Bessie Masterton (fl 1622-1649)

Bessie Masterton (fl 1622-1649)

Accused of witchcraft

Bessie Masterton appears a number of times in the 17th Century Court Records of Dunfermline, culminating, in 1649, in being examined for evidence of practising as a witch. The Kirk Session even paid for the services of John Kincaid, the celebrated witchpricker from Tranent. As yet I have found no record of the outcome, but Kincaid's reputation was established on the basis of never failing to find the evidence of witchcraft during the frenzied decade of the 1640's when many women were put to death in Scotland. Certainly, if Bessie's earlier appearances in Court Records are any indication, she must have been a lively and controversial character and no doubt made her share of enemies only too happy to seize an opportunity to settle old scores.

The town of Dunfermline took its fear of witchcraft further than many. In 1643, the Annals of Dunfermline records that a staff of officials called "witch-watchers" and "witch-catchers" had been appointed to seize and put in ward (prison) all reputed witches, in order that they might be tried for their "horrid and abominable crime of witchcraft." Accordingly "a great many old shrivelled-up women, with woe-begone countenances, were warded, and if any of them used the long staff in walking, so much the better for the catchers." In 1643, six witches were burnt and two died in prison.

"These victims, having been tried and condemned to be burnt, were accordingly carted east to the loan (witch-loan), and being placed in the middle of a pile of wood, with feet and legs tied, the pile was set on fire, their bodies were soon consumed, and, it is to be hoped, that their better part received that mercy which had been denied to them on earth".

The 40s fine levied on Harry Moodie on 14th June 1624 appears harsh for the crime, but just three weeks earlier, on 25th May 1624, the town of Dunfermline was virtually destroyed by fire. The town held a "wappinshaw" (weapons practice) and a stray piece of hot lint from the gun of a youth (John Anderson) landed on a thatched roof. A strong wind fanned the flames and the fire spread rapidly destroying nine-tenths of the buildings in the town. Harry Moodie's abuse "Devil blow her and her clothes in a fire" would therefore have been seen as more than a routine obscenity.


Bessie Masterton was married to James Durie, who was related to the Duries of Craigluscar. They lived in the Netherton, to the south of the centre of Dunfermline. She was the daughter of John Masterton of Easter Grange. More details on her extended family can be found at the following link.


Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32

John Johnston servant to William Stevenson complained that Bessie Masterton wife of James Durie, had struck him with a key on his forehead, drawing blood. BM admitted that she hit JJ with a key 'but said she did not the same willingly nor of set purpose, but her son having poinded the said William' Stevnson's horse in her grass, brought the same home of purpose to have poinded the horse, and through the said John Johnston's violent pressing to berave her of the horse, having the halter in his hand, through pulling thereof to him the key recklessly touched his head'. Judge finds her to have troubled said JJ and she is fined accordingly.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
12th May, 1622

Bessie Masterton promised Thomas Moodie that she would repair the back house of her tenement in the chimney and door at her setting thereof to Janet Dewar, 20s whereof said JD gave her and she was skathed in the said sum by BM not keeping her promise.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
29th August, 1622

Action of Donald McGrew in Torryburn against Mr James Durie bD, Bessie Masterton his wife and Thomas Christison their son-in-law. Robert Stirk messenger, by virtue of HM letters of arrestment purchase by said DM against John Smeaton in Turners Hill, on 15 October 1623 arrested a meat almery of wainscot, a press, a langsaddle, four kists of fir, two standing beds of fir, two feather beds, four feather bolsters, four feather pillows with their covers, five pairs of bed blankets, 6 pairs sheets, two bed coverings, an iron pot, a brass pot, 6 pewter plates, 6 tin trenchers, 2 brass chandlers, an iron chimney, a spit. All belonging to said JS, in his own dwelling house, to remain under HM sure arrestment until JS had made complete payment of money and victual. Said JS, seeing that his goods would be poinded for payment, resolved to convoy them away 'to some quiet part where the said Donald could not get the same to poind, and finding none so meet to concurdit the custody of the said plenishings as thesaid Mr James, his wife and son-in-law'. He therefore one morning transported them to their house in the Netherton, where they were received by Bessie Masterton and where they still are.
Requests provost and bailies to order Durie et al to give them up to said Donald.
The judges find that one morning John Smeaton and John Pillans came with two horse loads from Turners Hill to the Netherton. One load of timber work like and almery or press and the other of beds and clothing, to the house in the Netherton once belonging to John Thomson and now to Mr James Durie and his wife. He received the key of the door from Bessie Masterton and opened the door, put the goods inside, locked the door and gave the key to BM.
Mr JD et al are ordered to give up the two horse-loads of goods.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
29th April, 1624

Assise by deposition of witnesses and confession of party finds Harry Moodie to have misused Bessie (Masterton) Mr James Durie's wife's clothes by futting them with his feet in a dispititous manner and uttering malicious speeches, saying, "Devil blow her and her clothes in a fire". Fined 40s for the speeches and to ask her forgiveness.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
14th June, 1624

James Moyse to pay Bessie Masterton 23 merks 6/8d owed her by late John McBaith and assignd by Andrew McBaith to the said James to pay.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
22nd July, 1624

James Wallace to pay Mr James Durie and Bessie Masterton his wife 27 as cautioner for James Dempsterton and Richard Potter.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
20th January, 1625

William Moodie mason to pay Bessie Masterton 7 for 6f bere bought 3 years since.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
27th October, 1625

Testament is of Marjorie Alexander, wife of John Anderson snr, dyer, who died 9th June 1624. Executor is John Anderson, her husband.
Goods[ The said John declares that in respect of the common calamity and accident of fire that fell forth in the town of Dunfermline, where he had his workhouse and whole premises of lumes for liting was burnt and consumed with fire as is notour to the whole country, his household stuff in his dwelling house being only rescued by God's great mercy, which he esteems and declares the same to be estimated to 40.

