Art. I. – WITCHCRAFT IN SCOTLAND., Volume 18, Oct., 1891, pp.257-288.

[Scottish Review Contents]

IT is with no feeling of pleasure that a writer of the present day can enter upon the task of sketching the sad history of Scottish witchcraft. Horrible as are the events attending the development of the witch mania on the Continent, an enquiry into them yet brings us into the presence of such gigantic crimes that we seem to be dealing with beings of a different nature to ourselves. When we picture to ourselves a king of France levelling a false charge of sorcery, with all its awful consequences of torture and death, at thousands of the bravest defenders of Christendom, merely that he may obtain possession of their riches, or a great feudal lord sacrificing hundreds of children in a single year in the hope of prolonging for a short space his career of profusion, we seem to see before us the fallen angels of Milton rather than the sharers of our common humanity. But in the history of Scottish witchcraft there is nothing to excite the wonder which in some measure deadens the disgust with which we contemplate the deeds of a Philip the Fair or a Gilles de Retz. Here the victims are, with hardly an exception, such poor and wretched old women as are still to be found by scores in every parish in town or country; while the persecutors are the pious, zealous, and, on the whole, learned clergy, whom we have been accustomed to reverence as the very patterns and exemplars of the milder virtues of Christianity. Yet it is, perhaps, as well that the task should be attempted, for the records in which the terrible details of this later and meaner persecution are written are both little known and widely scattered, and we are therefore apt, while rightly condemning the cruelty and superstition of certain foreign ecclesiastics, to forget that there existed at no very distant date a tribunal in our own land, which, in both cruelty and superstition, actually exceeded the worst of foreign Inquisitions. 

The origin of the wild desire to torture and slay all persons suspected of sorcery which fell like an epidemic upon Europe in the middle of the fifteenth century, seems for the present to be lost in obscurity. Some writers, like Sir Walter Scott and Dr. Mackay, have thought to find it in the simultaneous enactment of severe penal laws, such as the Bull Summis desiderantes; but had these enactments preceded instead of (as was actually the case) following the outburst of popular fury, we should still find ourselves at a loss to explain why the equally severe legislation of the later Roman Emperors and of Charlemagne was not attended with the same deplorable result. Others, again, among whom are Buckle and Mr. Lecky, have attributed it to the increased attention to the existence of the evil principle, which, they allege, was brought about by the spread of the reformed doctrines, and the more wide-spread study of the Scriptures. But we know that the persecution of witches raged unchecked on the Continent long before the coming of the German Reformers, and that, even after that date, the witch-hunters of Catholic Germany, Spain, and Italy, sought after their prey with a zeal as fiery, though hardly as searching, as that of their Protestant contemporaries. All that is certain is that the fury spread from one country to another, disregarding the barriers of language, creed, and race, until, about a century after it had shown itself in Central Europe, it reached the distant shores of Scotland. Here it continued for about the same length of time as in the place of its birth, to gradually expire in the same manner, and apparently from the same cause that had there brought about its decline.1 

The beginning of witch persecution in Scotland is generally supposed to coincide with the passing of the Act of 1563, but this can hardly be accepted without some qualification. The Civil Law was always terribly severe against witchcraft, and in the proclamation of 1510 for regulating the proceedings at Circuit Courts the judges were directed to enquire ‘If there be any witchcraft or sorcery used in the realm?’ We even hear of some fourteen or fifteen witches being burnt at Edinburgh in 1479 for compassing the death of James III. by the familiar means of a wax image, and a similar tale is told with regard to the rather mythical King Duffus. It is probable, however, that unless the offence were coupled with some graver crime, such as treason, the judges were satisfied with banishing the offender, and this is the punishment inflicted upon one Agnes Mullikine, who was arraigned before the High Court of Justiciary just before the Act came into operation. Why the legislature thought it necessary to increase the severity of the punishment is not very clear, and the words of the statute itself seem to point rather to an enlightened scepticism on the part of its authors than to any vehement belief in the extensive use of diabolic agency. After reciting that ‘The Queen’s Majesty and the Three Estates in this present Parliament are informed of the heavy and abominable superstition used by divers of the lieges of this realm, by using of witchcraft, sorcery, and necromancy, and credence given thereto in times bygone against the laws of God,’ it goes on to enact that ‘for avoiding of all such vain superstition in times to come’ no person shall ‘use any manner of witchcraft, sorcery, or necromancy, nor give themselves forth to have any such craft or knowledge thereof, there through abusing the people,’ and then prescribes the penalty of death ‘as well against such user or abuser as the seeker of the response or consultation.’ It is curious that all subsequent witch-trials in Scotland should have been founded on an enactment which seems to have been aimed at nothing more than the fraudulent assumption of supernatural power. 

From the outset the Reformed clergy, who were by this time fairly established, seem to have taken the working of the Act in hand. During the first year of its operation four women were denounced by the Superintendent of Fife. Their cases were reported to the General Assembly, who contented themselves with petitioning the Privy Council to take order concerning them; but it does not appear that any notice was taken of the petition, nor is it probable that during the remainder of the disturbed reign of Mary the ministers found themselves strong enough to insist upon the law being enforced. Under Murray things were different, and during the last year of his regency we hear that he ‘caused burn certain witches at St. Andrews’ on his way to the North, and ‘another company of witches at Dundee’ on his return.2 Among the St. Andrews executions were those of ‘a notable sorceress called Nic Nevan’ (possible the Mother Nicneven of Sir Walter Scott) and a Lyon King-at-Arms.3 The latter was the most distinguished personage that suffered during the hundred years that the witch-persecution lasted, but as he had originally been arrested for a conspiracy against Murray’s life, it is probable that in this, as in most of the earlier cases, the accusation of witchcraft was but a convenient way of getting rid of a political enemy. The assassination of the Regent in 1570 again threw the administration of the criminal law into confusion until the accession to power of Morton, whose dislike of the more zealous of the ministers made it little likely that he would do anything to yield to their wishes. In spite, therefore, of the declaration by the General Assembly in 1575, that ‘The Kirk hath no power to cognose and decerne upon witchcraft,’ there was little vigour displayed in the enforcement of the Act, and, although two or three cases came before the High Court at Edinburgh and the circuit courts, the General Assembly in 1583 were able to complain to the King that ‘there is no punishment for “(among other crimes)” witchcraft, in such sort that daily sin increaseth, and provoketh the wrath of God against the whole country.’ Five years afterwards, a witch who had before been accused, but had been allowed to escape by the Archbishop of St. Andrews, was convicted by the exertions of the General Assembly, while a process in 1590 against Lady Foulis (who seems to have really attempted, both by witchcraft and poisoning, to take off several members of her own family), only resulted in the acquittal of the principals in the crime, and in the execution of some of the subaltern accomplices. 

