Site icon Random Scottish History

Witches in Scottish History

[IndyLive Research Contents]

Scottish Review, Art. I. – Francis Legge’s WITCHCRAFT IN SCOTLAND., Oct., 1891. 

… 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… we are 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. 

… 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. 

   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 [961CE-ish]. 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.   

… 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. 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. 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. 

Could be the same person as related in 

Innes’ ‘Sketches of Early Scotch History,’ Breadalbane Papers, pp.341-394. 

The gear did not prosper with Donald Taillour in Morinch [at the start of the 17th century], and he accused his neighbour NcVane of bewitching him. She brought a pock of earth from Tomnayngell (the name sounds of spirits) to his house; since which, “his gear has not ‘luckit’ with him, and his corns grow not.” The judge, with sense beyond the age, acquitted the woman at this time, but forbade the use of the pock of earth, “seeing it inclines to no good, but to an evil custom.” 

Back to Francis 

Scottish Review, Art. I. – Francis Legge’s WITCHCRAFT IN SCOTLAND., Oct., 1891. 

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. 

Wee bit about Agnes Sampson 

Chalmers’ ‘Edinburgh Journal,’ Sketches of Superstitions, Saturday July 18, 1840, pp.206-207. 

   In 1590, James, it is well known, made a voyage to Denmark to see, marry, and conduct home in person, his appointed bride, the Princess Anne. Soon after his arrival, a tremendous witch conspiracy against the happy conclusion of his homeward voyage was discovered, in which the principal agents appeared to be persons considerably above the vulgar. One was Mrs Agnes Sampson, commonly called the Wise Wife of Keith (Keith being a village in East Lothian), who is described as “grave, matron-like, and settled in her answers.” On this occasion, the king was induced by his peculiar tastes to engage personally in the business of judicial investigation. He had all the accused persons brought before himself for examination, and even superintended the tortures applied to them to induce confession. The statements made by these poor wretches form a singular tissue of the ludicrous and horrible in intimate union. 

   “The said Agnes Sampson was after brought again before the king’s majestie and his council, and being examined of the meetings and detestable dealings of those witches, she confessed, that upon the night of All-Hallow-even she was accompanied, as well with the persons aforesaid, as also with a great many other witches, to the number of two hundred, and that all they together went to sea, each one in a riddle, or sieve, and went in the same very substantially, with flaggons of wine, making merrie and drinking by the way in the same riddles, or sieves, to the Kirk of North-Berwick, in Lothian, and that after they had landed, took hands on the land, and danced this reil, or short daunce, singing all with one voice,  

‘Cummer, goe ye before, cummer, goe ye;  

Gif ye will not goe before, cummer, let me.’  

At which she confessed that Geillis Duncan did goe before them, playing this reil or daunce upon a small trump, called a Jew’s harp, until they entered into the Kirk of North-Berwick. These made the king in a wonderful admiration, and he sent for the said Geillis Duncan, who upon the like trump did play the said daunce before the king’s majestie, who, in respect of the strangeness of these matters, took great delight to be present at their examinations.” 

   In the sequel of Agnes Sampson’s confession we find some special reasons for the king’s passionate liking for these exhibitions, in addition to the mere love of the marvellous. The witches pandered to his vanity on all occasions, probably in the vain hope of mitigating their own doom. Agnes Sampson declared that one great object with Satan and his agents was to destroy the king; that they had held the great North Berwick convention for no other end; and that they had endeavoured to effect their aim on many occasions, and particularly by raising a storm at sea when James came across from Denmark. “The witches demanded of the divell why he did beare such hatred to the king? who answered, by reason the king is the greatest enemie hee hath in the world.” Such an eulogy, from such a quarter, could not but pamper the conceit of “the Scottish Solomon.”  


