‘The Apprehension of Sundrye Witches’ : The Prosecution of Witchcraft in Scotland, 1590-1727

north-berwick-witchesSixteenth and Seventeenth century Scotland, along with the rest of the British Isles and Continental Europe, saw a previously unparalleled increase in the number of people brought to trial and punished for the crime of witchcraft. Where just three cases of witchcraft are known in Scotland from 1501-1559, the thirty years between 1560 and 1590 saw 155 known trials for witchcraft. The final decade of the century saw 249 trials alone, a trend that was to continue into the Seventeenth century, during which at least a further 2,927 Scottish witchcraft trials are known to have been carried out. In all some 3,837 individuals are thought to have been accused of witchcraft between 1560 and 1727, when the last Scottish witch to be executed was garrotted and her body burnt at Dornoch.

The dramatic increase in the number of trials in the 1590’s coincides with the North Berwick Witch Trials of 1590, during which some one hundred people were put on trial for witchcraft. The first to be apprehended was Gillis Duncan, a servant to the Deputy Bailiff of Trenent, David Seaton, who had grown suspicious of Duncan’s alleged healing powers. Duncan refused to answer his questions, whereupon Seaton submitted her to torture, binding her head with ropes and using pillywinks (an early form of thumbscrew) to extract a confession. Still receiving no answer from Duncan and convinced of her guilt, Seaton had her body examined, discovering a mark on her throat that was taken to be the Devil’s mark, a sure sign of witchcraft. Duncan, traumatised by the torture and presented with the ‘evidence’ of her guilt, finally broke, confessing to witchcraft and naming several others as being guilty.

The trial attracted the attention of King James VI, later also James I of England, whose personal interest in the case stems in part from the accusations and subsequent executions for witchcraft that followed the storms which prevented his bride, Anne of Denmark, from sailing from Copenhagen in 1589. When James sailed to Denmark to escort her back to Scotland in person storms had delayed his own return voyage. It was perhaps inevitable that these storms would also be linked to witchcraft.

According to one of the leading accused, Agnes Tompson, the witches had conspired at the death of King James, whom the devil considered as his greatest enemy. Tompson described how she had sought to poison James with the venom of a black toad, only failing because one of the king’s servants, John Kers, had refused to give her a piece of the king’s linen. Tompson went on to describe how she and the other witches had christened a cat, bound parts of a dead man to its body, and carried it over the sea before leaving it before the town of Leith. An act of witchery that caused the storms that hampered the royal couple in their journeys and that had caused the death of Jane Kennedy, appointed lady-in-waiting to Anne, when her boat foundered while crossing the river Forth in September 1589. Jane had been on her way to Leith to meet the expected arrival of the queen.

With James acting as one of the investigators at the trial the outcome was inevitable. Tompson and many of her co-accused were put to death. In 1597 James published his Daemononlogie, a treatise on witchcraft that sought to convince sceptics of the reality of witches and urged their detection and punishment. On his accession to the English throne in 1603 one of his first acts was to replace the Elizabethan Witchcraft Act of 1563 with An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits, the terms of which made witchcraft a felony, subject to the courts of common law rather than the jurisdiction of ecclesiastic courts. James’ attitude to the prosecution of witchcraft appears to have been tempered in later life. Like other contemporaries, such as Friedrich Spee author of the Cautio Criminalis, James recognised that judges should exercise the utmost caution to avoid miscarriages of justice. Following the peak of witch trials in 1590-91 in Scotland the number of trials remained low throughout the rest of his reign.

Statistical evidence from Scottish records show that there were five peaks in activity between 1551 and 1730 (see figure below), in 1590-91, 1597, 1628-30, 1649, and 1661-62.

Instances of Scottish witch trials by decade from 1551-1730. Data sourced from Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database

Instances of Scottish witch trials by decade from 1551-1730. Data sourced from Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database

Such peaks in the persecution of witches were typical throughout Europe of the period. The denouncement of a witch within a community often led to a wave of trials that resulted from the trial process itself. With confessions extorted by torture, the victims were forced to name their confederates on the assumption that witches operated in covens of thirteen. Confused by pain and terror the accused might name a dozen people at random, or name individuals whom the accused had a personal grievance against. In turn those accused would undergo torture and questioning and be required to name yet more witches. From a single case a wave of persecution could follow that claimed or blighted the lives of hundreds of innocent people. Between 1621 and 1630 there were 510 recorded instances of witchcraft in Scotland. Of these, 372 occurred between 1628 and 1630. Of the 850 instances recorded between 1641 and 1650, 399 occurred in 1649 alone, 46 per cent of the total. Just over 92 per cent of 700 recorded cases between 1661 and 1670  took place in 1661 and 1662. These five peaks, covering a cumulative period of 8 years, account for nearly 50 per cent of all recorded instances of witchcraft in Scotland for the 176 years between 1551 and 1727.

