Witchcraft: Infamous trials in Scotland's dark and murky past

The witch trials were some of the most brutal in Europe, with torture regularly used.

Berwick: The witch trials were so infamous, the King had a pamphlet released.  <strong>CC</strong>
Berwick: The witch trials were so infamous, the King had a pamphlet released. CC

The period between 1563 and 1736 was a dark one in Scotland, with 3837 cases of witchcraft brought to trial.

While the majority of people brought to trial were women, 15% of those accused were men, following similar trends found across western Europe.

Court records show the majority of people brought to trial were over the age of 40.

Only 7% were aged under 20, 8% were between 20 and 30, 22% were between 30 and 40, 22% were between 40 and 50, 31% were between 50 and 60, 7% were between 60 and 70 and 4% were over 70.

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Despite popular belief, many of those found guilty of witchcraft were not actually burned at the stake.

While there are records of 141 sentences specifying execution, just 17 are recorded as being burned alive. A further 120 were hanged first before having their bodies burned.

Of the other four, three were beheaded and another person hanged for being involved in other crimes.

There was a disproportionate number of trials held in the central belt, with the majority taking place in the Lothians, including the most infamous trial of all.

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North Berwick Witch Trials

King James VI was known for his hatred and obsession with witchcraft. He actually wrote a book about it, becoming a best-selling novel of his time.

Between 70 and 200 were put on trial in 1589 after the king became convinced witches had created a storm during his sea voyage to collect his new bride, Anne of Denmark, causing the king to almost lose his life.

The two most significant of those tried were Agnes Samson and Dr John Fian.

They were both subjected to severe torture after refusing to confess to witchcraft, eventually securing a confession from them both.

Known torture methods included sleep deprivation for both.

Ms Samson was tied to her wall with a witch’s bridle – a four-pronged instrument placed in the mouth to stop the accused from being able to move without risk of severing the tongue.

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Dr Fian had his fingernails removed with wooden splints placed into the wounds.

After their confessions, Ms Samson was strangled and her body burned, while Dr Fian was burned alive at the stake.

Allison Balfour

Ms Balfour lived in Stenness, Orkney, with her husband and seven-year-old daughter up until her death for witchcraft.

The Highland and Islanders witch trials were different from those in the central belt.

Old superstitions meant powers of healing and clairvoyance were generally accepted as just an everyday part of life.

Witches were tried in these areas for what was considered dark magic – the use against other for self-gain.

A family feud led the brother of Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney, to approach Ms Balfour on how to poison him.

While there is no evidence in the case to suggest Ms Balfour supplied the poison, she was accused of using witchcraft to help the younger brother.

She was brutally tortured for 48 hours to extract a confession.

Court records showed caschielawes were used, an iron device in which the victim’s legs were enclosed and heated until the flesh began to burn.

Ms Balfour lost consciousness several times during this, with torture being resumed each time she woke up.

Torture: Thumb screws were an effective way of extracting a confession. CC

After a confession could not be extracted, the court turned on her husband and daughter.

Her husband, Taillifeir, was tortured in front of her using the lang irons. It is believed these were iron plates placed on top of the body.

Stones weighing up to 700lbs were then placed on the plates, crushing the body underneath.

Her daughter was tortured using a device called a pinniewinkle. The victim’s fingers were placed in a vice and a screw was turned until the bones in the fingers snapped.

Watching her daughter being tortured proved too much for Ms Balfour and she confessed to the crimes.

Ms Balfour was sentenced to be strangled and burned and on December 16, 1594, she was taken to Gallow Ha in Kirkwall to be executed.

Before her death, while at the gallows, she protested her innocence, outlining the torture her and her family went through. But her cries were ignored and she was killed as a witch.

Jane Wishart

One of the most infamous Aberdeen cases related to Jane Wishart and her family.

Mrs Wishart was brought to trial over 18 accusations of witchcraft, spanning a period of 30 years.

One of her more scandalous charges was the death of two fishermen.

The men had caught Mrs Wishart leaving the home of an Adam Mair at 2am.

The men promptly woke Mrs Mair to tell her about the incident. Later that day, at around 3pm, the two men were found drowned in the Wattergang at the Links where they had gone to wash themselves.

Trial: Many women and some men were found guilty of witchcraft. CC

Mrs Wishart’s son-in-law even testified against her during her trial.

He claimed after he hit his wife, a brown dog started to come into his room and attacked him, although left his young wife alone.

Mrs Wishart’s son, Thomas, was also found guilty of being a witch.

He was accused of being the leader of a coven who met in Castlegate and worshipped the devil.

In February 1596, both were strangled and their bodies burned in barrels of tar.

Janet’s son, Thomas Leyis, was also found guilty of being a coven ringleader and convicted on three accounts of witchcraft.

On March 22, the same year Mr Wishart and their three daughters, Elspet, Janet and Violet were also accused of witchcraft.

They were absolved on all counts of witchcraft but found guilty of being in the company of Janet and Thomas and acting as their accomplices.

As a result they were banished from Aberdeen and the surrounding area and were forbidden to come within ten miles of the city.

In the late 17th century, witch trials began to rapidly decline.

The last executions on record were in 1706, with the last trial held in the court of a sheriff-depute at Dornoch in 1727.

Parliament repealed the 1563 Act in 1736, making the legal pursuit of witches impossible.


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