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The Burning Times: The Scottish Witch Trials

Between 1563 and 1763 Scotland was a country in flux and the resulting paranoia fueled the Scottish Witch Trials.

Belief in witchcraft was common during the Middle Ages, but the leaders of the Catholic church were largely skeptical, seeing it as folklore rather than something sinister. Lawyers were only interested in cases were harm was alleged to have taken place and some high-profile political cases have been recorded including the case of John Stewart, Earl of Mar for allegedly using sorcery against his brother King James III in 1479. Cases like this were few in number. However, as Scotland was plunged into the turbulence of the Early Modern Era, attitudes began to change, new laws were formed, and Scotland found itself in the grip of several witch trials and hunts.

The passing of the Witchcraft Act of 1563 made witchcraft or consulting with witches, capital offences. As a result, it is estimated that 4,000 to 6,000 people were tried for witchcraft and that more than 1,500 people were executed. Approximately 75% of those accused were women.  Often there were waves of witch trials, notably those of 1590-91, 1597, 1628-31, 1649-50 and 1661-62. In 1736, the unified British Parliament repealed the 1563 Act.

The Witchcraft Act of 1553

The Witchcraft Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1563. Few, if any acts, passed by the Scottish Parliament have had such deadly consequences. It was a time of great change in Scotland: a time when your religion affiliation could make or break a monarch or send you to your death. Lutheran ideas had reached Scotland by 1525, plunging the nation into the Reformation. Under the watchful eye of John Knox, Scotland eventually became a Protestant country. Knox initially was a follower of Luther but later adopted the ideology of John Calvin. Both Luther and Calvin held the belief that witchcraft was a crime of such a serious nature that it merited the death penalty. It seems likely that John Knox played a role in drafting the Scottish Witchcraft Act and was influenced by the beliefs of his role models.

In August 1560, the legal machinery was put in place by the Scottish Parliament, making Scotland officially a Protestant country. However, what this legislation did not do, was set down what powers the church might be granted with respect to those who disobeyed the tenets of this new-found faith. Indeed, the new church had barely come to terms with its new powers and the implications for governing its congregations. The big question they were facing was what constituted ungodliness. It would soon become apparent that the new regime viewed the world solely in black and white.

Significantly, the Witchcraft Act did not define what formed an act of witchcraft, nor did it mention the ‘demonic pact’. Initially, those enforcing the Witchcraft Act were more concerned with putting an end to superstition and a belief in magic. Magic was the ritualistic use of an object or words in the form of a spell to achieve a desired outcome. This could be in the form of healing, fortune-telling, love potions, finding lost or stolen goods, and protective or good-luck charms. It was believed that illness was caused by malign spirits which could be removed by transferring it to another person or object. Of course, if someone could perform ‘good’ magic, then the converse had to also be true: magic could be used to cause harm.

Scottish Witch Trials Between 1560 and 1590

Between 1560 and 1590, there was a slow trickle of witchcraft cases. The death penalty was not always meted out. Tibbie Smart was burnt on the cheek and banished for committing various acts of sorcery and charming. In May 1558, Agnes Fergusson was put in the ‘pit’ for being a witch.

However, the year 1590 was to see a dramatic change in how Scotland dealt with its alleged witches. The Scottish witch trials would begin in earnest.

The Influence of James VI on Scottish Witch Trials

James VI went to Denmark to collect his bride, Anne, daughter of Fredrick II. On their return journey to Scotland a most ungodly storm began. As the swell began to batter the fleet, the fearful Danish admiral declared that the cause of the storm was witchcraft. He believed that it was caused by the wife of an administrator he had insulted. It seemed that James’ vessel was jostled more than the others. The fleet limped back towards the shore and took refuge off the coast of Norway. James had recently met with a Danish Lutheran theologian and expert on demonology, Neils Hemmingsen. His recent education about the dangers of witchcraft convinced the King that the accusations must be true. Soon after witch hunts were launched in both Scotland and Denmark.

In Denmark, Anna Koldings was burnt at the stake along with twelve other people at Kronberg, Helsinor. Meanwhile, in Tranent, outside Edinburgh, a serving girl, Gelies Duncan was accused of witchcraft by her employer. Someone made a connection between the two cases and under prolonged torture named accomplices including Agnes Sampson, John Fian and Euphemia McLean. The accused were scourged until they confessed that they had plotted against the King. James took an active part in the interrogation of the suspects, which were sentenced to death. This became known as the North Berwick Witch Trials.

This proved to be the catalyst in changing the mind-set of the Scottish people towards witchcraft. Witch hunts had already begun throughout Europe, where the idea of the diabolical witch had originated. James wrote a treatise called ‘Daemonology’ which emphasised the concept that witches had entered into a pact with the devil.

