Article: Witch Hunts In Scotland

Witch Hunts In Scotland


The most celebrated Scottish witch was Isobel Gowdie, whose confession provided a detailed insight into the real or imagined activities and delusions of the archetypal witch. In 1662, Gowdie, the renowned ‘Queen of Scottish Witches’, confessed that she had frequent dealings with what she referred to as `faeries’.

She claimed to have frequently travelled to Faerieland, which she entered through various hills and caverns. According to her account, the entrance to Faerieland was guarded by elf-bulls, whose ‘roaring and skoilling’ always left her terrified. She stated that the King and Queen of Faerieland, whom she met frequently, were always finely dressed and offered her more meat than she could eat.

While she was in Faerieland, Gowdie, along with other witches and faeries, would amuse themselves by shape shifting (changing into animal form) and destroying the homes of mortals. She was taught to fly by the faeries using, among other things, the charm:

Horse and Hattock, in the Devil’s name!

The faeries and the Devil would then make what Gowdie termed ‘poisonous elf-arrows’, presumably as weapons with which to harm, or enchant, mortals.

Gowdie also stated that she used her broom for a rather novel purpose. Instead of using it to travel to Faerieland or a sabbat, she put the broom next to her husband in their marital bed. She claimed he never noticed the difference, which has to be regarded as more of a comment on the state of their marriage than it is an admission of witchcraft.

One trial that gives us a good deal of information on the changing perception of what had previously been an acceptable use of knowledge is that of Bessie Dunlop, who was tAd in 1576 for being a member of a coven. Known as the Witch of Dalry, she was probably more of a wise woman than a witch, since she used herbal cures and remedies and also seems to have been exceptionally clairvoyant.

She was accused of sorcery, witchcraft, incantation and dealing with charms. Many of her experiences, such as seeing her familiar or guardian spirit, would be understood by modern psychics as they develop the ‘powers’. She was burnt at the stake, although she was patently a white witch working for the good of the community.

The Aberdeen witchcraft trials of 1596 came about largely as a result of public unease. The main accused were Janet Wishart, Isobel Cockie, Margaret Ogg, Helen Rogie, Isobel Strachan, Isobel Ritchie and Isobel Ogg, each of whom was said to specialize in a particular form of sorcery.

Janet Wishart apparently stole body parts from corpses. Isobel Cockie bewitched mills and livestock, while Margaret Ogg poisoned meat and Isobel Ogg raised storms. Helen Rogie brought illness and death on her victims by modelling figures of them in lead or wax. Isobel Strachan was notorious as a fascinator and misleader of young men, while Isobel Ritchie made magical confectionery for expectant mothers.

It would seem that these witches all had one thing in common: the ability to cause ‘the sudden sickness’ whereby their victims would lay ‘one half of the day roasting as if in an oven, with an unquenchable thirst, the other half of the day melting away with an extraordinary cold sweat.’ Anything that had gone wrong in the vicinity of this group of women was blamed on them. Other women were tried at the same time and at the end of the trial no less than 23 women and one man had been found guilty of witchcraft.

Their punishment was to be tied to stakes, strangled by the executioner and then burnt to ashes. Some of those tried escaped this fate by committing suicide, but their bodies were then dragged through the streets until they were torn to shreds. Those who had been tried but not had the charges proven were branded on the cheek and banished.

There does seem to be some evidence for the practising of the black art in this area of Scotland. The groups that did meet would seem to have two main things in common. First, the practice of witchcraft was a confidential cult, almost a family concern, where secrets were handed down from generation to generation. Secondly, there was a well organized network, and although each of its members operated individually in their own localities, each was also required to attend general meetings to take part in the ceremonies and to take further instructions in ‘working woe’ (doing harm).

The North Berwick witches trial in 1590 was one of the most notorious and signalled the beginning of witchcraft hysteria in Scotland. The case started when a deputy bailiff, David Seaton, became suspicious of the goings on of one of his servants, Geillis Duncan. She, cooperating fully with his enquiries, admitted that she had been present at sabbats and gave a long list of accomplices, including Dr J. Fian (there is some difference of opinion as to whether his name was James or John), Agnes Sampson, Euphemia Maclean and Barbara Napier.

Agnes Sampson refused to admit that she was a witch but after long and painful torture admitted all charges. She claimed that a coven with as many as 200 witches had met the Devil at North Berwick, where he had empowered them to use spells and magic. They were to throw a dead cat into the sea in order to create a storm which was to prevent King James VI’s ship from returning from Denmark with his fiance, Anne.

At first the king was reluctant to have them found guilty of witchcraft as he believed they were not telling the truth, but later Agnes repeated to him the exact words of a private conversation he had had with his wife on his wedding night. Highly disturbed by this, he took it as proof that witchcraft had been performed against him and they were found guilty. At the conclusion of the trial Dr Fian, who had been brutally tortured, Agnes Sampson and Euphemia MacLean were all burned alive. Barbara Napier was released after acceptance of her plea that she be spared because of pregnancy. arum.