The North Berwick Witch Trials

The North Berwick Witch Trials
St Andrews Auld Kirk from the north

Back over to the east coast of Scotland this week, to North Berwick, a town about 30 miles south of Edinburgh. If you read my first guest post for Mari, you’ll recall me talking about King James VI of Scotland, who, it has to be said, had a bit of a downer on witches. He was the one who ordered hundreds of ‘witches’ to be executed on Castlehill in Edinburgh. This all started when he discovered that a coven in North Berwick had plotted to kill him and his wife, Anne of Denmark, as they sailed home to Scotland from Norway.

The story began in 1590 when the deputy bailiff of Tranent in East Lothian, David Seaton, found out that his maid Gilly Duncan was leaving the house at night without permission. He also discovered that she was known locally to possess skill in healing. Seaton suspected witchcraft and when the maid wouldn’t answer his questions, used torture. Gilly, under duress, said her power of healing was inspired by the Devil and that she was a member of a witches’ coven.
St Andrews Auld Kirk from what was the west end of the nave

The coven met on St. Andrews Auld Kirk Green, now part of the modern-day North Berwick Harbour area. Are you noticing a pattern with these ‘old kirks’? (Sadly, only the entrance porch now survives). As Gilly was subjected to more torture she went further – confessing to a conspiracy to murder King James VI. The coven had assembled on the pier at Leith before the Firth of Forth estuary, using their arts to raise a storm against a lone ship which they supposed to be that of the King. The vessel was sunk but this was not the royal ship, which returned safely to Scotland.

The alleged architect of this plot was Francis Hepburn, 5th Earl of Bothwell: cousin to the King and heir apparent if James died without son or daughter. Clearly he fancied the crown for himself! Coveting the crown, and being prepared to do murder for it, seems to have run in that family. If any of you know the history of Mary, Queen of Scots, mother of James VI, you’ll know that the 4th Earl of Bothwell was her third husband. He arranged the murder of her second husband in order to marry her! He was uncle to this 5th Earl who was now plotting to kill her son. (This kind of thing went on all the time in Scotland). Anyway, back to the witches…

Four other suspected conspirators were seized for questioning: a schoolmaster named Dr John Fian, Euphemia Maclean, Barbara Napier and a midwife called Agnes Sampson who was known for her herbal remedies. Dr Fian was tortured and eventually confessed he was “clerk to all those that were in subjection to the Devil’s service”. Fian was burnt at Castlehill, Edinburgh in January 1591.
(c) City of Edinburgh Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

James VI now took a personal hand in the investigations. Agnes Sampson was brought before the King at Holyrood House, Edinburgh, where he questioned her. She was fastened to the wall of her cell by a witch’s bridle, an iron instrument with four sharp prongs forced into the mouth, so that two prongs pressed against the tongue, and the two others against the cheeks. She was also kept without sleep. Only after these ordeals did Agnes Sampson confess to the fifty-three indictments against her. Agnes was unrepentant, she spoke of a witches’ gathering at Prestonpans where a small effigy of the King was produced, and cursed.

the witches meet the devil in the kirkyard, from a contemporary pamphlet

**I’d like to call your attention to the “Devil” he’s kind of cute looking.**

The King at first was sceptical. As the claims became more fanciful he lost patience and accused Agnes of being a liar. Agnes said she knew something that would prove her story. She was allowed to draw close to the King and, it was said, whispered into his ear certain words that had passed between James and Anne of Denmark when the couple were alone on their wedding night.

The King was astonished; he was now convinced of the guilt of Agnes. Both Euphemia Maclean and Agnes Sampson were found guilty of witchcraft and executed at Castlehill. Barbara Napier was also condemned but strangely enough was later released. Bothwell fled to Naples; he would eventually die in poverty in 1624.
This case started a wave of witch hunting across Scotland and indeed, the whole of Britain. While it does seem that the North Berwick witches did have evil intentions, most of the people executed were simply innocent healers or clairvoyants. If you were being subjected to tortures such as the bridle described above, ‘pricked’ with long pins to discover so-called ‘devil’s marks’, and ‘ducked’ in freezing ponds to see if you sank (innocent) or floated (witch), then you would confess to anything – if you hadn’t drowned from being ducked, of course. Not a good chapter in our history. Eventually this all stopped, when the law making witchcraft a capital offence was repealed in 1736, but for 150 years being termed a ’witch’, for any reason, was a very dangerous thing indeed.

So what’s coming next week? Well, I couldn’t leave out our most famous tale of witches, by our very own Robert Burns: Tam O’ Shanter. And what about the witches in Scotland who weren’t persistently trying to summon the devil or kill the king, those poor healers and seers who got caught up in it all? I’ll be talking a little bit about those. Writing this series has made me realise how many more stories there are to tell, so who knows, I may be back with another set of guest posts in the future, if Mari’ll have me…

Karen, you have an open invitation to come by and share whenever you like. I’m looking forward to all you are willing to share with us. Thank you again so much for agreeing to spend time here. 😀