   Of course, in the revelations of the various witches, inconsistencies were abundant, and even plain and evident impossibilities were frequently among the things averred. The sapient James, however, in place of being led by these things to doubt the whole, was only strengthened in his opinions, it being a maxim of his, that the witches were “all extreme lyars.” Other persons came to different conclusions from the same premises, and before the close of James’s reign, many men of sense began to weary of the torturings and incremations that took place almost every day, in town or country, and had done so for a period of thirty years (betwixt 1590 and 1620). Advocates now came forward to defend the accused, and in their pleadings ventured even to arraign some of the received axioms of “Daemonologie” laid down by the king himself, in a book bearing that name. The removal of James to England moderated, but did not altogether stop, the witch prosecutions. After his death they slackened most considerably. Only eight witchcraft cases are on the Record as having occurred between 1625 and 1640 in Scotland, and in one of these cases, remarkable to tell, the accused escaped.

Back to Francis 

Scottish Review, Art. I. – Francis Legge’s WITCHCRAFT IN SCOTLAND., Oct., 1891. 

   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… 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.’ Three years later, having forced his 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… from sixty to two hundred persons were denounced, we are perhaps justified in assuming that at least fifty of these were convicted. 

Witchcraft & Wise-women become Satanic Emissaries 

Scots Magazine, Scottish Antiquities, Part. 3, On the Popular Superstitions of Ghosts and Witches, incident to the Border, 1st May, 1816. 

   Witches, again, were a common, and, of course, a more troublesome community. These “emissaries of Satan” have long held the minds of the border peasantry in uncontrolled sway… 

   The glorious dawn of reformation swept away numerous hosts of these formidable superstitions; but the more hellish one of sorcery, or witchcraft, remained unscathed amid the general conflagration: every thing in nature was deemed subject to its unlimited controul; in the air, on the earth, and in the waters, witches exercised their dominion, and gave laws to the whirlwinds and the storm. They could bridle the fury of the torrent, arrest the planets in their course, nay, such was the potency of their infernal charms, that the dead arose at their call, and the spirits returned, at their awful summons, from beyond the barriers of that unknown land, to answer their demands, and give evidence in matters of their diabolical concerns. This direful idea was laid hold on to convict numbers of poor infirm wretches, who were suspected of holding communion with the “father of superstitions,” merely because they were unfortunate, unfriended, and abandoned in the world. Old men and women were hurried to the ordeal of fire and water, or bound to the stake, and murdered on their own confessions; even trifles light as air were held as confirmations strong; and blood alone could expiate the crime of dealing with the “foul thief,” or holding their nocturnal revels by the light of the moon, in order to destroy their neighbour’s “goods and chattels.” To such a height was this persecuting spirit carried, in the beginning of the eighteenth, and latter part of the seventeenth century, that every suspected person was obliged to undergo the strictest scrutiny; and if any insensible mark, such as a mole, a strawberry, &c. was found, they were immediately convicted of fostering a succubus, or “imp of hell,” and giving it suck at one of these marks, to which they gave the name of an “infernal teat.” 

   The old, the infirm, and the illiterate, were those generally pitched upon by Belzebub for the enlargement of his kingdom, though a part of his mystic revels were intended solely for the amusement and recreation of his blooming proselytes, and in whose company and conversation he seems to have taken great delight… 

   The noted tryste of the westland witches and warlocks was held upon a beautiful knowe, finely fringed with broom, and covered with a profusion of daisies and other field-flowers, at a place called Lochen-brigg hill, in the parish of Kirkmahoe, and Stewarty of Nithsdale, about 5 miles to the N. E. of the town of Dumfries. Here the peasant has beheld them assembling in crows upon “auld hallowe’en,” arrayed in all the glory of their master’s kingdom, and singing the following “hymn,” as they alighted upon the swald:  

“When the auld houlet had three times twhoo’d,  

When the black cat has three times mew’d,  

When the tod has yowl’d frae his hole i’ the wud  

At the red mune cowering ahint the clud,  

When the starns hae smoor’d their gleam i’ th’ drift,  

An’ the fire drake hiss’d athwart the lift;  

Down, horses, down, but guide or groom,  

And stan’ till we daunce thro’ the bonny broom;  

Down, horses, down, i’ the red mune’s lowe,  

For our tryste to-night is the Lochen-brigg knowe.”  

