This is the story of a Shetland witch. I first encountered Marion Pardone in October 2016 when Mum heard an interview about her on BBC Radio Shetland. I listened and was intrigued. This woman was executed in 1644 for capsizing a boat and drowning its passengers whilst disguised as a porpoise. How did this happen?
My search for clues began at Shetland Archives. Brian Smith and Angus Johnson led me swiftly to trial papers. Here, in seventeenth century language, Marion’s misdeeds were detailed over ten pages. They described a Hillswick woman with an evil tongue who cursed those whom she wished ill. Her human and animal targets became victims of sickness, harm and death. She ‘took away the profit’ from produce by spoiling brewing and filling the udders of cows with blood and fetid water. Two ravens, agents of the devil, were seen accompanying her on a three quarter mile walk. Marion failed to learn The Lord’s Prayer or say it in her lifetime. Her fateful act, though, was consorting with another witch to drown a fishing boat’s passengers one fair Hillswick morning in a safe spot by the shore.
Marion and her husband, Swene, were brought to see two of the boat’s corpses and lay their hands on them days after death, when ‘all their blood was vanished and dissolved from any natural course’. One bled at the collar bone whilst blood gushed from the hands and fingers of the other ‘to the great admiration of the beholders, and revelation of the judgement of the almighty.’ Marion was, by this proof, brought to judgement, convicted and condemned. She was taken to the west hill of Berrie in Scalloway (pictured at the top of this blog post), strangled and burned in ashes.
In December 2017 the Shetland Archives team directed me towards Samuel Hibbert’s A Description of the Shetland Islands (1822) for further information on Marion Pardone and witchcraft more generally. In this book I was interested to read that ‘It was usual with the Shetland dealers in sorcery, like the ancient magicians of Scandinavia, to use incantations.’ Hibbert gives this example:
About fifty years ago, a woman, of the parish of Dunrossness, known to have a deadly enmity against a boat's crew that had set off for the Haaf, took a wooden bason, named a cap, and allowed it to float on the surface of a tub of water; then, to avoid exciting a suspicion of her devilry, she went on with her usual domestic labours, and, as if to lighten the burden of them, sang an old Norse ditty. After a verse or two had been recited, she sent a child to the tub, and bade him tell her if the cap was whummilled, or turned upside down. Her orders were obeyed, and intelligence were soon brought to her, that the water was beginning to be agitated, but that the bowl was afloat. She then continued her incantation, and once more broke it off, by requesting the child to go again to the tub, and let her know if the cap was whummilled. The little messenger soon returned with the news that there was a strange swell in the water, which caused the bowl to be sadly tossed about. The witch then sang still more loudly, and, for the third time, sent the child to the tub to report the state of the bason, who immediately hastened back with the information that the water was frightfully troubled, and that the cap was whummilled. The enchantress, with an air of malignant satisfaction, then ceased her song, and said, “The Turn is done.” On the same day, news came that a fishing yaul had been lost in the Roust, and that the whole of the crew had been drowned.
Given the historic link between witchcraft and music, a song telling Marion’s story felt necessary, and the difficult process of selecting an angle began. In the trial papers I was struck by a recurring phrase amongst the witchcraft claims, namely ‘which you cannot deny.’ This statement appeared at the end of eight indictments against Marion. It seemed appropriate that my song’s lyrics be written from the perspective of community members, those who furnished this trial with accepted evidence of the day.
To return to the beginning, to that Radio Shetland interview, the reporter (Daniel Lawson) asked local historian, John Shaw, what was going on; was this a case of nasty neighbours? John replied that three things are needed for such a situation to arise. Firstly, neighbourhood disputes are required. Whether Marion was a difficult neighbour or whether others were picking on her is difficult to determine. Secondly, a state is needed which is willing to prosecute the case, and in this case the state executes. Thirdly, an ideology is needed to provide an intellectual and moral framework. In this case, there was a widespread and growing belief in the Devil as an agent in the world using witches as conspirators to destroy God’s order on earth.
I’ll leave you with your own thoughts on this story. You can listen to a rough recording of the song here. Below is a photo of a black cat which crossed my path as I drove to the site of Marion’s execution today.