Janet Douglas – Witch or Charlatan?

The Trial of Janet Douglas

A contemporary account of Janet Douglas dated 1677.

Was Janet Douglas a witch or charlatan? The following is a contemporary account of Janet Douglas, the girl referred to in the account of the witching of Sir George Maxwell of Pollock.

Sir John Maxwell, Lord Justice Clerk, the most senior judicial position in Scotland, at the end of the account which he sent to Mr George Sinclair professor of philosophy in the College of Glasgow says, “It is to be noted the dumb girl whose name was Janet Douglas, doth now speak not very distinctly, yet so as she may be understood, and is a person that most wonderfully discovers things past and doth also understand the Latin tongue, which she never learned”.

The following is an extract of a letter which was sent to Mr George Sinclair professor of philosophy in the College of Glasgow.

“When I was at Glasgow, in summer 1677 I was desirous to see the dumb girl Janet Douglas. At my first incoming she declined to entertain discourse but by friendly expressions and giving her some money, I gained her.

I first inquired about her parentage. “I do not remember,” says she “of my parents, but only that I was called by the name of Janet Douglas by all people who knew me. I was kept when I was very young, by a poor woman who proved cruel to me, by beating and abusing me; whereupon I deserted the woman’s house and went a begging.”

I inquired next how she became dumb. She told me by reason of a sore swelling she took in her throat and tongue, but afterwards by the application of Album Graecum, “which I thought said she, was revealed to me, I recovered my speech.”

I asked her, how she came to the knowledge of witches and their practices. She answered that she had it only by a vision, and knew all things as well as if she had been personally present with them; but had no revelation or information from the voice of any spirit; nor had she any communication with the devil, or any spirit of that kind; “only, says she, the devil was represented to me, when he was in company with any of the witches, in that same shape and habit he was seen by them.”

She told me she was altogether ignorant of the principles of religion but had some smattering knowledge of the Lord’s prayer, which she had heard the witches repeat, it seems, by her vision, in the presence of the devil; and at his desire, which she observed, they had added to the world art, the letter W which made it run, “Our father which wart in heaven”, and made the third petition thus, “as on earth so it may in heaven;” by which means the devil made the application of the prayer to himself.

I remember that one day there was a woman in the town who had the curiosity to give her a visit who asked her, “How she came to the knowledge of so many things?” But the young wench shifted her, by asking the woman’s name, she told her name, says the other, “Are there any other in Glasgow of that name?” No, says the woman. Then said the girl “You are a witch.” Says the other “Then you are a devil.” The girl answers, “The devil does not reveal witches, but I know you to be one, and I know your practices too.” Hereupon the woman ran away in great confusion, being indeed a person suspected of witchcraft and had been sometimes imprisoned or not account.

Another woman, whose name was Campbell, had the curiosity likewise to come and see her and began to ask some questions of her. The wench shifting to give her an answer says, “I pray you tell me where you were yesternight, and what you were doing? And withall, says she let me see your arm” she refusing, the landlord laid hold upon the woman, with some others in the house, and forced her to make bare her arm, where Janet Douglas showed them an invisible mark, which she had gotten from the devil. The poor woman much ashamed ran home.

A little time after she came out and told her neighbors, at what Janet Douglas said her was true; and earnestly entreated them that they would show so much to the magistrates, that she might be apprehended, “otherwise the devil says she will make me kill myself,” But the neighbors judging her to be under a fit of distraction, carried her home to her house, but early the next morning the woman was found drowned in the Clyde.

The girl likewise told me at Glasgow, being then under no restraint, that it was revealed to her she would be carried before the great council at Edinburgh, imprisoned there, and scourged through the town. All of which came to pass.

For about a year after, she was apprehended and imprisoned in the tollbooth of Canongate, and was brought before the council, but nothing being found against her she was dismissed, but thereafter, for several crimes committed within the town of Edinburgh, she was taken again, and imprisoned, scourged, and sent away to some foreign plantation, since which time I have not heard of her .

There are several other remarkable passages concerning her, which I cannot inform you of, which others perhaps may do, therefore I shall abruptly break off, and say no more, but that I am your affectionate friend.”

Mr Sinclair says: “this information I have from a discrete understanding gentleman, who was one of my scholars at Glasgow several years ago.”


  1. Mary Smith

    You have not answered the question if she was a witch or a charlatan. What is the answer?
    I have not read your book yet, but it certainly looks most interesting.

    Best wishes,

    • Nigel

      Hi Mary,
      If you have received my reply more than once it is because of a problem on the web site – apologies!!
      The answer to your question is a difficult one to answer as Janet Douglas was a most unusual character who was wholly believed by many prominent people at the time.
      Janet went on to become a celebrity and attracted large crowds wherever she went, however that ultimately led to her downfall.
      Her story is told in Granny Kempock and you can judge for yourself.
      All the best.

      • Michelle ludwig

        I and my mom love reading any information about Janet Douglas. She was my 24th generation back. Great grandma. It is so interesting to learn about her and anything new we get to read and find is amazing. So if you have anything else to share that would be great.

        • Nigel Rennie

          Hi Michelle,
          There is a Chapter about Janet Douglas in the book. She was a fascinating and much maligned woman along with many others in that period.

  2. lina

    Really nice and interesting post. I was looking for this kind of information and enjoyed reading this one.

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