On 28 May 1588 Alison Pearson, a healer and visionary, stood trial in Fife, Scotland, accused of sorcery, witchcraft and invoking the spirits of the Devil. This was the second time she had faced accusations of being a witch; she had been held in custody on 28 August 1583, until the intervention of Patrick Adamson, the Bishop of St Andrews. In 1584 Robert Sempill penned a lampoon based on the Bishop’s dealings with witches, including Adamson’s consultation with Alison.
Alison Pearson,[a] born in about 1553, was a healer and visionary who lived in Boarhills, Fife.[b] At the age of twelve she suffered from an unspecified ailment that left her with a weak hand and foot. A relative, William Simpson,[c] had medical knowledge, so over the next seven years Alison frequently travelled to his home in Edinburgh to receive treatment. The services he provided helped her gain better use of her affected limbs; he also schooled her in diagnostics and methods to remedy any afflictions identified.
Alison developed into a skilled healer with a wide-ranging reputation, and regularly visited St Andrews over a sixteen-year period to ply her trade. One of her clients was Patrick Adamson, Bishop of St Andrews, a controversial figure during a time of political and ecclesiastical turmoil. He was resident in St Andrews Castle from April 1582 until August 1583; records indicate he was severely incapacitated at that time by an acute illness, which kept him confined to the castle. Alison’s treatment improved his condition, but the Bishop’s political opponents snatched at the chance to accuse him of consorting with a witch, an “emissary of the Devil”.
Suspected of being a witch, by the end of August 1583, Alison was incarcerated. Adamson met with the members of the Kirk session on 28 August seeking its judgement concerning her. The Presbytery declared her guilty of witchcraft, instructing Adamson to keep her imprisoned in the castle in readiness for her execution but he allowed her to escape. For several years, until her trial in 1588, Alison avoided coming to the further attention of the Kirk sessions.
Fairies and spirit guides
The indictment against Alison at her trial in May 1588 lists her associations with fairies and the Queen of Elphame among her transgressions. The first item of her testimony confirms her illness as a child and that she was treated by her scholarly relative, William Simpson.[d] She goes on to explain that when Simpson was about eight-years-old he had been abducted by an Egyptian and forced to live with them in Egypt for twelve years before he was able to return to Scotland, but was later taken away by the fairies.
Alison was unable to specify how much time she had spent with the fairies, but the Queen of the Elphame, with whom she was well acquainted, had been helpful to her when she was so inclined. Alison had several good friends – some were blood relatives – within the fairy court but she interacted predominantly with fairies of the lower classes. Her kinsman, Simpson, acted as a mentor and intermediary with the fairy world.
Alison did not know when the fairies would arrive; sometimes it was when she was in good health, other times when she was ill in bed. They let her help them collect herbs and join in when they concocted embrocations. The Fairy Queen was absent for seven years during which time the fairies treated Alison poorly; they were abusive and violent towards her, hitting her so severely that she was bedridden for weeks having lost all strength in her side. She became scared of the fairies and they often made her cry. They told her she would have everything she desired, and more, providing she did not reveal their secrets but if she spoke of them she would be murdered. On another occasion, she had witnessed them dancing, playing musical instruments, drinking wine and making merry.
Aside from Simpson, Alison had other spirit guides. She went on a trip to Grangemuir with friends but became ill so lay down to rest while her companions continued on their way; a green-clothed man appeared at her side telling her that he would help her if she aided him in return. Filled with fear, Alison shouted to her friends for help but they were too far away to hear her pleas. She managed to scare him away when she called upon help from God. Praying and making the sign of the cross was sufficient to chase away another male spirit guide who came to her on another occasion.
Robert Sempill’s lampoon
An old woman of the Queen of Fairies,
Robert Sempill penned a lampoon, The Legend of the Bischop of St Androis, in 1584 that describes Adamson’s dealings with witches. Writing in Scottish Fairy Belief, scholars Lizanne Henderson and Edward Cowan describe the poem as having “immortalised [Alison] as a witch”. Basically a work of fiction, it contains lines that academics such as Julian Goodare, Peter Maxwell-Stuart and others agree specifically refer to Alison.
