Salem, Massachusetts may be known globally as the home of the notorious witch trials in the 17th century however Scotland has had its own share of stories of witchcraft.
This year marks the 420th anniversary of the Great Witch Hunt of Scotland, which took place between March and October 1597 and was instigated by James VI. According to the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, more than 3,800 people, both men and women, were accused of witchcraft in Scotland during the period 1563 to 1736, which is when the Witchcraft Act was enforced in Scotland*. It is believed that two-thirds of those accused were executed.
Records of Scotland’s witch trials shed light on a dark period in Scottish history, exposing a culture of fear and panic that cast a cloud over much of Scotland and Europe.
Many of Scotland’s regions have links to this time with fascinating stories and places to explore during the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017. Visitors to Scotland can pay homage to the many locations which are linked to witchcraft, as well as some tours that are taking place this year.
Edinburgh – Castlehill and Witches’ Well
In the 16th Century there were reputedly more witch burnings carried out at Castlehill in Edinburgh than anywhere else in the country. The Witchery by the Castle, a gothic hotel, also takes its name from the hundreds of women burned as witches on Castlehill. A cast iron wall fountain, or Witches’ Well, at Edinburgh Castle commemorates this. The victims often suffered brutal torture before being put to death.
North Berwick Witches
It might be difficult to believe that North Berwick, the peaceful seaside town, was once the setting for Scotland’s first mass witch trial, on 31 October 1590. Accused witches from across Edinburgh and the Lothians were implicated in preventing James VI bringing his prospective new bride across the seas from Denmark. Almost all of the accused were tortured into confessing witchcraft, with the ‘Devil’s mark’ found on their necks. Macabre rituals were relayed in confessions given to the King, including meetings where a cat had been thrown out to sea in order to prevent the King’s ship’s safe arrival.
Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum – Sculpture of Helen Duncan
Helen Duncan was the last person in Britain to be prosecuted as a witch as recently as 1944. Her likeness is currently on display at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum. Born in Callander in 1897, Helen was a show woman who travelled throughout Britain, holding regular séances. Spirits were said to appear, talking and actually touching their relatives. On the night of 19 January 1944, one of Helen’s séances in Portsmouth was raided by police. Officers attempted to stop the ectoplasm issuing from Helen’s mouth, but failed. After some order had been restored, Helen was formally arrested. Duncan was eventually brought to trial at the Old Bailey in London.
Witches’ stones and mysterious monuments in Perthshire and Ross-shire
A mysterious monument to a witch named Maggie Well exists on the outskirts of Dunning, Perthshire. It is said to mark the spot where she was burnt alive in 1657. It is sometimes adorned with offerings of pennies, feathers and other trinkets, with a wreath said to be laid for Maggie on occasion.
Natural features such as big rocks were often explained through witchcraft in Scotland. On the side of the Croy pool on the River Ardle near Kirkmichael, Perthshire lies a huge stone said to have been dropped by a Glen Shee witch.
An old witch – “one-eyed, with a blue-black face and hair like frosted twigs” – was said to be responsible for the tumbled mountains of Ross-shire. Ben Wyvis and Little Wyvis are said to have been formed when the rocks were accidentally dropped from overhead.
Paisley – Memorial at Maxwellton Cross
In the middle of a busy intersection in Paisley sits a largely unremarkable circle of cobblestones surrounding a steel horseshoe centered within a modest circular bronze plaque. This unassuming memorial marks the final resting place of seven people convicted and put to death on charges of witchcraft. Seven people were formally tried for practising witchcraft. They were all found guilty and sentenced to death. All seven bodies were then burned, and the ashes buried at Maxwellton Cross, where the intersection of Maxwellton Street and George Street now stands.
Edinburgh Dungeon – Witch Hunt
Market Street, Edinburgh
Available now, open daily, tickets from £13
Book online: www.thedungeons.com/edinburgh
According to records, Agnes Finnie, the Witch character of the Witch Hunt tour at the Edinburgh Dungeon, was one of Edinburgh’s most infamous witches. She reportedly lived in the Potterrow Port area of the city and was convicted of Witchcraft in 1644 with a total of 20 charges made against her.
Examples of her activity include one occasion when, the young son of Mr. William Fairlie while on his way home passed Agnes in the street and called out “Agnes Winnie!” an impromptu nickname he would very soon regret. Agnes publically cursed him and within 24 hours he had completely lost the use of his left side and became bedridden with “so incurable a disease” that one week later, he was dead.
Visitors to the Edinburgh Dungeon Witch Hunt can find out all about Agnes in a fun, surprising interactive tour, and even discover if they would be accused of being a witch themselves!
The Original St Andrews Witches’ Tour
Tours to depart from the Greyfriars Hotel, St Andrews
7.30pm, Thursdays and Fridays from end of April 2017, see website for more details, tickets from £6. Book online: www.st-andrewswitchestour.co.uk
A night-time walking tour of the Royal and ancient burgh, this tour takes guests on a journey into the myths and legends, ghosts and mysterious tales surrounding St Andrews. A costumed guide leads travellers through the supernatural streets and weird wynds while telling carefullyresearched tales of horror and history, phantoms and folklore. Included is the tale of Alison Pearson, a local woman accused of being a witch in the 16th century. Alison was well-known for helping to heal the sick. Unfortunately she also believed that she had help from the Fairy Queen of Elvenhome in doing her work. She was burnt at the stake in May 1588.