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Bessie Dunlop by John Hodgart

'Bessie Dunlop', by John Hodgart, is a drama text from 'The Kist' -  an anthology of Scots (and Gaelic) poetry and prose that was digitised by Education Scotland and gifted to the Scots Language Centre so that teachers and learners can continue to benefit from this valuable resource. 


An excerpt from the text is visible here, and the full text can be downloaded below. 


Bessie Dunlop

by John Hodgart  


Act One, Scene 6

NARR.1         In the Scotland of Bessie’s time, charms, spells and                                            superstitions were a natural part of rural life.   

NARR.2         Many of them far older than Christianity.

NARR.3         They played an important part in curing illness or protecting people from various evils.           

NARR.4        Folk medicine relied on the popular belief in such charms as in the use of herbs. 

NARR.2         Thus Bessie Dunlop, the local midwife, soon became known as a skeelywife who had the reputation of being able to treat and cure a variety of human and animal ailments.       

NARR.1         The more she helped others, the more her fame spread, the more was expected of her.    

NARR.4         People soon started seeking her help for all sorts of things.  

NARR.2         And it was not long before her reputation reached the ears of the local gentry.      

NARR.3         "The Lady Johnstoun, elder, sent to her a servant of the said Lady’s, callit Catherine Dunlop, to help ane young gentlewoman, her dochter."          



Act One: Scene 7 - Lady Johnstoun’s House

(Catherine Dunlop enters with Bessie.)

CATH.            If you’ll just wait here, I’ll inform my lady thet I hev brung you fur to see her.          

BESSIE         Thet’s awfully obleeging of you, Catherine Dunlop! An whaur did ye learn tae talk wi  bools in yer mooth? I’ve mind o ye when ye were a clarty wean, wi snotters blinnin ye!           

CATH.            I beg your perdon.  

BESSIE         Ach never mind, awa an tell Lady Johnstoun that I’m here wi the medicine for her  dochter.         

CATH.           (as she exits) Will you jist keep mind thet you’re in Lady Johnstoun’s house, an behive as befoots yer place.          

BESSIE         I ken ma place fine. Dae you ken yours?



Learning Resources



  1. Explain what a ‘Skeelywife' was and how she relied on both medical knowledge and superstition.


  1. Why would she have been an important person in her community?


  1. Explain how Bessie's magic brew affects Grizell Johnstoun and how this brings about a few surprises for everyone.


  1. What do you think was really wrong with Grizell? Who would be most/least pleased about the change that comes over her and why?


  1. Why do people soon start to think Bessie possesses supernatural powers and why do the gentry send for her?


  1. Why do you think the Blairs originally sent for Bessie and do you think there is anything dangerous in what Lady Blair asks of her?


  1. Can you think of anything in these earlier scenes that might bring trouble to Bessie later?


  1. What do we learn from the introductory information about witchcraft persecution and the part played in it by the Church?


  1. Why did the authorities make such a big issue of Bessie's case?




Choose one of the following tasks:


Write a serious or comic confession to something you have done, in the form of a letter, blog or diary entry.


Write a sequel to either the Lady Johnstoun or the Blair scene.


Listening and talking

Discuss cases where innocent people have been blamed or found guilty, or confessed. Why did this happen?

Discuss bullying or racism or sexism in your school/area. Is it a big issue? Why? What form does it take? What do you think needs to be done?

What sorts of people or groups are often blamed today for problems in our society? Why is this? How are they victimised?

Do you believe in the supernatural or do you think it is all just nonsense? Discuss some different views on this subject.


Further reading

Poetry: Anon ballads eg 'The Wife o Usher's Well', 'Thomas the Rhymer', 'Tam Lin', 'Alison Gross', 'The Twa Corbies’, 'Bonny Kilmeny' by James Hogg, 'The Rowan’ by Violet Jacob, 'The Fox's Skin' by Marion Angus, 'Witchgirl' by Douglas Dunn


Fiction: 'Wandering Willie's Tale' by Sir Walter Scott, 'Black Andie's Tale of Tad Lapraik' and 'Thrawn Janet' by R.L. Stevenson, 'The Book of Black Arts' by George Mackay Brown, The Thirteenth Member by Mollie Hunter, Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales edited by Gordon Jarvie.