Scottish Witchcraft

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North Berwick witches being interrogated in Edinburgh. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.
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Site of witch burning near Dunning, Strath Earn, Tayside, Scotland. Courtesy Hamish Brown/Fortean Picture Library.

Scottish Witchcraft

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The most barbaric persecution of witchcraft undoubtedly occurred in Germany, but Scotland came a close second. The Presbyterian clergy acted like inquisitors, and the church sessions often shared the prosecution with the secular law courts.

Torture was intense and limited only by the fact that the poor technology of the area produced unsophisticated implements. In the case of Agnes Sampson (see page 425), a witch's bridle was applied. This was an iron instrument with four sharp prongs that were forced into her mouth so that two of the prongs pressed against her tongue, the other two against her cheeks.

There are many cases of witchcraft throughout Scottish history, reflecting the bitter crusade pursued by Protestants and Catholics alike in their paranoia over possible "servants of the Devil." The Scottish Kirk recognized the religious origins of witchcraft and therefore applied to it the same sort of congregational frame of reference found within the Kirk, seeking out covens, or "coventicles," of thirteen—a leader and followers.

Witchcraft was practiced in Scotland from earliest times. During the reign of Natholocus, in the second century CE, there was a famous witch who lived on the Isle of Iona (a tiny island off the coast of the large island of Mull, in the Hebrides, on the west coast of Scotland). Such was the renown of this witch that the king sent a messenger to her to find out the result of a rebellion that was building in his kingdom. The witch told the messenger that the king would be murdered by a trusted friend, and that friend was he, the messenger. This did turn out to be the case; the messenger returned and killed the king.

Up to the end of the sixteenth century, although there was plenty of simple folk magic in evidence, there were few large trials of witchcraft. The trials that did take place were of a political nature. The Earl of Mar was accused, in 1479, of using witchcraft to try to kill his brother, King James III. Lady Glamis was burned as a witch in 1537 for working magic against King James V. Lady Foulis was charged— but acquitted—of employing charms, wax images, and poison to get rid of Lady Balnagowan, hoping to then marry Lord Balnagowan.

Trials started to increase with the introduction of a new statute by Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1563. But this law was aimed primarily at sorcery and fortunetelling, although it did make the one who sought to have the magic done as culpable as the actual practitioner of the magic. It was not until the reign of King James VI of Scotland (King James I of England) that witchcraft trials really caught hold. The case that particularly affected James—and the history of witchcraft in Britain—was that of the North Berwick witches.

The trial of the North Berwick witches took place from 1590 to 1592. It started innocently enough with charges of cures being made by a serving maid named Geillis Duncan. She had been rapidly acquiring a reputation for curing the sick through occult means, enough to cause her employer, David Seaton, to start investigating her. Seaton was deputy-bailiff of a small town called Tranent, near Edinburgh. In his own mind, Seaton decided that the girl's skill was a gift from the Devil. Taking the law into his own hands, he set about interrogating her by using a thumb-screw and other implements of torture. By these he finally got her to confess that she was involved with the Devil.

When Geillis was subsequently turned over to the authorities, she was questioned further and started to implicate others, implying that they had all been working together in a plot against the king. One of the people she implicated was the Lothian schoolmaster, John Fian. Fian was apparently the secretary of the group of witches. A copy of News from Scotland for 1591 carries a picture of him sitting at a desk alongside a group of witches.

Fian was tortured until he confessed, signing his confession in King James's presence. He implicated Francis, Earl of Bothwell, a cousin of the king. On being returned to his jail cell after the torture and confession, Fian managed to escape. It is possible that he was desperate to warn Earl Bothwell. Fian was recaptured and, on interrogation, denied all of his original confession. Despite further torture, he would say nothing more and went to his execution without another word.

Geillis Duncan had also named Agnes Sampson, of Haddington, as a witch. Agnes was arrested and questioned at Holyrood Castle, with James himself in attendance. She had all of her body hair shaved off and was searched for the Devil's Mark, which the examiners claimed to find. Under torture, Agnes Sampson gave out some amazing stories. She claimed that as many as two hundred witches had gathered together in a churchyard in North Berwick. They got there by sailing in sieves, she claimed, drinking wine as they went. At the churchyard there was singing and dancing, with Geillis Duncan playing the Jew's Harp, or "trump." At this point in the trial, the king had Geillis play him a dance tune, which he apparently very much enjoyed.