The satire describes Adamson seeking help from three witches. The first is nameless but she supplies a large and varied selection of magical practices to the Bishop; these were tried out on his horse but it died. Next, the services of a witch from Anstruther were sought out; she provides a concoction of dried frogs mixed with eggs from black hens added into some wine dregs.[e] The third witch Sempill’s caricature of the prelate turned to was Alison; styling her as an elderly woman who rode out with the fairies and seely wights The seely wights were fairy-like creatures at the centre of a shamanistic Scottish cult that existed in the 16th century. Members were able to enter into a trance which allowed them to fly out at night on swallows and join with the seely wights. , mention was also made of her relative, William Simpson. The poet then introduced verses of a sexual nature:
Closing the door behind his back
And quietly to her he spak,
And said his tool was of no worth:
Loosing his breeks he laid it forth.
She sained it with her holy hand,
The pure pith of the prior's wand:
When she had sained it twice or thrice,
His rubigo began to rise:
Then said the bishop to [his] 'John Bell',
Go take the first sight of her yoursel.
The witch to him her vessel gave,
The bishop's blessing to receive.
Sempill, a presbyterian, was one of the bishop’s fiercest detractors; he was also a favoured childhood friend of James Melville[f] and his uncle, Andrew Melville,[g] both of whom were bitter opponents of Adamson. Among the dignitaries Sempill satirically described Alison associating with while she was in the company of the fairies were the courtier and diplomat of Mary, Queen of Scots, William Maitland of Lethington, who had committed suicide in Leith Prison in 1573 and one of the Buccleuch lairds, who had died fighting with his arch enemies; Buccleuch was also a stalwart of the Scottish Queen.
The effects of the lampoon were long-lasting, tainting anti-episcopal vitriol in Scotland for decades as well as having a bearing on how women were investigated in ensuing witchcraft trials. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, assembling all relevant information available for their book, Scottish Fairy Belief,[h] Henderson and Cowan identify Alison’s trial as the third witchcraft case to include details of fairy belief following on from those of Janet BoymanA Scottish woman found guilty and executed for witchcraft and associating with fairies. at the end of 1572 and Bessie Dunlop’s trial in November 1576. The records for Alison’s trial in 1588 were collated by James Melville and reflect a similar organisation of the same type of topics as those used in the lampoon. The historian Ronald Hutton considers that Alison was used in the political manoeuvrings of Adamson’s enemies.
Historian Margo Todd suggests Alison referring to Simpson being kidnapped by an Egyptian alludes to gypsies, forming a connection between fairies and gypsies. Goodare offers an alternative opinion, believing Alison was describing giants and mystical beings rather than human beings; he considers distinguishing whether a person is alluding to fairies or human gypsies is straightforward and that associations between fairies and gypsies are “overdone”.
- In Scotland and England during the sixteenth century spelling was haphazard leading to many words, places and names having several variations. Modern-day texts often use an anglicised version. Alternative spellings of her name are: Alesoune or Alesoun together with any combination of Peirson; Peirsoun; Pearsoun; or Piersoun.
- Boarhills is sometimes given as Byrehills
- Spelling variations include Simson, Simpsoune or Sympsoune
- The relationship between Alison and William Simpson is unclear; nineteenth-century journalist and writer, Eliza Lynn Linton (10 February 1822 – 14 July 1898) describes him as Alison’s cousin; others, such as Maxwell-Stuart and Goodare for example, designate him as her uncle.
- Maxwell-Stuart identifies the second witch in the lampoon as another real person, Agnes Melville, a healer who Adamson also consulted. Imprisoned from February 1588, she was told a trial would be held around mid-November; other details are sketchy. She was found guilty, although she may not have been executed until some time later – but before September 1595 – as records indicate she was free and active in the interim.
- James Melville (1556-1614), diplomat, minister and writer of memoirs, he was responsible for Adamson being excommunicated in 1586.
- Andrew Melville (1545–1622), scholar, theologian and religious reformist, a powerful but controversial figure who was appointed moderator of the General Assembly of Scotland; among some of the characterisations given to him was “the father of Scottish Presbyterianism”.
- Printed in 2001