Scotland’s Famous 17th Century Child Witch Hunter

In Scotland, people used to believe in an ability they termed “Second Sight.” This gift could allow those who were blessed with it to foretell the future, detect hidden witchcraft, or see things that were happening in far off places. This is similar to what we term “psychic ability” to be today. A young 17th century Scottish girl by the name of Janet Douglas was one notable and mysterious person who was said to have this gift of Second Sight.

Not much is known about Janet’s early life, though she was probably from the Scottish Highlands, an area that was steeped in mystery and folklore during that time. Her first demonstration of her abilities occurred when she was still quite young, probably less than 10 years old. She apparently helped a Sir George Maxwell, who lived in the Scottish Islands region, who had suddenly become very ill. She determined that a witch was secretly torturing him in effigy, and once she located this effigy in the witch’s cottage, his condition improved.

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She really came to fame when she traveled to the city of Glasgow alone, at the young age of 11. She immediately made a name for herself when she helped a local goldsmith whose business was failing. She told him that a witch had placed an effigy in his shop and that he must destroy it. He did so, and his business immediately improved. Crowds soon flocked to see her, and the city authorities felt compelled to place her in protective custody in the local jail to protect her from them.

She stayed in the Glasgow jail for over a year before being summoned to a meeting of the Privy Council in Edinburgh in 1678. Here, she was questioned by a Reverend George Hickes about her abilities. He tried to determine if she was insane or possessed by the devil. Unable to find anything wrong with her, he promised to ask for her release from custody.

Another story regarding Janet’s time in Edinburgh concerns a meeting she had with the full Privy Council. At this meeting, Archbishop Sharpe tried to accuse her of witchcraft, since she had been causing some trouble by accusing various persons of witchcraft. When he suggested that Janet should be banished to the West Indies to work on a plantation, she asked him who had been in his room the previous Saturday, in the middle of the night. The archbishop turned pale and could not answer.

Duke Rothes, a member of the council, asked Janet who had been in the archbishop’s rooms. She refused to answer unless he promised not to send her to the West Indies. When he agreed to the promise, she told him the devil had been in Archbishop Sharpe’s room.

Soon after these events, Reverend Hickes was able to secure Janet’s release from official custody on the condition that she leave Scotland for England. We don’t know if Janet followed through with her promise because she completely disappears from the historical record at this point. It is possible that she returned home to the Highlands to live in obscurity, though she may have fulfilled her promise to Reverend Hickes. Whatever happened to her, this may be the earliest case of a child “star” burning out at a young age.

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