The Spaewife


“O, I wad like to ken — to the beggar-wife says I—

Why chops are guid to brander and nane sae guid to fry.

An’ siller, that’s sae braw to keep, is brawer still to


— It’s gey an’ easy spierin’, says the beggar-wife to me.


O, I wad like to ken — to the beggar-wife says I—

Hoo a’ things come to be whaur we find them when we try,

The lasses in their claes an’ the fishes in the sea.

— It’s gey an’ easy spierin’, says the beggar-wife to me.


O, I wad like to ken — to the beggar-wife says I—

Why lads are a’ to sell an’ lasses a’ to buy;

An’ naebody for dacency but barely twa or three

— It’s gey an’ easy spierin’, says the beggar-wife to me.


O, I wad like to ken — to the beggar-wife says I—

Gin death’s as shure to men as killin’ is to kye,

Why God has filled the yearth sae fu’ o’ tasty things to


— It’s gey an’ easy spierin’, says the beggar-wife to me.


O, I wad like to ken — to the beggar wife says I—

The reason o’ the cause an’ the wherefore o’ the why,

Wi’ mony anither riddle brings the tear into my e’e.

— It’s gey an’ easy spierin’, says the beggar-wife to me.


– The Spaewife, Robert Louis Stevenson


*It’s gey an’ easy spierin’ – meaning it’s an easy question to ask.


The Spae-wife of the Clachen

The Spae-wife of the Clachen.
A group of distressed people gathering before the hut of an old woman, sitting at the door at right with black cat at her feet and a horseshoe hanging over the entrance, through which a male figure is seen in the shadows; cutting from the ‘Illustrated London News’, 7 June 1851, p.542, with part of an illustration of the inauguration of monument to Frederick the Great on the verso. 1851 Wood-engraving
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Spae (from Merriam-Webster online) – chiefly Scottish, meaning foretell. Origin Middle English span, from Old Norse spā; akin to Old High German spehōn to watch, spy.

From verb (used with object), spaed, spae·ing. Chiefly Scot.

to prophesy; foretell; predict.

 Middle English span, from Old Norse spā; akin to Old High German spehōn to watch, spy.

A spaewife is a female prophetess, a seer, a diviner, one who sees. In Norse shamanism she was called a  spákona or spækona – a seeress, and stories of such women are found throughout Norse mythology. The völva’s (Norse shamanic seeress) practice involved spá and in an account called Völuspá (Prophecy of the Völva) the first poem of the Poetic Edda, Odin, the father of the gods consulted a völva to find out what was in store for all the gods. 

It must be made clear that in Scottish belief, a spaewife was vastly different to a witch. In the early modern period in Britain, witches were seen as practitioners of maleficium.

” In early modern Britain the term ‘witch’ generally denoted an individual who was seen by others, or perceived by themselves, as being able to employ magical powers to do harm. The type of harmful magic most feared by contemporary villagers was ‘maleficium’. Maleficium was witchcraft at it’s most basic – the manipulation of occult forces at a distance with malevolent intent.”

Emma Wilby, “Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic”, p42, Sussex Academic Press.


Villagers would visit a cunning man or woman, or a spaewife for healing, to foretell the future or to counteract the harmful effects of a witch’s spell.  Walter Traill Dennison, a 19th century folklorist and Orkney native wrote of the folk tales of Orkney and the role of the spaewife there. The spaewife was said to possess:


“..all the supernatural wisdom, some of the supernatural power, without any of the malevolent spirit of witches.”

He goes on:

“The women of this class were skilled in medicinal and surgery, in dreams, in foresight and second-sight, and in forestalling the evil influence of witchcraft. Such women were looked upon with a kind of holy respect.”

I wrote a blog a little while back about Grissel Jaffray, a woman burned in Dundee as a witch. I’ve updated the photos as the one I used to show her plaque wasn’t clear to read. One thing I had never noticed about the plaque before is that Grissel is noted as being a spaewife, not a witch. Perhaps she could see things others could not and was sadly burned for it.


I’ve noticed the term spaewife hasn’t been completely disregarded in modern usage, there are those among the pagan and magickal communities claiming the title for themselves. It will be interesting to see if the definition changes over time, and if it will become another branch of the tree in terms of a separate practice. I would be interested in hearing from people who practice spae, so drop me a line if you do 🙂

Mar sin leat an-dràsta! 