   Up to this period, the ‘dittays’ against the alleged witches are filled with recitals of such simple sorceries as the medicinal use of herbs and the performance of trivial and meaningless ceremonies. In no case is the efficacy of the cures or enchantments attributed to any more dreaded agency than that of ‘The Gude Folk,’ or fairies. But now a change comes over the form of the indictments which shows that the managers of these trials had not allowed some of the more extraordinary theories of the Continental witch-hunters to escape them. Within a month after Lady Foulis’ acquittal, Janet Grant or Gradoch, and Janet Clark or Spalding, were put to the bar of the High Court, charged with bewitching to death several persons, with killing cattle, with preventing the consummation of marriages, and with raising the devil. They were both found guilty, strangled, and burnt, but the evidence at their trial prepared the people (as it was perhaps intended to do) for the tragedy that was to follow. In May of the same year, James, when returning from Denmark with his bride, had met with contrary winds which had put him in some danger. It was now given out that this untoward weather was caused by a number of witches, who had assembled in ‘conventions’ at North Berwick Church and other places, and had attempted, in conjunction with Satan, present among them in bodily form, to hinder the King’s return to his native land. A number of persons, among whom John Fian or Cunningham, a schoolmaster in Tranent, was assigned the leading part, were arrested and examined before the King in person. There is fortunately no need for me to repeat here the horrible details of these examinations, as they have been given at quite sufficient length by all the writers who have touched upon the subject.4 It is sufficient to say that, after the most fearful and unheard-of tortures had been inflicted upon the accused, confessions were obtained from them, in which all the wild and impossible features of the Sabbath as described by Del Rio and De Lancre – the form of adoration of the devil, his amours with the witches, and the charms made from the bodies of the dead – were set out with all details. At first James, who was shrewd enough in such matters, listened without being much impressed, and declared the witches to be ‘extreme liars’: but when the name of Bothwell was introduced as the contriver of the attempt on his life, his attitude changed. For of Bothwell, who had jointly with Lennox governed the realm with great firmness and judgment during the King’s absence, James had a nervous horror, which was artfully stimulated by the Chancellor, Maitland of Thirlestane. Bothwell was thrown into prison, from which he managed to escape, upon the peers who had been summoned for the trial refusing to meet, ‘knowing,’ as says the chronicler, ‘that the King had no just occasion of grief, nor crime to allege against him, but only at the instigation of the Chancellor.’5 Three years later, having forced him way into James’ presence, he demanded a trial which resulted in his acquittal, but was proclaimed a rebel soon afterwards, and died in exile. In the meantime, his supposed accomplices had been brought to trial and executed, the only person of note among them being Euphemia Macalzean, the daughter of Lord Cliftonhall, a Senator of the College of Justice. As both the Books of Adjournal and the criminal records of Edinburgh for a period of about five years from this date are lost, it is impossible to tell accurately how many suffered on this absurd charge. But, as in the confessions which have been preserved, from sixty to two hundred persons were denounced, we are perhaps justified ion assuming that at least fifty of these were convicted. 

   And now, the panic fear of witchcraft which seems to be the proximate cause of all witch persecutions was fairly aroused, and neither King nor clergy had any idea of letting it die out. In 1592, the Privy Council ordered that blank commissions giving power to imprison for witchcraft should be issued to the General Assembly, to be filled up as they should think fit – a compliment which the Presbytery of Glasgow tried to return the following year by petitioning the Assembly to print and publish all the particulars of the ‘impiety of the witches and their late conspiracy,’ in order (as they said) that ‘the same may be divulged and made notour to the whole inhabitants in this country.’ The length to which these measures led may be judged by what happened in Aberdeen in 1596. In that year there seems to have been an epidemic disease in the city, which from the symptoms described was a malarial fever. Of this, many of the poorer inhabitants died, and their neighbours, stirred up by the reports from Edinburgh, insisted that it was the work of one family of singular habits, who had for a long time been suspected of witchcraft. A commission from the Privy Council was therefore applied for, and before April 1597, twenty-three women and one man had been burnt, one woman had died under torture, one had hanged herself in prison, and four others who were acquitted on the capital charge, were yet branded on the cheek and banished from the sheriffdom. As usual, the persons executed had in their extorted confessions accused others, and many of these had taken alarm in time, and had fled the country. The commissioners, in a precept addressed to ‘All and sundry ministers of God’s word, elders and deacons of the parish where the persons after specified swell,’ requested them to ‘convene yourselves with the elders and deacons of your parochine, and take up dittay of the persons delated as witches by the persons lately execute here for witchcraft.’ The notes taken by certain ministers under this precept show that a further holocaust was contemplated, but it may be hoped that the commission was revoked before any further executions could take place. 

   For, in the meantime, the zeal of the clergy in another part of the kingdom had overshot its mark. One Margaret Atkin, who had been arrested in Fife, was led by the fear of torture to make a confession involving many hundreds of people. In this she alleged that she could recognise a witch by a certain mark in the eyes. She was, in consequence, carried about by the ministers in charge of her case from one town to another that she might be confronted with anyone suspected, and thus many innocent persons were put to death. At last her imposture was detected by the fact that she sometimes failed to recognise those whom she had formerly denounced, and she was burnt, confessing with her last breath that the whole of her pretended revelations were false. Bowes, the English Ambassador, writes to Lord Burghley, in August, 1597, that the witches ‘swarm in thousands,’6 and as Margaret Atkin gave an account of one Sabbath where she asserted two thousand three hundred persons were present, it is evident that the executions might soon have reached that figure. But the King, who seems to have now become alarmed at the height to which the delusion had grown, revoked at one stroke all the Commissions of Justiciary then in existence, and thus for a time put a stop to the terror. This merciful act came too late to save the life of poor Alison Balfour, whose trial (to which I shall hereafter return) shows more human suffering than perhaps has ever before been crowded into a single room. Nor was it able altogether to tame the zeal of the Aberdeen ministers, for we find a resolution by the Presbytery, in 1602, that there shall be a ‘privy inquest for witches through the whole parish,’ the results of which were to be sent to the Marquis of Huntly, as Sheriff of the county, in order ‘that the land may be purged of such instruments of the devil.’ The Marquis was apparently not inclined to trust to the information obtained by the ‘privy inquest,’ for we find the presbytery resolving the following year that ‘each minister with two of his elders, that fear God and are most zealous for His glory, shall at each particular Kirk respectivé take the oaths of the inhabitants, within their charge, what they know of witches and their consulters with them,’ so that ‘his Lordship may the better know whom he shall hold to justice.’ But all the evidence on the subject goes to show that no more victims were sacrificed as the result of these inquiries. 

