TODAY, she would have been seen as a wise woman, a psychic or a medium. But when Bessie Dunlop went on trial in Edinburgh in 1576, she was quickly branded “The Witch of Dalry”, tortured, then burned at the stake.

For years, she had been helping locals with potions, predictions and cures for cattle. But she was an early victim of the Scottish witch purges, when the saying: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” was taken literally.

Records of Bessie’s trial survived through the centuries and, perhaps because of that, she remains one of Scotland’s most famous “witches”. Plays and books have been written about her over the years.

Most recent accounts portray Bessie as a woman who helped locals and their livestock with herbal cures. She also claimed to possess “second sight” – and talked to spirits and “fairies”.

Under torture, most witches would admit to almost anything – from consorting with the Devil, putting curses on locals or even killing children. Not Bessie.

Instead, she claimed merely to have met with a spirit guide, who introduced her to the fairy folk, who resided in Cleeves Cove – the secluded caves just a mile and a half from Dalry.

In her confession, she claimed that while taking her cow to a field, she came across an elderly man with a grey beard.

He claimed to be the spirit of Thomas Reid, a former Baron Officer to John Blair of Dalry, who had been killed at the battle of Pinkie in 1547.

At the time Bessie was stressed with worry, her child, husband and cow were ill, and it seemed that they would not recover. The old man comforted her and predicted that her cow and child would die, but her husband would make a full recovery. He then disappeared down a hole in a dyke that was to be much too small to let any mortal man pass by it.

On their next meeting, the strange apparition offered her material goods in the form of horses and cows if she would denounce Christianity. She refused and said that she would rather be whipped. The angry spirit disappeared.

On his return, he introduced her to the ‘fairies’. Swearing secrecy, he introduced her to four men and eight women of Elfame, another name for the fairy realm. They were dressed as humans but very smartly, the men like gentlemen, and the women had ‘all plaids about them’. They were very friendly towards Bessie but when she refused to go with them ,they left with a “hideous ugly blast of wind” leaving Bessie lying sick on the ground.

She claimed her spirit mentor taught her how to cure cattle and children. People came to her for advice on a regular basis and her reputation was beginning to spread. She was allegedly even able to tell people the location of missing items.

And it wasn’t just the poor folk of the town who consulted her.

Lady Johnstone sent a servant to consult her regarding the sickness of her daughter. Bessie in turn consulted Thomas. “Her sickness,” he is recorded as having told her, “is due to cauld blood that went about her heart, that caused her to pine away. Therefore, let her take equal parts of cloves, ginger, annis-seed, and liquorice, and mix them together in ale; seethe them together; strain the mixture; put it in a vessel, then take a little quantity of it in a mutchkin can, with some white sugar cast among it; take and drink thereof each day in the morning; walk a while after, before meat, and she would soon be better.” Bessie was also consulted by Lady Blackhall and received as payment a peck of meal and some cheese. Lady Thirdpart, in the barony of Renfrew, sent to her to discover who had stolen some coins out of her purse – Bessie named the culprit.

She was also consulted by the daughter of William Blair of Strand, who was to be married to the Laird Crawford of Baidland. Thomas, speaking through Bessie, suggested that if she were to marry him she would come to an untimely demise by her own hand. The wedding plans were dropped and the laird finally married the woman’s sister.

Thomas also allegedly predicted that Bessie would face trial for her dealings with the spirit world, but her neighbours would save her from evil. Sadly for Bessie, that prediction failed to come true.

On November 8, 1576, she was arraigned at the bar of the High Court of Judiciary. The crime of which she was accused was “sorcery, witchcraft, and incantation, with invocation of spirits of the devil, continuing in familiarity with them at all such times as she thought expedient, dealing with charms, and abusing the people with devilish craft of sorcery aforesaid”.

The jurors unanimously found her guilty of the crimes and she was sentenced to be burned at the stake. The most notable feature in her case was that not even her enemies accused her of having done any harm to her neighbours or to those who consulted her.

Bessie is believed to have been burned to death on Edinburgh’s Castle Hill.

An alternative legend claims she was brought back to Ayrshire and burned at Corsehillmuir, Kilwinning. The court records fail to describe her final fate.

In recent years, Bessie has an image far removed from that described by the witchfinders. There have been a series of Wacky Witch Days organised by local traders in Dalry, celebrating her legend in a tongue-in-cheek way. Perhaps The Witch of Dalry would have appreciated that.