WE like to think of Scotland today as one of the most progressive and rational places on Earth, a beacon of liberalism. But there was a time when this country was the most barbaric, superstitious and blood-soaked part of Europe. Between the late-1500s and the end of the 1600s, Scotland was gripped by a collective madness which exhibited itself in butchery, cruelty and organised mass murder.

The Scottish Witch Trials can be seen as a case of national psychosis and paranoia. While witch trials took place across Europe, here they reached a level of savagery seen nowhere else. Across Europe, around 50,000 people were executed as witches. In the 1600s, Scotland had a population of just 800,000. Here, an estimated 4000 people, mostly women, were tortured and executed by the Kirk and state for witchcraft. Only 500 people are believed to have been executed for witchcraft in England. In England, witches were hanged. In Scotland, victims were strangled and burned at the stake. During the witch trials the atmosphere in Scotland was tyrannical. People lived in fear and oppression. Who’d be accused next?

The witch hunts were like a virus. Once they started, they spread. Most of the victims were outsiders in some way. They might have been the local eccentric, perhaps they had some mental or physical disability, many were disagreeable people who’d annoyed or wished ill on their neighbours, some were healers and ‘wise women’ seen as having unearthly powers, and some victims genuinely believed they were witches. Others were targeted as their accuser had something to gain from their death - money, land, goods. Often, under torture, one accused person would accuse others - and those people would in turn be arrested and tortured and name names. Soon cells were filled with innocents.

Lily Seafield, an expert in the ‘Great Scottish Witch Hunts’ and the author of the book Scottish Witches, says: “In Europe as a whole, and Scotland in particular, there was a time when fear and hatred of magic and its practitioners reached such a fever pitch that hundreds of men and women were hunted down and made to suffer terribly for alleged crimes of witchcraft. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the skies over many Scottish towns frequently clouded over with smoke from the fires that sent these people to their deaths.”

The key, Seafield says, to understanding the witch-hunts is simple: we have to remember that almost everyone in Europe believed in witchcraft at the time, rich or poor, educated or illiterate. Science was in its infancy. Religion dominated every aspect of life. When crops failed, a child unexpectedly died, a ship sank, or illness hit a village, people sought answers. Often, the best explanation seemed black magic. And if magic was to blame, then witches must be at work. All you had to do to stop misfortune was find and kill the witches.

Seafield says: “Although similar scenarios were being acted out in other countries in Europe at around the same time, Scotland’s reaction to the perceived threat of witchcraft was particularly severe, and notably much more severe than that of its immediate neighbour England. Some have argued that it was a manifestation of the Presbyterian Church’s need to establish its authority over the people in the Post-Reformation period, and of the power struggle between Church and State. Some have linked witch-hatred with anti-Catholic sentiments prevalent at the time. Others have argued the case for misogyny, or gentry versus peasant class.”

What really turbo-charged the witch-hunts in Scotland, however, was the king. Nowhere else in Europe had a monarch so rabid in their hatred of witches. King James VI of Scotland gave the royal seal of approval to acts that would be today categorised as crimes against humanity.


IMAGINE if today there was an international plot uncovered to murder the head of state, their family and inner circle. The security crackdown would be harsh, innocents would get caught up in the dragnet, and the crisis would reshape how we police ourselves.

The North Berwick Witch Trials were triggered by the uncovering of a plot - albeit imaginary - which by 16th century standards must have appeared like September 11, and King James VI was the target. The story begins in 1589 when the future wife of James, Anne of Denmark, was to be brought across the North Sea to Scotland. Storms prevented the crossing, however, and the Danish authorities blamed witchcraft. Arrests were made and two women burned as witches. James travelled to Denmark and brought his wife back, but storms sunk one ship carrying wedding gifts. The witches, it seemed, hadn’t been defeated.

Then news came to Edinburgh in 1590 that a coven of witches in Tranent were plotting against the king. The panic around the Tranent coven began with a local healer called Geillis Duncan, who was also a servant. Her master feared that if she could heal, she could also kill. She was arrested.

