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Banff, Elspeth's Birthplace
Banff, Elspeth's Birthplace

Elspeth Buchan lived from 1739 to 29 March 1791. She was the founder of the religious sect known as the Buchanites. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Elspeth Simpson was born near Banff, where her father, John Simpson, was an innkeeper. While still young she moved to Glasgow where, on 13 July 1760, she married Robert Buchan, a potter from Greenock. They subsequently had three children together but the marriage then broke down. Elspeth seems to have gone back to Banff for a period, before returning to Glasgow in about 1780.

Here she met a Church Minister from Irvine, the Rev Hugh White. Elspeth convinced White that she was "the woman clothed with the sun" referred to in the Book of Revelation 12:1. The full text reads: "And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars." White assumed for himself the role of "man child" referred to a little later in the same text. By 1783 the two had set up community which they called the Buchanites in Irvine. Elspeth claimed to have the power of prophesy and the Buchanites believed that she could confer the Holy Spirit upon them by breathing on them.

None of this went down well with the deeply conservative Presbyterian Kirk, who first ejected White from his ministry, then had the Buchanites, who by now comprised a community of 46 people, evicted from Irvine. They settled instead on a farm at Closeburn near Thornhill. Rumours soon began to circulate abut the sect, largely because all its members lived together in a small number of rooms. Among those contributing to the rumours was Robert Burns, possibly because he was thwarted in his advances towards a female member of the sect. According to Burns "they lye and lodge all together, and hold likewise a community of women, as it is another of their tenets that they can commit no mortal sin."

Elspeth Buchan died in 1791 and is said to be buried at Crocketford where the Buchanites moved following her death. The sect diminished significantly when the Reverend White and a number of the Buchanites emigrated to the United States, but there were still enough adherents left to stand watch over Elspeth's grave on the 50th anniversary of her death on 29 March 1841, the date on which she had prophesied she would rise from the dead. When the prophesy failed to come to pass, what was left of the sect dispersed.

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