Scottish Witch Trials and the Devil’s Pact

The idea that witches formed a pact with the devil was to change the way that Scottish witch trials were conducted during the course of the 1600s. Witches were believed to have practised ‘malefice’ or malicious magic after entering into a pact with the devil. This pact involved renouncing their baptism and subsequently worshipping and copulating with the devil. The devil was said to leave his mark on those entered into this vile agreement. Sometimes the mark was visible whereas at others it was invisible to the naked eye but could be identified as an area on the body, insensitive to pain and did not bleed. This could be found by pricking the accused with a needle.

Originally, this job was done by members of the clergy but in time the lucrative job of being a broder or witch-pricker developed. As the prickers were paid by the number of positive cases they identified, it was in the pricker’s best interest to find as many witches as possible. Many of the witch-prickers became charlatans, using needles were the blade could be retracted into a wooden shaft so it would appear that the accused could not feel pain or bleed from certain spots on their body.

By the late 1600s many of the witch-prickers were denounced and arrested as frauds including John Kincaid and John Dick. John Dick was truly living a double life, for when ‘he’ was arrested, it turned out that he was a woman, Christian Caddell. Interestingly, once the witch-prickers were identified as fraudsters, the number of witch hunts tailed off.

Punishment Meted!

In Scotland, most witches were hung or strangled before their body was burnt. Burning their mortal remains was an important part of their punishment. It ensured that the devil could not resurrect their bodies for his nefarious purposes. However, sometimes a witch would be burnt at the stake or in the case of the witches in Forres, they would be put in barrels filled with spikes and rolled down the Cluny Hill.  The barrel would then be set on fire where it rested. A stone lies at the base of Cluny Hill today, marking where one such execution took place.

Witch Trials in Decline

As civil war raged in England, the independent kingdom of Scotland was forcibly incorporated into a commonwealth with England in 1652.Now occupied by Cromwell’s troops, the Privy council and courts were disbanded. English judges were put in place and there was a sharp decline in the number of witchcraft cases. With the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Scotland once more gained her freedom and her judicial independence. This prompted a flood of over 600 cases of people charged with witchcraft. The Privy council were alarmed at the rapid rise in trials and banned the use of judicial torture and insisted on the necessity of its commission for an arrest or prosecution.

Largely due to the work of Sir George MacKenzie, the Lord Advocate, standards of evidence were raised. Sir George believed in the existence of witchcraft and that those found guilty should face the death penalty. However, he felt that many innocent people had been sent to death. Although not opposed to the use of torture under certain conditions, he felt that it was inappropriate to elicit confessions from people accused of witchcraft. He felt that many of the local authorities trying witches did not have the appropriate knowledge of the crime and that often the witnesses used were not qualified to participate.

Then in 1662, the witch prickers were exposed as frauds, thus removing a major source of evidence against those accused of witchcraft. The British parliament repealed the 1563 Act in 1736, imposing fines or imprisonment on people who claimed to be able to use magical powers.

A Timeline of Scottish Witch Trials:

1537: Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis accused of witchcraft by King James V but executed for treason.

1563: The Witchcraft Act was introduced during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, making Witchcraft and consorting with witches a capital offence.

1576: Bessie Dunlop of Lynne was executed on Castle Hill, Edinburgh. She had been found guilty of receiving herbs from the Queen of the Faeries and consorting with a group of eight women witches and four men.

1577-78: The first real witch hunt occurred in Easter Ross. Six men and twenty-six women were charged with witchcraft including Kenneth Ower (Coinneach Odhar), who might be the person more commonly known as the Brahan Seer. Some of the accused witches were sentenced and executed at Chanonry Point on the Black Isle. Several others arrested at the time, survived, only to face further witchcraft allegations in the high-profile trial of Katherene Ross, Lady Munro of Fowlis in 1590.

1590: While travelling back from Denmark with his bride, James VI of Scotland had to endure a terrible storm. The Danish captain declared that it could only because by witchcraft. This event was to change how Scotland would deal with witches over the next hundred years. The Scottish witch trials began in earnest

1590-2: The North Berwick witch trials took place implicating 70 people.

1591: King James VI published a pamphlet ‘The Newes from Scotland’. In it were details of some of the tortures which awaited those accused of witchcraft.

1594: Allison Balfour, from Steness in Orkney, was accused of witchcraft. Unusually, this case was instigated purely on the authority of Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney without a Commission of Justiciary.

