Crocketford is not where Davy Crockett’s Ulster Scots ancestors hail from. The Scottish village also known as Nine Mile Bar is midway between Dumfries and Castle Douglas, in Kirkcudbrightshire in Dumfries and Galloway. Crocketford became a village only after the arrival in 1787 of the banished religious sect known as the Buchanites, devoted to the spiritual charlatan Elspeth Buchan. Before the Buchanites arrived after being expelled from Dumfriesshire, that settlement was only a crossroads of drover’s trails for driving sheep, pigs and cattle to market, and a smuggler’s route between whisky stills - “Ewies with the crooked horns” - hidden in the hills.
It’s doubtful that Crocketford is proud of its notorious beginnings, but the strange cult of the Buchanites has certainly put Crocketford on the Odd Scotland tourist map. Once a visitor drives or walks through the village and takes a gander at Newhouse and the sad Buchanite graveyard, there are walks in the local Craigadam Woodland and to the cheery Martyr’s Monument where several Covenanters were found and shot, as well as local Mesolithic and Iron Age archaeology to explore. And on Loch Dumfries, there is always the flyboarding experience (which the Buchanites might have thought as good a way to get to heaven as shaving your head to leave a topknot and being hoisted up by an angel!)
Elspeth Buchan’s deranged obsessions and insatiable need for love and attention no doubt began with the death of her mother when she was only three. She was born in Rothiemackenzie in the parish of Fordyce in Banffshire in 1738 as Elspeth Simpson, daughter of Margaret Gordon and John Simpson, a crofter and innkeeper. Upon her mother’s death, Elspeth was sent to live with some wild and peculiar relatives who gave her a bag stuffed with straw to sleep on, with another bag as a coverlet.
Elspeth became the family’s cowherd, a task she hated but one which allowed her to run wild in the countryside and cultivate her strange fantasies and visions. Years later, these strange heretical visions - that she was the woman clothed with the sun and crowned with the stars described in Revelations XII - would cause locals to call her “Lucky Buchan the witch wife who cast her glamoury over the weak-headed minister and other dupes.”
Cult leaders usually do not pop up overnight, but grow a following through attaching themselves to, and then breaking away from, familiar accepted church orthodoxy and traditions. Elspeth Simpson pretended to be pious, and caught a local potter Robert Buchan as a husband. She initially impressed church goers with her studious approach to the Bible. But loose living, adulation and hoodwinking seem to be what she really thrived upon.
The Buchanite saga, for it is a saga, has been described in detail in The Buchanites First To Last by Joseph Train, and in History of the Buchanite Delusion by John Cameron, and in the letters and documents saved by Andrew Innes, the last of her disciples, faithful to the bitter end. The history of religions is filled with cults and their strange practices, but the Buchanite followers’ credulity and devotion was appalling.
The 23-year-old Robert Burns, who was known to attend their meetings and knew their secret songs, wrote to his cousin that he “was personally acquainted with most of them” took a fancy to one of the young and ravishing followers, Jean Gardiner. He called their practices “scandalously indecent,” and coming from Burns, the lover of all lovers, this must have been something.
Buchanites heartily believed that Elspeth Buchan could bestow immortality simpy by breathing on them. Her hallowed breath contained the very power of the Holy Ghost.
Buchanites believed that after shaving their heads except for a topknot lock of hair at the top, that they would be hoisted to Heaven by hovering angels grabbing their hair. Templand hill by Closeburn, Dumfries and onto a platform. climb up on a scaffolding with their leader, and After the rickety wooden platform collapsed under their weight, Mother Buchan challenged them to a 40-day fast to prove their faith in her. They fasted for 40 days and 40 nights to the point of emaciation, while Mother Buchan ate for 40 days and nights to keep up her strength. But on their second attempt, they failed again to rise to heaven.
Buchanites believed, even after Elspeth died at the age of 53 in 1791, that she would fulfill her promise to take them to Heaven. The didn’t bury her body but wrapped it in feathers, hoping perhaps feathers would help it fly, or make it look more angelic, or mask the smell of decay After all, she did promise that she would miraculously resurrect and then take them to Heaven with her. They waited…and waited…and waited…
It’s hard to imagine that the last Buchanite to survive, Andrew Innes, waited a whole 50 years for the return of the Prophetess. He guarded her body, hid it, watched it mummify, worshipped it in fact, and always felt that her failure to return from Heaven and abscond with him back to Heaven, was due to his lack of faith. Before dying in Newhouse, broken and bereaved, he asked that his dead body be laid to rest over what was left of hers, still believing in the possibility of her body rising up underneath his and ascending them both back to heaven.