   It is possible that Mr. Chambers is justified in stating, in his Domestic Annals of Scotland, that the heat of persecution was in direct ratio to the influence of the extreme section of the Reformers. Yet the establishment of the modified Episcopacy favoured by James did not at first do much to cool it. From 1600 to 1620 there were frequent convictions for witchcraft both before the High Court and the Commissions still granted for the trial of individual cases. The infection spread even to Orkney and Shetland, where the Law-thing executed during this period at least twenty-five persons. Nor do the ministers appear to have in any way abandoned their claim to assist the lay courts in the exercise of their jurisdiction. Thus, in the case of Grizel Gardiner, who was arraigned before the High Court in 1610, the principal witness against the panel was ‘Mr. John Caldcleuch, minister,’ who deposed that the Presbytery had directed him, as their Moderator, to ‘notify the truth’ of the accusation to the Privy Council ‘that some order might be taken anent her trial and punishment.’ But, in the long run, the change in Church Government was favourable to the suspects. In 1624 the Council proclaimed that ‘to the intent that neither should the innocent be molested nor the guilty escape,’ all informations should thenceforth pass through the bands of the Bishop of the diocese ‘to be seen and considered by him and such of the ministry as he should call unto him.’ This was clearly to the advantage of the accused, because the Bishop was, from his position, not likely to be under the fear of reprisals which led the neighbours of a delated person to look with horror upon the possibility of a witch’s escape. Its effect was seen in a marked falling off in the number of executions from this date down to the death of James; and in the denunciation to the Council, in 1632, of one John Balfour, who is alleged to have made a regular trade of discovering witches and to have gone about the country ‘abusing simple and ignorant people for his private gain and commodity.’ It is reasonably certain that no such denunciation would have received attention during the terror which immediately followed the Bothwell trials. 

   Unfortunately this improved state of things was not destined to last. The civil commotions which followed upon Charles’ attempt to force the Liturgy upon the Scottish people, and the signing of the Covenant in 1638, probably kept the ministers too busy for a few years to attend to the concoction of witch-processes, but as soon as their hands were free the persecution broke out with redoubled fury. The General Assembly, in 1640, called upon the Parliament6 and the judges to enforce unsparingly the laws against witchcraft, and from 1640 until the invasion of Cromwell there was no one to place any check upon their activity. I believe that the details of this second persecution, could they be brought to light, would be found to be more shocking than the deeds of Sprenger and Institor, and that the witch-hunters found their way into the most remote corners of the land. Even the very summary procedure of the law proved too cumbrous for the speed of their operations. The Presbytery of St. Andrews, in 1644, found themselves compelled to procure from the Earl of Lindsay ‘a general commission for apprehending, trying, and judging such as are or shall be delated for witches within the stewartry,’ and in the same year the Presbytery of Lanark deemed it necessary to provide that each parish should provide guards ‘for its own witches.’ Such a strain was put upon the resources of the smaller parishes by the fees attending the Commissions for the trial of the persons they had apprehended that the Provincial Assembly of Lothian and Tweedale, in 1649, requested ‘my Lord Lothian to speak to the Committee of Estates that their Lordships may give order to their clerks to issue out commissions for the trial and burning of witches gratis.’ The same year the estates passed, at the instance of the General Assembly, an Act extending the provisions of the Act of 1563, and making it more clear that those who merely consulted witches were to be punished with death. The effect of these measures may be guessed from a statement in Whitelocke’s Memorials that on the 15th April, 1650, ‘At a little village within two miles (of Berwick) two men and three women were burnt for witches, and nine more were to be burnt, the village consisting but of fourteen families, and there were as many witches,’ and that ‘twenty more were to be burnt within six miles of that place.’ 

   But now a deliverer (as they would have said in those days) was raised up for the victims of superstition. When Cromwell made his attempt to unite England and Scotland under one system of law, his ‘Commissioner for the administration of Justice’ found in their first circuit upwards of sixty prisoners awaiting trial for witchcraft. Most of these poor creatures had confessed, but on hearing how their confessions had been obtained, the commissioners directed that they should all be released. This proved to be the beginning of a more enlightened policy towards those accused of the crime, and during the continuance of Cromwell’s supremacy, but very few were burnt. ‘There is much witchery up and down our land,’ writes Robert Bailie regretfully, ‘the English be but too sparing to try it, but some they execute.’ It is with difficulty that the record of any executions can be found until the last two years of the English domination, when the impediments with which Cromwell had surrounded the execution upon witches of what was then facetiously called justice were in part removed. From 1658 to 1660 the trials began again, and thirty-eight women and two men were executed in Edinburgh and the neighbouring counties. 

   This, however, was but a mild prelude to the storm of persecution which broke out at the Restoration. ‘Whatever satisfaction the return of King Charles II. might afford to the younger females in his dominions,’ says the witty editor of Law’s Memorials, ‘it certainly brought nothing save torture and destruction to the unfortunate old women or witches of Scotland.’ For three years, indeed, the Privy Council seems to have had little else to do but to issue commissions for their trial and execution. Within twelve months from August 1661, commissions were issued for the trial of one hundred and sixty-six persons, without taking into account some twenty or thirty more who were indicted before the High Court. The numbers, indeed, lead us to expect a return to the barbarities of the time of James VI., but this was far from being the case. On the contrary, there are many signs that the Council were glad of any excuse for mitigating the cruelty with which suspected witches had formerly been treated. In February 1662, James Welsh was whipt through Edinburgh and put in the House of Correction for a year for falsely accusing several persons. Three months later, John Kincaid, the ‘pricker’ or witchfinder of Tranent, whose fame in Scotland had at one time emulated that of his English analogue Matthew Hopkins, was imprisoned by the Council for presuming to ‘prick and try’ witches on his own responsibility, and was only released on giving bail for his amendment. And during the same month a proclamation was issued prohibiting anyone from apprehending persons suspect of witchcraft without authority from the Council, the sheriffs of counties, or their deputes, – a rule which was thereafter adhered to with tolerable strictness. But that which most clearly shows the humaner intentions of the Council is the clause henceforth appearing in their commissions to the effect that no confessions shall be used to extract confessions, and that the sanity of all confessants shall be enquired into before sentence. This last step seems to have been taken in consequence of the complaints against Mr. James Gillespie, the minister of Rhind, who was charged before the Council with having obtained false confessions by means of tortures, pricking, and keeping several women from sleep; on which confessions ‘the innocent had suffered death.’ After 1662 no judicial torture was used, although it is to be feared that the clergy continued the pricking and waking when they thought they could do so with impunity. 

   From this period the persecution began to decline. The fear of witchcraft (if one may borrow the language of modern medicine) had become sporadic rather than epidemic. Now and again some minister with more zeal – or less discretion – than his fellows would busy himself with obtaining informations against a ‘notour’ witch. Then a commission would be applied for, and the witch tormented either physically or morally until she had denounced others. A few executions would follow, and the popular excitement would die out, to reappear in some other spot. And everywhere throughout Europe, the fires of persecution were burning low. The Cautio Criminalis of the Jesuit Spee, published in 1631, so thoroughly exposed the absurdities and cruelties of the witch-trials that the Archbishop-Elector of Maintz, and many other German princes, abolished them in their dominions. The Elector of Brandenburgh in 1654 ordered that everyone accused of the crime should be allowed to defend himself before, instead of after the torture. And in 1670 Louis XIV. insisted, in spite of the protests of the Parliament of Normandy, upon commuting to banishment the sentence of death which the Parliament had passed upon a batch of witches. The Electoral Chambers of Germany followed this good example with the best results: and, after this last date, the executions for witchcraft upon the Continent may almost be counted on the fingers of the two hands. 

