John Robbie lived at Marywell in Birse towards the end of the sixteenth century. He was married to Margaret Og, and had two daughters, Beatrix and Isobell. His wife Margaret Og had a son by a previous marriage to a man called Farquhar. It was the time when a wave of witch persecution came to Aberdeenshire. In 1563 the Scottish Parliament had decreed death for anyone practicing witchcraft or consulting with a suspected witch, and within 100 years, over 4000 people through out England and Scotland were executed for this crime. The first great epidemic of killings, and the only one to really affect the north-east of Scotland, broke out in the 1590s, touched off by the nationwide publicity of the trial of a coven of accused witches in North Berwick, whose various members confessed after In-humane torture to having attempted to bring about the King’s death.
In 1597 a coven of witches was uncovered at Lumphanan. A woman, Margaret Bean, named eight other women who had danced with her round a great stone on Craigleauch hill the Halloween before. For witches this was the traditional time for conferring with the devil and three of the women Margaret Bean named, right before she herself was burnt to death were Margaret Og Robbie and her two daughters. Margaret Og and Beatrix were brought to trial by the evidence of Robert Ross, William Ross (the farmer of Bogloch), John Ross (the minister of Lumphanan), and John Duguid, who was one of the judges as well as an accuser.
William Ross could recall several instances where Margaret Og had shown herself for a witch. About six years before she had taken her own ‘heidleas’ (head scarf) and cut it into nine pieces, which was the devil’s number. She had secretly laid these under his byre door and within the same year some ten or twelve of his cattle had died. He also recalled that, at about the same time, she had come to the Burn of Bogloch early one morning and cast water over her head. She had then taken a blanket and by her magic, drawn off all the dew on his green to her own house. Then in January 1597, when William’s wife had gone to borrow some green yarn at the house where Margaret was staying with her daughters, Margaret had refused her and had instead blown off a green ‘clew’ (bundle of yarn) in the wife’s face, “wherein she contracted a deidlie disease”. This illness, in which the victim spent half the day burning as if in a fiery furnace, the other half consuming away in a cold sweat, was a special point of witchcraft.
Archibald Schivas had also suffered it by Margaret Og’s hand. He was a burgess in Aberdeen and had caused some of Margaret’s possessions to be confiscated because of an unpaid debt. She had cursed him, telling him he would regret it, and soon afterwards he became ill for a long time with the witches sickness.
It was also recalled, by John Duguid, that Agnes Ross, the lady of Auchinhove, who had died of such a disease, had blamed it from her deathbed on Margaret and Beatrix. Twelve years before Agnes Ross had bought a shoulder of mutton off John Duguid at the Mill of Auchinhove and taken it to the house where Margaret was staying with her daughter. Agnes Ross had stayed there all night and then, when she ate some of the meat that Margaret and Beatrix had roasted, she had instantly contracted the illness and continued with it for three-quarters of a year until she died.
The Minister, whose duty it was to locate and denounce witches, added that a year before, when a cow held by her son was being served by a bull, Margaret had passed a knife back and forth across it three times to her daughter.
On the fourth of April 1597 the court found Margaret Og guilty on six points of witchcraft and she was ordered to be taken out, bound to a stake, strangled until dead and then burnt to ashes. The case against Beatrix was not so clear cut, though it was found she was “ane suspicious persone….and that scho is nocht of ane guide lyf” because she kept company with her mother. It was decided that she would be banished from Aberdeenshire for life. This was much cheaper of a verdict than execution which, judging from the amounts of money in the cost accounts, seems to have been a very expensive business.