The wind howled, the seas bubbled and in Scotland’s coastal communities where whims of nature could turn swiftly from ally to adversary, someone had to be blamed.

Fuelled with a desperate need to make sense of the changing climate, the violent storms and the tragic loss of lives and vessels it brought, suspicion fell on women.

In a febrile spell of witch hunts, superstition and folklore, weather witches - believed to have magical powers to command the tides, storms and seas – became public enemies to be hunted down, tortured and put to the most painful death.

The 16th and 17th century stampede to wipe out what were perceived to be evil storm-raisers capable of conjuring up wild winds, driving rain and towering waves was just one element of feverish Scotland-wide witch hunts that saw the execution of around 2,500 mostly women and a handful of men, branded witches.

While in many cases, their so-called crimes were rooted in neighbourhood quarrels, coincidence and even jealousy, others were tarred with having a particular kind of superpower: the devilish ability to control the elements.

The plight of Scotland’s ‘weather witches’ will soon be explored by storyteller and author Rowan Morrison, at an event to be held within the atmospheric Wemyss Caves, near to the Fife coastal village of East Wemyss.

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The caves tell their own story of nature’s power and human lore: chiselled from the rock thousands of years ago by raging seas, scrawled on the walls are mysterious Bronze Age and Pictish carvings, said to be among the highest concentration in Britain.  

While for a gruesome period, villages along Fife’s coast and  others that edged the North Sea, on the shoreline in Orkney and Shetland where vicious whirlpools and rocks put vessels in peril, and on the west coast where wild winds threatened sailors and their cargoes, were hotbeds of suspicion, accusation and murder.


The Herald: The three witches, Mezzotint by J.R. Smith, 1785The three witches, Mezzotint by J.R. Smith, 1785 (Image: Wellcome Collection)

According to Rowan, the plight of alleged weather witches was even more tragic as centuries earlier Saint Columba’s legendary ability to direct the winds and control storms was hailed as a precious gift from God.

But a dreadful combination of medieval ‘climate change’ – bringing dramatic weather events perhaps not unlike recent storms - religious turmoil, royal intervention and good old-fashioned hysteria, would clash, creating a feverish belief that witchcraft and the devil were engaged in a destructive partnership to harness the elements, that had to be stamped out.

“There was always a belief which can be found in stories, in folklore and superstition well before the witch hunts, that women had power over the weather,” says Morrison.

“It was found especially in places like Orkney and Shetland, where the weather and the seas claimed many ships.

“These were times when everything at sea was dependent on the wind and the weather,” she adds. “Women would tie pieces of rope with knots which they sold to the fishermen.

“The men were told if they untied one knot, they would get a breeze to help them on their way. Untying the next knot brought a really strong wind.

“But they would be warned not to untie the third knot because that would raise a storm. And when the storms were raised, they blamed the women.”

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They had no idea that they were actually living in the midst of a turbulent period of erratic climate change that would become known as the Little Ice Age, she adds.

As temperatures plunged, vast areas of Europe experienced long periods of rain, storms and wind causing crops to fail and livestock to die.

When a devasting storm swept across central Europe in late summer 1562, wrecking buildings, destroying crops and with devastating loss of animal and human life, a tidal wave of suspicion was unleashed.

Stories swirled that witches had gained power to unleash violent storms, igniting witch hunts and trials across central Europe.


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It was against that background, says Morrison, that James VI found his efforts to wed princes Anne of Denmark in 1589 thwarted by violent storms, cementing his belief in weather witches and laying the foundation for Scotland’s witch hunts, the most brutal of them all.

“He was trying to bring Anne to Scotland from Denmark, but she couldn’t make the crossing because of the storms,” Rowan explains.

“Eventually James decided to collect her, and it’s then that he learns of what is happening in Europe.”

The royal couple wed in Norway, but their return to Scotland was disrupted, their fleet of ships battered by storms and one sank.

“There was the Little Ice Age, it was a massive time of political, religious and social upheaval with Scotland breaking away from the Papacy, and there was plague and conflict. It all led to this massive turmoil,” she continues.

“The weather was cold, perhaps there were different weather events happening, the seas were stormy, and ships were being wrecked.

“Amid this was the belief that women were raising storms in an effort to kill the king and his new bride.”

At the same time, a young maid servant, Geillis Duncan – inspiration for the Outlander series witch of the same name - aroused suspicion after her master, a deputy bailiff named David Seton, spotted her going out at night.

It led to her arrest and brutal torture, while Seton became convinced the area around his Tranent home had become a hotbed for witches’ plotting to raise storms and harm the king.

The North Berwick witch trials began in 1590 and ignited a rabid search for anyone – although mostly women – who might have magical powers over the weather.

Eventually an estimated 6,000 people being tried for witchcraft.

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Storms at sea and the resulting shipwrecks were often blamed on women, says Morrison, such as the dreadful tale of the so-called Weather Witch of Westray, Janet Forsyth.

“She dreamt her fisherman boyfriend’s ship would go down.

“She warned him not to go to sea, and feared something awful would happen, and it did,” she adds.

That was enough to raise local suspicions. But when another vessel got into trouble and Janet bravely took her small boat out to save its occupants, her fate was sealed.

“It was argued that a man would not have done that, she must have been a witch with command over the sea,” adds Morrison.

Janet was found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death.

While on the west coast, storms, wild weather and tragedies at sea were also blamed on weather witches.

Such as young mother Margaret Barclay, accused of being the ringleader of a coven who raised violent seas and caused the ship, The Gift O’ God to be destroyed off the Cornish coast.

Among those to drown was Irvine’s Provost Tran.

“Margaret had had a family squabble with her brother,” says Morrison.

“He went to sea on the merchant ship with the Lord Provost of Irvine. Margaret was said to have thrown some clay poppets in the sea, turning it red and creating the storm that sunk the ship and killed the Lord Provost.”

The trial, in 1618, was one of more than 100 that took place in Ayrshire alone.

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“Among those accused with Margaret was an eight-year-old girl, who said she had been promised new shoes for helping throw the poppets into the sea,” says Morrison.

“Another accused threw herself from the belfry tower and died, never having given her accusers what they wanted.”

While a man caught up in the hunt, John Stewart, strangled himself on a piece of hemp in his cell.

Margaret and her friend Isobel Barclay were subjected to “the gentle torture”, with their legs locked in stocks and heavy weights placed on their shins until, in agony, they blurted out their confession.

Both were tied up and strangled before being burned.

Next Sunday’s event will combine true accounts of witch hunts with folklore tales of storm-raising, reflecting how reality and myth combined in medieval times with dreadful consequences.

Rowan adds: “For me, these stories are a real act of remembrance.

“You can talk about witchcraft trials but it’s when you talk about these women as real people, it becomes very powerful.”

Scotland’s Weather Witches, on Sunday, November 26, at Wemyss Caves is a Big Scottish Story Ripple event and part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival.