Scotland - Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches

Scotland suffered a particularly bad witchcraze, second only perhaps to the Germanic and Alpine regions. Prior to the sixteenth century, however, there were relatively few witch trials. Scottish law made it difficult to prosecute witchcraft: evidence was required for conviction of murders via charms, potions or other magical means.

In 1563, however, new laws enacted by Mary, Queen of Scots (December 8, 1542—February 8, 1587) broadened criteria for witchcraft crimes. Practice of any kind of magic, beneficial as well as malefic, became subject for trial, not just magic resulting in murder. All witches, as well as those who consult with them, were to be punished by death. The number of witchcraft trials and subsequent executions increased dramatically.

Gerald Gardner quotes Mackay’s History of Extraordinary Popular Delusions statement that from the passing of the 1563 Act until the accession of Mary’s son James VI (June 19, 1566—March 27, 1625) to the throne of England 39 years later, the average number of executions for witchcraft in Scotland was 200 annually, or upwards of 17,000 altogether.

James VI took witchcraft personally, believing that as God’s anointed, he was the primary target of witchcraft. Witchcraft was thus not only heresy but also treason.

Witches in Scotland were generally burned although some were hanged. When the court wished to show mercy, it permitted witches to be strangled after they were tied to the stake but before burning, so that effectively burning was cremation not execution. At the opposite extreme, however, when the court wished to display no mercy, witches were thrust into the fire, pulled out, and thrust back in again repeatedly.

In 1479 the Earl of Mar, together with twelve women and several men, was burned at Edinburgh for roasting a wax image of the king. In 1537, Lady Glamis was burned as a witch for working magic against King James V.

In 1576, Bessie Dunlop of Ayr was burned alive for healing via witchcraft. (No harm had been caused; she was convicted for healing.) Dunlop, described as a “wise woman,” was charged on November 8th. She allegedly claimed her healing powers and clairvoyance (“second sight”) were gifts from the Queen of Elfhame. (See FAIRIES: Nature-spirit Fairies: Elves.)

On May 28, 1588, Alesoun Piersoun (also spelled Alison Pearson) of Byrehill was charged with witchcraft and of consorting with fairies for seven years. Her cousin, William Simpson, six years older, the son of the king’s smith, had allegedly been educated in Egypt by a giant. Will had returned from his travels and discovered that Alison was ailing “powerless in hand and foot” and “afflicted by many diseases.” He healed her, then allegedly took her to Fairy Land where he introduced her to some good witches he had known for years.

The Fairy Folk were abusive toward Alison. She claimed never to be free from various associates who came to initiate her into knowledge, whether she wished it or not. It is unclear whether she meant witches or fairies, or whether the terms are interchangeable. These associates showed Alison how to gather herbs and how to make salves. In short they initiated her as a Fairy Doctor. (In many traditional cultures, it is customary for someone who is healed to be obliged to become a healer.)

Alison developed a reputation as a healer. Even the Bishop of St Andrews requested her help. She prescribed a meal of spiced claret and boiled capon and a Fairy salve for topical application. This prescription worked but the bishop refused to pay her bill and charged her with witchcraft. Tortured, she named prominent people, claiming she saw them at Fairy balls. Alison was strangled and burned.

The North Berwick Witch Trials

The North Berwick Trials of 1590—1592, perceived as an attack on the king, fueled witchcraft hysteria. Approximately 70 people were accused of witchcraft.

This trial convinced King James that he was the target of witchcraft and motivated him to become an “authority” on the subject. James’ fascination with witchcraft grew. He wanted his subjects to appreciate the reality of witchcraft and the dangers it posed. The king published The Daemonologie to counter Reginald Scot’s book disputing the reality of witchcraft. He ordered existing copies of Scot’s book burned. James’ book was often quoted by witch-hunters.

In 1590, Geillis Duncan (aka Gilly Duncan), who worked as a servant for Deputy Bailie David Seaton of Tranent, a small town near Edinburgh, suddenly began exhibiting healer’s skills. In demand for these skills, she began going out at night. This aroused her employer’s curiosity: he suspected she was now in the devil’s employ.

