Ancient tale of Dundee casts new spell on city

GRISSEL JAFFRAY: the name alone is enough to send a shiver down your spine.

Yet more than three centuries after her death, she is about to play a part in the city’s regeneration. Later this year, Jaffray’s fictionalised story will be told in the novel

I Am Grissel Jaffray by Claire-Marie Watson, which is to be published after winning the 6,000 Dundee Book Prize. The novel weaves Jaffray’s own account of life in 17th-century Scotland into a contemporary story set in Connecticut. It also gives a sense of the scale of the persecution in Scotland, where more than 4,500 people were killed as witches between 1560 and 1707.

I Am Grissel Jaffray, with its harrowing descriptions of torture, may not be a tourist information officer’s dream, but it will add to Dundee’s reputation as a literary centre. Initially derided as a waste of money, the book prize has kindled the city’s artistic flowering. Once a byword for urban deprivation, the city is now the setting for a disproportionately large number of books (Kate Atkinson’s Emotionally Weird and Bill Duncan’s The Smiling School for Calvinists, to name but two) and the prize - awarded only to Dundee-related fiction - increases that tally every year.

Watson, whose father was a physics lecturer at Dundee University, and whose French mother taught her native language to workers at the Michelin factory, left the city when she was 18, but recently returned to look after her mother-in-law.

"When I left, I had no sense that the city had any big artistic scene, but now it feels like a happening place," she says. "I have been told Dundee has a habit of reinventing itself from time to time. And I think I am just lucky to have come back at the time of a positive reinvention."

Watson, 48, spent most of her adult life working as a personal assistant to her husband Steuart, an architect, in London and Nairobi. But when the couple sold up to go travelling in Europe, she decided it was time to realise a long-held ambition to write. She penned a few plays - "none of which were very successful" - before reading about the Dundee Book Prize. Then, one day, as Watson was leafing through papers in Dundee Central Library, an article from the People’s Journal of 1904, the last surviving account of Grissel Jaffray’s fate, caught her eye, and she knew she had found her book.

"Jaffray was a gift to me, because so little was known about her and because she lived at such an exciting time in Dundee’s history," Watson says. Even before Jaffray was born, Scotland had been pursuing witches with zeal. Whereas in the middle ages, witches had been placated with offerings of oatmeal and milk, they were now seen as Satan’s agents to be rooted out and killed.

"One of the things that changed the way people saw witches was a book called Malleus Malificarum - a collection of rural superstitions compiled by two German priests in the late 15th century," explains Watson. It was read by Pope Innocent VIII and seen as evidence that the devil was at work."

The book’s popularity spread through Spain, France and Scandinavia. Well-educated Scottish people were trading with Baltic ports and travelling in Europe, so they picked up on the ideas and brought them home.

"Often those accused of witchcraft would be women struggling to manage on their own, maybe their husbands had died or were away at sea, and the children still had to be fed so they survived on what they could get through cures or threats," Watson says.

"They were accused of the most amazing offences: one woman was said to have turned her daughter into a pony, another of having made a minister ill by swinging a bag of boiled toads and nail parings over his bed."

According to the People’s Journal, however, Jaffray, who, unusually, was jointly accused with her husband, was a far cry from the eccentric spinster often associated with witchcraft. An Aberdonian by birth, she moved to Dundee, where she met and married James Butchart. A successful businessman from a good family, Butchart appears to have been a respected member of Dundee society.

He and Jaffray lived through turbulent times, particularly during the Civil War, when they survived the town’s two sackings by Cromwellian forces. The second siege claimed 2,000 lives, a sixth of the population. Under Cromwell, neighbourly feuds had simmered under the surface. But come the Restoration, they erupted, resulting in an increased number of witch trials. Dundee’s three ministers - Henry Scrymgour, John Guthrie and William Rait - were among those infected by the hysteria. No one knows why Jaffray fell foul of their wrath.Whatever the reason, in 1669, she and Butchart were thrown into the tollbooth and a trial was ordered.

After denouncing several other women as witches, Jaffray was executed. But Butchart escaped death and was eventually admitted to the poorhouse. Legend has it that the couple’s only son, a sea captain, was sailing towards Dundee on the day of his mother’s execution when he saw the smoke rise from the town. Realising what it meant, he turned his ship round and disappeared forever.

This episode provides the starting point for Watson’s novel. She sends Jaffray’s son, Alexander, off to America. Reluctant to let go of his past completely, he hides his mother’s diary. It is found in 1999 by one of their descendants. The diary reveals Jaffray as a woman ahead of her time. "She has an independent streak and likes to ‘keep her own purse’ as she puts it, so she makes a little extra providing herbal remedies," says Watson. "Her troubles start when another cure wife starts to encroach on her territory."

In Watson’s novel, discovering the diary has repercussions for the last of Jaffray’s line, who is busy creating mischief of her own.

"What I wanted to achieve was the idea that although Grissel’s name disappears from the family history, some of the characteristics [that singled her out as a witch] have continued down the generations."

Having exposed Dundee’s weakness for burning old ladies, Watson is about to engage in some more PR work for the City of Discovery, and her next novel is inspired by a murder from the late Victorian era.

"It is like Grissel Jaffray’s story in the sense that some of the critical information is missing," she says. Like who did it?

"No, we know that, but now you come to mention it, perhaps I could suggest it was really someone else." Her eyes light up. Witch-hunts, murders, miscarriages of justice? At least with Watson as its new ambassador, no one will ever accuse Dundee of being dull.