The strange tale of Elspeth Buchan, the 18th-century cult leader who convinced her followers she would never die – Susan Morrison

The body of Elspeth Buchan, whose ‘Buchanites’ were celibate and worked for nothing, mysteriously disappeared after she died, prompting suggestions she had ascended to heaven. Decades later, the truth was revealed...

Elspeth Buchan must have been spell-binding. Like many people with towering self-belief, she exerted an incredible power over her followers, to whom she promised eternal life and an assured place in the Kingdom of Heaven. She would make their souls great again. And they believed her and kept believing in her, even in the face of the dull, predictable truth.

She was born Elspeth Simpson in Banffshire around 1738. Life was tough. She herself wrote in 1785, that as a child she was never “fed nor clothed nor educate by parents”. She seems to have physically disassociated herself from her misery falling into trance-like states, as many unhappy children do. It's not surprising that she took to religion in a big way when she went to school at the age of five.

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She married a potter named Peter Buchan and took his surname. The marriage wasn’t happy, but she did have at least three children, possibly more, given rates of Infant mortality at the time. It’s also possible that her deep religious faith contributed to the end of the marriage. When she and Peter separated, it left her more time to go from minister to minister, debating, discussing and learning until she met with Hugh White in 1782. Hugh was a minister of the Relief Church, and fully believed the Second Coming was at hand, so get ready, people.

He and Elspeth based themselves in Irvine, where Elspeth went full on fire ’n’ brimstone Book of Revelations. She dared to preach herself, which was a bit much for Irvine, and in no time at all, she, the good reverend and her followers were run out of town. For a prophet, a spell in the wilderness is to be expected. She rallied, and gathered more followers to her sect, now known as the Buchanites.

Friend Mother, as she became known, promised much to the 60-odd men, women and children who followed her, including the very breath of life when she breathed over them. They would not die, nor be buried in the ground. They wandered as far as Dumfriesshire where they built a hovel and became what looks like a commune. They were celibate, and did not believe in taking payment for their work, since the Lord would provide. This made them very popular with the local farmers, but not the farm workers, who found themselves competing with zero-payment contractors.

Relations with the locals became even more strained when Elspeth announced that the day of reckoning was at hand, or at least, 40 days and nights away. Time to prepare, and that meant praying, singing hymns, and, of course, fasting until the big moment. People in the community became so anxious about the health of some of the starved Buchanite children that they stormed the commune house and took them away, but the adults persevered.

After nearly six weeks of starvation, the Buchanites climbed up nearby Templand Hill in the pre-dawn dark. They were heard singing and chanting psalms in a state of exultation. They were going to watch the world explode.

To the annoyance of other farm workers, the Buchanites provided their labour for free, believing God would provide (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)To the annoyance of other farm workers, the Buchanites provided their labour for free, believing God would provide (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
To the annoyance of other farm workers, the Buchanites provided their labour for free, believing God would provide (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When Dr Louise Yeoman made a radio documentary about Elspeth, she had me stagger up that very slope. To be fair, I was carrying some of the recording equipment. Even for someone who’d had their Weetabix, it was a struggle. The view was worth it. Had the world really ended that day, the Buchanites would have had ring-side seats to the break-up of the planet.

Of course, they didn’t. At some point, the singing must have stopped and the exulting prayer dried up. And at some point, they must have known the game was up. They came down the mountain, and Elspeth faced charges.

She was banged up. You’d think that was the end of the matter, but no. Upon her release, her trusty lieutenant Andrew Innes, gathered up the remaining Buchanites and together with Elspeth, they started anew in a house in a tiny place called Crocketford. They made their living as weavers, presumably having realised that God wasn’t going to provide everything after all.

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Mother Buchan had promised her followers that they would never die, never be buried. It was a tad concerning, therefore, when she herself became ill, despite the devoted attention of Andrew Innes. The woman who said she would never die breathed her last in 1791, promising her followers that if their faith was strong enough, she would return in "six days or ten or 50 years”.

Her coffin was readied for burial. But the body vanished. Had Mother Buchan ascended to Heaven? Had she risen from her shroud and left to preach in pastures new? It took until 1846 for the mystery of Elspeth's body to be solved.

As Andrew Innes lay dying in Crocketford, he finally admitted that Elspeth was hidden in an alcove behind the fire in his room. She was partially mummified, probably by the smoke and heat. Those who found her noted she had been a tall woman. Her skin was the colour of parchment. There was still some hair on her scalp. Andrew apparently visited her once or twice a week. Elspeth’s self-belief was so powerful that he utterly believed she would return.

Even today we are not immune to the gravitational pull of such self-believers. Look at the recently jailed Elizabeth Holmes, a young woman of such confidence that she convinced her followers to invest fortunes in her frankly dodgy blood-testing kit.

One last thing. Andrew Innes asked that when Elspeth and he were finally laid to rest, she should be buried first, then his coffin laid upon hers, so that when she rose to glory, she would take him with her. As far as we know, they’re still there.

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