The story of a storm raising witch is based upon historical fact and island myth.
Janet Forsyth lived in Westray in the 17th century.
In 1627, Janet dreamed that she saw her fisherman sweetheart, Benjamin Garrioch, perish at sea.
The following day, Garrioch, and his colleagues set sail on their fishing expedition not heeding the warning of her premonition.
Whilst out at sea, a thick fog descended and the men never returned.
Janet, heart broken and desolate, shut herself away in a solitary existence and because of her dream, The people of Westray blamed her for the fog and the loss of their men folk.
During the 17th Century witch hunts were at their zenith and like many solitary women of the time Janet was branded a witch.
From that time on, stormy weather was blamed on Janet’s alleged witchcraft.
When Janet spotted a boat in trouble a few years later, she tried to get the islanders to help. Nobody was interested in her plea, so she took her small boat and set off to help the storm stricken vessel. Janet managed to safely guide the boat back to the safety of Pierowall bay.
The islander’s seeing and hearing of this courageous deed decided that she was indeed a witch, as only witchcraft could lead her through the storm and bring the men to safety.
Janet Forsyth was put on trial in Kirkwall On November 11, 1629 and found guilty of witchcraft, for which the sentence was death by burning.
The story goes that as the sentence was being delivered Janet looked up into the onlooking crowd to see her lover Benjamin Garrioch. Now in a naval uniform. He had been press ganged into the Navy and not lost at sea at all.
It is alleged that she screamed “save me, Ben” as she was dragged to Marwick’s Hole, the dungeon in St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.
The next day, when she was due for execution, her captors arrived to find Marwick’s Hole empty. Janet being thought spirited away by her sweetheart.
Orkney and indeed the island of Westray have long had a scary reputation as a haven for witches and warlocks. You can find out much about their stories and those of fairy folk and Hogboons on the Orkneyjar website.
Discover more about the history of witchcraft in Europe.