   As Scotland was the last country in Europe to which the infection of terror came, so was it the last from which it departed. Sir George Mackenzie writing in 1678, strongly asserts his belief in the existence of witchcraft, although he pleads for the better treatment of the accused. The same year many confessing witches were burnt at Salt Preston and other places, including Edinburgh, but the confessions of these last (as Fountainhall tells us in his Decisions) ‘made many intelligible, sober persons scruple much what faith was to be adhibit to them.’ At length, in 1680, the release of se4veral suspects upon a report from Sir George Mackenzie to the Lords of Session that their confessions were not only absurd, but had been obtained by torture, seemed to have brought about the end of the persecution. For sixteen years there were no more executions, and, in 1684, a miserable old woman who had been imprisoned, but not brought to trial, was left to die in jail ‘of cold and poverty, the king’s advocate giving no great notice to such informations against witches.’ Yet the terror was not dead, but sleeping. Perhaps the more extreme Presbyterians thought that whatever policy had been pursued by the ‘Bluidy Advocate Mackenyie’ in Prelatical time must necessarily be wrong. Perhaps the triumphant Whigs really believed the Cameronian stories afloat about the means by which the persecutors had obtained protection from lead and steel, and therefore supposed that by burning witches they were depriving their enemies of valuable allies. At all events, as soon as the Presbyterian form of worship was restored at the Revolution, there was a faint recrudescence of the persecution. In 1692 a commission was issued for the trial of four women in Dumfries. Three years later, two more were executed in Inverness. And in 1696 a witch, who had denounced others, led to a sort of general commission being issued in quite the old way. The next year a commission was granted for the trial of twenty-four persons at Paisley upon the spiteful accusation of a little girl of good family who afterwards confessed her imposture. Of this batch, one hanged himself in prison, and five were burnt. The General Assembly too, woke up, and discussed the advisability of presenting an address to the Council asking for severer measures against witches. But it was all of no use. Although the Council might yield to the ministers for a moment, they had no intention of reviving the witch-hunts of the Covenanting decade. In 1699 a witch and a warlock, who had been tried in Ross-shire, got off scot-free, and although nine others were remitted to the commission who had tried them for ‘arbitrary punishment,’ they were probably only banished. In the years between this and 1705, four more executions follow, and then there comes a pause. We hear no more of trials for witchcraft until 1727, when the last witch who suffered in Scotland was burnt at Dornoch by the Sheriff-depute of Sutherlandshire, in spite of a previous warning from the King’s Advocate against the impropriety of meddling with such cases. The abolition by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, in 1735, of the penal laws against witchcraft made any further persecution impossible. 

   But although the terror was thus suppressed, the belief remained. The Seceders in 1742, in their ‘Testimony against the Errors of the Time’ included among the causes of Divine wrath the repeal of the Acts against witchcraft, which repeal they declared to be ‘expressly contrary to the law of God.’ This t4estimony was read yearly in their churches as late, says Arnot, as 1785. Nay, a writer in the Edinburgh Magazine for 1817 says that, at that date, the same doctrine was still taught from their pulpits, and firmly believed in by far the greater number of their adherents. Nor is the belief entirely extinct at the present day. No one who sees much of the peasantry in the remoter parts of Scotland (or for that matter, who reads the newspapers diligently) can fail to be aware, that there are still a few old women to be found who practise charms which two hundred years ago would have sent them to the stake. 

   It is extremely hard to estimate with any accuracy the total number of those who were done to death for this supposed crime. One great difficulty is the number of courts claiming concurrent jurisdiction. Thus, in the time of James VI. – which we may fitly call the first persecution – witches were brought before the special commission granted by the Privy Council, the High Court of Justiciary, the Circuit Courts or ‘justice-aires,’ or the great noblemen to whom the King granted from time to time commissions of lieutenancy over the outlying provinces. Of these tribunals, the High Court is the only one that has left anything approaching to a regular record of its proceedings; and even in this, there is, as we have seen, a gap of five years in the very heat of the persecution. It is also the tribunal before which the fewest prisoners for this crime were tried. Of the proceedings of the special commissions we have only the records in a very few cases, and some brief notices in the contemporary writers from whom I have quoted. Of those of the Circuit Courts and the King’s Lieutenants we have none at all. Nor is this the worst. Pitcairn, Dalyell, Sir Walter Scott – all the most trustworthy writers, in fact, upon the subject – are agreed that the cases tried before the High Court bear but a very small proportion to the great numbers condemned by the numerous petty tribunals arising from feudal tenure. Now the number burnt by sentence of the High Court during this period avenged at least one a year, and often rose as high as three or four. And if it were really the case that, during this time, all the Sheriffs of Counties and Lords of Regalities, with their deputes and Baron-Bailies, were hard at work routing out and burning witches with even the moderate amount of energy shown by the High Court, the total would come to something enormous. It is no doubt on this basis that Dr. Mackay, in his very interesting book on Popular Delusions, makes the calculation that, for thirty-nine years after the Act of 1563, an average annual number of two hundred victims were executed. I am glad, however, to think that this may not have been the case. Sir George Mackenzie in his Scottish Criminal Law, expressly says that he has found ‘no instance where inferior courts have tried this crime,’ and that ‘de praxi, none used to judge witchcraft, but the Justices, or such as have a particular commission from the Council.’ The fact which has been apparently overlooked by Pitcairn and the rest, seems indeed to be that, although sheriffs and other inferior judges were in the habit of apprehending and examining witches, yet that they had no power to execute them, but were obliged to send them for that purpose to a superior court. In proof of this I may perhaps add, that in upwards of three hundred trials for witchcraft which I have myself examined, the sentence has in each case been pronounced by a Justice of the High Court, or by a special commissioner. Even with this deduction, the number of victims is sufficiently great; and I do not think that it can have amounted, during the first persecution, to any less than fifty per annum

   During the Puritan period from 1640 to 1650 – which we may perhaps call the second persecution – this estimate must be considerably increased. Although the number of tribunals can now (if I am right) be reduced to the High Court, the Circuit Courts, and the commissions issued by the Committee of Estates, yet both trials and executions were much more frequent than in the time of the first persecution. ‘The terrible increase of witchcraft in the land’ is a phrase occurring with monotonous frequency in the sermons of the period, and the preachers took care that it should be justified. Stevenson in his History of the Church of Scotland mentions that, in 1643, more than thirty witches were burnt within a few months in Fife alone: and that this was no spasmodic effort on the part of the persecutors, is shown by Whitelocke’s account, before quoted, of the condemnation of thirty-four witches within a much smaller area. Lamont also, in his Diary, notes the execution (within a few months of the burning of those mentioned by Whitelocke) of ‘Very many witches in several parts of the kingdom, as in Lothian and in Fife, viz.:  in Enderkeithing, Aberdour, Bruntellande, Deysert, Dumfermling.’ Altogether I cannot put the number of victims in the second persecution at less than a hundred per annum, while I should not be surprised to find that they amounted to double this number. 

   We come to firmer ground with the third persecution, which took place during the three years immediately following the Restoration. The figures that I have quoted about show two hundred trials in one year, and the proportion of executions to trials was always extremely high. There is therefore no ground to suppose that Dalyell errs otherwise than on the side of moderation when he considers that a hundred and fifty per annum suffered during this period. 

