Isobel, Isabel or Issobell Young (c. 1565–1629) was a Scottish woman who was tried, convicted and executed for witchcraft in 1629. Her husband, with whom she had a tempestuous and often violent relationship, was a farmer working land in the Dunbar parish. She had power and influence in the community, as the family were prosperous commoners.
Isobel’s reputation as a witch was established among local residents over a period of decades. Resentful and querulous, she used their fearfulness to her own advantage. Her behaviour brought her to the attention of parish councils on several occasions, but it was not until late 1628 that one of her sons was ordered to take her to Edinburgh for a thorough investigation.
At Isobel’s trial on 5 February 1629 twenty-four items were listed in the indictment against her. She was acquitted on several of them, but convicted of witchcraft, condemned and executed.
Isobel was born in about 1565, but little is known of her early life. Her father was probably James Young, a tenant farmer in the village of West Barns. She was married to a farmer, George Smith, who owned a fertile pocket of land at East Barns in the Dunbar parish. The couple had four sons; it is uncertain whether they had any daughters and, if so, how many. After her sons married, they continued to live in their parent’s house with their wives. Isobel’s relationship with her husband was tumultuous punctuated with violent arguments; she bore a scar from one such occasion when George attempted to kill her with a sword.
The family were ranked among the lowest strata of local elites, demographically “middling peasants” or “prosperous commoners”. Isobel’s marriage afforded her power and influence over others in the local community, but she was resentful of any who, like her son’s in-laws, held a higher social status.[a]Isobel’s eldest son, John, had married into the Bryson family, who owned twice as much land as his own family; the families quarrelled constantly. Isobel dabbled in money-lending, and controlled tenants who leased parts of the family’s land. Isobel efficiently managed a household of more than a dozen servants and, unlike her neighbours, the family was able to expand their land holding.
Surviving records attest that Isobel’s notoriety as a witch among her neighbours dated back to the last decade of the 16th century, possibly beginning soon after her marriage.[b]Writing in The New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (2018), historian Lauren Martin states: “Issobell Young was first accused of witchcraft on 8 January 1619″ She was aware of her reputation within the local area, and used the fear it instilled to gain the upper hand in arguments and intimidate her adversaries.
Isobel was a quarrelsome woman who did not baulk at being at the centre of verbal disputes. When a miller, George Sandie, openly declared her a witch in 1600, she sued him for slander; the Kirk session imposed a public punishment on him after she won her case. Isobel and her sons faced a similar sentence sometime before 1613 after they were deemed to have used a ritual to heal Isobel’s cattle.
During 1619 Isobel sought help from a folk healer, Alexander Fortune, after developing a sore beneath her left breast. When his ministrations failed to cure it, Fortune concluded the wound was a Devil’s mark; he provided a statement concerning it to a Kirk session at Duns. Gossip and speculation about it stretched throughout the Dunbar parish.
Members of the local community blamed Isobel for causing financial destitution, transferring illness from one person to another, and inflicting disease on people and animals. They believed she regularly met with other witches who, like herself, had the power to shape shift themselves into cats and other animals.
The Privy Council ordered Isobel’s second eldest son, James, to transport her to Edinburgh in December 1628 for investigation. She was held in the Edinburgh tolbooth during January 1629; a number of councillors were sent to examine her and take depositions. The Privy Council decided she would be tried in the central justiciary court, and the trial date was scheduled.
Trial and execution
At her trial in Edinburgh on 5 February 1629, the panel defending her case consisted of three of her sons plus two eminent lawyers: Laurence Macgill and David Primrose of Burnbrae.[c]Macgill was the son of the Lord Advocate; Primrose belonged to the family that became the Earls of Rosebery. Despite having the support of her sons, her husband testified against her, the same position he had adopted in an earlier presbytery investigation during 1624. Acting for the prosecution was Sir Thomas Hope. The indictment listed twenty-four allegations, all but two of them common claims of maleficeMaleficium is an act of sorcery, historically usually performed by a witch, intended to cause harm or injury. ; quarrels with neighbours were described in all but four of the charges.
Diabolism was specifically raised in item ten of the indictment, stating Isobel met with the Devil and two other women to elicit the death of Dunbar resident, George Clerkson. The other two women, Janet Acheson or Atchison and Margaret Melros or Melrose, were tried, convicted of witchcraft and executed in April 1624. Defence counsel argued that as Acheson and Melrose were convicted criminals their testimony was not allowed; prosecutors countered that the trial of Euphame MacCalzeanWealthy Scottish heiress and member of the gentry convicted of witchcraft. A key figure in the North Berwick witchcraft trials of 1590–1591. in 1591 had set a precedent. They maintained women and socii criminis were permitted to provide evidence in witchcraft cases.
Isobel refused to confess, although she did not deny any of the quarrels or events as documented by witnesses, maintaining they were routine disputes. She portrayed herself as a “persecuted, honest, honourable, Christian wife and neighbour.”
After considering a verdict on each charge the assize declared acquittal on ten items but the panel unanimously ruled her guilty on one charge. The court decided she “renounced her baptism, entered into the service of Satan, received a Devil’s mark, cast ‘uncouth and fearful sicknesses on men, women and beasts’, and removed her kerchief while she wielded harmful words.”
Once convicted and condemned, Isobel was strangled and her body burned on Castle Hill, Edinburgh. In Scottish witchcraft cases, the death sentence was routinely carried out very quickly after the verdict was declared, usually within a few days.
Extensive extant documentation concerning Isobel spans fifteen years; the availability of such thorough records is unusual so provides an “almost unique” glimpse into legal proceedings in 17th-century trials of witches. The academic Louise Yeoman considers Isobel’s case demonstrates that in early modern Scotland defence lawyers were able to present plausible alternatives to explain the misfortunes attributed to witchcraft.
|^a||Isobel’s eldest son, John, had married into the Bryson family, who owned twice as much land as his own family; the families quarrelled constantly.|
|^b||Writing in The New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (2018), historian Lauren Martin states: “Issobell Young was first accused of witchcraft on 8 January 1619″|
|^c||Macgill was the son of the Lord Advocate; Primrose belonged to the family that became the Earls of Rosebery.|