Jean McCalmont eased off her dusty work shoes and lay herself back in her fireside chair and enjoyed the glow of the flames from the fire.
The two roomed cottage was full of the smell of the turf and freshly cooked soda bread, still resting on the griddle.
The cottage was called the salt box and sat on the edge of the Gobbins cliffs at the end of a dirt track which led to Heddles Port.
The starlings outside stopped singing and took off abruptly together in flight. Jean stood up to see what had disturbed them for she knew her wildlife well. She peered out of the tiny window and there they were….the guards…marching up the track.
You see there had been a slip of a girl, an upstart if you like and she was spreading rumours about Jean and some of the other local women. Now the locals loved a gossip and the rumours grew and grew and spread and spread. After all….this blow in was young and slim and pretty and well to do…not to mention a direct relative of the local Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Haltridge.
Jean on the other hand was a middle aged woman, weathered by the sea breeze, had tangled wild hair resembling a whinn bush, pipe smoking, lived alone, liked a drink and also dabbled in herbs, lotions and potions.
It was not unusual to see her out in the early morning or late evening collecting vegetation from the hedgerows to make medicinal cures.
The year was 1711 and the young interloper was called Mary Dunbar. She said Jean was a witch and that she came to her in her dreams and tormented her. The stories were spreading.
In reality Jean had spied the fair Mary flaunting herself with the butler and had laughed at her tomfoolery. Miss Mary had not liked this slight. She began to like the attention she received from her lies she told and her tales began to become more elaborate and people began to believe them.
These men coming up Jean’s track, with their heavy black boots and steady march were from the garrison in Carrickfergus and were sent by the Presbytery.
Jean became consumed by fear. She didn’t stop to put on her boots, but ran to the back door and took off over the blue field, called so for it was mainly clay. She ran through the long grass, wet from the morning dew. She reached the style and allowed herself to look back in the direction of the Salt Box. They were hard on her heels…five big strong men. She ran like the wind…like she had never ran before.
When the men got to the style they looked down the valley but all they could see was a hare sitting by the distant hedge, keeping watch.
Jean reached the Wreakers Bray, so called because the smugglers used to guide the ships in with lights to their doom on the jagged rocks below….then they would feast on the plunder.
As she reached the bend in the road she jumped as swiftly as you like over the little bridge and ran on…moving at great speed but she was no match for the big strong guards.
They were catching up. She could sense that they were almost upon her and launched herself at the large druids stone which was in her path. She squealed and held on for grim death. Her nails bled and split and her fingertips gave forth red blood with the force she held onto that stone. She would have put you in mind of a banshee or vixen at sundown with the eerie noise she made and it carried on the wind over the cliff top.
The five men prised her hands from the stone and at that moment she passed out for the fear in her was so great.
The next morning Jean awoke with the feel of a cold slab on her cheek. The one ray of light shone through barred windows, and she arose and stretched up on her bare bloody tiptoes to see out the window….she saw Carrickfergus Harbour and her heart sank for she realised she was in the dungeon of Carrickfergus Castle.
Day passed and she appeared in a special court where she was declared a witch by the local presbytery after a show trial. She was imprisoned for one year in jail and sentenced to three visitations to the stocks. As the cold metal clamped shut around her neck and wrists, the baying crowd yelled ‘witch…witch…witch’ and the poor soul was pelted with old vegetables and other missiles. She lost an eye in one of the appearances.
Jean returned to Islandmagee and continued to live as a recluse in the Salt Box on the cliffs.
Part of her was missing. She held her head up high but life was never the same again.
The dawn came every morning and the hare gathered on the cliffs, the crows and starlings chattered in the trees, the vixen shreaked at dusk on the clifftop while Jean was often seen first thing in the morning and last thing at night wandering the clifftop, the blue field and the valley by the witches stone where to this day the imprints of her nails can be seen on the surface of the large boulder as a reminder of the terror she suffered….all because of a slip off a girl named Mary Dunbar.
The witches stone sits…upright…quiet…and still.
At the edge of the field where the hare bells grow.
The scores and scratches…a story to telll…for
Almost three centuries ago you could hear the witch yell.
Today people pass by, too busy to care…of the
History and folklore and how our ancestors were.
But the marks on the surface will always remain..
An everlasting reminder of poor Jean’s anguish and pain.
So if you see a hare in the valley or a fox on the cliff,
The crows in the branches or the wind in the trees…
Take a minute to think of the wail and the cry of the Islandmagee witches and the stories and lies.