Christian Shaw was born in 1685 to the laird of Bargarran, John Shaw and his wife Christian Shaw, maiden name of McGilchirst. According to documents enclosed in John Millar’s A History of the Witches of Renfrewshire Christian’s ancestors possessed the lands on the Bargarran estate for ‘nigh three hundred years’ (ref) deriving their descent from the family of Sauchie making them blood relatives of Sir John Snow of Greenock. As members of the Scottish gentry the Shaw family were generally well respected and lived in relative prosperity to those around them.
Christian was the eldest of four siblings, her mother giving birth to her at the age of 19. Being the eldest daughter and heir apparent she would have grown with the title of Christian Shaw – Maid of Bargarran, distinguishing her from her peers. She was described as a ‘smart and lively girl of good inclinations’ (ref) and appears to have had an ordinary childhood up until the time of her supposed ‘bewitchment’.
The account of Christian’s bewitchment reveals that she was well educated. One scene depicts her in her ‘bewitched’ state reading memorised passages of scripture from The Bible to her invisible tormentors. Christian relates passages and considers judgements described as being beyond her capacity, despite her acumen for her age. This could be the result of private tutorage which was a popular option for the Scottish gentry in the 1600’s; yet there is no mention of a tutor in the accounts of her bewitchment despite the fact that she would still have been undergoing tutorage at the young age of 11. If a tutor did exist in the Shaw household during this time they would have made a compelling witness to the supernatural activity that came upon Christian. Therefore we can conclude that this wasn’t the case for Christian’s education as her tutor would have been included in the aforementioned accounts. We can only assume that she was either sent away for tutoring or attended a local school set up by the parish or council. Unfortunately early school records don’t exist in Renfrewshire at this time so it is impossible to be certain of either.
What is clear is that Christian regularly attended church and listened to the lectures of William Gillies, who is believed to have been the minister at Old Kilpatrick Church during her childhood. The mention of Mr Gillies lectures in the account suggests that the church still held high influence over the education of Christian Shaw and possibly also the inhabitants of Renfrewshire. The importance of this being that in a community where a religious education was the only education, ideas of right and wrong, fact and fiction, good and evil would spring from the teachings of that religion. Therefore it is easier to see, with Christian’s heavily religious upbringing, why she would blame her ailments on a demonic evil like that which is condemned by the church. The most popular condemnations by the church during this era were the practices of witchcraft and wizardry