   Nor must it be forgotten that even in the intervals between these outbreaks the flames of persecution were by no means extinguished. On the contrary, when the clergy were most lukewarm in the pursuit, a steady supply of victims for the executioner was yet kept up. I do not think that the number burnt (except, perhaps, in the Cromwellian period) was ever less than twenty per annum, and it is at this figure that I propose to estimate them. 

   We shall then have as the total number of executions:- 

In the 1st persecution, from 1590-1597, 50 per annum, or 350 
    “    2nd            “             1640-1650, 100       “        1000 
    “    3rd            “             1660-1663, 150       “ 450 
And during the remainder of the time (say from 1580 to 1680) that the persecution was really sharp,   20       “  1600 
 In all, 3400 

   These are numbers that can be strictly justified by the few and imperfect records that we now have.7 I do not believe that any future discoveries will prove them to be in any way exaggerated, but, on the other hand, that they may compel us to largely increase them. If, for instance, two or three well authenticated cases could be produced in which a Baron-Bailie had condemned and executed witches without authority from a higher court, I should be much inclined to multiply the total given above by ten. 

   One naturally asks for what crime these thousands of human beings were put to death. In the first place it is impossible that a net so widely cast should not have caught within its meshes some real criminals. Such was Erskine of Dun, who was beheaded with his three sisters in 1613, for poisoning with herbs obtained from a reputed witch, two young nephews who stood between him and a rich succession. Others, again, were lunatics, like the Major Weir familiar to the readers of Redgauntlet. This wretch, who had all his life been noted for his piety, was hanged at Edinburgh, in 1670, on his voluntary confession of crimes which, though horrible and revolting, certainly required no supernatural aid for their accomplishment. In all these cases the low degree of proof required, and the feeling against the prisoner which it aroused, made the charge of witchcraft a very convenient addition to the indictment of the prosecutor. Yet the cases where the accused were guilty of any real crime were wonderfully rare. Tn nearly every instance the supposed witches were old women of the lowest class, whose poverty, sour temper, or singular habits, had made them an object of dislike to their neighbours. Of this sort was Janet Wishart, whose deeds seem to have been the moving cause of the Aberdeen Commission of 1596. In her dittay, beside the usual stock accusations of causing sickness and casting ‘cantrips,’ it was gravely alleged as an offence against the panel that she ‘puts on nightly a great fire, holds the same on the whole night, and sits thereat, altogether contrarious to the nature of well-living persons.’ After this clear evidence of ‘devilish practices,’ it is not wonderful to learn that the assize found it to be due to her casting, ‘certain drugs of witchcraft, such as old shoon,’ into the fire of her neighbour, John Club, that ‘the said John Club is become altogether depauperit.’ In fact, the theory very early adopted by the High Court of Justiciary that any injury following upon a threat uttered by a suspected witch was of itself sufficient proof of the possession of Satanic power, made almost any evidence relevant to infer the pains of law. Thus, in the case of Margaret Hutchinson, in 1661, the panel who had been already indicted and acquitted, was tried a second time before the same assize. The only fresh evidence produced was that, on the occasion of a quarrel with her servant, she had been heard to tell the girl that she should repent it. The servant had a fit the same evening, upon which her mistress assured her that she should not die ‘that time,’ and transferred the disease to the house cat, who was found dead near the servant’s bed. For this ‘malefice,’ evidenced in true Jack Cade fashion by the testimony of a person who had seen the girl ill and the cat dead, Margaret Hutchinson was found guilty and burnt at the stake. There remain the cases where the accusation of witchcraft was but the result of the panel’s perseverance in a course of imposture. Thus it was with those who pretended to work miraculous cures. Doubtless many of these had a very fair knowledge of simples, which they had learnt either as a family secret or from those Highland women who were accustomed to fill the place of doctors in their rude communities. But they generally mixed their herbs to the sound of mysterious chants, which were either corrupted beyond all intelligibility or had, so to speak, a twang of Popery about them. Such were the ‘devilish prayers’ used by Agnes Sampson, one of the Bothwell witches. One of these alludes to the power of ‘holy kirk’ to forgive sins in a way that must have been very shocking to Puritan feelings, while another speaks out still more plainly:- 

‘All kinds of ills that ever may be,  

In Christes name I conjure ye;  

I conjure ye, both mair and less, 

By all the virtues of the mess,’ 

and so on. And in the case of Thomas Greave, burnt at Edinburgh in 1623, the making of crosses upon the water brought by him from the Holy Well at Hillside whereby he effected his cures, is one of the charges in the indictment against him.8 Yet the judges by no means insisted upon the use of Catholic or superstitious ceremonies as necessary for conviction. For Alison Pearson in 1588, and Bartie Paterson in 1607, were both of them burnt for charms which any Protestant might have repeated. In fact the curing of the sick by any means was always one of the most fatal accusations that could be brought against a witch – a fact which is perhaps explained by the remark of the editor of the Spottiswoode Miscellany that the first informations against witches were often laid by chirurgeons. One has less sympathy with those who practised on their neighbours’ fear of the unknown for the sake of obtaining respect or money. Thus Isobel Grierson burnt in 1607, is said to have bewitched Robert Peddan until he remembered that he owed her 9s. 4d., on paying which he was cured. And Agnes Finnie, burnt in 1644, although in the minds of her judges guilty of scattering disease and misfortune right and left, seems to have been always ready to take them off again, on being properly entreated with a little hospitality. No doubt, many of these old dames, like other charlatans, came at last really to believe in their own power to inflict injuries. ‘I have been a very drunkensome woman,’ said Helen Guthrie in 1661, in an apparently genuine confession, ‘a terrible banner and curser, and when I gave my malison to any person or creature, it usually lighted.’ 

   It is curious that with all this, there should not appear a trace of proof that formal or ‘ceremonial’ magic was ever practised in Scotland. On the Continent, the regular invocation of spirits which formed part of the rituals of the different sects dating from pre-Christian times, and known first as Gnostics, and later as Manicheans, Paulicians, or Cathari, had taken deep root, and did not entirely die out at the Reformation.9 To these sects do we owe the preservation of the astrology and palmistry which, though at one time only looked upon as an easy means of cheating servant-girls, now seem to have taken high rank as fashionable amusements. But nothing of this Oriental leprosy (as M. Bouché-Leclercq has recently called the demonology on which the magic of the Gnostics was based) seems to have troubled the ignorant and untravelled class from whence the vast majority of Scottish witches were taken. If ceremonial magic was ever used in Scotland, it was among the nobles and ladies of the court, and certainly never was put in evidence in any witch-trial. For the spells used by the witches of Fife and Lothian were, like the ‘all sorts of thrums and threads cut of all colours, with a piece of crooked wire like a fishhook,’10 the possession of which was enough to condemn Janet Lucas in 1597, merely the fetishes to which barbarous people in all ages seem to have attached faith. The infliction of disease by the ill-treatment of a figure or ‘picture’ of clay or wax made in the likeness of the person to be bewitched is almost the only practice of Scottish witchcraft which can be traced to classical times.11 

