In 2022, Nicola Sturgeon issued a formal apology to those accused in the witch trials of early modern Scotland, describing them as “injustice on a colossal scale”. It was about time. Scotland’s history of witch trials is ludicrously bloody and excessive—relative to population, we executed at least fifteen times as many witches as England, by some of the most gruesome methods imaginable.

Between 1590 and 1662, wild accusations ran rife across the country, with woman accused of bestowing men with permanent erections or using “nightmare cats” to inflict horrible dreams upon their enemies.

While the English witch trials were sporadic and localised, Scotland indulged in five successive waves of panic, each involving significant numbers of executions. The hunts subsided somewhat under English occupation during the Commonwealth, but came back with a vengeance after the Restoration, when Scotland regained its position as an independent nation.

So what was it about Scottish history that made us so susceptible to this vengeful hysteria?

To start with, the Scottish Reformation can take some responsibility. In 1560, Scotland defected from the Catholic church. A committee of six men (for some reason, all called John) issued a volume called “The First Book of Discipline” where they spelled out a new way of life, one adhering more closely to Calvinist and Presbyterian morals.

Read more

BOOK REVIEW: A unionist plot and shady British spooks make for powerful thriller

Highlander: Chop awaits producers who revived this claptrap

It seems these Johns were raging misogynists—John Knox had already published the spectacularly-titled “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women”—and their ascendence brought about a number of strict rules about the roles women were allowed to occupy.

Before the Reformation, there’d been plenty of room for female spiritual power in Scotland, where it was common to worship Celtic goddesses and all manner of Catholic saints. Afterwards, any women who demonstrated holy behaviour was seen as satanic.

Leaving offerings at wells — once classic symbols of feminine divinity — became a crime, and folk knowledge a dangerous thing. Many of the witchcraft “confessions” contain stories of women brewing beer, working as midwifes, or making medicinal drinks: all things viewed as highly suspect under the new order.

However, though the misogynistic power shift of the Reformation definitely played a role, around 15% of those convicted of witchcraft in Scotland were actually men, suggesting other causes must also have been at play. And we can look to the dreich Scottish weather for one of them.

The biggest wave of witch hunts took place from 1649 to 1650: a time where the Little Ice Age sent temperatures plunging, causing poor harvests and general scarcity across the country. Occurrences of bubonic plague were also still common — the last Scottish outbreak peaked between 1644 and 1649. During these years, Scottish peasants would have seen crops withering and dying on the vine, hunger ravaging their communities, and beloved ones rotting to death as they were overcome by plague.

Tensions undoubtedly ran high, with desperate individuals looking to understand their suffering. In such times, the witch was a handy scapegoat — it’s easier to believe you’ve been wronged by a spiteful malevolent force than your God has forsaken you.

However, the biggest effect may have come from the pettiest reason: the king went on holiday to Denmark, and experienced some bad winds on his journey home.

James VI James VI (Image: free)

James VI has an interesting history. His mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was forced to abdicate in 1567, leaving the throne to him as a 13-month-old child. When he was fifteen, he made his father’s cousin, Lord Danley, the only duke in Scotland, which deeply upset the Scottish Calvinists. They accused Danley of trying incite “carnal lust” in James, so they lured James into a castle, locked him up, and had Lennox banished from the country.

James continued to keep the company of men after that, until he met Anne of Denmark and fell in love, creating a bond with Denmark that indirectly led to the execution of thousands across Scotland. Witch hunts were already common in Denmark when James visited in 1590, and he engaged in a long debate with Danish theologian Niels Hemmingsen, who’d published extensively on the topic of witchcraft.

When on their voyage home, King James and Anne of Denmark were beset by storms and “contrary winds”, which James became convinced were the work of witches personally targeting him and his bride.

His resulting suspicions kicked off the North Berwick witch trials, where women like Geillis Duncan and Agnes Sampson were tortured into giving confessions. Apparently, two hundred witches had taken to the sea on Halloween eve 1590, sailing sieves to North Berwick, where they consorted with the devil to plot King James’s downfall. Agnes Sampson herself was accused of causing one of the storms, by the unique method of tying bits of a corpse to a dead cat and sinking it in the sea near Leith.

Jane Flett with her novelJane Flett with her novel (Image: free)

Obviously, James was not a fan of any of this, and over the next years, he doubled down on his aim to eradicate the unholy wenches who were trying to ruin his country. In 1597, he put together his treatise, Daemonologie—a book detailing how the devil operates and an endorsement of witch hunting, which provided the inspiration for Macbeth.

I became interested in researching the witch trials when writing my novel Freakslaw — which, though set in the summer of 1997, has the 1597 witch panic as backstory. The book tells the story of a travelling freak show who come to a repressed Scottish town, where the locals are quick to blame these outsiders for all the problems their community faces. In times of strife, it’s human nature to start pointing fingers — a fact we see happening time and again today.

But by shining a spotlight on this, I hope to also suggest another path. I truly believe that what will save us when we’re beset by storms, plague, famine, and committees of misogynist Johns is not turning against one another, but coming together as community. The apology to the witches was a good first step. Maybe Scotland can be hopeful of where things will go from here.

Freakslaw by Jane Flett is published by Doubleday (£16.99)