   Some of those aged matrons well skilled in gramarie, and who were unable to ride on aught of mortal mould, could summon to their aid the denizens of air, or harness the sea-blasts to their hemlock chariots, and sail in awful majesty through the realms of space; but their principal stud consisted chiefly of broomsticks, “thrice warped i’ the wun, and virl’d wi’ a dead man’s banes;” their saddle laps the scalps of “unchristened bairnes;” the bridle-reins were tossels of the moon, and their stirrup-irons the collar bones of a she wolf, “worried i’ the birth;” “the bridle-bits were forged in Satan’s armoury, and possessed irresistible power when shaken over any living thing.” 

   A cantrip bridle is said to have been possessed by a wanton widow in the howmes of Nithsdale, which she was accustomed to shake over the head of her servant, a stout young man, who instantly started up a good grey horse, and flew like the lightning, at the will of his (kittle) mistress, over woods, waters, and wilds, where horse had never passed before, and where a shoe nail had seldom or never been imprinted. This young fellow suddenly lost all his gaiety, and became as lean as if he had “been ridden past by a witch.” One of his neighbours enquiring into the cause, “Lie ye at the stock to night, an’ ye’ll sune be as lean as me.” It was on a hallowe’en, and though he felt unusual drowsiness, he kept himself awake. At midnight, his mistress cautiously approaching his bedside, shook the charmed bridal over him, saying, Up, horsie, when, to his utter astonishment, he arose in the form of a grey horse. The bit was put in his mouth, and mounted by the carline. Feeling the prick of infernal spur, he took such leaps and bounds, that he reached the Locher-brigg knowe in a few moments. He was fastened by the bridle to a tree, with many more of his acquaintances, whom he recognized through their brutal disguise. He looked petrified with affright, when the father of the potent spell drew a circle around the knowe, within which no baptized brow could enter. All being assembled, hands were joined, and a ring of warlocks and witches danced in the enchanted bound, with many lewd and uncouth gestures. In the centre he beheld a thick smoke, and presently arose the piercing yells and screams of hellish baptism, which the new converts were enduring. Startled and terrified, he plunged and reared, and praying ardently to Heaven, shook off the bridle of power, and started up in his natural shape, seizing the instrument of his transformation. It was now grey day when the conclave dispersed, for their orgies could not endure the rebuke of the sun. He watched his mistress, who, all haste and confusion, was hurrying to her steed. Shaking the bridal over her brow, she started up “a gude grey mare,” and was hastened home with such push of spur, that all competitors were left far behind. The sun was nigh risen, as he hurried into the stable. Pulling off his bridle, the cantrip-loving dame appeared with hands and feet lacerated with travel, and her sides pricked to the bone. On her rider’s promising never to divulge his night’s adventure, she allowed him to keep the bridle as a pledge of safety. “Warlock weeds” was another article of which our forefathers have written and spoken much. One of these feckets, or coats of proof, we have described in an old absolete author, who informs us, that “the weird coat” was woven frae the skins o’ shelly-cows, jointed wi’ the whirl-banes o’ a water snake, and hung to sun and mune to harden for thrice three months and a day, then dipped in an ointment made o’ the fat o’ dead wolf’s heart and a lizard’s lungs, after which, it would resist any missile weapon, save a crooked sixpence shot from a sanctified tube two hours before the sun went down… 

