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. 😀

Scottish Witches with Karen Soutar

I’m so happy, no….. elated to have Karen Soutar here to talk about her native witches with us. Karen and I have been planning this for some time now and the anticipation was becoming unbearable.

If you haven’t already you NEED to read her story about her local witches

So without me rambling on further…Because I will do it…. I’ll hand it over to Karen and her first post …. yes, I did forget to mention that didn’t I? Karen’s agreed to doing a series for us. A whole month of Scottish Witches!!! YES!!! Four posts about Scottish Witches….. Oh be still my content heart…

Here’s Karen…..

How I discovered the wonderful, wicked world of witches

What do you think of when you hear the words ‘Scottish witches’? The three from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, hunched round their cauldron? The ones who chase Tam O’ Shanter in Robert Burns’s poem? Scotland is a country rich with tales of witches. Some are legends that have grown with the telling, some are completely made up, and some of them actually happened.

Why do witches fascinate me? They always have, ever since I was a little girl. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I read my first ‘scary’ witch story when I was about seven. I never bought into the good witch, bad witch thing. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ wasn’t a favourite of mine. (I much prefer ‘Wicked’). Even when I was young, I understood that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are often subjective. When I read books and watched films, I always thought the wicked witch character was a lot more interesting than the simpering heroine. I still do. Witches appeal to my dark side. There are as many aspects to witchcraft as there are to life: witches are people and the same ones can be good or bad depending on what they’re doing and who’s describing them. I love that.

In my home of Scotland I have spent a lot of time visiting spooky sites and absorbing local stories, many of which go back before written records. We have a great ‘oral tradition’ of folk tales. A few forward-thinking writers captured some of them on paper before they were lost forever. Witches, fairies (NOT the fluttery pretty kind), ghosts…they are everywhere. Dark, forbidding mountains and crags, wild weather, dense forest – even the landscape conspires with the legends.

One of my earliest memories of a ‘real’ witch (or in this case, warlock) story comes from a school trip to Edinburgh, again when I was about seven or eight. On this trip to Scotland’s capital city, we went to the waxworks museum. When we got to the inevitable ‘chamber of horrors’ you could choose whether to go through or not. Guess which I did? I thought it was BRILLIANT. I bought the guidebook and devoured it when I got home. One of the characters I was particularly taken with was Major Weir.

Major Thomas Weir was born in 1599 and lived in the street called the West Bow, between Edinburgh Castle and the Grassmarket. He attended his local Protestant prayer meetings and was a respected pillar of the community. Then the Major fell sick, and decided, in his feverish state of mind, to divulge his secret life to his fellow worshippers.

He admitted ‘crimes against man and God’, including necromancy and other supernatural activities that resulted from witchcraft. He was taken into custody, along with his sister Jean, who was his partner in these arts. Both were tried on April 9, 1670 and sentenced to death. While Jean was hanged in the Grassmarket, Major Weir was burned alive somewhere between Edinburgh and Leith. He fervently refused to repent his sins. There is a popular legend that his staff was cast into the flames after him, where it twisted and writhed due to ‘whatever incantation was in it’.

The house where Weir and his sister lived and practiced their witchcraft stands to this day, and neighbours have confirmed sightings of his ghost and strange lights from within; also the sounds of laughter and revelry – a macabre sign that ‘The Wizard of West Bow’ and his cohorts still enjoy their distractions!

With this story I was hooked. I moved to Edinburgh when I was seventeen and found out more about the history of the city. During the reign of King James VI, more ‘witches’ were put to death on Castlehill than anywhere else in Scotland. From 1590 onwards, hundreds of women were executed. Of course, it is doubtful that most of these were witches at all, and even those that were, mostly used their arts to cure illness, heal wounds, and provide the occasional love potion.

The idea of ‘black’ and ‘white’ witches can be traced back to Roman times and beyond. But James VI considered himself an expert on witchcraft, and adopted the theory that all witches had made a deliberate pact with the devil, leading to a wholesale persecution of witches. They were often accused of plotting treason and trying to bring about the King’s downfall by using black arts. I’ll tell the story of one such coven in a future post.

So far it doesn’t sound as though witches had a very happy time in Scotland! But there were plenty of places where they could practise their arts undisturbed. Abandoned ‘Kirks’ (churches) were a favoured spot. One of these is a few miles from my home. Logie Old Kirk, just outside the town of Stirling, was the meeting place for a coven in the 1700s – more on them next time…

(c) City of Edinburgh Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationEdinburgh Castle with Old Town present dayMajor Weirs West Bow House