Skip to main content

With Testament of a Witch, Linlithgow-based author, Douglas Watt, has completed the second of his 17th century crime novels.  Investigating Advocate John MacKenzie and his young assistant, Davie Scougall, are caught, in 1687, in one of the 17th century’s frenzied witch hunts.
The opening chapter is an account of a fiery sermon in a Haddingtonshire parish, with the central text, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”  The scene is set.  The book captures the hysteria as well as the web of material and emotional motives which spurred communities into the pursuit of innocent men and women (but primarily women) for a series of imaginary slights, crimes and vices.
As in, Death of a Chief, the first of the MacKenzie-Scougall tales, the religious and political background of the period is crucial to the tale.  MacKenzie is a Highlander, an Epsicopalian, a moderate supporter of the Catholic King, James VII, and a rationalist with a distaste for radicalism or extremism, whether in religion or politics.
Scougall, is a Presbyterian and a Whig but a cautious character, averse to what he perceives as the amoralityof the Presbyterian enthusiasts.  He accepts the orthodoxy of his day, that witches are a present and threatening reality.  He applauds the ministers of the Kirk who seek to identify them and root them out and his commitment is barely curbed by witnessing the execution of a ‘witch’ on Edinburgh’s Castle Hill.  He is also however, utterly committed to his friend and sponsor, MacKenzie.
Grissell Hay, Lady Lammersheugh, an old friend, sends MacKenziea chilling and seemingly coded note, indicating that if he receives it she will be dead.  She has indeed died, drowned it seems, possibly a suicide.  She has, MacKenzie and Scougall find when they travel to Lammersheugh, been accused of being a witch.  The accepted explanation of her drowning is that she committed suicide to escape the trials, sentence and execution which faced her.
When Grissell Hay’s testament is read in Haddington it becomes clear that her estate is heavily indebted.  The creditors include her obese and imperious sister-in-law, Lady Girnington, a superb name straight from a Walter Scott novel, and the pious and grasping local merchant, Archibald Muschet.  MacKenzie’s fears and concerns, raised by the forewarning in Grissell Hay’s letter, are compounded.  His suspicions, emanating in his rational dismissal of the concept of witchcraft, are leading him to question not only the alleged suicide but the motives and intentions of both the local landed gentry and the parish’s Presbyterian elite, the Minister, Mr Cant (another wonderful name) and his Session.
The immediate problem however becomes the next round of accusations of witchcraft.  Grissell Hay had two daughters, Euphame and Rosina, and the beautiful but almost ethereal Euphame is now also accused of being a key part of the local Satanic conspiracy.
Suffice to say, without exposing the core of the mystery, that the witchcraft accusations were fuelled by a combination of petty jealousies, the acquisitive greed of the grotesquely ugly Lady Girnington, the lechery of the diabolical Colonel Dewar and Presbyterian plots to unseat the King.  The story hinges on whether MacKenzie and Scougall can unravel these mysteries with sufficient speed to prove the innocence of the endangered Euphame.
This well-paced tale maintains a sense of urgency in part because of the obvious innocence of both the dead mother and the threatened daughter but also because of the horrific fate which might befall the daughter who is patently a pawn in bigger games, the exact nature of which only become clear as the narrative unfolds.
The twists in the tale, to the very last chapter, reveal very human weaknesses and flaws in most of the heroes.  The villains however are overwhelmingly black-hearted knaves with barely a redeeming feature.
Douglas Watt has captured a disturbing aspect of Scottish history and made sense of it in recognisable human terms.  He has also written a gripping tale which engages the reader from first page to last.
The above article was first published in Lothian Life on 3 July 2012:

Leave a Reply