   To counteract the baneful effects of witchcraft, a horse-shoe was nailed upon the stable door, a piece of iron was put into the kirn (churn), sprigs of rowan-tree (the mountain ash) were cut, and, without being suffered to touch the ground, were placed above the “byre door head,” in the milk-house, and even sewed into the seams of the children’s clothing. At times, a most astonishing rite was performed, when the cattle of the village had been seized with any sudden disorder; a large fire was put on, every window and chimney top was completely blocked up, a green turf dug atween “sun and mune,” and stuck as full of large pins as it could hold, was then put into the seething pot, and suspended over the now blazing furnace, with such uncouth phrases and ejaculations, as the nature of the sacrifice seemed to call forth. In a few moments, the warlock who had been guilty of such nefarious practices, would have been heard trying every “creek and cranny” to get in, wringing her hands, and wailing in a most hideous manner; as the sod represented her heart, she, of course, felt the most grievous and excrutiating torments so long as it remained suspended over the fire… These witches, it was firmly believed, had it also in their power to torment even to death the victim of their hatred or their malice. A piece of clay or wax being taken and moulded into the form of a human body, saying, at the same time, this is such a person (naming him or her,) thrusting its sides full of pins, then placing it on a block, &c. before the fire. those whom such images were intended to represent, would sweat and waste away, as the wax melted, and feel the most excrutiating pains in those parts where the pins had been stuck. This charm is alluded to by Allan Ramsay in beautiful pastoral, the Gentle Shepherd, where, after enumerating the various charms, spells, and incantations of witchcraft, he thus proceeds:  

“At midnight hours o’er the kirk-yard she raves,  

An’ houks unchristen’d weans out o’ their graves;  

Boils up their livers in a warlock’s pow,  

Rins widdershins about the hemlock low.  

Nine times she does her prayers backwards say,  

Till Plotock comes wi’ lumps o’ Lapland clay,  

Mix’d wi’ the venom o’ black tades and snakes:  

Wi’ this, unsonsie pictures oft she makes  

O’ ony ane she hates, and gaurs expire,  

Wi’ slow and racking pains, afore a fire;  

Stuck fu’ o’ preens the devilish pictures melt,  

The pains by those they represent are felt.” 

   Burns, in his inimitable tale of Tam o’ Shanter, has also seized upon this most prominent superstition, and conferred all its infernal honours upon the heroine of the piece, who  

“Perish’d mony a bonny boat,  

And sheuk baith meikle corn and bear,  

And held the country side asteer.” 

Back to Francis Legge 

Scottish Review, Art. I. – Francis Legge’s WITCHCRAFT IN SCOTLAND., Oct., 1891. 

… 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. 

… 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,’ 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.’… all the evidence on the subject goes to show that no more victims were sacrificed as the result of these inquiries. 

… 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.’… 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 hands 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.’ 

… 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 Parliament 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 [creators of the Malleus Maleficarum], 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.’ 

… 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… in 1680, the release of several 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.’ 

A wee bit about the kind of tortures used; 

Chalmers’ ‘Edinburgh Journal,’ Sketches of Superstitions, Saturday July 18, 1840, pp.206-207. 

… In her confession [Mrs Sampson] implicated one Doctor Fian, otherwise called John Cunningham, master of the school at Saltpans, in Lothian, a man whose story may be noticed at some length, as one of the most curious and instructive in the whole annals of Scottish witchcraft. 

