The Confession of Isobel Gowdie is an orchestral work by the Scottish composer James MacMillan. It was premiered at the 1990 BBC Proms where it drew instant and enduring acclaim.
Isobel Gowdie lived in the northwest of Scotland and was tried for witchcraft in the late 17th century. There is no record of her ultimate fate, but MacMillan assumes that she was executed by being strangled at the stake and then burned in pitch. According to MacMillan, 4,500 witches were executed in Scotland after the Reformation. Across Europe the numbers executed are disputed but the uppermost figure is 9 million as suggested by Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle. In any case, the phenomenon of the witch hunt has left an ineradicable scar on the European psyche.
Gowdie’s case is extremely peculiar as she made several confessions to witchcraft apparently without coercion. These confessions are the most detailed surviving accounts of practising witchcraft from the period, yet they are idiosyncratic and do not match well with other accounts. She was said to be a beautiful flame-haired young woman but her father married her to a dull Kirk elder with whom she seems to have endured a loveless marriage. On one of her many walks in the woodland surrounding their farm, Isobel met Margaret Brodie, a half gypsy who had psychic powers. Brodie told Isobel that she looked forward to seeing her at the local Kirk. Walking home from this meeting Isobel then met the devil disguised as a handsome stranger. He also said that he would see Isobel at the local Kirk.
When she kept the appointment with these strange new companions, Isobel found herself inducted into a coven of thirteen. The devil bit her shoulder until it bled and then baptised her with the blood, smearing it on her forehead and naming her ‘Jonet’.
The devil became Isobel’s lover. She learned to conjure a doppelganger who took her place with her husband whilst Isobel was diabolically cuckolding him. She also learned various other forms of evil magic, including elf shot, weather magic, and a form of voodoo doll cursing. Isobel also learned to transform herself into a number of different beasts.
Isobel Gowdie’s confessions contain all of this material and also recount her visits to Elf Land where she met the King and Queen of fairies. Interestingly, one of the most famous of the Scottish Border Ballads, Tam Lin, concerns a young woman named Janet who becomes pregnant by the eponymous elf. In order to win Tam Lin from the Queen of Fairies Janet has to catch him when he rides with his supernatural comrades and hold on to him as he transforms into various beasts.
It seems likely to me that Isobel had come to identify herself with some of the characters from local folklore and that she extrapolated a complex and radically heretical fantasy life from such sources. Perhaps she drew suspicion by befriending the half-gypsy, Brodie, or perhaps she was actually learning some sort of esoteric knowledge from her that would have been deemed heretical by her community and by the church. There is also the possibility that the events related in Isobel’s confessions were accurate descriptions of visionary experiences she had. Such visions may have been provoked by the use of ‘flying ointment’, a concoction of natural drugs that was absorbed through the skin (as it would be too toxic to ingest). This ointment could produce hallucinations and an irregular heartbeat which can give a feeling of flying. (This is similar to the sensation of falling which can be experienced when falling asleep, again caused by the heartbeat becoming irregular.) It is speculated that the ointment may sometimes have been applied by smearing it onto a broomstick which was then used as a dildo; hence the association with witches flying on broomsticks.
It might also be possible that Isobel was a homosexual woman whose liaisons with Brodie caused consternation. In this regard, it may be telling that she claimed to conjure a doppelganger to take her place when she was rutting with the devil. The idea that her husband would not notice the difference can be read as a sly, satirical comment on his lack of sexual attention.
All of this is rather speculative but it does make the point that we are compelled to reimagine the context of the witch trials according to our own preoccupations. In any case, Gowdie was tried for witchcraft and it is perplexing that she seems so readily to have confessed to sins for which there could be no clemency.
MacMillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie creatively evokes this extraordinary historical event in an intensely dialectical work. Essentially, it consists of three parts: an opening section of calmness; a middle section of violence; and a closing section that returns to the calmness of the beginning but with a memory of the preceding violence. The sense of opposition between violence and peace, as also between the secular and the religious, suffuses the piece with a sense of irresolution that is never entirely banished.
The music begins very quietly with a drone. As other instruments emerge, a series of not necessarily connected melodies play out. The tone is light and suggestive of folk music although hidden within the shifting sounds is the Lux Aeterna from the Requiem Mass. MacMillan has stated that he wanted this piece to be the Requiem for Isobel Gowdie that she never had. The opening threnody evokes an almost pastoral scene of quietude but the Lux Aeterna is a subliminal reminder that the life (and power) of the church is always present. Does this provide a sense of comfort by reminding us of the light eternal, or is it an ominous warning of the violence that the church will enact on Isobel? MacMillan establishes an ambiguity of expression that allows for multiple readings.
Six minutes or so into the piece the mood changes. This is partly heralded by the introduction of percussion which disrupts the elegiac strings. But even the strings change in mood and start to sound discordant. Even though Isobel Gowdie’s confession was obtained without torture, MacMillan is disturbed by the use of torture to obtain confessions of witchcraft and he reflects that in this movement. As the sound imagery becomes more disturbing, there is a sudden and violent disruption to the music with a series of full orchestra strokes. To my mind, this discordant, stabbing sound is reminiscent of the music from the shower scene in the film Psycho. In fact, there are thirteen of these stabbing strokes which brings Isobel’s imaginary coven into central focus. The music is violently accusatory and we sense that Isobel’s fate has already been sealed.
As the piece progresses a sort of calm is established as the sound world of the opening section returns. The strings again become lyrical but the percussion and brass continue to interrupt incessantly, like a bad memory. The resurgence of the percussive elements acts as a sort of after-image of the preceding violence. The closing section is a sort of synthesis of the dialectical opposition set up by the first two: harmonic peace reasserts itself but the violence done to Isobel cannot be downplayed.
MacMillan is a Roman Catholic, and, to his credit, he does not seek to conclude Isobel’s story with an assertion of Christian piety. Any sense of contrition is muddied with an honest account of the horror for which contrition is sought. The Christian message that preoccupies MacMillan can only exist alongside the secular harmonies that (we imagine) would have preoccupied Isobel. MacMillan thus manages to create a rather humane account of Isobel’s story, one which allows space for her own voice to seek expression. In describing the work he has said, “On behalf of the Scottish people the work craves absolution and offers Isobel Gowdie the mercy and humanity that was denied her in the last days of her life.”
MacMillan is not a radical composer, and much of the power of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie comes from knowledge of the source material from which it derives. Nonetheless, his achievement in this work is considerable. It is an unusual work, partly due to the strange subject matter, but also due to the fact that this is a religious work that is, at least partly, condemnatory of religion. It is simultaneously accessible yet ambiguous. To conclude, we might ask a thirteen word question. Could The Confession of Isobel Gowdie be a genuine work of Christian humility?
1. Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove, The Wise Wound (London: Paladin, 1986).
2. James MacMillan, “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie,” in accompanying booklet, James MacMillan, The World’s Ransoming/The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, Sir Colin Davies. LSO Live, compact disc. [LSO0124].