   The procedure by which those who practised such arts were convicted was neither better nor worse than that of most judicatures of the time. Like all the tribunals that derived their theories of jurisprudence from Imperial Rome, the Scottish courts looked upon the acquittal of a defendant as an unfortunate accident, to be guarded against by all means in their power. Hence it is not surprising that many a poor creature, when once fairly caged, either hanged herself in prison as the readiest mode of avoiding the doom that she knew to be inevitable, or else confessed whatever her judges required, so as to abbreviate the suffering with which they were wont to embitter the passage to the stake of an ‘impenitent’ witch. If neither of these events happened, the practice was as follows. The denunciation or delation with which the proceedings began, was obtained either from the judicial confession or some other witch, or by a voluntary information laid by some person who fancied himself aggrieved by the acts of the accused. In the latter case it was always (after the Bothwell trials) made to the Kirk-Sessions. Bodin, in his Demonomania, states that the information was in some cases anonymous, being put in a box placed in the church of the district for that purpose. This statement has lately been echoed by Mr. Williams in the Encyclopædia Britannica, but I do not think that it rests upon any solid foundation. On the contrary the clergy seem to have always taken sufficient, care not only to keep a record of the name of the principal delator, but also to hold him responsible in ecclesiastical penalties for a false delation. For instance, the ‘privy inquest,’ which we have seen instituted at Aberdeen, led to an abundant crop of false informations, and the books of the Kirk-Sessions for some years afterwards are filled with the censures passed upon the delators. But in whatever way the delation was obtained, it was the business of the minister and Kirk-Session first having cognizance of it to obtain its corroboration. Sometimes this was done by sending a committee of the Kirk-Session to the place where the delated witch lived, sometimes by procuring a sermon against witchcraft to be preached in her parish, with a special meeting of the Session held the same day for the reception of evidence. When the case had thus been made sufficiently strong, it seems to have been entirely in the minister’s option whether he should try it in his own Kirk-Session or present it to the Presbytery of which he was a member. In either case, the Church judicatory before which it came summoned the defendant to appear before it. If she obeyed – as was usually the case – she was formally asked to submit herself to the discipline of the Kirk, and her compliance seems to have been taken as warranting the various extra-legal interferences with her liberty which were forthwith made. If she refused, or did not appear to the summons, a warrant was obtained, in earlier times from a sheriff or other local judge having jurisdiction in witch cases, after the Restoration from the Privy Council. In any event the accused sooner or later found herself in prison. This might happen to be the common prison of the authority by whom she had been arrested, but was more generally the church steeple or a vault under the church. Here she was ‘waked’ or watched by a committee of the inhabitants under the direction of the church judicatory, the object being to prevent her from obtaining either rest or sleep for a space of time that is said to have sometimes extended to as much as nine days. If this failed to produce a confession, a ‘pricker’ or person supposed to have skill in discovering the devil’s mark was sent for.12 His search consisted in thrusting pins some three inches long into every spot on the poor creature’s body which it pleased the delicate fancy of the inquisitors to consider likely to have been caused by the embrace of the devil. When this produced bleeding or caused the victim to flinch, another spot was sought for and probed; but if she showed no signs of pain, it was received as a remarkable proof of guilt. Apart from the outrage to modesty which such a search involved, it is certain that it must also have been a cruel torture; since a woman, who petitioned the Privy Council in 1678, complained that she had been pricked in thirty-two different places in one day. When this treatment had been pursued for a sufficient length of time to satisfy the ecclesiastical authorities (and a witch was often kept in ward for months and even years) the usual course was to apply for a commission for her trial, or she might be brought before one of the Circuit Courts or before the High Court of Justiciary. The proceedings before any of these tribunals began by the examination of the prisoner by question and answer, and – in pre-Restoration times – this was followed by the application of torture. One of the reasons given for its employment was that no confession that the prisoner might have made involving others could be received against the latter unless confirmed by torture, in defence of which position the Laws of Justinian and the comments thereon of the celebrated Del Rio were quoted. At other times it was said with more frankness, that anything that the prisoner might have said before the Church judicatory was extra-judicial, and that after having enjoyed the benefit of rest and sleep, she was hardly likely to repeat anything to her own disadvantage without severe pressure. As Sir George Mackenzie (himself a witch-judge) says most distinctly that torture, either legally or illegally applied, was the ground of all the confessions of Scottish witches up to his time, it may be as well to see how it was administered by the Courts. Here is an instance. In 1594 Alison Balfour, (whom I have before mentioned) was induced to make a confession to the effect that she had attempted to bewitch the Earl of Orkney on the instigation of the Master. On her way to execution she retracted this confession in words which I will quote from the notarial act as given by Pitcairn: ‘Being inquired and accused by the Parson of Orphir if she would abide by her first deposition made in the Castle of Kirkwall. . . She answered that at the time of her first deposition she was tortured divers and sundry times in the Caschielaws, and sundry times taken out of them for dead, and out of all remembrance of good and evil; as likewise her goodman (he was eighty years old) being in the stocks, her son tortured in the Boots, and her daughter (a child of seven) put in the Pilliewinks, wherewith she and they were so grievously vexed and tormented that partly to eschew a greater torment and punishment, and upon promise of life and good deed by the said Parson, falsely against her own soul and conscience, she made that confession but no otherwise.’13 This was in the reign of James VI., but the tortures were as brutal, though not so fiendishly ingenious, under Puritan rule. The Mercurias Politicus tells us that in October, 1654, Cromwell’s Commissioners found at Leith two women ‘who had been brought before the Kirk about the time of the armies coming into Scotland, and having confessed were turned over to the civil magistrate. The Court demanding how they came to be proved witches, they declared that they were forced to it by the exceeding torture they were put to, which was by tying their thumbs behind them, and after hanging them up by them, two Highlanders whipt them, after which they set lighted candles to the soles of their feet and between their toes, then burnt them by putting lighted candles in their mouths, and then burning them in the head: there were six of them accused in all, four of whom died of the torture. . . Another woman that was suspected, according to their thoughts, to be a witch, was twenty-eight days and nights with bread and water, being stript stark naked, and laid upon a cold stone, with only a haircloth over her. Others had hair shirts dipped in vinegar put on them to fetch off the skin.’14 One is glad to find, on the same authority, that the judges ordered ‘the sheriff, ministers, and tormentors’ responsible for this ‘Amboyna usage’ to be brought before them, and we may hope that they were properly punished. It was doubtless the discovery of such horrors as these which led the Privy Council of the Restoration to discontinue altogether the judicial use of torture in witch-cases. 