   Mrs Sampson deposed that Dr Fian was always a prominent person at the witch-meetings, and Geillis Duncan, the marvellous trump-player, confirmed this assertion. Whether made through heedlessness or malice, these averments decided Fian’s fate. He was seized, and after being “used with the accustomed paine provided for those offences inflicted upon the rest, first, by thrawing of his head with a rope, whereat he would confess nothing;” and, secondly, being urged “by fair meanes to confesse his follies,” which had as little effect; “lastly, hee was put to the most severe and cruell paine in the world, called the bootes, when, after he had received three strokes, being inquired if he would confesse his actes and wicked life, his tongue would not serve him to speake; in respect whereof, the rest of the witches willed to search his tongue, under which was founde two pinnes thrust up into the heade, whereupon the witches did say, now is the charme stinted, and showed that those charmed pins were the cause he could not confesse any thing; then was he immediately released of the bootes, brought before the king, and his confession was taken.” Appalled by the cruel tortures he had undergone, Fian seems now only to have thought how he could best get up a story that should bring him to a speedy death. He admitted himself to be the devil’s “register,” or clerk, who took the oaths from all witches at their initiation, and avowed his having bewitched various persons. In proof of the latter statement he instanced the case of a gentleman near Saltpans, whom he had so practised upon, he said, that the victim fell into fits at intervals. This person, who seems to have been either a lunatic or afflicted with St Vitus’s dance, was sent for, and “being in his majestie’s chamber, suddenly hee gave a great scritch, and fell into madnesse, sometimes bending himself, and sometimes capring so directly up, that his heade did touch the seeling of the chamber, to the great admiration of his majestie.” On these and other accounts Dr Fian was sent to prison, but he contrived soon after to escape from it. “By meanes of a hot and harde pursuite,” he was retaken, and brought before the king, to be examined anew. But the unfortunate man had had time to think, and, like Cranmer under somewhat similar circumstances, resolved to retract the admissions which the weakness of the body had drawn from him, and to suffer any thing rather than renew them. He boldly told this to the king; and James, whom these records make us regard with equal contempt and indignation, ordered the unfortunate man to be subjected to the following most horrible tortures. “His nailes upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a turkas, which in England are called a payre of pincers, and under everie nayle there was thrust in two needles ever, even up to the heades; at all which tormentes, notwithstanding, the doctor never shrunk a whit, neither would he then confesse it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted on him. Then was hee, with all convenient speed, by commandement, convaied again to the torment of the bootes, wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blowes in them, that his legges were crusht and beaten together as small as might bee, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever.” Notwithstanding all this, such was the strength of mind of the victim, or, as King James termed it, “so deeply had the devil entered into his heart” that he still denied all, and resolutely declared that “all he had done and said before was only done and said for fear of the paynes which he had endured.” As, according to this fashion of justice, to confess or not to confess was quite the same thing, the poor schoolmaster of Saltpans was soon afterwards strangled, and then burned on the Castlehill of Edinburgh (January 1591). 

Back to Francis 

Scottish Review, Art. I. – Francis Legge’s WITCHCRAFT IN SCOTLAND., Oct., 1891. 

… 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. 

Explained in 

Chalmers’ ‘Edinburgh Journal,’ Sketches of Superstitions, Saturday July 18, 1840, pp.206-207. 

Scattered cases took place near the beginning of the eighteenth century, such as those at Paisley in 1697, at Pittenweem in 1704, and at Spott about the same time. It is curious, that, as something like direct evidence became necessary for condemnation, that evidence presented itself, and in the shape of possessed or enchanted young persons, who were brought into court to play off their tricks. The most striking case of this nature was that of Christian Shaw, a girl about eleven years old, and the daughter of Mr Shaw of Bargarran, in Renfrewshire. This wretched girl, who seems to have been an accomplished hypocrite, young as she was, quarrelled with a maid-servant, and, to be revenged, fell into convulsions, saw spirits, and, in short, feigned herself bewitched. To sustain her story, she accused one person after another, till not less than twenty were implicated, some of them children of the ages of twelve and fourteen! They were tried on the evidence of the girl, and five human beings perished through her malicious impostures. It is remarkable that this very girl afterwards founded the thread manufacture in Renfrewshire. From a friend who had been in Holland, she learnt some secrets in spinning, and, putting them skilfully in practice, she led the way to the extensive operations carried on in that department of late years. She became the wife of the minister of Kilmaurs, and, it is to be hoped, had leisure and grace to repent of the wicked misapplication, in her youth, of those talents which she undoubtedly possessed. 

Back to Francis 

Scottish Review, Art. I. – Francis Legge’s WITCHCRAFT IN SCOTLAND., Oct., 1891. 

