At Hallowe’en, ‘witches’ make their annual appearance on our streets travelling from door to door seeking treats.

But the history of witchcraft in Ayrshire is one of cruelty, with many women tortured and burned for their alleged crimes in the town.

Irvine’s most notorious witch trial took place in 1618– and led to the agonising death of four people.

Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald:

Young mother Margaret Barclay was accused of being the ringleader of a coven of witches which caused the Irvine ship The Gift O’ God to be wrecked off the Cornish coast, causing most to drown, including Irvine’s Provost Tran.

She and her friend Isobel Barclay were questioned using what was called ‘the gentle torture’.

That ‘gentle’ treatment saw their bare legs being put in stocks, then iron bars being placed on their shins until they, inevitably, confessed their sins, including burning an effigy of the ship and consorting with the Devil in the shape of a small black dog.

Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald:

Despite her confession, Margaret returned to the court and told the judge: “All I have confessed was in agony of torture , and before God, all I have spoken is false and untrue.”

She and Isobel were executed at what is now the town’s Malcolm Gardens, being tied to the stake, strangled, then burned.

The two other accused were said to have escaped their fate’ - at least in a manner of speaking.

John Stewart, a juggler, managed to strangle himself on a piece of hemp in his cell, while an elderly woman, Isobel Inch, who had been appallingly tortured, managed to escape her cell in the Old Kirk and flung herself from the belfry to her death, The Barclay trial gained notoriety when the author Sir Walter Scott wrote about it, claiming: “It is scarce possible that, after reading such a story, a man of sense can listen for an instant to the evidence founded on confession thus obtained.”

Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald:

In nearby Ayr, the most famous alleged witch was Maggie Osborne and, although her name does not appear in the surviving records of prosecutions for witchcraft, her story was set down in print, in both poetry and prose.

The legend tells how Maggie, an innkeeper, bore a grudge against a particular family and caused their home to be engulfed by snow.

This left one survivor, away at sea at the time, whose ship was then sank by a storm allegedly conjured up by Maggie.

But she began to believe that one of her employees knew her ‘secret’.

One night, while a maid was brewing beer, she was set upon by ferocious cats. In an attempt to defend herself, the maid threw ladles of the boiling liquid at the animals.

The next day, Maggie did not leave her bed and was said to have suffered bad burns.

The incident was reported to Ayr’s minister William Adair, and Maggie was brought to trial, convicted and sentenced to burned at Malt Cross.

Reverend William Adair was Ayr’s minister from 1639 until 1682, during which time many alleged witches were brought to trial.

There are records of well over 100 trials across Ayrshire.

Resear chers at the University of Edinburgh found more than 3,000 women across the country who were accused, tortured, burned at the stake, or drowned for “being witches”.

Tor Scott, collection and research assistant at the National Galleries of Scotland, said: “The research is hugely detailed and brings some semblance of respect to those who were executed.

“It makes you realise that these were ordinary people, not the crones on broomsticks that everyone imagines when they hear the word ‘witch’.”

“It’s a common theme for these women to confess to benign things that would be problematic in a village: turning milk sour, ruining crops, to the most outrageous orgies with the devil.

“They were coerced into saying these things, which gives you an idea of what people were wanting to hear at that time; that sex was bad, their poor harvest wasn’t their fault, and it’s all the fault of the strange woman at the end of the road.”’.