Owed_by[ David Mushet for dyeing 8
John Boswall of Craigside for liting 11
Agnes Brown, Lady Arnott for liting 8 8/8d
xxx Mercer baron of Melgend for liting 14
James Mercer of xxx for liting 14
Lawrence Oliphant for liting 10
Kinross of Kippinross 5 4s
xxx Lesley, Lady Sagie 19 7s
Catherine White 6 10s
xxx Forrester spouse of xxx Livingston
of Dunnipace for liting 25 7s
xxx Tosheok of Pitenzie 4 11s
Thomas Campbell 6 13/4d
Mr William Hutton 12
Mr John Phyn 24 15s
Thomas Glass 4 10s
xxx Scott wife of David Boswell of Balmuto 24
xxx Drummond of Broch 6 16s
Walter Peirson 5
Adam xxx for ferme 1624
10 bolls meal @ 5 xxx 53 6/8d
Owed to John Anderson jnr his son conform to a marriage contract 400
William Thomson servant fee 30
Cautioner for executor David Masterton glasswright of St Andrews.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
10th December, 1625

John Oswald, partly by his own admission and partly by disposition of Jerome Toron, was found to have comitted a great riot by coming in to Bessie Masterton, wife of Mr James Durie (Netherton) , she being in her byre with her servant doing some lawful business, and there abusing her most filthily in language. Fined 4 to be paid instantly, or to sit in the stocks for 24 hours and ask her forgiveness.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
19th May, 1626

Given up by Archibald and Bessie Masterton, her children by the late John Masterton of East Grange beside Culross and Mr James Durie husband of the said Bessie. In the testament confirmed on 10 December 1625 the value of the domicils etc was given as 40. The actual value was 500.

Debts owed to him and omitted from the testament:
Robert Aitken bD and Gilbert Primrose bD, bond 666 13/4d:
James Primrose of Fodsmill 25 merks:
A grey horse worth 10:
The growth of 4 acres of land, estimated to 32 bolls victual :
10 bolls bere and 10 bolls pease @ 5 and 12 bolls oats @ 4:
Total of said debts 1181 6/8d:
Total of inventory plus debts 1610 6/8d:
Whereof there is no division.

Cautioners for executors
Andrew Micklejohn skipper of St Andrews for Archibald
Sir Andrew Balfour for Bessie.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
30th August, 1628

Bessie Masterton to pay Robert Masterton 6 per boll for 5b 3&1/2f bere.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
19th March, 1629

Helen Walls to pay Mr James Durie 26 for malt
William Wellwood baker and Bessie Nichol his wife to pay Bessie Masterton and her said husband (Mr James D) 11 5s for 10f oats.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
30th July, 1629

Bessie Masterton and Mr James Durie her husband to pay Janet Cuthbert 44/4d for ale .

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
1st April, 1630

James Kinsman to pay Bessie Masterton 46/8d for lint.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
3rd February, 1631

John Workman to pay Bessie Masterton 45/8d to complete payment of 4.
Janet Thomson absolved from 10 12s claimed by Bessie Masterton.

Dunfermline Court Records 1619-32
12th May, 1631

Dunfermline Court Records 1633-48

John Gibb writer, procurator for George Durie eldest son of Mr James Durie bD, registered a discharge
By contract of marriage between said GD and Margaret Brown, daughter of the late William Brown town clerk, dated 163x, said Mr JD is to infeft GD in certain tenements and acres 'and to perform sundry other deeds'. GD now discharges his said father and Bessie Masterton his wife, of all the clauses of the marriage contract which they were bound to fulfill.
Written by John Miller (John Milne?) writer in D. At D 1 December 1636
Witnesses John Skene brother german of Gilbert Skene of Dyce and William Mercer advocate .

Dunfermline Court Records 1633-48
20th December, 1638

Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database

The accused: Mastertoun, Bessie
End date: 13 September 1649
Characterisation: Not enough information
Trials associated with this case: Local Trial
Imprisonments: Steeple Dunfermline
April 1649: Tolbooth Dunfermline.

Pre-trial notes:
The minister and elders of the Dunfermline kirk session made a complaint to the committee of estates regarding a supplication made on Mastertoun's behalf regarding her torture and imprisonment. The session argued that she should remain in prison and that they be allowed to use lawful means to bring her confession. They said that comfort makes it harder to discover witchcraft. They do not want her released on caution and they want her to pay her own imprisonment. The committee agreed with them and their petition was granted.

Reference: Committee of Estates PA11/8 fo. 157v.

Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database
Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin, Joyce Miller and Louise Yeoman, (archived January 2003, accessed 22 July 2012).
University of Edinburgh

Dunfermline Kirk Session 1640-89

witchcraft, evidence against supposed witch to be given to regality bailie
The session orders that the copy of all the delations and depositions against Bessie Masterton, imprisoned for witchcraft, is to be given to Mr William Oliphant, land bailie.

Dunfermline Kirk Session 1640-89
November, 1649

To John Kincaid of Tranent who tried the witch mark on Bessie Masterton 20 merks.

Dunfermline Kirk Session 1640-89
December, 1649

With thanks to Sue Mowat who provided these extracts from Dunfermline's Records.