   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… Now the number burnt by sentence of the High Court during this period averaged 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.’… 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. 

   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,.. 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. 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. 

Wee bit about who Major Weir was; 

Grant’s ‘Old and New Edinburgh,’ Vol. 1, Ch. 38, The West Bow. 

Major Weir, “after a life characterised externally by all the graces of devotion, but polluted in secret by crimes of the most revolting nature, and which little needed the addition of wizardry to excite the horror of living men, fell into a severe sickness, which affected his mind so much that he made open and voluntary confession of all his wickedness.” 

According to Professor Sinclair, the major had made a compact with the devil, who of course outwitted his victim. The fiend had promised, it was said, to keep him scatheless from all peril, but a single “burn;” hence the accidental naming of a man named Burn, by the sentinels at the Nether Bow Port, when he visited them as commander of the Guard, cast him into a fit of terror; and on another occasion, finding Libberton Burn before him, was sufficient to make him turn back trembling. 

His sick-bed confession, when he was now verging on his seventieth year, seemed at first so incredible that Sir Andrew Ramsay of Abbotshall, who was Lord Provost from 1662 to 1673, refused for a time to order his arrest. Eventually, however, the major, his sister (the partner of one of his crimes), and the black magical staff, were all taken into custody and lodged in the Tolbooth. 

The staff was secured by the express request of his sister, and local superstition still records how it was wont to perform all the major’s errands for any article he wanted from the neighbouring shops; that it answered the door when “the pin was tirled,” and preceded him in the capacity of a link-boy at night in the Lawnmarket. In his house several sums of money in dollars were found wrapped up in pieces of cloth. A fragment of the latter, on being thrown on the fire by the bailie in charge, went up the wide chimney with an explosion like a cannon, while the dollars, when the magistrate took them home, flew about in such a fashion that the demolition of his house seemed imminent. 

While in prison he confessed, without scruple, that he had been guilty of crimes alike possible and impossible. Stung to madness my conscience, the unfortunate wretch seemed to feel some comfort in sharing his misdeeds with the devil, yet he refused to address himself to Heaven for pardon. To all who urged him to pray, he answered by wild screams. “Torment me no more – I am tortured enough already!” was his constant cry; and he declined to see a clergyman of any creed, saying, according to “Law’s Memorials,” that “his condemnation was sealed; and since he was to go to the devil, he did not wish to anger him!” 

When asked by the minister of Ormiston if he had ever seen the devil, he answered, “that any fealling he ever hade of him was in the dark.” 

He and his sister were tried on the 9th of April, 1670, before the Justiciary Court; he was sentenced to be strangled and burned [the usual punishment for witchcraft in Scotland], between Edinburgh and Leith, and his sister Grizel (called Jean by some), to be hanged in the Grassmarket. 

When his neck was encircled by the fatal rope at the place of execution, and the fire that was to consume his body – the “burn” to which, as the people said the devil had lured him – he was bid to say, “Lord, be merciful to me!” But he only replied fiercely and mournfully, “Let me alone – I will not; I have lived as a beast and must die like a beast.” When his lifeless body fell from the stake into the flaming pyre beneath, his favourite stick, which (according to Ravaillac Redivivus) “was all of one piece of thornwood, with a crooked head,” and without the aid of which he could perform nothing, was cast in also, and it was remarked by the spectators that it gave extraordinary twistings and writhings, and was as long in burning as the major himself. The place where he perished was at Greenside, on the sloping bank, whereon, in 1846, was erected the new church, so called. 

If this man was not mad, he certainly was a singular paradox in human nature, and one of a kind somewhat uncommon – outwardly he exhibited the highest strain of moral sentiment for years, and during all that time had been secretly addicted to every degrading propensity; till eventually, unable to endure longer the sense of secret guilt and hypocrisy, with the terrors of sickness and age upon him, and death seeming near, he made a confession which some at first believed, and on that confession alone was sentenced to die. 