Seaton first tortured Geillis personally using ropes and thumbscrews. She did not confess. Her body was searched and a witch’s mark, a blemish, was discovered on her throat. Her fingers were then crushed and Geillis confessed to witchcraft and began to identify other witches. She named dozens, including school-master John Fian (aka John Cunningham), midwife Agnes Sampson, Barbara Napier, Agnes Tompson, and Euphemia Macalzean (also given as Euphemia Maclean), the daughter of Lord Cliftonhall, Senator of the College of Justice. Those implicated were arrested and tortured. Sampson already had a reputation as a “wise-woman” but the others were described as “respectable citizens.”

Agnes Sampson was well educated and known as the “wisewyff” of Keith. Her head was repeatedly jerked by ropes. The inside of her mouth was punctured with sharp implements. She was kept forcibly awake beyond her endurance. Despite this torture, Agnes continued to maintain her innocence.

All the hair on her body was then shaved; examiners found a devil’s mark on her genitals and Agnes finally confessed. She confirmed whatever her interrogators asked and thus implicated everyone already named by Gilly Duncan. She confessed to 53 charges of witchcraft, most of which involved diagnosis and treatment of illness via magical means. She allegedly placed powdered dead men’s bones under Euphemia’s pillow during labor so that she delivered safely, created magical powders, and kept a familiar, a dog named Elva.

Agnes was brought before King James. She told him tales of witchcraft. On Halloween, she and 200 other witches set out to sea in sieves, drinking wine as if they were on a cruise ship until they reached the church at North Berwick, where they disembarked, made merry, and kissed the devil’s rear.

Their company took over the church as if it was a dance hall. They danced and sang with the devil; Gilly Duncan played a dance tune on the Jew’s harp. The king requested that Gilly be summoned to play for him, which she did, according to trial records, “to his great pleasure and amazement.”

Agnes Sampson told King James that on Halloween in North Berwick, the devil in the form of a man spoke against the king. (Some believed that Earl of Bothwell, next in line to the throne and implicated in the case, was really the one who spoke against the king, whether in the devil’s guise or not.)

Agnes described two sabbats held within the church at North Berwick, one attended by 200 guests, the other by only 100. At the smaller one, she said, the witches paid homage to the devil by kissing his anus. They danced widdershins around the church several times, then John Fian blew the church doors open, like the big bad wolf huffing and puffing the three little pigs’ houses down. Within the church, they lit black candles. Satan mounted the pulpit and preached a sermon, exhorting his faithful to eat, drink, be merry, and “not spare to do evil.” He promised to “raise them all up gloriously at the last day.” The devil then took the coven members out to the churchyard and showed them how to transform corpses into magical charms.

During the winter of 1589/90 King James and his wife Anne of Denmark had experienced storms at sea. Agnes confessed to raising these storms because the devil commanded them to kill James, the devil’s very worst enemy on Earth.

Sounds as if she’s attempting to flatter the king, doesn’t it? James thought so too and initially didn’t buy her story. Agnes Sampson, however, proved her powers to him by telling him something (it’s unknown what; it was private between the two of them and is not included in testimony) that James had said to his wife when they were alone on their wedding night. James then became convinced Agnes was a witch and that her confession was true in its entirety. Why she convinced him is among the mysteries of the witch trials.

Agnes Sampson now testified that she was part of a conspiracy to kill James. In fact, the whole Halloween coven meeting had been focused on the king’s demise. Agnes described making figures, wrapped in linen, which she gave to the devil at the coven. He chanted incantations over them and returned them to her. The figure was passed back and forth among coven members with everyone uttering the devil’s incantation, “This is King James the Sixth, ordered to be consumed at the instance of a noble man, Francis Earl Bothwell.”

Agnes confirmed Geillis Duncan’s confession, saying she saw Gilly dancing with the devil at the Sabbat. Both women testified that John Fian was their coven leader.

On December 26, 1590, John Fian, Master of a school at Saltpans in Lothian, and referred to in trial records as “Secretar and Register to the Devil,” was arraigned for witchcraft and high treason. Twenty counts were brought; conviction of one was sufficient for burning.

