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June 13, 2012

Paisley lays ghost to rest

At the turn of the 17th century, being accused of witchcraft was something to be avoided – especially if a ‘posessed’ young child was doing the finger pointing.   In the summer of 1697, a great deal of finger pointing took place in Paisley, resulting in grizzly executions for seven of the ‘witches’. Paisley has not had the best of times in recent years – and some say it’s related to a curse from that dark chapter in its history.   Perhaps last weekend’s activities will lay that curse to rest.


WHAT a way to spend your Saturday – re-enacting the day back in 1697 when the grim-faced clerics and lawmen of Paisley tried, killed and burned seven innocent people accused of witchcraft in the Renfrewshire town.

But that’s exactly how the good burghers of Paisley passed yesterday afternoon. It was, in fact, one of Scotland’s most bizarre publicity exercises, with locals hoping that staging this grim tale of superstition and barbarity might help bring a little life back to the struggling town, which has become a byword for run-down urban greyness – boasting the UK’s highest number of boarded-up shop fronts. 

Locals also believe that yesterday’s weird goings-on might also have laid to rest a witch’s curse which is said to have fallen on the town as a result of the executions.

Yesterday afternoon, men, women and children donned medieval costumes and paraded down the street to the Cenotaph in the town centre to re-enact the Paisley Witch Trials. They performed the story of Christian Shaw, whose case sparked hysteria after she claimed she had been bewitched and possessed by the devil. 

The 11-year-old accused a family maid of stealing milk, and when the child began vomiting pins, straw and coal, Christian claimed the maid had put a curse on her. 

The girl and her mother went on to accuse 30 other people of witchcraft – seven were found guilty and garotted and burned in Paisley town centre on June 19, 1697. 

The story of the witch trials bears many similarities to events in Salem, Massachusetts, a few years earlier. But the tale does not end there, however – many people believed the trials resulted in a witch’s curse being laid on the town. Some locals even believe this has caused Paisley’s recent economic woes. 

The remains of the seven witches condemned to death were buried underneath a horseshoe – to protect locals from vengeance – at Maxwellton Cross, in the town. 

Legend has it that, if the horseshoe was ever moved, a curse would be cast on the town. In the 1960s, roadworks disturbed the grave and the horseshoe was lost. It was replaced in 2008, but then worked loose after two years due to the heavy traffic. As part of yesterday’s odd regeneration project, locals replaced the horseshoe on the grave.

Liz Gardiner, project manager for the Renfrewshire Witch Hunt, said by re-laying the horseshoe locals hope to bring forth a new, more positive, story of Paisley.

She said: “Although there is no relationship in reality, if we believe in the myth, and it is a very potent myth, what we have done is relaid the horse shoe and we are retelling the story and after this weekend a new story of Paisley will emerge – a story of vibrancy and resilience.”

Gardiner, along with colleagues from Paisley Development Trust, the council, Erskine Theatre Company, and community website, believe the witch-hunts story could be key to a brighter future. 

Gardiner said: “Most of the stories from Paisley’s history are grim and dark – we see the potential to turn those stories into something that attracts tourists and helps to regenerate the town.”

The story of creepy Christian Shaw didn’t end with the immolation of the innocent citizens she wrongly accused of witchcraft, however. In fact, many think she was responsible for the boom in Paisley’s fortunes from the 1700s through to the 1970s.

After Christian’s father and husband died, she and her mother went on a tour of Europe in the early 1720s, where they found fine thread being spun in Holland. They are said to have smuggled parts of an early Spinning Jenny back into Scotland and established the Paisley garment trade which blossomed in the 18th and 19th centuries.