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image of cobbled street
Court records reveal that Boyman lived in the Cowgate, a street in Edinburgh.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Janet Boyman was a Scottish woman tried and executed for witchcraft in 1572, two years after the case against her had been started. Also known as Jonet Boyman or Janet Bowman, little is known about her personal life except that she was a resident of Cowgate, Edinburgh, married, and may have been a recusantThe Act of Uniformity 1558 was one of the Acts of Parliament collectively known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. It introduced a Common Book of Prayer, and obliged everyone to attend their parish church every Sunday and on holy days.The Act of Uniformity 1558 was one of the Acts of Parliament collectively known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. It introduced a Common Book of Prayer, and obliged everyone to attend their parish church every Sunday and on holy days.. Predominantly sought out for her abilities as a healer, a skill she had been taught by another charmer, she conjured up spirits at some south-running water near Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags.

Prior to her own trial, Boyman was involved in the conspiracy to kill the Regent, James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray; she was approached by Sir William Stewart and Sir Archibald Napier of Merchiston, to predict the outcome of three scenarios put to her concerning their plans. The charges later levied against Boyman did not include any treasonable offences and she was convicted of sorcery, witchcraft, charming and associating with fairies.

Her indictment has been described by modern-day scholars, such as Lizanne Henderson, as the earliest and most comprehensive record of witchcraft and fairy belief in Scotland. Recently it has been suggested her court records may indicate a cult-like group of nature spirits, the 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. , being active in Scotland.

Personal life

Little is known of Boyman’s personal life;[a]Ronald Hutton and others, such as the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database, list her as Janet Boyman;[1][2] Henderson refers to her as Jonet Boyman,[3] which is the form used in the criminal records, but Janet Bowman is a further variation.[4] although the trial record shows her as living in Cowgate, a street in Edinburgh, she may have come from Ayrshire. No clear indication is given of her age,[5] although she was born sometime before 1548.[6] A married woman, her husband was William Steill or Steel.[5][6][b]The age of consent in Scotland was 12 for girls and 14 for boys.[7] She may have been a recusantThe Act of Uniformity 1558 was one of the Acts of Parliament collectively known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. It introduced a Common Book of Prayer, and obliged everyone to attend their parish church every Sunday and on holy days.The Act of Uniformity 1558 was one of the Acts of Parliament collectively known as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. It introduced a Common Book of Prayer, and obliged everyone to attend their parish church every Sunday and on holy days., as prayers were included in some of her charms.[8]

Boyman was ill with an unspecified condition that was cured by a resident of Potterrow, Maggie Denholm, in a ritual[c]This may have been an initiation ceremony.[9] held under Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags during which, according to Boyman, Denholm conjured up a spirit that caused “rowting and rumbling” in the sky and the Crags “heaved and made a din”.[9][d]Rowting means roaring.[9] Boyman learned her magic skills from Denholm,[9] and became a well-liked and sought-after practitioner of witchcraft.[5]

In her confession Boyman declared that she had five children, the bearing of which had been painless. The births had occurred during the seven-year period that she was a subject of the fairies.[10]

Healing practices

painting of two washerwomen beside stream
To help elicit a cure Boyman washed her patient’s shirt in the water of a south-running stream.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Boyman frequently practised her skills at a spring under Arthur’s Seat, as she considered it “ane elreth well”.[11][e]This is termed an “elrich well” by Henderson[12] and Goodare.[10] It describes a piece of water used by fairies.[11] When a blacksmith, Alan Lauderstone,[f]The woman’s husband is named as Alan Lauderstone by Maxwell-Stuart[11] but Allan Anderson is the name given by Henderson[12] and Goodare.[13] became seriously ill his wife asked Boyman if he could be cured; Boyman requested his shirt so she could use it to ascertain what his illness was and whether she would be able to help.[g]Shirts or other items of clothing were commonly used by Scottish witches in attempts to heal or diagnose illness.[14] Bowman then took it to the elrich well and summoned spirits for assistance. Her testimony describes how her chants caused a huge whirlwind-like commotion from which a man-like figure appeared on the opposite side of the water. She demanded in the name of the father, the son, King Arthur and Queen Elspeth that the entity inform her how to elicit a cure for the man.[15] After the spirit complied with her request, supplying her with detailed instructions on how to proceed, Boyman washed the shirt in the south-running water[h]South-running water contained magical powers and is regularly referred to as being used for healing.[16] before returning it, still wet, to the man’s wife.[15] The woman did not follow the instructions Boyman had given her,  and as specified by the spirit; instead of spreading the shirt on the bed as if her husband was dressed in it, as he was too ill to wear it, she hung it from a door.[11]

At about midnight a strong wind blew up around the blacksmith’s house accompanied by a lot of noise, greatly alarming the couple. A horse shoe in the bedroom began to move, and the rapid banging of an anvil with a hammer could be heard coming from the empty workshop.[17] The following day Boyman chastised the woman adding that if she did not follow the instructions correctly her husband would be a “cryple all his dayis”.[14] The ritual of washing the patient’s shirt was repeated, and on the second night, although the couple were again terrified by the noise and events that transpired at midnight, the blacksmith did recover.[12] He remained in good health for three years but then the same illness recurred. Boyman’s services were sought once more but she declined to help, explaining that it was just after Halloween and, as the fairies were particularly active on that day, they were resting.[18] The blacksmith died.[10]

