North Berwick Witch Trials

6/10/19

In 1589, James VI of Scotland was married by proxy to Anne of Denmark. She set sail in Sept that year to Scotland but severe storms forced the party to land in Norway. James sailed to Norway and then to Denmark where they were fully married and the following year they returned to Scotland. Whilst in Denmark, James saw that the Danes blamed several 'witches' for the storms and that they had admitted so after confessing under torture. When the party were again beset by storms this time in the Forth, when they returned, James reached for Scottish witches to blame. So started the biggest single witch trial in Scottish history.

There was talk at the time that one witch had sailed into the Firth of Forth on a sieve to summon the storm, thus proving her guilt as not only a witch, but also as a would-be regicide. (Shakespeare refers to this in Macbeth where one of the three witches has the line: "But in a sieve, I'll thither sail"). Over the latter half of 1590, between 70-100 people were arrested and accused of witchcraft. Many were tortured and, of course, confessed. A maid living in Tranent, Gellis Duncan, was one of the first arrested after she was accused of having miraculous healing powers. After horrific torture (one of the implements that may have been used on her was a 'breast-ripper', a device that did exactly as it sounds) she confessed that the devil had granted her her powers and she then named her accomplices. One of them was a schoolteacher called Dr John Fian who was accused of being the coven leader. He suffered his fingernails being pulled and needles forced into the finger-ends.

Another accused was a woman from Haddington, a healer and herbalist called Agnes Sampson, who was the 'eldest woman of all' according to an account written a year later. She was chained to the wall in the Edinburgh tolbooth and fitted with a 'scold's bridle'. This was a series of iron spikes fitted into her mouth. She was kept without sleep and eventually confessed to 53 indictments after King James himself examined her. She was ultimately burned at the stake on Castlehill. It is not known how many people suffered horrific torture and death but it coloured James' and wider society's attitude to witches. James would eventually write a book called ‘Daemonologie’, which explored witchcraft and demonic magic. It is estimated by historians that between 3000-4000, mostly women, were killed in Scotland for the 'crime' of witchcraft in the 150 years or so before the Union of Parliaments in 1707.

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