Inside the North Berwick church, the earthly representative of the Devil preached to the assembled witches. He then had them give him the oscullum infami before departing. The court records state, "Now efter that the deuell had endit his admonitions, he cam down out of the pulpit, and caused all the company to com and kiss his ers, quhilk (which) they said was cauld lyk yce."

King James was not overly impressed with Agnes Sampson's stories and actually called her a liar. However, he was suddenly stunned, according to his own report, when Agnes went on to tell him exactly what his queen had said to him on the first night of their marriage, when they were in Oslo, Norway. Since this was something that no one could know by normal means, the king then came to believe that there must be truth in the other stories she told. One of these other stories concerned a spell for the king's downfall. It involved the gathering of venom from a toad and then spreading it on some item of the king's clothing, to bewitch him.

When the king had traveled to Denmark to marry his fifteen-year-old queen, Anne, his ship had been badly tossed about in what seemed to be an unnatural storm. Agnes Sampson now told James that the witches had caused the storm. They had taken a cat, christened it, and then fastened a human limb—taken from a grave—to each of its paws and tossed it into the sea. This had caused the great storm.

Another piece of magic that had been done was the making of a wax poppet, or "picture," of the king. This had been done by Agnes with some of the others, and the image had then been carefully wrapped in a linen cloth. It was taken to the meeting with the Devil and there inspected by him. It was then passed around the group, whereupon each witch said, "This is King James the Sixth, ordained to be consumed at the instance of the nobleman, Francis Earl Bothwell!" At one of the subsequent meetings, an old plowman named Grey Mill happened to remark, "Nothing ails the king yet, God be thanked." According to the records, "the deuell gaif him a gret blaw!"

Almost certainly, the part of the Devil was played at the meetings by Francis Bothwell himself, wearing a mask. More than sixty people were eventually implicated in the North Berwick case. Among them were Barbara Napier, sister-in-law to the Laird of Carschoggill, and Dame Euphemia McCalyan, daughter of Lord Cliftonhall. Dame McCalyan was burned alive at the stake on July 25, 1591, while Barbara Napier—through claiming to be pregnant—was eventually freed. It is more than likely that Dame McCalyan was executed because of her friendship with Bothwell and because she was a Roman Catholic. The Earl of Bothwell, although denying any connection with the witches, was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. He managed to escape and fled to Italy, settling in Naples. Two years later, James pardoned him, but Francis, perhaps wisely, remained in Italy where he eventually died penniless.

In 1597, the case of the Aberdeen witches took place. The publication of King James's Demonology that year brought about a witch craze that swept through Aberdeen, resulting in the burning of twenty-four men and women. Typical of the ones accused was Janet Wishart, who was accused of casting a spell on Alexander Thomson, causing him to shiver and sweat. Andrew Webster was similarly bewitched by her, although he died as a result. It was claimed that Wishart, by casting the evil eye, had also caused others to die. The witches named were Margrat Bean, Katherine Gerard, Jonet Grant, Marion Grant, Thomas Leyis, Andro Mann, Margrat Og, Issobell Oige, Christen Reid, Issobell Richie, Helen Rogie, Jonet Spaldarg, and Janet Wishart. One of the accused escaped punishment by informing on the others, saying that she had seen as many as two thousand witches and that she "knew them well enough, and what mark the devil had given to every one of them."

In 1607, on March 10, Issobel Grierson was brought to trial in Edinburgh. Issobel was the wife of John Bull of Prestonpans. She was charged on six counts. The first was that she went in the form of her own cat and, together with a great number of other cats, had entered the house of her neighbor, Adam Clark. There the cats made a great deal of noise and caused a lot of trouble, to the point where Adam Clark and his wife were "in such a great fear that they were likely to go mad." The second charge was that Issobel sought to kill William Burnet by "devilish and ungodly means." Thirdly, she cast a sickness on Robert Peddan nine years prior to her indictment. Peddan claimed that she had bewitched him because of a small debt he had forgotten about. When he remembered and paid the debt, she removed the curse. Robert Peddan was also the accuser in the fourth charge, claiming that Issobel had stretched out her hand to stroke his cat at the time he was brewing ale. As a consequence, the ale turned sour. Peddan's wife was the object of the fifth charge of bewitchment. She had fallen sick and believed Issobel had caused it. Every time she got better, Issobel would curse her for spreading rumors, and Peddan's wife would fall ill again. The sixth charge was that Issobel was "a common sorcerer and a witch, and abuser of the people, by laying in and taking off of sickness and diseases, and using all devilish and ungodly means to win her living." After the witnesses had been heard, Issobel Grierson was found guilty, strangled, and burned. All her goods and property were forfeited to the king.

