Skye woman 'murdered' for being a witch 12 years after persecution outlawed

A powerful clan figure was accused of binding and burning a woman to death after accusing her of being a witch – more than a decade after the persecution was outlawed in Scotland.

The former home of tacksman Ruaridh McDonald at Camuscross in the south of Skye where Katherine MacKinnon is said to have been fatally tortured. PIC: Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre.
The former home of tacksman Ruaridh McDonald at Camuscross in the south of Skye where Katherine MacKinnon is said to have been fatally tortured. PIC: Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre.

Katherine MacKinnon died in 1747 after being attacked at house in Camuscross with Ruaridh Mac Iain McDonald, a tacksman of Clan Macdonald of Armadale, accused in court documents of her “barbarous and cruel murder”.

His “cruel” treatment of Ms MacKinnon - an “old beggar woman” who had gone to his house for help - was set out in court papers at Inverness in August 1754.

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According to papers, MacKinnon’s hands were bound behind her back with ropes with the soles of her feet held to the fire as McDonald sought to extort a confession of witchcraft from her.

She lost some of her toes given her “miserable torture” and crawled from McDonald’s house to find refuge, dying at a property in Duisdale Beg, where she had “languished” in great pain, around 12 days later.

It is the first known legal case relating to allegations of witchcraft on Skye.

Catherine MacPhee, trainee archivist at Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre, came across documents show which set out the torture and murder of Ms MacKinnon, with a little note written in pencil at the side – “as a witch”.

After tracking down more papers relating to the case, she said she was “shocked” at the allegations.

Ms MacPhee said: “This is the first recorded case of a witch on Skye that we have. There is much about witches in oral history – the Cuillins were formed by witches in one story – but this is the first record.”

McDonald claimed the woman had earlier poisoned his men and sought to “cause mischief” after arriving at his property.

The tacksman claimed that the allegations against him were “false and malicious” with it understood he was not convicted of the murder.

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The MacKinnon case came almost two decades after The Witchcraft Act of 1735 made it illegal to accuse someone of possessing magical powers or practising witchcraft.

A known 3,837 people were accused of witchcraft in Scotland between 1563 to 1736 with Janet Horne, of Dornoch, the last known person to be executed legally for witchcraft in the British Isles in 1727.

Ms MacPhee said that the lack of records relating to witch trials and persecution on Skye could be down to a “different relationship” with the otherworld given the folklore of the islands.

She said : "Gifts, such as second sight were viewed as a gift from your ancestors, a privilege – something not to fear.”

Ms MacPhee described McDonald as a “man of power” who had responsibility to his tenants.

He is described in records as a “quarrelsome and mischievous” person with a string of allegations made against him, including a bloody assault on a family member, Alan McDonald of Knock.

He was also charged with wearing Highland dress and carrying arms, as well as treasonous behaviour.

Ms MacPhee said she hoped an event could be held in Skye to honour Katherine MacKinnon.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Parliament has been asked to "right a terrible miscarriage of justice" against those those accused, convicted and executed for witchcraft with a campaign led by Claire Mitchell QC and author Zoe Venditozzi

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