives on today (the name of the main roundabout at the entry to Mid Calder, the petrol station adjacent to the roundabout and also as a Pub in adjacent Livingston.)"Sybil went back to the 1860s to reveal a picture of a gaunt old woman who lived in a whitewashed cottage near Calder House. The old woman had a few cows, and took in orphans from the Edinburgh slums to augment her income. The old lady's name lives on - as a roundabout and a pub. She was Lizzie Bryce.
Sybil, who looks after the local history section at West Lothian library headquarters, has found the record of Lizzie Bryce's birth in the leather-bound register of Mid Calder Parish Church. It reads: "Elizabeth Baxter, daughter to William Baxter and Margaret Wilson, was born the 28th of January and baptised the 2nd of February 1776." Sybil fleshes out Lizzie's early life: "Lizzie Baxter grew up like any other poor child of her time: a few years of schooling at the parish school in Mid Calder, then put out to work on a local farm for a few years, before marriage. "While working in Livingston parish, she was courted by Alexander Bryce who was also born and bred in Mid Calder, and a ploughman to trade." Sybil returned to church records to discover: "Alexander Bryce of this parish and Elizabeth Baxter of Livingston Parish declared their purpose in marriage; and having been regularly proclaimed, they were accordingly married. 29th November 1799." In the old records, Sybil points out, what is now Brice was always spelled Bryce. The couple had five children, one dying as a young child. The surviving four, Alexander, William, Jane and Elizabeth, married and left home. As Alexander and Lizzie grew older, ploughing became too strenuous, and Alexander took work as a gardener, Sybil thinks at Calder House, close to their cottage. They lived at Raw Cottage, just to the North East of the present Lizzie Brice Roundabout.
By 1861, Alexander was dead. Lizzie stayed on at the cottage with her daughter Elizabeth, who was also widowed. To make ends meet, Sybil has discovered, the two women took in pauper children from Edinburgh. Rather than put slum orphans in the workhouse, the authorities would send them out to foster homes in the countryside and pay for their care. Five girls stayed with Lizzie Bryce and her daughter in 1861 - teenagers Margaret Anderson and Mary Parker, seven-year-old Alexa Russell, and sisters Mary and Janet Stevenson. Sybil surmises old Lizzie Bryce may not have been the gentlest of foster mothers. "Folk memory tells that she was tall and angular. In her old age she grew confused. She would shout at the local children and scare them .'The children called her a witch.'
Lizzie Bryce died at Raw Cottage on April 22, 1865. She was 89. Lizzie Bryce lived and died in the parish of Mid Calder, her name lives on, with its slight change in spelling. By the 1890s Raw Strip, where she kept her cows, became Lizzie Bryce's Strip. When a new pub was being built in Dedridge in the 1960s, a brewery company ran a competition to name it. Joy Finlayson found Lizzie Bryce's name on an old map. The new pub became the Lizzie Brice and the roundabout at the entry to Mid Calder. also assumed her name"
The leaflet "The Calder Witches" by Rev John
Povey gives more information