   The public trial followed upon the conclusion of the prisoner’s examination. And here at least one would think that the poor hunted, harrassed, tortured creature would have been treated with some show of fairness. But it was not so. When the indictment had once been read, and the assize sworn, pains seem to have been taken by everyone to prevent the panel having a chance for her life. The indictment of course set out the ‘malefices’ or acts of witchcraft of which the panel was accused. We have already seen some instances of the inherent absurdity of most of these charges, but it is shocking to find that the advocate for the defence was, in effect, prohibited from saying anything against them. Thus, in the case of Isobel Young, who was tried before the High Court in 1629, the accused was charged with having taken a disease ‘off’ a patient and with laying it under a barn-door, so that it seized upon the next comer. It was replied by her advocate that this ‘was an idle fable, taken probable from the like out of Ariosto.’ And to another charge of laying a disease upon her nephew and ‘that be died thereof,’ the same advocate answered that he could prove that the nephew ‘was cured by John Purves, surgeon, lived eleven years afterwards, and had children.’ Yet both these defences were repelled as contrary to the indictment.15 In matters of evidence, things were almost worse; for while witnesses not generally admitted to testify by Scottish law (‘women, infamous persons, and socii criminis,’ as some of the judges ungallantly put it) were allowed to give evidence against a witch, yet she was sometimes refused leave to call witnesses in her own defence, on the ground that she might have obtained all the evidence she wanted by interrogating those for the prosecution. When I add that the assize were often threatened by the King’s Advocate with a prosecution for wilful error if they acquitted the panel, and that both they and the witnesses were assured, as Sir George Mackenzie tells us, that if a witch escape they ‘will die for it,’ it is not surprising that the number of acquittals are only about one per cent. of the indictments. It reflects infinite credit upon the assizors that there were any acquittals at all. 

   We come to the sentence, to which many of the accused are said to have looked forward as a relief from their sufferings. This was generally that the panel should be ‘worried’ or strangled at the stake before being burnt to ashes. Yet in some instances – notably in those of Euphemia Macalzean and Janet Wishart mentioned above – burning alive was the punishment inflicted. The slightest punishment known to the law was banishment for life. 

   Such was the manner in which the law was administered by the lay judges. But it has been admitted by all who have paid attention to the records of these trials, that there was engaged upon them another tribunal at once more anxious for the conviction of the accused, and even less scrupulous as to the means of obtaining it. This was composed of the clergy of the district, who were really the moving cause of the prosecution in nearly every case. It was not enough for them that they were constantly, in their Assemblies, hounding on both the legislature and the executive to increased severity. Not enough that they should have arrogated to themselves the right to sit as a court of First Instance upon all the delations with which prosecutions for the crime began. But they seem to have hooked upon the escape of any person who had once had the misfortune to be accused of witchcraft as a personal insult to themselves. In the reign of James VI. they passed an Act of Assembly that ‘in all times coming, the Presbytery proceed in all severity with their censures against such magistrates as shall set at liberty any person or persons convicted of witchcraft hereafter.’ In 1642, we find the Presbytery of Lanark continuing capital proceedings against a woman whom both the Commissary of Lanark, and the Privy Council had declared not guilty of anything ‘that could demerit death.’ And in 1661, a woman who had been acquitted by the High Court was detained in prison at the request of the Kirk-Session, who wished to get up fresh evidence against her. During the height of the second persecution, the part taken by the clergy was (as might have been expected) still more prominent. The Presbytery of St. Andrews not only took upon themselves to advise the Judges as to the persons to be apprehended, the sufficiency of the delations, and ‘the allowance of food and sleep’ to be permitted to the prisoners, but we find them requesting the Judges to postpone some executions until they can send a committee to speak with the condemned, for the purpose apparently, of getting from them materials for the prosecution of others. Meanwhile, the Kirk-Session of Perth were spending on witch-commissions fines that they had levied ‘for the use of the poor,’ and the Presbytery of Lanark were ordering sermon after sermon to be preached in the vain hope of procuring some evidence against a batch of eleven women whom they had pricked and waked without inducing them to confess. The remark of the gentleman who edited the minutes of the last-named Presbytery for the Abbotsford Club, ‘that the members of the Presbytery seem to have been employed less in attending to their proper ministerial duties, and to the education of the youth in their parishes, than in anxious searches after and in bringing to trial, old women accused of witchcraft,’ is really applicable to most of the church judicatories of the time. 

   Such was the conduct of the clergy in their collective capacity. They no doubt justified it to themselves by the interpretation which they placed upon certain texts of Scripture, and, if we once admit the soundness of their assumption that they were engaged in a personal contest with Satan, it would be unjust to condemn it as wholly indefensible. But there are instances of brutality on the part of individual ministers for which (as it seems to me) no palliation can be found. The office of torturer is not one that any man of sensibility or humanity would have been willing to take upon himself; yet we find that several ministers were not ashamed to undertake it. At the trial of Katherine Oswald in 1629, two witnesses testified that they saw ‘a pin put to the head, by Mr. John Aird, minister, in the panel’s shoulder, being the devil’s mark, and no blood following.’ And Mr. James Wilson, minister of Dysart, was proved not only to have done the same thing with Janet Brown, who was tried in 1649, but to have repeated the feat for the edification of another minister. Even Mr. James Bell, the author of an MS. Discourse on Witchcraft, in 1705, who seems to have held enlightened ideas on the subject, is not ashamed to confess that he has himself pricked witches. A still grosser departure from humanity occurred in the case of Janet Cornfoot (generally known as the Pittenweem witch) in 1704. After being pricked, waked, and beaten with a staff by the minister himself, in order to force her to confess, she was released from prison, arrested again by another minister, and sent back to her first tormentor. He handed her over to the rabble with the remark that they might do what they pleased with her, and when they had acted upon his hint, and had trampled her to death, he aided her murderers to escape from justice.16 

   It will be noticed that the display of zeal (as it was then called) in witch-hunting was the peculiar possession of no party in Church or State. Indeed we have seen the citizens of the ‘Cavalier City’ of Aberdeen when under the shadow of the Catholic house of Huntly show themselves to be as keen persecutors as the Presbyteries of Southern Scotland in the palmiest days of the Puritan domination. But there was a point beyond which neither Royalist nor Roundhead, Prelatist nor Presbyterian dared to press their inquisitions. It seems from the first to have been a sort of tacit compact between the nobles and the clergy that the accusation of witchcraft should never be brought against a person of position. To this rule there was no exception; and it is noteworthy that in the very few cases in which persons like the Lyon King, Lady Foulis, Euphemia Macalzean, and Erskine of Dun were brought to trial, the whole process was set on foot by the Privy Council without ecclesiastical instigation. In the time of James VI., most of the women who dealt in charms and spells, received the patronage of powerful ladies, who were commonly reported not only to learn their art, but to practise it themselves. This was the case with Barbara Napier and Agnes Sampson, two of the Bothwell witches, who were both under the protection of the Countess of Angus; and similar tales are told of the Countess of Huntly, the Countess of Athole, Lady Buccleuch (of Branxholm), and many others.17 Yet, while the lower class of witches were persecuted to the death, their accomplices in the higher ranks were never even threatened. John Knox himself, whom James Melvill heard preaching the death-sermon of a witch at St. Andrews, ‘she being set up at a pillar before him,’ was in possession of enough evidence against the Countesses of Huntly and Athole to have burnt a dozen witches of less rank. Yet it never seems to have entered into his head to bring either of them to trial. The same respect of persons is noticeable in Puritan times, when the wives of certain magistrates of Inverkeithing who had been denounced by a witch executed in 1649, were not allowed to be prosecuted. And, in 1678, some witches brought before the High Court, who, ‘if they had been permitted, were ready to fyle, with their delation, sundry gentlewomen and others of fashion,’ were forbidden to mention their names. Something of this may have been due to the known partiality and corruption of the Scottish judges before the Union, yet the ministers’ acquiescence in it is in marked contrast with the freedom of their action in cases of heresy,18 and even throws a disagreeable light upon their sincerity. 