There had been an ongoing feud between Patrick Stewart, also known as Black Patie and his brother John.  John had allegedly approached Balfour on how to poison his brother. While there was no evidence to support the claim that Balfour supplied the poison, she was accused of using witchcraft to help the younger brother. She was brutally tortured for a period of forty-eight hours to extract a confession. Her legs were encased in an iron device called caschielawes and heated until her flesh began to burn. She lost consciousness on serval occasions, only for the torture to recommence each time she revived.

Her husband, Taillifer, was tortured in front of her using long irons, or iron plates laid on top of his body. Stones weighing upwards of 700lb were placed on the plates, effectively crushing the body underneath.

Then her seven-year-old daughter was tortured, her tiny fingers being crushed in an implement called a pinniewinkle. This was too much for the demented mother. She confessed to the crimes. She was taken to the Gallow Ha’ in Kirkwell. There, as she was about to be executed she protested her innocence and detailed how her family had been tortured. Alas, it was to no avail. The poor woman was strangled and then burnt on the 16th December 1594.

1596: One of the most interesting cases in Aberdeen happened a couple of years later in 1596 and concerned a whole family. The mother, Jane Wishart, was brought to trial and eventually convicted on 18 points of witchcraft, although the total number of charges brought against her exceeded 30. These charges included casting a spell on a fisherman who then took to his bed and ‘lay bedsick for one month’. One of the charges related to an incident when five men caught her coming out of the home of Adam Mair, one of her neighbours, at two in the morning. The men promptly woke up Adam’s wife to tell her about the incident. Later that day at about two or three o’clock in the afternoon, two of the men were found drowned in the Auld Wattergang at the Links where they had gone to wash themselves. Two others who had seen Janet leave her neighbour’s house subsequently offered to testify against her. Even Janet’s son-in-law, John Allan, testified against her following an incident when he hit his wife and was chastised by Janet. Immediately thereafter, a brown dog started to come into his bedroom and attack him, although it left his young wife alone. Apparently, eight days before Janet was apprehended, a great rumbling noise was heard coming from her house which frightened her next-door neighbour who thought his house might collapse. This, too, was attributed to Janet’s supernatural powers and formed one of the accusations on which she was convicted.

Janet’s son, Thomas Leyis, was charged and found guilty of being a ringleader. He was convicted on three accounts of witchcraft. Both Janet and Thomas were strangled and burnt as witches.

On the 22nd of March the same year John Leyis (Janet’s husband) and their three daughters, Elspet, Janet and Violet were also accused of witchcraft. They were absolved on all counts of witchcraft but found guilty of being accomplices to Janet and Thomas. As a result, they were banished from Aberdeen and were forbidden to come within 10 miles of the burgh.

1597: Scotland’s second great witch hunt took place when Margaret Aitken, known as the Great Witch of Balwearie, offered to identify other witches in exchange for her life. Over a period of several months, she travelled the country implicating strangers, until her expertise was called into question when she pointed the finger at several people she had previously cleared. Alas, by this time as many as 400 had already been tried with over half of the accused executed for witchcraft.

1597: King James published his book Daemonology. In this dissertation he offered up a theory as to ‘the cause that there are twentie women given to that craft, where ther is one man’. His rationale was ‘for as that sexe is frailer than men is, so it is easier to be intrapped in these grosse snares of the Devil, as was over will prove to be true, by the Serpent’s deceiving of Eva at the beginning, which makes him the homlier with that sexe sensine.’

1605 (approximately): William Shakespeare writes the play Macbeth. Playing to the King’s obsession (James was now James I of England), he includes the addition of three very famous Scottish witches – the weird or ‘weyward’ sisters – made their debut appearance in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In this work MacBeth encounters ‘three women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world’ who predict that he will become King of Scots.

1614: In a particularly gruesome case in Edinburgh, Robert Erskine, along with his sisters Annas and Issobell, was beheaded at the Mercat Cross after being found guilty of consulting with witches and ‘poisoning and treasonable murder’.

1649: In February of this year a brewer from Dunfermline was able to prove his innocence after accusations were brought forward implicating him of using magic to improve the quality of his beer.

1652: Scotland is forcibly incorporated into Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth. During the English occupation of Scotland, the number of Witchcraft trials declines.

1661: Kathrin Key and Margaret Liddell were tried for witchcraft. Kathrin had previously been accused by the local minister, Lawrence Oliphant of killing her child. Did Kathrin set fire to the manse as part of an ongoing feud between the pair?

1661–62: Scotland’s final great witch hunt saw hundreds of more witch trials over a period of sixteen months. In total, more than 650 people were tried, mostly women of low to middling status. The hunt started in April in Midlothian and East Lothian, where 206 people were accused. Thereafter it rapidly spread across the country largely due to the influence of witch prickers like John Kincaid. However, the precise number of executions is unknown because so many different courts were involved.