A witch-pricker investigated Duncan’s body for the Devil’s Mark - a blemish which would neither bleed nor hurt when pricked with a needle. It was believed that witches made a pact with Satan in person, renounced their baptismal name, and were given a new name by the Devil who then kissed them on the body leaving his mark.

Duncan’s mark was found on her neck. She confessed under torture to being a witch and began naming names. Torture included thumbscrews - or pilliwinks in Scotland - and the iron boot, or bootikin, which crushed the feet. Fingernails were pulled out or had pins driven under them, legs were crushed, victims were strung up and whipped. Family members were tortured in front of the accused. Most broke within hours.

One of those named by Duncan was Agnes Sampson. She was brought before King James - who considered himself an expert in witchcraft - and tortured until she confessed. On Halloween 1589, Sampson said, she and the other witches sailed in sieves to North Berwick where they met Satan and were ordered to kill the King. Often, the more absurd the claims were the more they were believed in witch trials.

Unusually for witch trials, the North Berwick case saw members of the gentry accused, as rivals used the panic to settle scores and improve their position. One upper class Scot caught up in the accusations was Barbara Napier. Like many, she’d once used the services of witch - usually for warding off evil, or love spells. That was enough to seal her fate.

Agnes Sampson and Geillis Duncan named Francis Stewart, Earl of Bothwell, as the ringleader. The North Berwick witch trials ran for two years and at least 70 were arrested for witchcraft and treason. Stewart was eventually acquitted, many others were burned at the stake.

The North Berwick case was a sensation, and would influence all future witch trials in Scotland. Shakespeare was inspired to create the witches in Macbeth. Later, Robert Burns drew on the case for Tam O’Shanter. King James would go on to write the book Daemonologie - a textbook for future witch-finders. The trials live on it modern culture. The series Outlander features a witch called Geillis Duncan.


The case of Agnes Finnie, an Edinburgh fish trader, is the archetypal Scottish witch trial. Finnie was a poor woman and a nasty piece of work. No-one liked her. If you crossed her, she’d wish you dead to your face. Over the years, at least half a dozen people she cursed fell ill. One lost the power of speech, one broke a leg, one was paralysed, and one died. People began to refer to her as a witch. In the 1600s, being called a witch was enough to put your life in danger. Soon rumours and gossip became fact, and the authorities were informed. Finnie was taken to the tollbooth in 1642 and held as a witch. She was burned at the stake on Castle Hill.


It seems Isobel Gowdie really did believe she was a witch - though she was probably also a mentally ill attention-seeker. She was arrested in 1662 and taken to the Kirk at Auldearn for interrogation. No torture was necessary as she openly told an elaborate story of witchcraft.

Lily Seafield, author of Scottish Witches, says most experts “are willing to accept that Gowdie did believe herself to be a practising witch, and that there were others who shared her beliefs and with her took part in activities that were intentionally maleficent. It also seems clear that whether or not any of the group’s activities did in fact result in harm to their intended victims, or were merely coincidental with misfortunes that befell these people, Gowdie and her fellow witches believed that their magic was effective.”

Gowdie confessed to having sex with the Devil, turning horses into straw, meeting the Queen of Fairyland, stealing milk from cattle, and plotting to harm children using wax images, like voodoo dolls.

She named the 13 members of her coven, and revealed their ‘witch names’, including Margaret Wilson who the Devil called ‘Pickle Nearest the Wind’. She told how witches used ‘elf arrows’ to kill. Modern archaeologists later discovered that ‘elf arrows’ were actually arrow heads used by neolithic people which were dug up by medieval farmers tilling their land.

Gowdie revealed spells for changing into a cat, spoiling crops and killing people. One killing spell involved a bag filled with toad guts, nail clippings and a hare’s liver. More than 40 people were incriminated.

There’s no record of Gowdie’s execution - but that’s not unusual. In 90 per cent of cases the records are missing. However, most experts believe she was burned at Nairn.


