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Joan Biggar recounts the strange life of Christian Shaw, from witch to head of an 18th-century textile empire.

This article first appeared in the Scots Magazine in May 1998.   

CHRISTIAN SHAW, the eldest daughter of the Laird of Bargarran, was inaptly named. At the age of 11 she began acting as though possessed by the devil. During what the family came to dread as one of her turns, she would throw herself on the floor in contortions, rolling her eyes heavenwards, and acting as though she had completely taken leave of her senses, as she appeared deaf, blind, and dumb for whatever length of time the strange attack lasted. But ‘the most alarming symptom by far, and the one that made her mother scream in fear and caused her father to mount his horse at top speed and head for the doctor’s house at a gallop, was that Christian vomited during her fits, and instead of expelling the contents of her stomach, spat out all sorts of rubbish. Hay, barley straw, bones, rags, even coal and candles were amongst the miscellany, and her horrified family never knew what was coming next.  

The doctor could not help, although it wasn’t for the want of trying. The Shaw estate, situated on the road from Bishopton to Erskine Ferry, was small, but it was well respected so, when his purges and masters had no effect. the physician remarked that little Miss Shaw appeared to have been bewitched, rather than confess himself beaten, or have the temerity to suggest that Christian was an attention-seeking little besom, jealous of the way her parents spoiled the wee ones in the family.  

Bargarran was completely dumb-struck! The year was 1696, and every sensible body, including himself, took every possible precaution against witchcraft. Rowans were trained to arch over the doors, elder’ trees bordered his estate, .and horseshoes were nailed above the byre doors, all with the purpose of preventing trespass by both male and female witches. It was deduced that there must be an enemy within, living in the household and practicing the black arts. 

It did not take long for the Shaws to determine who this was. Shortly before the appearance of the fits. A Highland girl in the Laird’s employ had turned on young Christian (who, even before contracting her strange malady, would have tried the patience of a saint) and shouted: “May the devil harl your soul to hell!”  

When this curse was recalled, the Laird turned from’ the doctor to the minister of Erskine who brought up the strange case of Christian Shaw at a meeting of Paisley Presbytery on 30th December, 1696, and the result was a far-reaching witch hunt.  

Questioned closely by several distinguished adults, Christian had words put into her mouth, instead of the rubbish she had collected from the kitchen midden to frighten every-one with her fits. Now she named names, sometimes those suggested to her, sometimes of people employed by her father, those who had scolded her or complained to her parents about her childish misdeeds.  

Imprisoned, tortured, deprived of sleep and with heads shaved in the case of women, since it was believed witches’ familiar spirits clung to their hair when the beldames took to the air on broomsticks, the first people to be accused implicated others, often unintentionally. All were given into the hands of the witch prickers with their brass bodkins who invariably found the “devil’s claw mark” as this could take any form, and who was without blemish? It might be a wart, a mole, a birthmark, even a freckle in a place untouched by the sun. The witchhunt became extended to include the whole of Renfrewshire and, in due course, 21 people were brought to trial at Paisley, before a special commission of no less than 17 judges headed by Lord Blantyre.  

So far as some of the accused were concerned, there turned out to be safety in numbers, as the judges were not to be influenced by a bullying counsel for the prosecution, or indeed by one another. Fourteen of the prisoners were declared “not guilty” and immediately released.  

The remaining seven, including the Shaws’ maidservant, were condemned to be burned at the stake on Paisley’s Gallow Green on 10th June, 1697, but in accordance with Scots law they were strangled before the flames reached them. Also, their number was reduced to six, as one of the accused, John Reid, who had spoken at his trial of being led to the devil by a black dog, strangled himself in his cell. His body was buried at a crossroads under a large causey-stone in which a horseshoe was embedded, as it was believed that, since he was a witch, his spirit would not be able to pass cold iron.  

It is probable that Christian Shaw was a witness to the burning of the witches, since it was customary to take children to view executions, not only as an Awful Warning that they had better be good, but as a “treat”. An execution made a good day out, if a rather expensive one, as there were all sorts of sideshows from jugglers to gingerbread sellers and purveyors of hot pies. Those who enjoyed themselves most, though, were the judges, who were made honorary burgesses of Paisley and entertained at the enormous cost, in 1697, of 50 pounds, which was more than a good tradesman earned in a year.  

It is impossible to even hazard a guess at what Christian Shaw’s’ thoughts must have been when she saw the terrified victims tied to the stakes, and in the days that followed. The antics which had probably started as a daft ploy had got completely out of hand and when the case of her “molestation by evil spirits” came before the Presbytery, she did not dare retract anything she had said lest she be accused of being a young limb of Satan herself. 

