They were dark, hard times, and for Marabel Couper having the misfortune to live close to a couple whose cows were failing to produce was not just bad luck, it would turn out to be deadly.

As the seas off Orkney’s north west coast thrashed, dark clouds gathered over Marabel’s home parish of Birsay.

Rumours spread, the baying crowd began to gather.

Soon poor Marabel’s devilry would be exposed. She’d be found guilty – accused of “taking the profit off someone’s cow”, branded a “rank witch”, strangled and – just to avoid any risk of her resurrection - burned.

It was the early 17th century, and the wild, remote and spectacularly beautiful Orkney Islands were a hotbed for sorcery, witchcraft and devilish deeds, gripped by ‘witchmania’ where simply being a bit unfriendly towards the neighbours could end very badly.

Until now it was believed 71 people were tried for witchcraft in the Orkney Isles during a febrile period spanning the years between 1594 and 1708.

However, new research has revealed a further nine were also accused – making the relatively small Orkney Isles at the time among one of Scotland’s riskiest places for a woman to dare to live.

That would be a dubious honour indeed in a country which would eventually hold the title of being the worst persecutor of so-called witches in Europe.

Marabel, a mother who had already been accused and banished from her home parish once before, had returned only for her suspicious neighbours to again accuse her for their cows’ failure to produce precious calves.

According to Kirkwall records of her trial, she was to be taken, hands bound, “carried to the head of the Loan, the place of execution, wiried (strangled) to the death, and brunt in ashes.”

According to Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, co-editor of the New Orkney Antiquarian Journal that reflects on the islands’ witchcraft heritage, women like Marabel – and the dozen men accused of witchcraft in Orkney during a manic spell spanning the 17th century – were probably just ‘oddball’ characters, perhaps a little unsociable towards their neighbours, suffering from mental or physical illness, or deliberately singled out.

Some were simply life’s unfortunates; poverty-stricken and desperate, unwelcome wherever they went, doomed to be chased from one parish to the next and viewed with suspicion and fear.

Their chances of arguing their way out of trumped up crimes which by their very nature could only ever be false, were less than slim.

“The punishment for witchcraft was the harshest imaginable,” says Dr Ljosland, a lecturer at the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

“It was death, but it was also burning. Coupled with the Christian faith this was a punishment that took not just your life but also your afterlife: you can’t be resurrected; it was death and eternal damnation.”

Witchcraft trials were not just happening in the Orkney Isles. Around 4,000 people across Scotland were accused between 1563 and 1736. More than 2,500 – most of them women – were executed.

Now, however, momentum is building for a national memorial to recognise their plight, while witchcraft trails and memorials – including one in Orkney – have been unveiled, aiming to highlight centuries old convictions and executions.

Senior lawyer Claire Mitchell, QC, has also recently revealed plans to petition the Scottish Government's justice committee to secure an official pardon for all those who accused and convicted of witchcraft.

It comes after forensic archaeologists from the University of Dundee recreated the face of Lilias Adie, a woman in her 60s who accused of consorting with the Devil and casting spells on her fellow Fife villagers. She confessed after a month of sleep deprivation and torture, and took her own life while in jail.

Fear of witchcraft swept across Europe from the mid-15th century, but it would be King James VI and his treatise of witchcraft, Daemonologie, that would drive spark at race to eliminating sorcerers responsible for failing crops, illness, bad luck, stormy weather and sick animals.

Loyal Scots desperate to prove their commitment to the crown went on to execute five times more witches than their English counterparts.

In Orkney, Earl Patrick, a first cousin of James VI, instigated a series of brutal trials that left women like Marabel staring at certain death.

“In 1594, his brother John attempted to poison him, and Patrick had a woman, Alisoun Balfour, arrested for witchcraft for brewing that poison. John got off, but Alisoun was tortured and had to watch her husband and children being tortured,” says Dr Ljosland.

“When they tortured her little daughter, she confessed to witchcraft and was executed.”

Among Orkney’s ‘witches’ was Anie Tailzeour, also known as Rwna Rowa, who was said to have practiced a ritual using three hairs from a cow tail and three of her pubic hairs to move spirits from one person to another.

She was arrested after one of her accusers claimed to have seen her face on a cat. She was strangled and burned in Kirkwall in 1624.

Some accused were tortured, sparking ‘confessions’ which led either to their banishment from their parish or death. “Others were offered the means to commit suicide, given a rope so they could finish themselves off rather than be strangled and burned.

“It must have been terrible,” adds Dr Ljosland.

However, she does not point the finger of blame at their fellow citizens for jumping to conclusions. “People at the time were not bad.

“When something happens like a husbands gets ill, cows not producing milk or a son being lost at sea while fishing – that has a great impact on your life and you want to understand and find a cause for it.”

Fear of witches was fuelled by genuine belief in the devil and demons, and women – regarded as the weaker sex – were said to be particularly vulnerable.

One accused Orkney ‘witch’, a homeless single mother called Barbara Boundie, was arrested after being found sleeping by the roadside – possibly as the result of an epileptic fit which rendered her temporarily speechless.

That was taken as proof that she had been “away with the fairies”, dancing with the devil and 99 witches on the links of Moaness in Hoy.

Barbara was also accused of travelling with an unbaptised child, and tortured into a confession.

“To withstand accusations of witchcraft you needed a lot of support from influential people in the community. The homeless person, a poor widow, an older penniless woman or an ‘oddball’ lacking in social skills doesn’t have this kind of support,” adds Dr Ljosland.

“There’s nothing she can do to defend herself. You can’t defend yourself in any case because the accusations are not rational.”

While it may all sound very 17th century, Dr Ljosland says there are some parallels with the modern world – particularly in the group ‘pile on’ mentality that can sometimes emerge on social media channels.

“Social media shows how things can spiral out of control, remarks said in jest or taken out of context can be turned into something much bigger than it was intended,” she adds. “The witch trials were at the start of the reformation. They’re not the fault of the Catholic or Protestant church, it was about the upheaval of old power structures, that upheaval releases the potential for aggression.”

Commemorating the lives witchcraft victims is important, she says, even though centuries have passed.

“We see current interest in Scottish involvement in the slave trade. We need to look at these dark pasts and we need to remember.

“While our society has become a bit more tolerant, it’s important to keep thinking about it.”

The ninth volume of the New Orkney Antiquarian Journal is available from the Orkney Heritage Society,