Brutality, Witchcraft and Murder
Pollok Estate was once home to the wealthy Stirling-Maxwell family but in the 17th century, it was the backdrop to a series of events that would chill the blood, even to this day.
Sir George Maxwell was a self-styled man of God, with a passion for seeking out the so-called servants of the devil. He regularly left his home at Pollok to serve as witness at the trial of some poor soul accused of witchcraft. Suspicions of such nefarious deeds were rife in those days and entire families could be shattered by a single accusatory finger pointed in their direction. For one such as Maxwell, however, it was perhaps inevitable that such affairs would eventually darken his own doorstep.
In the 1670s, a servant by the name of Janet Douglas came to Pollok. Deaf and mute, Janet was given a home and employment on the estate. Shortly after the young girl’s arrival, Sir Maxwell took ill, stricken by a terrible pain in his side. Fearing some malevolent influence, the staff began asking questions. When Janet was brought forth, her voice miraculously returned and she told her interviewer to search the house of Janet Mathie, a midwife of Pollokshaws. There, claimed the newly audible Janet, evidence of witchcraft would be found.
Sir Maxwell, believing the girl’s testimony to be a sign from God, ordered a thorough search. Sure enough, Mathie’s house was upturned and a series of small wax puppets found. Of greatest concern, was a puppet with several pins stuck in its side. Was this the cause of Sir George’s ailment?
Mathie was arrested on suspicion of witchcraft but it wasn’t long before further accusations were flying thick and fast. Confessions, secured through brutal and bloody torture, led to the trial of six individuals: Janet Mathie, her son John and daughter, Annabel, along with Pollok servants Bessie Weir, Margaret Jackson and Marjory Craig. On the 20th January 1676, all six were found guilty. 14-year-old Annabel was spared and sent to a convent to be purified and reformed. The other five were sentenced to die.
Janet, her son John, Bessie, Margaret and Marjory were taken to Gallows Green in Paisley where they were strangled to death and burned at the stake. The health of Sir George Maxwell, however, failed to improve and within months of the trial, he too passed away.
In the wake of such grim business, speculation and rumour was rife. Some believed Janet Douglas held a grudge against Mathie. They claimed she seized the opportunity to settle some unknown score and planted the incriminating evidence in her rival’s house. Others went further in their accusations, believing the trial to have been misdirected. Perhaps the innocent young mute who’s voice returned at the most opportune time wasn’t some angelic messenger of God, after all. Perhaps she served another master altogether. Did she, in fact, come to Pollok with the specific intention of targeting Maxwell, a man who had sent many of her coven sisters to their grave?
Interestingly, the rest of Janet Douglas’ life is shrouded in mystery. She left Pollok shortly after Maxwell’s death and largely disappears from historical records. Two years after the events of Pollok Estate, a woman of the same name was banished from Edinburgh for undisclosed crimes. Legend says she took a ship to the United States and eventually settled in Massachusetts, making her home in the small port city of Salem. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
As for Pollok Estate, much of it now forms Pollok Country Park (although the current house wasn’t built until 1752). There have been stories of strange goings-on within the house and grounds for many years. Could this be the spirits of the tortured souls that were executed for sins they didn’t commit? Or does the ghost of Sir Maxwell himself still roam the darkened halls, doomed to hunt the witch that cursed him for all eternity?
Pollok is the largest of Glasgow’s parks and lies, fortunately for me, a short distance from my house. Since it makes an especially fine location for long morning dog walks, I’ve visited on more occasions than I can count and have seen the house and grounds in various weather conditions. Beautiful old buildings that appear warm and welcoming on a bright Summer’s day can take on a different feel when the leaves fall from the trees and mist hangs above the river. I’m no believer in the supernatural (just a lover of ghost stories) but I’ve seen Pollok in many moods and let’s just say I completely understand why some people think it’s haunted!
If it feels like you might need a dram to settle the nerves after such a troublesome tale, maybe Glasgow Distillery Company, which operates just three miles from Pollok Estate, would be able to sort you out. The Glasgow Distillery team have just opened a new shop on the ground floor of Princes Square Shopping Centre. Running throughout the festive season, the shop will offer a range of whiskies, gins, rums and vodkas as well as unique gift ideas, including personalised labels. To demonstrate that service, the kind folks of the GDC sent me a bottle of their Original Single Malt. Since I haven’t reviewed this line since the very first release in 2018, I decided a revisit was due.
Editor’s note: Under no circumstances did I forget to plan a Hallowe’en-themed review this year and I absolutely did not have a mad scramble around my cabinet to find a bottle that I could tenuously link to a spooky story. Nope. No chance. Not a bit of it. Moving swiftly on…
*Full disclosure: The whisky featured in this article was sent to me free of charge. As always, I will strive to give an honest opinion on the quality of the dram and the value for money it represents.
Smell: Orange marmalade. Wee touch of lemon scent. Toffee apples. Bit of peach. Mango chutney. Vanilla and lots of honey. Plenty of fragrant spices… cinnamon, clove, nutmeg… Some wood varnish.
Taste: Toffee. Runny honey. Cooked fruits. Apple. Pineapple. Melon. Vanilla pods. Burnt toast. Wee bit of liquorice before some virgin oak spice.
Thoughts: The label calls it “fresh and fruity” but I’m not sure I’d go along with that. The distillery ferments for 72 hours and that puts plenty of fruitiness in the wash but the use of first-fill bourbon and virgin oak casks has created something more robust. For me there’s fruit there but it’s also rich and spicy. However, descriptor nit-picking aside, it’s a cracking dram and even though there’s a lot of wood impact, the spirit character still comes through. I also like how the woody spice plays such a big role without scorching the palate – it’s spice as flavour rather than heat.
Price: Bottled at 46%, un-chill-filtered, natural colour and retails at £50. Good value for a great wee dram that’s seriously drinkable.
For more on Pollok Country Park visit https://www.glasgow.gov.uk/pollokcountrypark
For more on Glasgow Distillery Company visit https://www.glasgowdistillery.com/