Sunday, October 29, 2017

The infamous witch hunts of 16th & 17th century Scotland

Scotland has a strong association with Witchcraft (or Wicca), which became a statutory crime in 1563 (Witchcraft Act). During the Reformation (16th and 17th centuries), several thousand cases of alleged witchcraft were bought to trial. It is considered approximately 67% of those accused of witchcraft were executed and, unlike in England where witches were hanged, the Scots preferred to burn their witches, usually following torture and strangulation. The last documented case of death through witch-burning was recorded in 1722 in Sutherland. Many of the accused who met their unjust end were midwives or victims of malicious gossip and neighbourhood quarrels.

There were five separate sets of witch trials in Scotland. The first took place in 1590 in North Berwick and involved a number of people from East Lothian, accused of witchcraft in the St Andrew's Auld Kirk in North Berwick. The trials ran for two years and seventy people were implicated, including Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell on charges of high treason. The confessions were extracted by torture in the Old Tolbooth, Edinburgh.

King James VI married princess from Denmark who had a fear of the Black art. After they experienced treacherous storms on their journey home to Scotland thought to be caused by practitioners of the Occult, James VI launched a campaign against witches. Suspicion fell on a group of witches from North Bewick. Seventy (70) people accused of being witches in the North Berwick area between 1590-1592. Horrendous torture was used to gain confessions and it was not uncommon for those accused to name others. Under duress Geillis Duncan gave the name of Agnes Sampson, a local midwife. Although Agnes doggedly denied the charges against her, however, the torture was too much for her take and it broke her spirit. Sleep deprived and exhausted by being bound in a witch's bridle, an instrument that inserted four prongs in the mouth and was attached to a wall, she confessed to being allies with Satan and conspiring to kill the King. She was strangled and burned to death.

Another witch trial took place in Edinburgh in 1596, after Christian Stewart was accused of having bewitched Patrick Ruthven to death. These events would foreshadow the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597. An estimated 400 people were put on trial for witchcraft and various forms of diabolism. Trials were conducted by local courts under the supervision of royal commissions, but these were not documented by central authorities, and local records were frequently lost or mislaid. Hence the exact number found guilty and executed is unknown, but is believed to be about 200. According to available records the most frequent witch hunts were in Fife, Perthshire, Glasgow, Stirlingshire and particularly Aberdeenshire. The 1597 with trials started in Slains north of Aberdeen, followed by a larger witch trial in Aberdeen against Janet Wishart and her accomplices. Wishart was alleged to have used a cantrip (spell) to cause one victim to alternately shiver and sweat, bewitched other victims so that they died or nearly died, raised storms via the throwing out of live coals, used "nightmare cats" to inflict horrible dreams, and dismembered a corpse hanging at the gallows. She was executed by burning along with another witch.

The most celebrated case was Margaret Aitken, The Great Witch of Balwearie who was arrested in Fife in1597. After torture she plead guilty and offered to help the Commission to identify other witches in all parts of the country in exchange for her life. For the next four months, the Aitken commission visited several parts of Scotland and many people were arrested, put on trial and executed. Eventually Aitken was discredited as expert witness and the commissions were ordered to end the trials until the claims could be better examined. The witch hunt was stopped in October of 1597.

The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1628–1631 is less well documented According to Robertson (2009) the number of commissions granted in the summer of 1628 was considerable. Witch hunts took place across Scotland but absence of documentation prevent detailed analysis. During July and August, three commissions for the trials of thirteen women from Prestonpans was granted. At least one of the accused, Janet Boyd was executed. More commissions followed and trails were set in Niddrie. The fate of most suspects remains unknown, and the motivations of their commissioners are equally unclear. The seventeen women named in these commissions may have been accused of acts of malefice by their neighbours, or perhaps they were denounced by other suspects. It is possible that some or all of them confessed and provided more names for investigation and trial, but with no further mention of them in the records, there is no way to confirms this. More commissions followed in Midlothian. In the main witch hunts were Protestant-dominated and at a time when there was a great deal of support among secular authorities to enforce anti-papism laws, there was clear evidence prominent Catholics were participating possibly as a way to secure their social position, while appearing to fulfil their duties as a good Catholic in the battle against Satan. By 1632 the peak in witch-hunting had ended and the unwillingness of kirk sessions and the Privy Council to believe accusations of witchcraft showed a departure from the fervour in witch-hunting that began in the second half of 1628. The final witch trials concluded in 1631.

Determined to enforce godliness on the Scots, the Covenanter regime embraced the new witchcraft act in 1649 and extended it to deal with consulters of "Devils and familiar spirits", who would now be punished with death. In the same year the Committee of Estates passed an Act to prevented torture in cases of witchcraft, but it was never implemented. The introduction of the Witchcraft Act of 1649 saw a record number of executions in a single year. The commission of the General Assembly coordinated presbyteries in their pursuit of "fugitive witches" and individual members of parliament and other leading Covenanters took a proactive role in witch hunts. The 49/50 witch hunts were largely confined to the Lowlands (Lothian and Fife) and 612 records of accusations of witchcraft are known to exist with over 300 accused executed after trial. The Devil featured rarely in witchcraft trials, which were mainly concerned with perceived harm through witchcraft. However, there were total of 69 confessions of demonic pacts in court records and five women were executed after admitting to have sexual intercourse with him. The vast majority of witches were women and most of these of relatively low social status. Scottish witchcraft trials were notable for their use of pricking of a Devil's mark through which they could not feel pain. This process undertaken by professional witch prickers could turn into a form of torture in which a subject could be repeatedly pricked until they confessed. The period of rule by the Kirk party ended when Cromwell led an army across the border in July 1650. After this witch trials entered a new phase, with a reduction in the total number of trails and the abandonment of local trials in favour of mixed central-local trials.

The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661–62 took place across the whole of Scotland with at least 660 people tried for witch craft and various forms of diabolism. The exact number of those executed is unknown, largely because they were tried by different legal courts, but is believed to number in the hundreds. The witch hunt started in Midlothian and East Lothian east of Edinburgh, where 206 people were accused of sorcery between April and December 1661. Subsequently the authorities appointed commissions to examine the existence of witchcraft in every part of the country. The most infamous case was Isobel Gowdie, a young housewife living at Auldearn, outside Nairn. Her tales of shape-shifting and cavorting with the devil and his unnaturally cold penis have inspired music, plays, paintings and books. She was tried for witchcraft in 1662. It is unclear whether she had fallen under suspicion of witchcraft but when interrogated she gave a detailed confession which differed considerably from the common pattern of witch confessions. During the process she used the term coven, confessing that in her experience witches met in covens of thirteen. Despite being found guilty there is no record of her being executed.

Robertson E.J., (2009) Panic and Persecution: Witch-Hunting in East Lothian, 1628-1631 MSc by Research in Scottish History : University of Edinburgh

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