But now everyone was patting her head, and saying what a mercy it was she had been the means of hunting down the witches in their midst. So, of course, everything must be all right! For all that, there was a cold, guarded look in the eyes of the smiling adults, and none of the local lassies wanted Christian Shaw for a friend. They were still giving her a very wide berth when she entered her teens, and so were the young men. For, although it might be unwise to show sympathy for the victims of the witch hunt and their families, There was one thing everyone agreed on -- Christian Shaw was a right strange lassie, and some very decent folk had come under suspicion as a result of her words and deeds.  

Yet anyone seeing her sitting so deuce at her spinning-wheel must have found it hard to believe she could possibly be regarded as dangerous company. Time went on, and still she sat at the whirring wheel in her father’s house, seemingly doomed to be a spinster for life.  

She was 32 when at last someone came courting her. He was a Rev. Miller, the minister at Kilmaurs, looking for a suitably sedate wife, and although he was neither young nor handsome, seemed quite “well gathered” with a tidy bit put by. As a man of the cloth, he was not to be deterred by tales of her strange behaviour as a child, and the tragic consequences; when he proposed marriage the lady was delighted to accept him. So for three years. Christian occupied the manse pew below her husband’s pulpit, in her dress of rustling silk and cap with lace lappets, Then the Rev. Miller died, leaving her a widow, still in the prime of life and free as a bird. She determined to see something of the world and her elderly mother was easily persuaded to accompany Christian on a tour of Europe. It was, after all, the fashionable thing to do.  

The average young widow visiting Europe with her mother as a companion was in search of pleasure and perhaps another husband, who might be encountered during visits to such tourist attractions as castles, cathedrals, the opera and pleasure gardens. But Christian’s ambitions were very different. Having gained her freedom and a little money, she meant to keep the one and increase the other,  

As Mrs Shaw and her daughter toured Belgium and the Netherlands, they were full of admiration for the scrubbed cleanliness and hard-working habits of the Dutch. They warmly approved the painted houses, quaint canals and windmills, sensible clogs and the flowers grown from bulbs, but the thing that brought Christian’s enthusiasm to fever pitch was the quality of the linen. She expressed so much interest in the dazzling white aprons and caps that she and her mother were invited to a textile factory, there to see for themselves the processes which made Dutch thread the best in the western world.


Christian had always genuinely enjoyed spinning, and she may have reminded her late, but not greatly-lamented husband of the women in the Bible who took their domestic responsibilities seriously and whose price was above rubies. And yet, with her white rounded arm raised and her body arched as he pulled the yarn straight perhaps Salome was brought to mind.  

Now she was not long in finding out the secrets of what made Dutch thread so special. Christian learnt the procedures from flax flower to bobbin, then sketched plans of the factory “machinery, and even managed to acquire - by fair means or foul - some pieces of the equipment used. She had found something to which she could devote her boundless energy and practical ability. There were as good and even better spinners in Scotland as any she met in the Netherlands, and the Scottish climate was well suited to growing flax. Not least, she was eager to start experimenting with bleaches to beat the Dutch, 

When the minister’s widow and her mother returned to Scotland they were carrying smuggled goods. Small pieces of machinery were stowed in their baggage, along with plans for setting up a small factory. The trade secrets of the Dutch were carefully guarded from their competitors but who would suspect a deuce Scots widow and her mother of being industrial spies? 

Home again, Christian became determined to put her father’s estate of Bargarran on the map for the second time. Once it had been associated with the Renfrewshire witch hunt. Now it would be famed for its important place in the textile trade. With her mother and younger sisters as partners, Christian went into business. She installed equipment, hired staff, experimented with bleaches until she found one which gave dazzling whiteness and engaged a lady of quality as her commercial traveller, to take the good news to Bath.  

Lady Blantyre, wife of the lord who had presided over the panel of judges at the witch trials, had been much intrigued by Christian and kept in touch with the family. She visited the fashionable English spa every year to take the waters, and was prevailed upon to show samples of Bargarran thread and the articles of fine lawn and cambric it had been used for, to anyone who might be interested, from aristocratic friends to small shopkeepers. Lady Blantyre gladly agreed to all this touting for business for no other reward than the satisfaction it gave her to confound anyone who thought Scotland rather a primitive place by producing one of Christian’s samples, delicate as a cobweb, to show just how skilled the Scots were in fine textiles.  