He was brutally tortured, but no confession was forthcoming. Other witches suggested that his tongue be searched. Two pins were allegedly discovered thrust in as far as their heads, preventing him from confessing. The pins were pulled out, and Fian was brought before the king where he confessed to whatever was demanded. He confessed to leading a coven in North Berwick but said he abjured the devil and had returned to Christianity. He was returned to jail and placed in solitary confinement.

The night after his confession, someone helped John escape from jail. (There is speculation that Lord Bothwell orchestrated the escape. Another suggestion is that he somehow obtained the keys and released himself.) Eventually recaptured, he recanted his confession, insisting on his innocence. Having recanted, he was re-tortured, this time even worse than before. His fingernails were removed and needles jammed into their places. His legs were completely crushed in the “boots.” He was periodically brought before the king but refused to confess again.

Many came forward to accuse Fian of witchcraft, devil worship, and grave robbing for purposes of obtaining components for potions. There were so many accusations that Fian was deemed guilty even though he never again confessed. Lack of confession despite torture was interpreted as proof of the devil’s protection.

Agnes Sampson and John Fian were strangled and their bodies burned.

Another alleged conspirator, Euphemia Macalzean (aka Maclean), daughter of Lord Cliftonhall, was the wife of wealthy, prominent Patrick Moscrop. A Roman Catholic and a friend of Lord Bothwell, she did not confess despite torture. She hired attorneys to fight her conviction but was executed for witchcraft on July 25, 1591. (Other witches died as early as January 1591.) Euphemia was burned alive and not strangled first, unlike other North Berwick witches including Sampson and John Fian.

Another alleged conspirator, Barbara Napier, wife of an Edinburgh burgess and the Laird of Carschoggil’s sister-in-law, was accused of consorting with Agnes Sampson and consulting Richard Grahame, a necromancer. Her crimes were considered petty witchcraft crimes: for instance she requested assistance from a witch to ease the morning sickness of her friend and patron Dame Jeane Lyon, Lady Angus.

Barbara was arrested but acquitted. King James, however, wrote a letter demanding that she be strangled and burned at the stake and that all her goods be forfeit to him. Barbara responded that she was pregnant and so received a stay of execution. Exactly what happened to her is unclear; some sources state that having given birth she was burned while others suggest that with the passage of time, her case was overlooked and she was eventually released. Richard Grahame, however, the alleged necromancer with whom Barbara Napier consulted, was burned at the Cross of Edinburgh on the last day of February 1592.

Margaret Thompson, another alleged conspirator, died while being tortured.

James chose to personally supervise the torture and interrogation of the accused, taking special interest in demonic sexual practices. He promoted the concept that demonic witchcraft was actively and aggressively practiced and a threat to society. His statute of 1604 was the legal basis of witchcraft prosecutions in Great Britain and her Colonies until 1736.

The king’s cousin, Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, could have succeeded James to the throne were James to die childless. In the wake of the trials, he fled to Naples where, impoverished, he wrote letters denouncing Christianity and urged Christians to deny Christ and their baptism.

In June 1596, John Stuart, Master of Orkney, was accused of consulting with a witch, Margaret Balfour, in attempts to poison his brother the Earl of Orkney and assume his position. In order to elicit her confession, which had not been forthcoming, Margaret’s 81-year-old husband, her son (age unknown) and her 7-year-old daughter were tortured before her eyes. Margaret confessed but recanted later when her family was no longer being tortured. She was burned on December 16, 1596.

The Aberdeen Witch Trials

The Aberdeen Witch Trials of 1597 were among the largest in Scotland. Most of those accused of witchcraft during this panic were elderly women, the majority of whom were accused when a condemned witch seeking leniency claimed to have attended a gathering of over 2,000 witches and named several of her neighbors as attendees.

Several women confessed to making herbal cures, love charms, raising storms, stimulating nightmares, and dancing with demons. A few of the accused committed suicide prior to trial or execution. Twenty-three women and two men were burned in Aberdeen for crimes of witchcraft and magic. Five people were set free because the court lacked sufficient evidence for conviction. However because suspicion of witchcraft remained, they were branded on the face with hot irons and commanded to leave Aberdeen forever.