The peak in 1590-91 is clearly related to the presumed attempt on the king’s life and the hysteria it generated. 1597 is perhaps significant as the year in which James published his Daemonologie, with publication arguably leading to heightened interest in the prosecution of witches. The underlying reasons for the peak in 1628-30 remain unclear. What seems evident is that the hunt was led by clerical and secular elites who set off a serial hunt based largely on the discovery of witches through the denunciations of those brought to confession.

The underlying causes of the 1649 are clearer. Put crudely the Reformation led to a more enthusiastic support for the literal interpretation of the Mosaic text, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Key figures like Calvin and Luther were uncompromising in their attitude to witches, influencing attitudes throughout Europe. During the 1640’s in Scotland the Presbyterian Covenanters sought a reformation of the country as a whole and a crusade against immorality in many forms to create a ‘godly society’. In 1649 the Covenanters passed a new Witchcraft Act that extended the 1563 Act to include the death penalty for those guilty of dealings with devils and familiars. Other acts made capital offences of blasphemy and the worship of false gods. Urged on by the Commission of the General Assembly, ministers and consistories of the local kirks carried out a wave of witch hunts in 1649-50, during which 799 people were accused of witchcraft. As in previous peaks the victims were overwhelmingly of low social status and female. By 1650 the number of cases being brought to trial was dropping dramatically and the defeat of the Covenanters by the English Parliament under Cromwell in 1650-52 led to a near-prohibition of witch trials in the Scottish courts.

In 1661, amid the upheavals following the death of Cromwell in 1658, a new wave of witch hunts began as the Covenanters regained power within Scotland. Cases that had been festering in local communities for a decade were brought to justice as between 1661-63 some 654 cases were brought against witches. As the furore declined doubts about the validity of the trials, and in particular of the confessions wrought from the accused, began to be more seriously considered by the authorities. What evidence we have suggests that the more local the court, the more likely that the sentence would be execution, especially so during peaks in witch hunting. In many cases confession had been achieved by torture under the auspices of the local ecclesiastical court as a prelude to obtaining a commission to conduct a trial in the secular court system. Concerns over the legal procedure and revulsion at the violence engendered saw a steady decline in witch trials in the latter quarter of the century and into the first quarter of the Seventeenth century.

Accurate figures for the number of executions are difficult to come by. While we have records that provide us with 3,212 named individuals and a further 625 unnamed people or groups, just 305 cases exist where the outcome of a trial is known. Of these, 205 were executed, giving a figure of 67 per cent. Problems occur in applying this figure to the entire Scottish experience: the 305 cases were mainly conducted in central justiciary courts where the acquittal rate was higher than in the local courts where the majority of witches were tried and sentenced; of the 3,212 named individuals many were going through ecclesiastical court processes and may have then gone on to a criminal trial for which records do not survive. We should be wary of extrapolating from such a small sample, but it does not seem unreasonable to think that in Scotland an accusation of witchcraft, particularly during peaks of activity, was more likely to result in the death of the accused than not.

In 1735 parliament passed the last Witchcraft Act radically changing the legal status of witchcraft and the fortunes of those affected by the Act. In effect the law reverted to the earlier position of the early medieval Church that witchcraft was illusory and deceptive, a sham practised by people who sought to deceive, rather than a genuine display of powers gained through consort with the devil or other powers. Under the terms of the 1735 Act any person claiming magical powers or practising witchcraft was guilty of acting fraudulently and subject to a sentence of one year’s imprisonment and to stand in the pillory for an hour, once per quarter-year.. Chief, indeed virtually the only opponent of the Act during its passage through parliament was James Erskine whose Presbyterian beliefs, deeply rooted in the Scottish political and religious experience, and belief in witchcraft led him to oppose the bill.

The Act may have been an official statement that, to enlightened minds, witchcraft and sorcery was a pretence to the possession of arts and powers intended to delude or defraud, but belief in witches and their power continued to hold sway in the popular imagination. Eight years before the Act a woman named as Janet Horne was arrested in Dornoch on charges of witchcraft brought by her neighbours. After a quick trial Janet was declared guilty and the sherriff ordered her to be strangled and burned at the stake. Janet’s alleged crime had been to turn her daughter into a pony.

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This entry was posted on March 3, 2015 by in Early Modern, History, Scotland.

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