Visitors to Bath seemed to inhabit a quite different world from that where sedate housewives could be condemned to death for witchcraft, because they had the “devil’s claw mark” or were found wanting when weighed in a balance against the massive kirk Bible. The only thing that concerned the fashionable throng of the Bath Assembly Rooms were the latest novelties - rice paper fans printed with the figures and music for the latest dances, hoops made of reeds to support the richly-colourful skirts which were becoming too voluminous for comfort, beauty spots in the shapes of ships, crescent moons, stars and even stagecoaches (what would the witchprickers have made of those!) and, for women who prided themselves on their impeccable taste, dainty cambric articles from Scotland embroidered with white thread on a white back-ground.  

Orders began to pour steadily into Bargarran, giving rise to the flourishing cottage industry of floorin (flowering). Ladies’ caps, babies’ bonnets and Christening robes, Sunday-best handkerchiefs, wedding nightgowns and other feminine finery were thickly embroidered with the famous whiter than white thread, as strong as it was fine, worked on snowy lawn and cambric. No two designs were exactly the same, and skilled needlewomen toiled over the scalloped edgings, eyelet embroidery, drawn thread-work, and other elaborations. 

Soon English embroiderers living as far south as Devon would use only Bargarran thread for their work. It never broke or rotted, and anything sewn with it was destined to become an heirloom.  

Christian again wielded power, as she had done as a child, but for a very different reason. She had become a business tycoon, with a factory in Johnstone, and was a public benefactor, too, since she provided so much employment. Flax growers, weavers, spinners and process workers in her factory, fine embroiderers and tambour workers who toiled for her in their cottages, earned regular wages for themselves and substantial profits for Christian. Her famous thread was in constant demand, and everything embroidered with it, white on white, had a look of purity that made it seem fit to be raiment for angels.  

Christian had few staff problems; most people still remembered the witchcraft trials and this was enough to convince them that she would make a bad enemy! But she could not prevent her trade secrets being found out, and other manufacturers cashing in on the fact that Johnstone was famed for thread. Her competitors, too, opened factories, and in neighbouring Paisley as well, which became populated with weavers and filled with the sound of looms. But, try as they might, nobody has ever been able to beat Christian Shaw at spinning a good yarn!  

There was a strange sequel to the story of John Reid, the convicted wizard who committed suicide in his cell to escape the stake, and was buried at the crossroads with a horseshoe as a gravestone, A local joker nicknamed Pate the Pirate prised up the horseshoe one night in the course of a drunken spree and took it home.  

Within a week, an alarming number of textile workers hanged themselves, and this wave of self-destruction continued until Pate, now thoroughly alarmed, handed over the horseshoe to the local magistrates, who had it replaced in its rightful setting. It looked almost as if John Reid’s spirit had been released when the cold iron was removed from over his grave, but if so the ghostly attempt to ruin Christian Shaw’s business came a little too late. For the strange suicide epidemic occurred early in the 19th century, and by that time there could be no turning back for the thriving thread industry, even though the woman who had started it all - clever, calculating Christian, eldest daughter of the Laird of Bargarran and widow of the minister of Kilmaurs, now lay in the kirkyard.  

At least her body lay there. There were differing opinions as to where her soul had gone. There was something uncanny about a woman industrialist, and maybe she was the biggest witch of the lot, with her factory and all those orders. After all, the de’il was said to be good to his own! 

May I bring to your attention this recently published book? It is called: The Kirk, Satan and Salem: A History of the Witches of Renfrewshire. (Hugh V, McLachlan, editor, 2006, The Grimsay Press) See: 



This book is about the famous outbreak of witchcraft allegations and prosecutions associated with Christian Shaw, the so-called ‘Bargarran Impostor’ in Renfrewshire, Scotland in the 1690s. There are similarities and links between this Renfrewshire case and the prior Salem case in New England in 1692. The material presented here, some of which has never been published before, shows that the Salem case and the Renfrewshire one are better understood with reference to each other. Ministers played a prominent part. 

Although they are of great interest in their own rights, the Salem and Renfrewshire cases were not typical ones. Witch-hunting in New England and in Scotland was not as irrational, unjust, cruel and unfair as it is commonly thought to have been.  

The interpretation on your web-site of ‘Bargarran’s Daughter’ is, I would suggest, dubious. At the very least, there are alternative interpretations that are more plausible and more interesting. 

Best wishes, 

Dr. Hugh V. McLachlan

School of Law and Social Sciences

Glasgow Caledonian University

0141 331 3486 











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