Halloween is the time of the year when little kids dress up as witches, with painted on warts, scraggy black dresses and pointed hats. They chap on neighbours doors with a broomstick in one hand and a bucket for their sweets in the other. The images of witches that have formed in their minds come from films such as Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. In the minds of children witches aren’t real or at least aren’t thought about as they giggle their way through the streets with their friends.
Scotland, though, was once rife with characters thought to be witches. Between the 16th and 17th century over 3000 people were strangled, beaten, drowned or burnt at the stake for apparently making a pact with the devil. We are still superstitious now, throwing salt over our left shoulder, crossing our fingers and never walking under a ladder but several hundred years ago superstition was on another level.
There were several periods of heavy persecution between1591 and 1649 of these so-called witches. This was a time when the majority of Scotland was suffering, illness was rife but not yet understood so it was often thought symptoms were a result of a curse or spell. Muttering under your breath after an argument was seen as the witch casting a curse and if the recipient so happened to fall ill it was often enough proof to warrant an arrest.
Of course, the courts had their own ways of testing these (more often than not) women. These barbaric actions would never be allowed in modern times, partly because they are cruel and partly because they prove nothing. Witch-pricking was a common tactic, where the victim was stripped until they found a mark, a devil’s mark to be precise, but what could easily have been a birth mark. This mark was pricked with a nail several inches long. It was believed witches don’t bleed so if the mark didn’t bleed they were found guilty.
Another popular way of detecting a witch was by water. Women were dragged to the nearest loch, their left hand was tied to their right foot and their left foot was tied to their right hand. They would then be thrown into the loch and if they floated they were witches. This brought obvious problems if the woman drowned she would be proven innocent but would be, well, dead!
Scotland has it’s fair share of famous witches, shrouded in mystery which makes them and their stories even more intriguing.
Agnes Finnie from Potterrow in Edinburgh either truly was a witch or had a very unfortunate set of events happen to her because even the most unbelieving of people would find it hard to explain. Once, when a boy shouted after her “Agnes Winnie” as a nickname it took less than 24 hours for him to become paralyzed down one side, become bedridden and die. When Beatrix Nisbit annoyed her with her wittering on she lost use of her tongue and could never utter another word. Another incident happened when she bought some herrings off Janet Grinton. When she returned them because they had turned Mrs Grinton refused to give her a refund so Agnes placed a curse on her so she could never eat again. The poor woman never ate another bite and died of starvation! Agnes was convicted of being in the company of the devil, imprisoned in Tolbooth Jail before being hung outside Edinburgh Castle and burnt a the stake!
The North Berwick witch trails were the first major trials in Scotland and also the first mass trial. It involves a certain King James VI who, up until this point, had been lenient and unconvinced of witchcraft. He was set to marry Princess Anne of Denmark and after several attempts to ship her over to Scotland the King decided to sail over and retrieve her himself. Once he arrived in Denmark the seas became wild and the couple were stranded on the coast of Norway for some time. Once the weather had calmed they set sail for Scotland but the journey was rough and dangerous, one of the accompanying ships sunk in the storms and those around the king convinced him it was the result of a curse. These events changed the kings outlook and he became determined to bring every witch to justice.
A young servant going by the name of Geillis Duncan (Yes, that’s correct Outlander fans, she really did exist!) was arrested and tried as a witch in 1590. She was a well known healer and her cures were apparently “miraculous”. Under severe torture, and after finding a “Devil’s mark, she was forced to give the names of several others who, she claimed, met with the devil in the evenings in the North Berwick churchyard. Some of the names were surprising – Dr John Fian, a school teacher, Barbara Napier, the widow of Earl Archibald of Angus, and the King’s own cousin, the 1st Earl of Bothwell. Over 70 people were accused of witchcraft and several admitted under torture of attempting to sink the King’s ship. It’s unknown how many were executed but Geillis Duncan was burnt at the stake.
Over the water in Fife was another horrific story of false accusations and brutal sentences. A young chap named Patrick Morton accused Beatice Laing of sending evil thoughts in the small fishing village of Pittenweem. Beatrice was incarcerated in a dungeon and tortured before being freed after five months. He also accused a Mr Thomas Brown who starved to death in a dungeon.
The worst though was when he accused Janet Cornfoot. She managed to flee, but when she returned she was captured by a mob and dragged to the beach. She was beaten, stoned, swung from a rope between two ships and finally crushed to death under a door piled high with rocks. The most shocking part of the story is that neither the mob or Patrick himself were ever punished even after Patrick was found out to be a liar
Hundreds of these stories exist around Scotland. Scotland is indeed a very haunted place, or so they say. Our beautiful castles are often said to be haunted by ghosts from the past. Edinburgh itself is well known as one of the most haunted places on earth. Would you spend Halloween in Scotland? Have you been to Scotland and encountered anything spooky? Let me know in the comments below. Happy Halloween