The strange tale of Elspeth Buchan, the 18th-century cult leader who convinced her followers she would never die – Susan Morrison

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Elspeth Buchan must have been spell-binding. Like many people with towering self-belief, she exerted an incredible power over her followers, to whom she promised eternal life and an assured place in the Kingdom of Heaven. She would make their souls great again. And they believed her and kept believing in her, even in the face of the dull, predictable truth.

She was born Elspeth Simpson in Banffshire around 1738. Life was tough. She herself wrote in 1785, that as a child she was never “fed nor clothed nor educate by parents”. She seems to have physically disassociated herself from her misery falling into trance-like states, as many unhappy children do. It’s not surprising that she took to religion in a big way when she went to school at the age of five.

She married a potter named Peter Buchan and took his surname. The marriage wasn’t happy, but she did have at least three children, possibly more, given rates of Infant mortality at the time. It’s also possible that her deep religious faith contributed to the end of the marriage. When she and Peter separated, it left her more time to go from minister to minister, debating, discussing and learning until she met with Hugh White in 1782. Hugh was a minister of the Relief Church, and fully believed the Second Coming was at hand, so get ready, people.

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