In the year 1696, the daughter of John Shaw, the Laird of Balgarran, fell victim to one of the most well remembered cases of 'demonic possession' in Scottish History. It resulted in a large number of locals being implicated as her tormentors, and concluded with 3 men and 3 women being put to death on Paisley's Gallow Green on the 10th of June 1697.
The girl's name was Christian. At the time of the proceedings she would have been regarded as a living illustration of the mighty power of God. She, an 11-yr-old child, was able to sustain herself against and repel the devil from her body.
Her concerned family, with the advice of the Church, took Christian to a famous medical authority, Dr. Brisbane, in Glasgow. Whilst in his surgery, she spat out a coal cinder, which was said to be as big as a chestnut, and almost too hot to handle. Dr Brisbane announced that her affliction was preternatural. What followed were a series of investigations into the community, witch trials and the subsequent execution of the 6 guilty men and women who were said to have cursed and thus invoked Christian's demonic possession. As terrible as the grisly resolution of this case was, it seemed to bring to an end the hysteria in Renfrewshire concerning witches and witchcraft.
Through the passing years, and as society became more sceptical and atheist about the likes of witches and demons, the character of Christian has come under close scrutiny, in particular the possible motivations that drove her actions and prompted her 'condition'. In the early stages of her possession she was said to have suffered bizarre and gruesome seizures, below is a list of examples:
- xxxxxxVomiting items such as straw, pins, eggshells, orange pills, hair, excrement, and bones,
- xxxxxxpresenting violent pinch marks all over her body wounds caused by some unknown 'invisible' person(s),
- xxxxxxfalling into a trance whereby she could at times seem deaf, dumb, blind or dead,
- xxxxxxciting sophisticated theological points from the scriptures, concepts beyond her artifice,
- xxxxxxsuccessfully predicting the future,
- xxxxxxher body contorting and bending almost double upon herself,
- xxxxxxeyes sinking back into her head until they looked to disappear,
- xxxxxxflying unaided across her classroom,

- xxxxxxpicking up her glove from the ground without the use of her hands.

The years passed but the case would not be forgotten. The first new reading of the events, proposed that the 11-year-old Christian was an impostor (1), a wicked trickster who faked her ailments and enacted hellish pranks on gullible audiences. She (perhaps aided by her father) managed to manipulate both the Church and the Law, causing the deaths of the local community members out of spite.
Another and more contemporary reading is that Christian was in fact suffering from a then undiagnosed mental illness resulting in her possible hysteria, her fits and the 'strange' physical feats. 'While the story is bizarre, modern psychiatry could certainly explain Christian Shaw's condition… she was suffering from dissociative disorder/conversion disorder, trance and possession disorder; pica of infancy and childhood; localisation-related (focal) (partial) idiopathic epilepsy…and acute and transient psychotic disorder.' (2)
But most recently, using a feminist angle, scholars have investigated the first hand documentation of the case (3). These quasi-legal/narrative documents detailed both the dramatic acts of Shaw's possession and the trial itself. They uncovered a shocking fact: that an anonymous author wrote these original documents. To cast further aspersions on the truth of these historical artefacts - the documents contained many striking resemblances, in tone, and language, to the more famous Salem witchcraft outbreak in New England in 1692, four years earlier. (4) Is it possible that the anonymous author had access to and was inspired by the accounts of events in Salem?
These recent findings lead to many new questions: Was the narrative constructed to verify the existence of the Devil and thus God? What could have been the motivation to leave the texts anonymous? Did anyone gain from this?
Whatever the modus operandi of the author, the narrative has created a legacy whereby the prevailing belief still remains that Christian was a bad, or even evil, manipulative child, an embarrassment to Paisley History.
The fact that as a woman Christian became one of the earliest recorded Scottish female entrepreneurs (she was responsible for establishing the Paisley fine thread industry), is little remembered. What actually happened to the young Christian Shaw and why 6 community members were put to death, is unfortunately anyone's guess. The anonymity of the author has turned the narrative into a fictional space, into which prevailing social imaginings can exist; the idea of a young educated evil girl is certainly a seductive archetype...
My personal response on hearing this tale, was one of curiosity, something rang untrue about this 11-year-old, daughter of a Laird, who mischievously conned all these erudite adults. Then the visual aspects of the story - the eyes retracting into her head, her body bending double… seemed horrifically ridiculous and impossible, but my overall intuition led me to feel that Christian, our cultural memory of her had been unjustly distorted, 'Deviant: The Possession of Christian Shaw' is my sentinel to who I think Christian might have been, a re-imagining of her world.
What follows are links to the traces of Christian Shaw's legacy as can be found today:
Online: (expanded context and detailed descriptions of the events) (focusing on her professional live) (lengthy description) (local run website) (perspective from a possible relative)
A description of Christian from Dr. Hugh V. McLachlan, whose paper sparked my interest:
'I think that Christian Shaw was very bright, very hard-working and that she had a lot of entrepreneurial flair. After all, she was the driving force behind the Bargarran Thread company. She outlived several husbands (three I think) and so she must have been a robust woman and, presumably, not an unattractive one. As a child she might seem to have been over much interested in religious matters (although that is, perhaps, merely how other adults depicted her- nonetheless, there must have been something in this for the depiction to have been attempted.) However, I suspect that her position was more balanced in adult life. I doubt that she was an atheist. She married a minister, after all. I doubt that she was a religious zealot: her life was too full and rich for that.
She had, I think, a powerful personality. She had charisma. She was a survivor.
I am not sure about what her education would have been. I am sure she had a good one. I have no doubt that she was steeped in Church of Scotland Presbyterianism. She would, I think, have been baptised as a child by an episcopalian minister- such were the religious revolutions of the time in Scotland. If she had been a religious bigot and zealot, this might have troubled her. ' Dr. Hugh V. McLachlan, January 2004.
Further Reading on the wider context:
1. Anon., editor (1877), 'A History of the Witches of Renfrewshire who were burned on the Gallowgreen of Paisley', Paisley: Alexander Gardner, p.xxv.
Sharpe, C, K. (1884), 'A historical Account of the Belief of Witchcraft in Scotland', London and Glasgow, p. 172.
'Vediovis' (1982), 'The Abuse of Justice by Means of Sorcery', The Scots Law Times, December 3, p. 319.
2. McDonald, S.W., Thom, A and Thom, A, (1996), 'The Balgarran Witchcraft Trial: A Psychiatric Re-assessment', Scottish Medical Journal, vol.14, pp.156.
3. McLachlan, H.V and Swales, J.W, (2002), 'The bewitchment of Christian Shaw: a re-assessment of the famous Paisley witchcraft case of 1697', Brown Ferguson (eds.), Twisted Sisters: Women, Crime and Deviance in Scotland since 1400.
4. Rosenthal, Bernard (1993), 'Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692', Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.