   It is more pleasant to turn to the consideration of the problem presented by the almost simultaneous occurrence of witch-trials throughout Europe. The belief in witchcraft, which, indeed, prevails among all peoples of imperfect civilisation, was the common faith of the western world for at least fourteen centuries before the Bull of Innocent IV. Why then did the desire to hunt out and ill-treat witches choose the fifteenth century for its outbreak? And why did it cease almost as suddenly as it began, about a hundred years later? To the first of these questions I am (as I have already said) unable to suggest any complete answer. Perhaps the nearest approach to the truth is, that the panic which gave rise to it was one of those unreasoning impulses – like that which set on foot the Crusades of the eleventh, and the Gambling Mania of the last centuries – to which the nations of Europe seem to be periodically subject. 

   There is much less doubt as to the cause of the cessation of the persecution. Had the terror been more complete than it was, it would probably have died away in time, like the other popular movements to which I have just compared it. But as it was, the belief on which the terror rested, received a mortal blow before the persecution was half spent. It has often been said that the life of the savage, instead of being either free or noble, is made a constant terror to him by reason of his superstitious fears. Surrounded by phenomena which he does not investigate, and at the mercy of natural forces the play of which seem to him to be entirely capricious, he fancies that every misfortune which befalls him is due to the action of invisible and malevolent beings. Something like this was the condition of our ancestors in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But when Science (that is to say, the pursuit of knowledge based upon ascertained fact) awoke from the sleep into which she had sunk so soon as the triumph of Christianity over Paganism was assured, the European began to realise that the phenomena to which he had hitherto attributed a supernatural origin were but the result of natural laws. It was not that Science, as a great part of the Scottish clergy then taught, was sapping the foundations on which the belief in the supernatural rested; but that she was every day reducing the area within which the action of the supernatural was (I do not say possible, but) necessary. It was clearly impossible for any educated Scottish man to believe that disease could be caused or cured by a witch, when Sydenham was working out the true principles upon which the treatment of disease should be based. Nor could he longer believe that a dozen old women assembled in a church could bring on a thunderstorm to sink their neighbours’ ships, when Franklin had proved that the lightning was but the discharge of a fluid whose action could be brought under human control. It was then Science, rather than rationalism or humanity, which brought about the downfall of the belief in witchcraft, and it is well that it was so. For Science never gives back the territory she has gained, and although many old superstitions may from time to time be revived among us, we may be quite sure that the belief in witchcraft will not be one of them. 


1  All the trials hereafter noticed (save where otherwise mentioned) will be found reported in Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials in Scotland (Edin., 1833), the extracts from the Books of Adjournal given in the Spottiswood Miscellany (Spottiswood Society, 1844), the Spalding Miscellany (Spalding Club, 1841), or the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. X., N.S.). Dalyell’s Darker Superstitions of Scotland (Edin., 1834), Chambers’ Domestic Annals of Scotland (2nd ed., Lond., 1859, etc.), and Rogers’ Scotland Social and Domestic (Grampian Club publications), have also been laid under contribution. The registers of the different Kirk-Sessions and Presbyteries mentioned have all been printed by one or other of the antiquarian societies, but the Register of the Scottish Privy Council – the Calendar of which has only reached the year 1613 – has (thanks to the kindness of the Editor of the Review) been searched for the purposes of this article. 

2  See Diurnal of Occurrents in Scotland (Maitland Club publications). 

3  See Hist. of King James the Sext (Bannatyne Club publications). 

4  Among others Sir Walter Scott in his Letters on Demonolgy and Witchcraft. All these writers have taken their descriptions of the examination from a rare tract called News from Scotland or the Danmable Life of Dr. Fian, which has been reprinted by the Roxburgh Club. 

5  See Hist. of King James the Sext

6  See Calendar of State Papers (Scottish Series.) 

7  Some very wild estimates of the numbers were formerly made. John Ray, the naturalist, who travelled in Scotland for ten days in 1661, says that ‘At that time divers women were burnt for witches, they reported to the number of about 120.’ Mackay, in his last mentioned book, says 17,000 were burnt between 1562 and 1625, and 4000 during 1650 (Qy. 1640?) and the ten years following. Rogers’ estimate for the whole period, from 1479 to 1735, is 7,500. 

8  Rogers op. cit., pp. 279 and 331, gives two charms too long for quotation. One of them alludes to the Friday’s fast; the other prays for a cure to ‘the Mother Mary and her dear Son.’ 

9  An account of the signs and wonders wrought by Gnostic magicians is given by Hippolytus in the Fourth Book of the Philosophumena. He adds a rationalistic explanation of them which has furnished the learned Eckstein with material for a charming little romance that I have only met with in the form of an American translation called A Chaldean Magician. Unfortunately the good bishop’s explanations generally make as great a demand on the credulity of the reader as the tricks that they are intended to expose. 

10  A Negro of the present day would call it a grigri

11  Except the divination by sieve and shears. But it is curious that divination alone does not seem to have been considered witchcraft by the Scottish judges. 

12  Patrick Anderson, in his MS. History of Scotland, says with regard to the witches of 1597 that some of them were tried by the ‘swimming’ or water test. I very much doubt it, but at any rate that test was never popular in Scotland. 

13  Of these tortures the Pilliewinks was the thumbscrew, the Boot the engine for shattering the knee by wedges that is described in Old Mortality. The Caschielaws, which has much exercised the ingenuity of antiquaries, is explained by the Privy Council Register (Calendar, vol. vi., p. 49) as an instrument for drawing the ‘body, neck, arms, and feet, together within the bounds of ane span’ – doubtless on the principle of the ‘Scavenger’s Daughter.’ The stocks were converted into a torture by piling bars of iron on the prisoner’s bare legs. In the case mentioned in the text these bars are said to have been of 50 stone weight. 

14  I do not understand the use of the haircloth, but I see that Mr. John Aird, of pricking fame, hereafter mentioned, sent his schoolmaster to Jedburgh to buy one ‘to help to bring the persons apprehended for witchcraft to a confession.’ 

15  See Arnot’s Celebrated Criminal Trials (Edin. 1785), for more on this highly technical subject. He quotes one very bad case. 

16  See Edinburgh Magazine for October 1817. 

17  See the introduction to Law’s Memorials by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe (Edin., 1818). 

18  See Rogers op. cit., p. 317, for a list of the nobility excommunicated for Popish tendencies by the Synod of Dumfries, in 1647. The Countess of Aberdeen was imprisoned for three years on this charge.

One thought on “Art. I. – WITCHCRAFT IN SCOTLAND., Volume 18, Oct., 1891, pp.257-288.

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