If Weir was not mad, the ideas and confessions of his sister show that she undoubtedly was. She evidently believed that her brother’s stick was one possessed of no ordinary power. Professor Sinclair tells us, that on one of the ministers returning to the Tolbooth from Greenside, she would not believe that her brother had been burned till told that it had perished too; “whereupon, notwithstanding her age, she nimbly, and in a furious rage, fell upon her knees, uttering words horrible to be remembered.” She assured her hearers that her mother had been a witch, and that when the mark of a horse-shoe – a mark which she herself displayed – came on the forehead of the old woman, she could tell of events then happening at any distance, and to her ravings in the Tolbooth must some of the darkest traditions of the West Bow be assigned. 

She confessed that she was a sorceress, and among other incredible things, said that many years before a fiery chariot, unseen by others, came to her brother’s house in open day; a stranger invited them to enter, and they proceeded to Dalkeith. While on the road another stranger came, and whispered something in the ear of her brother, who became visibly affected; and this intelligence was tidings of the defeat of the Scottish army, that very day, at Worcester. She stated, too, that a dweller in Dalkeith had a familiar spirit, who span for her an extraordinary quantity of yarn, in the time that it would have taken four women to do so. 

At the place of execution in the Grassmarket a frenzy seized her, and the wretched old creature began to rend her garments, in order, as she shrieked, that she might die “with all the shame she could!” 

Undeterred by her fate, ten other old women were in the same year burned in Edinburgh for alleged dabbling in witchcraft. 

The reverend Professor who compiled “Satan’s Invisible World,” relates that a few nights before the major made his astounding confession, the wife of a neighbour, when descending from the Castle Hill towards the Bow-head, saw three women in different windows, shouting, laughing, and clapping their hands. She passed on, and when abreast of Major Weir’s door, she saw a woman of twice mortal stature arise from the street. Filled with great fear, she desired her maid, who bore a lantern, to hasten on, but the tall spectre still kept ahead of them, uttering shouts of “unmeasurable laughter,” till they came to the narrow alley called the Stinking Close, into which the spectre turned, and which was seen to be full of flaming torches, as if a multitude of people were there, all laughing merrily. “This sight, at so dead a time of night, no people being in the windows belonging to the close, made her and her servant haste home, declaring all that they saw to the rest of the family.” 

“For upwards of a century after Major Weir’s death he continued to be the bugbear of the Bow, and his house remained uninhabited. His apparition,” says Chambers, “was frequently seen at night, flitting like a black and silent shadow about the street. His house, though known to be deserted by everything human, was sometimes observed at midnight to be full of lights, and heard to emit strange sounds, as of dancing, howling, and, what is strangest of all, spinning. Some people occasionally saw the major issue from the low close at midnight, mounted on a black horse without a head, and gallop off in a whirlwind of flame. Nay, sometimes the whole inhabitants of the Bow would be roused from their sleep at an early hour in the morning by the sound of a coach and six, first rattling up the Lawnmarket, and then thundering down the Bow, stopping at the head of the terrible close for a few minutes, and then rattling and thundering back again; being neither more nor less than Satan come in one of his best equipages to take home the major and his sister after they had spent a night’s leave of absence in their terrestrial dwelling.” 

Back to Francis 

Scottish Review, Art. I. – Francis Legge’s WITCHCRAFT IN SCOTLAND., Oct., 1891. 

In 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. 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.’   

… 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,’ 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. 

… 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. 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 [arms or legs were put into an iron frame/enclosure then heated with fire to roast the limb], 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.’ 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.’ 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 he 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. 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.   

… 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. 

… 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. 

… 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. 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… 

   There is much less doubt as to the cause of the cessation of the persecution… 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. 

Last witch tried 

Chalmers’ ‘Edinburgh Journal,’ Sketches of Superstitions, Saturday July 18, 1840, pp.206-207. 