The trial of Margaret Barclay in 1618 was another example typical of the witchcraft cases in Scotland at that time. Margaret Barclay did not get along with her brother-in-law and his wife. Margaret was the wife of Archibald Dean, a burgess of Irvine. The Kirk suggested a reconciliation between the people involved, but Margaret could not accept her in-laws. When her brother-in-law made a trip to France, it was said that Margaret had wished the ship would sink and carry him to the bottom. A tramp who happened to be traveling through the area claimed that he knew of the ship's sinking. It later transpired that the ship had indeed gone down, leaving only two survivors. The tramp was arrested and charged with precognition, and Margaret was charged with witchcraft. The tramp, John Stewart, under torture claimed that he had seen Margaret making a wax image of the ship. He further claimed that she had an accomplice—her eight-year-old daughter, Isobel Insh. The little girl confessed that she had been at a deserted house where a devil dog lit the room with light from its jaws as they made wax images. Young Isobel was tortured into confession and imprisoned in a church belfry. She escaped but fell from the roof, dying five days later. John Stewart managed to kill himself despite a heavy guard, but Margaret Barclay was tortured and eventually convicted, strangled, and burned to ashes.

1623 was the date of the Perth Witch trial, and 1662 the trial of Issobel Gowdie, one of the best-known Scottish "witches." Issobel claimed that she met with the Devil in 1647 in the church at Auldearne. There she made a pact with him and received a new name: Janet. The Devil sucked her blood and rebaptized her. She claimed that she would go to the witches' sabbat, leaving a broomstick in her bed to fool her husband. To get to the sabbat she rode on a piece of straw. Robbins, in his The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, says that the woman was "clearly demented, although by her statements it is plain she believed what she confessed." As he points out, all of Issobel's confessions were given without torture of any kind. But what she had to say simply amounted to all the popular delusions of the time about witches and witchcraft. She spoke of witches, including herself, being able to change into animals and birds, of shooting elf darts made by elf boys, of controlling the weather to produce storms, of having familiars, and of witches working in covens. Margaret Murray, in The Witch Cult in Western Europe, presents much of her evidence based on Issobel Gowdie's wild imagining.

Major Thomas Weir, executed in 1670, was regarded as one of Scotland's most notorious wizards. He had been an outstanding parliamentary officer and evangelical leader but, at the age of seventy, he voluntarily confessed to a long list of crimes, including sodomy, bestiality (with mares and cows), incest (with his sister Jane since she was sixteen until she was fifty, and with his stepdaughter, Margaret Bourdon), fornication (with his maid servant Bessie Weems), and witchcraft. His sixtyyear-old sister Jane was burned as a witch on her own confessions and the evidence of her brother's statements.

Major Weir always walked with a thornwood staff, on which he would lean even when praying. This came to be regarded as a wizard's staff that brought him inspiration from the Devil. At the trial it was mentioned that a woman had seen the Major having sex with a mare in 1651 or 1652 but that on reporting it she had been whipped through the town for slandering such a well-respected man. Weir's sister-in-law, Margaret, reported that when she was twenty-seven she had seen him and his sister Jane making violent love together in a barn. Jane Weir told tales of magic work being done for her by spirits and of she and her brother traveling in a magic coach of fire that took them to Musselburgh and back to Edinburgh. Found guilty, Major Weir was strangled and burned on April 11, 1670, and his sister on April 12.

Belief in witchcraft continued in Scotland well into the eighteenth century. The King's Advocate, Robert Dundas, in 1720 refused to act against some Calder women imprisoned on charges of witchcraft. But in 1729, Janet Horne was burned at Dornoch, Ross-shire, for causing her own daughter's lameness by using her as a horse and having her shoed by the Devil. The witchcraft act was formally repealed in 1736, although the Associated Presbytery passed a resolution declaring their continued belief in witchcraft. It has been estimated that as many as 4,400 people may have been burned on a charge of witchcraft in Scotland. Significant trials in Scotland occurred in the following years: North Berwick Witches, 1590 Dr. John Fian (leader of North Berwick Witchse), 1590 Aberdeen Witches, 1597 Isobel Grierson, 1607 Margaret Barclay, 1618 Perth Witches, 1623 Issobel Gowdie, 1662 Thomas Weir, 1670 Renfrew Witches, 1697 Pittenweem Witches, 1704

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