North Berwick witch trials

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The North Berwick Witches meet the Devil in the local kirkyard, from a contemporary pamphlet, Newes From Scotland.

The North Berwick witch trials were the trials in 1590 of a number of people from East Lothian, Scotland, accused of witchcraft in the St Andrew's Auld Kirk in North Berwick. They ran for two years and implicated seventy people. The accused included Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell on charges of high treason. The "witches" held their covens on the Auld Kirk Green, part of the modern-day North Berwick Harbour area. The confessions were extracted by torture in the Old Tolbooth, Edinburgh.


This was the first major witchcraft persecution in Scotland, and began with a sensational case involving the royal houses of Denmark and Scotland. King James VI sailed to Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne, sister of Christian IV, King of Denmark. During their return to Scotland they experienced terrible storms and had to shelter in Norway for several weeks before continuing. The admiral of the escorting Danish fleet blamed the storm on the wife of a high official in Copenhagen whom he had insulted. Several nobles of the Scottish court were implicated, and witchcraft trials were held in both countries.[1]

Very soon more than a hundred suspected witches in North Berwick were arrested, and many confessed under torture to having met with the Devil in the church at night, and devoted themselves to doing evil, including poisoning the King and other members of his household, and attempting to sink the King's ship.[1] One of the accused in particular, Agnes Sampson, was examined by James VI at his palace of Holyrood House. She was fastened to the wall of her cell by a witch's bridle, an iron instrument with 4 sharp prongs forced into the mouth, so that two prongs pressed against the tongue, and the two others against the cheeks. She was kept without sleep, thrown with a rope around her head, and only after these ordeals did Agnes Sampson confess to the fifty-three indictments against her. She was finally strangled and burned as a witch.

Nearly 2,000 witchcraft trials survive in the Scottish archives, the vast majority from the period 1620–80.[1] According to T. C. Smout, between 3,000 and 4,000 accused witches may have been killed in Scotland in the years 1560–1707.[2]

Gillis Duncan[edit]

In other accounts, the North Berwick witches were accused by a maid named Gillis Duncan, who worked for a man named David Seaton in the town of Tranent. Apparently Duncan suddenly began to exhibit a miraculous healing ability and would sneak out of the house during the night. When Seaton confronted Duncan and she could not explain her new ability and strange behaviour, he had her tortured. Under torture, she confessed to being a witch and accused many others of witchcraft. Among them was Agnes Sampson, a respected and elderly woman from Humbie. She refused to confess after being brought before King James and a council of nobles but after being tortured horrifically, she finally confessed. According to Newes from Scotland, Declaring the Damnable Life of Dr. Fian, a Notable Sorcerer, a pamphlet published in 1591, Sampson confessed to attending a Sabbat with 200 witches, Duncan among them.[3][4]

Popular culture[edit]

Heavy/doom metal group Cathedral have a song called "North Berwick Witch Trials" on their 2005 album The Garden of Unearthly Delights.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Ankarloo, B., Clark, S. & Monter, E. W. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. p. 79
  2. ^ Smout 1969, pp. 184–92.
  3. ^ Rosen, Barbara (1969). Witchcraft in England, 1558–1618. Univ of Massachusetts Press. 
  4. ^ Guiley, Rosemary (2008). The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca. Infobase. 


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