WITH pointed hats and broomsticks everywhere for fun Hallowe’en celebrations, it’s worth remembering Dunfermline has a very real and dark history of witchcraft.

A new book, ‘Secret Dunfermline’, by Fife author Gregor Stewart, traces the ancient royal burgh’s past from Roman times through to the present day, including William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, King Malcolm and St Margaret, the Great Fire of Dunfermline, the destruction of the Abbey, linen, war and Andrew Carnegie.

But there’s also a black chapter on the town’s brutal past, of suspicion, persecution, torture and death, with witches hanged and burned near Townhill on the back of evidence no stronger than hearsay, or because the woman was old or had a black cat!

Gregor’s book reckons the earliest witch trial in Dunfermline involved Auld Bessie Bittern in 1563, who was said to be a woman not to cross and who muttered what were taken to be curses.

Suspected of being a witch, “the addition of her large black cat did nothing to quell fears”.

After turning down her request to dig potatoes for her, a weaver found that he had been “bewitched and was unable to weave”.

Bessie was arrested and banished from Dunfermline as a result.

The Witchcraft Act came in the same year and the author says “witches were first found in Dunfermline in 1627 and 1640”.

An executioner for Dunfermline, ‘Notorious’ Pat Mayne, took on the title of hangman and witch-burner.

Witch-watchers – who looked for “anything unusual or any failure to attend church” – and witch-catchers were also appointed.

Gregor writes: “The threat of being accused of witchcraft was enough to make almost everyone adhere to the town’s rules and attend church as often as possible out of pure fear.”

Natural incidents such as crops failing, storms, floods, illnesses and deaths were blamed on witchcraft and the wealthy and influential could often buy their way out of a trial.

Some people even used witchcraft to get rid of people they did not like, by making simple accusations such as saying they appeared in their dream and threatened to kill them.

With nothing more than hearsay, the accused would be asked to confess their crimes as a witch.

And anyone found to help, speak to or consult someone later found to be a witch was executed with them.

Gregor said the trial itself could be very expensive with an invoice showing that the judge and the hangman’s rope cost 6s each, the executioner’s payment was £8 14s and his expenses came to 16s 4d while hemp coats were £3 10s and a tar barrel came in at 14s.

The upper end of Townhill Road, the area where witches were executed, was once known as Witch Loan and the street off Bellyeoman Road, named Witchbrae, is a small reminder of days gone by.

The gallows were located just outside the town’s boundaries, a small hill called Witch Knowe, roughly where the road turns onto Kingseat Road today, as it was believed this would prevent the vengeful spirits of those executed from wreaking revenge on the townspeople.

The year 1643 was a “great witch-catching and witch-burning year in Dunfermline” with large scale persecution and the rounding up of a “great many shrivelled up old women”.

Two died in prison and over a three-month period, a further six were found guilty of witchcraft and burned at Witch Knowe.

A later trial involved Torryburn woman Lilias Adie, who was accused by her neighbour of bringing her ill health and taken to the church to plead her case.

Faced with the feared witch-hunter, the Reverend Allan Logan, and obviously confused and terrified, she confessed and came up with a story that she had been approached by a man, who later turned out to be the Devil, in a cornfield.

The fact she apparently had buck teeth and was around 70, a very old age for that time, were “two possible reasons for suspicion falling upon her”.

She died in jail before her trial and was buried on the beach at Torryburn – the large slab covering her body, to stop her rising from the grave, was uncovered in 2014.

There is also the tale of the massive stone boulder that used to stand between Crossford and Cairneyhill.

It was said to be five feet tall and 18 feet long and became known as the Witches Stone, as folklore says it was carried by a witch in her apron as a present for the Pitfirrane family and, when the strings of her apron broke, the stone lay where it fell.

The boulder was real enough and was blown up in 1972.

Gregor’s book also includes fascinating snippets, such as the rats who apparently foresaw the Great Fire of Dunfermline in 1624, the killing of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Bronze Age burial cairn in Calais Muir Woods – and the name doesn’t derive from the French port – the stone in a housing estate that could be 4,000-years-old, the 200 years of linen prosperity and the estimated $370 billion net worth, in today’s money, and legacy of Carnegie.

Secret Dunfermline costs £14.99 and is available from Amberley Publishing via www.amberley-books.com.