Grissel Jaffray – The Dundee Witch

Grissel Jaffray was the last so called “witch” to burn in Dundee. Not a huge amount is known about the charges brought against her as documents relating to her trial were mysteriously destroyed.

She was a respectable citizen of Dundee, married to a burgess and later was accused of the crime of practising witchcraft.

Adapted from the book Haunted Dundee by A.H. Miller:

One memorable case in which the Magistrates of Dundee imposed the extreme penalty of the law, with all the barbarity prescribed by the statutes was the martyrdom of Grissel Jaffray in the Seagate of Dundee in November 1669.

On 11th November, 1669, the Privy Council, having been informed that Grissel Jaffray was then a prisoner in the Tolbooth of Dundee, at the corner of High Street and Overgate, accused of ” The horrid crime of witchcraft,” issued an order for her trial.

The remit to the ministers and Dundee Town Council ordained that “If by her own confession, without any sort of torture or other indirect means used, it shall be found she hath renounced her baptism, entered into paction with the devil, or otherwise that malefices be legally proven against her, that then and no otherwise they cause the sentence of death to he executed upon her.”


For whatever reason, she was found guilty, and then executed by strangulation and her body burnt thereafter.

Local folklore states that her son was a sailor, and he arrived back in Dundee on the day of his mother’s execution. It’s said when he realised his mother’s body was on the funeral pyre, he jumped back into the ship and sailed away never to return to his home town.

Three men were responsible for her death and they all happened to be leading ministers in the Dundee Presbytery at the time –  Harry Scrymsour of St Mary’s, John Guthrie of South Church and William Rait of St Paul’s.  There is a suggestion that her death was brought on for religious reasons.

From website

“In the 1663 Register of Deeds there is reference to a Grissell Jaffrey whose husband was Thomas Boutchard, a merchant in Dundee.
In the same year another reference is made to a Bessie Lyn, relict of James, mariner in Dundee and spouse of Thomas Butchart, merchant in Dundee.
There is also a reference to James Butchard, a maltman in Dundee. There were quite a number of Jaffreys’ in Aberdeen at that time who were prominent Quakers at a time of great religious upheaval. One of them was a
member of the ‘board’ who gave Charles I a hard time in Breda. Bear in mind that one of the Jaffray’s from Aberdeen, which is where we think she originated, went to Breda before the Restoration to negotiate with Charles II. They laid down such conditions that, although Charles was forced to agree them, there was no chance that he could ever keep them, and indeed had no intention of keeping them.
He never forgave those who gave him such a hard time. The Jaffrays’ were Quakers and Charles II persecuted Quakers for many years. They were also a wealthy merchant family, as were the Butchards’. There is a suggestion that
her death may have been a put up job for religious reasons and it is very likely that her burning took the form of something more like a religous assassination”


Traditions state that Grissel Jaffray was burned in the Seagate, almost opposite Horse Water Wynd where the first Cross of Dundee stood. There is a flame mosiac at the top of Peter Street and a blue plaque erected in her memory there.


mosiac at Peter Street

mosiac at Peter Street


Flame mosiac, Peter Street, Dundee. In memorial to Grissel Jaffray.


Grissel Jaffray’s blue plaque in Peter Street as part of Dundee Women’s Trail. She is honoured here as a spaewife.




She has also been immortalised in a work of fiction, The Curewife by Claire-Marie Watson.




There is a certain stone marker in Dundee’s Howff Cemetery which may or may not be linked to Grissel. Howff is an old Scots word for meeting place. In 1564 Mary, Queen of Scots granted the land to the burgh of Dundee for use as a burial ground. It became a meeting place for those in the nine incorporated trades of Dundee and the last burial took place in 1857.  There is a stone in The Howff known locally as The Witches’ Stone and people today believe it is a marker for Grissel or some other unknown accused witch before her. People today visit that stone and leave offerings, usually such things as coins, buttons, bits of cloth and shells, perhaps in offering for her aid.

I visited the stone last year with some friends and laid down a few coins as an offering in her memory. I didn’t feel the need to ask for her aid, and thought it would be rude to do so on the first visit anyway. I just thought of her and all that she suffered, and wished her some peace. I’m glad the people of Dundee haven’t forgotten her.



The Witches’ Stone with coins and a shell