One Scottish case was the prototype for the Salem witch trials - and it happened in Pollokshaws in what is now Glasgow.

Local aristocrat Sir George Maxwell, a well-known witch-hunter, fell ill in 1676. Doctors were unable to help him. A friend of his young daughters, called Janet Douglas, claimed a woman named Janet Mathie had made a wax image of Maxwell and stuck pins in it. The figurine was found and Mathie arrested.

Janet Douglas then accused Mathie’s son, John Stewart, of the same crime. Again, the doll was found, and Stewart was arrested. His 13-year-old sister, Annabel, was also arrested. She broke under interrogation and began naming names. She also claimed to have slept with Satan. Soon six people were in custody, including a woman of 80 called Margaret Jackson.

Due to Annabel’s young age, the court only jailed her. The five others were burned at the stake.

Janet Douglas became that rare thing - a female witch-finder. She would go on to hunt down five witches in Dumbarton and more in Stirling. Many now think it was Janet who planted the wax dolls in order to frame those she accused. Her motives remain unknown. Money, fame, attention? What we do know is that she eventually fell foul of the law herself for reasons that are unclear, and was whipped in Edinburgh and then banished from the kingdom.


Christian Shaw was the 11-year-old daughter of the Laird of Bargarran. In 1696 she fell ill. Doctors in Glasgow examined her, but she deteriorated, apparently coughing up hair, feathers, sticks and bones. She accused a number of poor women in the neighbourhood of cursing her. Once a highlander called at the Laird’s home seeking shelter and Christian accused him of witchcraft. In all six people were held. The authorities demanded each accused touch Christian. When they laid hands on her, the girl went into convulsions.

Soon defendants were admitting to consorting with the Devil. More names were named, and more arrests made. By the time of the trial, 27 people were accused. Charges included the murder of babies, drowning two men in a ferry accident, and killing a minister with fever.

Christian exhibited signs of severe mental or behavioural problems. She would laugh, scream, be violent and abusive, have conversations with thin air, and slip into a trancelike state. Two accused died in jail before the trial could start. Seven were finally taken to court and all strangled and burned.

Christian Shaw recovered, and would go on to become the founder of the Bargarran sewing thread company.


By the early 1700s, the witch craze was ending, but there was one last panic in the village of Pittenweem in the East Neuk of Fife. In 1704, a local blacksmith got on the wrong side of a bad tempered woman called Beatrix Lang. She cursed him and he fell ill with paralysis and fitting. He accused both Lang and another woman, Janet Cornfoot, of witchcraft.

The minister, Patrick Cowper, led the interrogations. He tortured Lang and denied her sleep for five full days. Inevitably, she confessed and named others. When she recovered, however, she retracted her confession saying it had been extracted under torture. For her troubles, she was tortured again and locked in a dungeon for five months.

The authorities in Edinburgh - now more enlightened at the dawn of the 18th century - eventually ordered Lang released. A mob hounded her from Pittenweem when she returned from prison.

Lang was the lucky one. One man caught up in the allegations died in custody from maltreatment. Janet Cornfoot was also released but on her return to Pittenweem she was rearrested by Rev Cowper who personally flogged her. She later escaped but was caught by a lynch mob. Cornfoot was strung up on a rope between a ship and the harbour and stoned. Half-dead, she was cut down. As she lay dying on the beach, the mob placed a door on Cornfoot and piled boulders on top, crushing her to death.

The last witch executed in Scotland was Janet Horne in 1727 in Dornoch. She was senile, and her daughter had deformed feet and hands. Neighbours accused Horne of shoeing her daughter like a horse and riding on her to meet the Devil. Both mother and daughter were sentenced to death. The daughter escaped, but Horne was stripped naked, smeared in tar, paraded through the town in a barrel and set alight.

Nine years after Horne’s death, the witchcraft laws were repealed as Scotland embraced the Age of Enlightenment.