   The last justiciary trial for witchcraft in Scotland was in the case of Elspeth Rule, who was convicted in 1708, and – banished. The last regular execution for the crime is said to have taken place at Dornoch in 1722, when an old woman was condemned by David Ross, sheriff of Caithness. But we fear the provincial records of the north, if inquired into, would show later deaths on this score. However, here may be held to end the tragical part of the annals of Scottish witchcraft. The number of its victims, for reasons previously stated, it would be difficult accurately to compute, but the black scroll would include, according to those who have most attentively inquired into the subject, upwards of FOUR THOUSAND persons! And by what a fate they perished! Cruelly tortured while living, and dismissed from life by a living death amid the flames! And for what? For an impossible crime! And who were the victims, and who the executioners? The victims, in by far the majority of cases, were the aged, the weak, the deformed, the lame, and the blind; those to whom nature had been ungentle in her outward gifts, or whom years and infirmities had doomed to poverty and wretchedness; exactly that class of miserable beings, in short, for whom more enlightened times provide houses of refuge, and endow charitable institutions, aiming, in the spirit of true benevolence, to supply to them that attention and support which nature or circumstances have denied them the power of procuring for themselves. Often, too, was the victim a person distinguished by particular gifts and endowments; gifts bestowed by the Creator in kindness, but rendered fatal to the possessor by man. These were the victims of witchcraft. the executioners were the wisest and greatest of their time. Men distinguished above their fellows for knowledge and intelligence, ministers of religion and of the laws, kings, princes, and nobles – these and such as these judged of the crime, pronounced the doom, and sent the poor victims of delusion to the torture, the stake, and the scaffold. 

Scots Magazine, Scottish Antiquities, Part. 3, On the Popular Superstitions of Ghosts and Witches, incident to the Border, 1st May, 1816. 

   We shall close our notices of this infernal superstition, with an account of the charm for the baking of a witch-cake, whose pernicious virtues, and hellish properties, are thus described in traditional song, said to have been sung by the carlines over their unhallowed batch:  


“I saw yestreen, I saw yestreen,  

Little wis ye what I saw yestreen,  

The black cat puk’d out the grey cats een,  

At the hip o’ the hemlock knowe yestreen.  


Wi’ her tail i’ her teeth she whomel’d roun’,  

Wi’ her tail i’ her teeth she whomel’d roun’,  

Till twae starnes shot frae the lift abune,  

An’ she hauncht them ere they wan to the green.  


She turn’t them roun’ i’ her mouth an’ chow’d,  

Till the slaver fell, an’ her grey een low’d,  

Then drabbled them oure wi’ a black nowt’s blude,  

An’ bak’d a bannock, an’ ca’d it gude.  


She haurn’d it weel wi’ a blink o’ the mune,  

An’ drapt it a’ wi’ the ryme abune,  

Syne widdershins thrice she whirl’d it roun’,  

A feast for the bonniest lass i’ the toun.  


Gaur place a bit to the bride’s left sleeve,  

An’ a bit ‘mid the bridal blankets leave,  

They may suck the ale frae the bizzing horne,  

Ise warn’t they’ll skirl ere it be morne.  


Gaur place a bit at yon cradle head,  

The bairn will gasp wi’ the smeekit bread,  

An’ tho’ its mither should rock till day,  

The wretch sall skreech its wun’ away.”  

   Such are a few of the more prominent features of this once dreadful superstition, but which have in a great measure faded before the omnipotent agency of reason and of truth: the most formidable witch we have to encounter in these days, is the grisly fiend poverty; and the piercing charms of a pair of lovely eyes and rosy lips have more power over the young swains of the villages, than all the midnight spells and incantations of Old Mother Shipton and her three thousand cats. 

Side note – It’s conclusive that the destruction of cats due to the fear that they were a witches preferred familiar led directly to the rise in unchecked rats & vermin which created some of the worst plagues to run rampant throughout Europe 

Exit mobile version