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Dornoch in the 18th century

Although there is much more documentary evidence detailing life in the town available for the 18th century, much of the material is dull and uninspiring. However, there were two major events that took place in Dornoch during the century – 1727 saw the last judicial execution of a person charged with witchcraft in Scotland, and in 1746 the town and surrounding countryside was occupied by Jacobite forces.

Janet Horne was the last person in Britain to be tried and executed for witchcraft. In 1727 she and her daughter were arrested and jailed in Dornoch. Her crimes, according to her neighbours, were devilish; she was accused of turning her daughter into a pony, and of getting Satan himself to shoe the horse/girl. At the time of her execution Janet Horne was showing signs of what we would recognise today as senile dementia. Her daughter appears to have had a deformity in her hands and feet, a condition which it is believed she subsequently passed on to her son. The trial was rushed. Captain David Ross, sheriff-depute of Sutherland, found both women guilty and ordered that they should be burned to death the following day. The younger woman escaped but Janet was clearly confused by events. She was stripped, covered in tar and paraded through Dornoch in a barrel. When she arrived at her execution place, Janet is said to have smiled and warmed herself at the very fire which was about to consume her.

The stone that marks the site of Janet Horne’s burning can still be seen in Littletown, although the date on the stone – 1722 – is wrong, it should read 1727. Nine years after her death the Witchcraft Acts were repealed in Scotland and England and it became unlawful to execute anyone for alleged witchcraft.  

Jacobite activity

Sutherland itself is not normally associated with the Jacobite risings of the 18th century, largely because the staunchly pro-Hanoverian Earls of Sutherland controlled the area, but there was considerable Jacobite activity in and around Dornoch in the early spring of 1746. A strong Jacobite force descended on Dornoch in March and dispersed government troops stationed in and around the town. There followed several weeks of looting and burning by the Jacobites before they were ordered to return to Inverness shortly before Culloden.

On the day before that infamous battle, the remaining Jacobite forces in Sutherland were attacked and routed by local militia units at the Little Ferry, south of Dunrobin. South-east Sutherland, therefore, can justifiably make a claim for being the site of the penultimate battle fought on British soil!  

Last updated: 10 March, 2011

Dornoch Heritage SCIO

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