1662: Isobel Gowdie was one of the victims of the witch hunt of 1661-62. Perhaps her confessions are the most remarkable of all the confessions recorded during the Scottish Witch trials. Gowdie, allegedly confessed about her dealings with the devil, under seemingly little duress. However, it should be noted that what we would classify as torture nowadays, is somewhat different to what legally constituted torture in the past. Perhaps the most commonly used form of torture during a witch trial was sleep deprivation. It was a really effective means of allowing those gathering evidence against an accused witch to get a positive result. After several days of sleep deprivation, the subject begins to hallucinate.

Isobel had apparently performed acts of malefice against her landlord, the Laird of Park, by making clay images to curse his children. She spoke at great length about her encounters with the devil and also her visits under the Downie Hill, near Auldearn, where she met the Queen of the Fairies. It is from her testimony that the word ‘coven’ has come into the English vocabulary. She went on to implicate many other people in her testimony.

1662:  Christian Caddell disguised herself as ‘John Dick’ to become Scotland’s only female witch pricker.

1662: The Witch prickers were exposed as frauds.

1663: Christian Caddell’s true identity was discovered. She was sent to work in the plantations in Barbados as an indentured servant. Ironically, on the very day she boarded the ship, the last of her victims were being executed in Forres.

1670: After confessing to ‘supernatural intelligence’ relating to the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Worcester twenty years earlier, Thomas Weir was incarcerated in an old leper colony at Greenside beneath Edinburgh’s Calton Hill. As a distinguished former soldier, his confessions were at first ignored until they became so wild and treasonous the authorities were forced to take action. Eventually they decided to strangle and burn him at the Gallowlee on the Leith road. He publicly confessed to having a n incestuous relationship with his sister. She was later burned at Grassmarket.

1679: By now, scepticism was growing among the general public about witchcraft. However, in Bo’ness five women and a man, were said to have been in the Devil’s company as they drunk ale and the women were accused of copulating with the devil.  The group were charged with attempting to harm a man, Andrew Mitchell, but the records are scant about their success. All six were executed on Corbiehill.

1697: The Paisley witches, Margaret Lang, John Lindsay, James Lindsay, John Reid, Catherine Campbell, Margaret Fulton and Agnes Naismith were condemned to hang and then burn on Gallow Green for bewitching Christian Shaw, the eleven-year-old daughter of the Laird of Bargarran. The last mass execution of witches saw six of them executed while a seventh killed himself in advance. A curse supposedly voiced by one of the six was for years afterwards blamed for every ill that befell the town until Christian Shaw finally admitted the whole thing was a hoax.

1705: In Fife Janet Cornfoot, the ‘Witch of Pittenweem’, was accused of bewitching the local blacksmith’s apprentice. She was locked in the town’s tolbooth after being flogged by the local minister. She managed to escape but was recaptured by a mob, who promptly dragged her down to the beach where they beat her up and stoned her.  She was left for dead beneath a door weighed down by heavy stones and trampled by horses.

1720: The twelve-year-old son of James, 7th Lord Torphichen, alleged that he had been bewitched by an old woman in Calder. He claimed that afterwards he fell into a trance ‘from which no horse-whipping could rouse him till he chose his own time to revive’ and could float above the ground. Five locals were arrested and thrown into jail. However, by the time they came to trial so much time had elapsed that they were merely publicly rebuked and allowed to go free.

1727: Janet Horne was the last person to be publicly executed as a witch in Scotland. Accused by her neighbours of riding to the devil on her daughter’s back, and unable to repeat in Gaelic the Lord’s Prayer at her trial, she was put to death in Dornoch. Her body was burned alive in a wooden barrel filled with flaming tar.

1736: Scotland’s Witchcraft Act was finally repealed.. The crime of witchcraft was henceforth abolished and replaced by a new crime of ‘pretended witchcraft’, carrying a maximum penalty of one year’s imprisonment.

1944: Helen Duncan, a middle-aged medium from Callander in Perthshire, became the last person to be jailed under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, after claiming to have conjured up the spirit of a sailor killed when HMS Barham had been torpedoed three years earlier. To maintain national morale the ship’s loss to a German U-boat had been kept secret. The authorities, fearful that she might reveal details of the forthcoming D-Day landings as well, took immediate action. She was found guilty of ‘pretending to raise spirits from the dead’ and sentenced to nine months in HMP Holloway in north London. In 1951 the antiquated legislation was finally repealed in favour of a new and more appropriate Fraudulent Mediums Act.

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