Following trials and executions, families of the dead were held liable for all costs incurred. The bill for Aberdeen witches, dated February 1596, charged their families for the cost of the coal, peat and tar used to set the fire that incinerated them, as well as the cost of stakes, ropes, and the executioner’s salary and labor for carrying the supplies to the hill where the women were burned.

Isobel Gowdie

Isobel Gowdie is among the most famous witches of the Burning Times although her case is very mysterious and there are many gaps in the account, not least what eventually befell her.

She allegedly volunteered a confession of witchcraft in Auldearn, Morayshire, triggering a series of witch trials when she claimed to be part of a local coven consisting of thirteen members, whom she named to authorities.

Very little is known about Isobel Gowdie other than she confessed to witchcraft on four occasions during April and May 1662. It is unknown why she confessed or even whether her confession was truly voluntary. She was described as an attractive, red-haired, childless woman, married to a farmer and living on a remote farm in Morayshire.

In April 1662, Isobel confessed, saying, “I do not deserve to be seated here at ease and unharmed, but rather to be stretched on an iron rack; nor can my crimes be atoned for, were I to be drawn asunder by wild horses.”

She said the witches of Auldearn were divided into companies called covens. Each coven was commanded by two officers, one of whom was called “The Maiden.”

Isobel began her confession by discussing fairies. She said that she had visited the Queen of Fairy for years and that the Queen provided her with meat. Isobel also used her magic for positive, healing purposes. Based on surviving testimony, neither fairies nor beneficial magic particularly interested her interrogators. They encouraged her to speak of the devil and malicious magic instead.

Isobel told the court that in August 1659, she and the coven disguised themselves in the forms of cats, crows, and rabbits and rampaged through the countryside, eating, drinking, and generally ruining their neighbors’ property. They got into the dye-works at Auldearn and played such pranks that ever after it would only dye one color, black, “the colour of the Devil.”

According to Isobel’s testimony, her life was boring, her husband was boring, and so she became involved with Satan in 1647, first encountering him in the form of a man in gray. She promised to meet him at the local church where the devil stood in the pulpit with his Black Book and insisted she renounce Jesus. He sucked her blood in the church, and then baptized her with her own blood. He renamed her Janet and left a mark on her shoulder, which authorities reported finding. Isobel described the devil as a big, hairy, black man who visited her a few days later when they had sex. She also had sex with a demon while lying in bed beside her oblivious husband. While she was away, Isobel said she put a broomstick in the bed to fool her husband into thinking she was present. He apparently never knew different.

She told her interrogators that the devil had a huge scaly penis and ice-cold semen. Penetration was excruciatingly painful she said, but still the best sex she’d ever had. Sex with the devil, her interrogators recorded, was more pleasurable than any she’d experienced with a mortal man, which may in fact be saying something of Isobel’s experiences.

She described witches’ sabbats attended by covens consisting of thirteen witches each. Witches flew to sabbats on beanstalks and corn straws, which they charmed by shouting “Horse and Hattock, in the Devil’s Name!

Isobel claimed that she transformed herself into rabbit by saying three times:

I shall go into a hare,

With sorrow and sighing and little care

And I shall go in the Devil’s name

Until I come home again

When she wished to transform back, she said:

Hare, hare, God send thee care

I am in a hare’s likeness now

But I shall be a woman soon

Hare, hare, God sent thee care!

Isobel confessed that her coven caused all the male children of the local landowner, the Laird of Parkis, to die via clay image magic. She was unable to demonstrate her powers, claiming that they deserted her when she confessed.

Isobel’s confession was confirmed by Janet Braidhead, whom Isobel had implicated. No record exists as to what befell either of them although one suspects it was not good.

June 1722 saw the last Scottish witch trial: two Highland women, a mother and daughter, were charged with witchcraft and consorting with the devil. The mother was accused of using her daughter as “horse and hattock.” Her daughter had been “shod” by Satan. (The daughter was allegedly lame and unable to use her hands.) The daughter was found innocent but the mother, Janet Horne, was burned alive.

In 1736 statutes against witchcraft were repealed.