Boyman had also been asked to help heal William Craig, and a similar ritual washing of his shirt was carried out. After the sun went down the shirt was washed, then dried during the night and, before dawn, Craig was dressed in it. Boyman stated that he would either be cured or die within nine days. Records do not indicate the outcome but, as the common practice was to prefix the name of those who died with “the late”, academic Peter G. Maxwell-Stuart suggests that Craig recovered.[11]


Generally people approached Boyman seeking her skills as a healer[19] but her services were called upon sometime prior to 1568 by Sir William Stewart, the Lyon King of Arms, and Sir Archibald Napier of Merchiston when they were conspiring to kill the Regent, James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray.[i]Stewart was tried and executed in 1568 for “conspyring to take the Regents lyffe by sorcery and necromancyNecromancy is a form of magic in which the dead are re-animated and able to communicate with the sorcerer who invoked them, just as they would if they were alive.“.[20] Called to Sir William’s house, she was required to furnish answers to three distinct questions posed; according to Maxwell-Stuart her responses were: “(a) that the Queen would be furth of Loch Leven on the first Sunday in May, 1567; (b) that Stewart would be in very good standing with the Queen; and (c) that Mary would be mistress of Scotland, marry Stewart, and bear him children.”[21][j]Maxwell-Stuart does not record the questions asked but notes that the Queen did escape on 2 May and suggests that either Boyman, who is referred to in the document as Dame Steill from Edinburgh, was asked before 1567 or that the year quoted in Stewart’s indictment is incorrect.[21] Her responses directly conflicted with those given to the conspirators earlier when they consulted a witch from Norway.[6]

The widow of Alan Lauderstone, the blacksmith who died, remarried and had a son by her new husband; Boyman encountered her breast-feeding the baby soon after he was born.[22] She informed the mother that it was futile feeding the infant as he was going to die because he had been cursed by the seely wights[k]The seely wights were fairy-like types of nature spirits, blessed or magical beings.[23] and no longer had a heart.[10] The baby died shortly afterwards.[12] Boyman said the baby could have been cured if his feet had been dipped in a mixture of heated water and woodbine leaves while a spell was chanted; she knew this as that was the procedure Maggie Denholm had used to treat her when she had been afflicted with a similar illness.[22] The spell recited by Denholm to cure Boyman was:

In the name of the Father and the Holy Gost,
[may] King Arthor and Quene Elspet send this witches thing furthwith [at once],
Or els tak furth yow aff this worald.[22]

Charges and trial

The court documents relating to Boyman’s trial are the earliest and most comprehensive records of fairy belief, charming and witchcraft in Scotland.[5] The case was initiated in 1570; sorcery, witchcraft and charming were among the charges levelled against her,[5] as well as having associations with fairies.[13] As the details of the conspiracy with Stewart and Napier began to be revealed, Boyman absconded to Irvine managing to remain at liberty until she was re-captured in 1572.[6]

There are no indications that Boyman was subjected to torture or ill-treatment while being questioned.[24] During her trial she was denounced as “ane wyss woman that culd mend diverss seikness and bairnis that are tane away with the faryie men and wemin [changelings]”.[5] As none of the charges involved the King or his ministers, treason played no part in her sentencing.[25] The prosecutors however deemed the entities Boyman confessed to conjuring up at the well to be evil spirits;[26] she was found guilty and  executed on 29 December 1572.[5]

Modern interpretations

Academics such as Henderson and Maxwell-Stuart characterise Boyman as a charmer or traditional healer,[15][27] who called on the fairies – or good neighbours as they were popularly known as in Scotland – to help with her spells.[28] Henderson believes that the official records of Boyman’s trial demonstrate the “process of demonization of folk belief and customary practice in the second half of the sixteenth century.”[28]

Julian Goodare, an established historian on early modern Scotland,[29] speculates that Boyman’s trial records may indicate the existence of a Scottish cult-like group centred on the 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. , fairy-like nature spirits similar to the Sicilian donas de fuera or the benandanti of north-eastern Italy.[30] Unlike when the scribes were taking notes about the Devil, it is credible that details of the nature spirits were correctly transcribed, so the information included in the confessions concerning them is more likely to have come from the accused.[31] The indictments of several witches, including the later case of Isobel GowdieIsobel Gowdie was accused of witchcraft in 1662; she was likely executed although that is uncertain. Her detailed testimony provides one of the most comprehensive insights into European witchcraft folklore at the end of the era of witch-hunts. , who was executed in 1662 at Auldearn,[l]According to Ronald Hutton, scholar Emma Wilby classified Gowdie as “a service magician and storyteller inspired by visionary encounters with spirits, real or not.”[32] ‘Service magician’ is the term Hutton adopts for cunning folk like healers.[33] and Boyman, give details about meetings with nature spirits that can be classed as visionary encounters, with Boyman being able to summon the spirit at times of her choosing.[34] In modern terms, these experiences are similar to those reported by some under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.[35] Writing in 2017, Ronald Hutton states that debate among academics concerning shamanistic visionaries, cults and seely wights is in its infancy, with further literature still to be published.[29]

Given the lack of harm Boyman caused to anyone, coupled with the regular seeking out of her services as a charmer or white witch, Henderson concludes that her conviction and execution was “exceedingly harsh”.[19]




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