North Berwick witch trials

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
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 over seventy people. These included Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, on charges of high treason.

The "witches" allegedly 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. The main source for this story was published in a 1591 pamphlet Newes from Scotland and was subsequently published in King James's dissertation on contemporary necromancy titled Daemonologie in 1597.

The Danish connection[edit]

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 of Denmark. During their return to Scotland they experienced terrible storms and had to shelter in Norway for several weeks before continuing. At this point, the interest in witch trials were revived in Denmark because of the gigantic, ongoing Trier witch trials in Germany, which were described and discussed in Denmark.[1] The admiral of the Danish fleet, Peder Munk argued with the treasurer Christoffer Valkendorff about the state of the ships, and blamed the storm on the wife of a high official in Copenhagen whom he had insulted. The Copenhagen witch trials were held in Denmark in July 1590.[2] One of the first Danish victims was Anna Koldings, who, under pressure, divulged the names of five other women; one of whom was Malin, the wife of the burgomaster of Helsingor. They all confessed that they had been guilty of sorcery in raising storms that menaced Queen Anne's voyage, and that they had sent devils to climb up the keel of her ship. In September, two women were burnt as witches at Kronborg.[3] James heard news from Denmark regarding this and decided to set up his own tribunal.


Suspected witches kneeling before King James; Daemonologie (1597)

The main witches directly involved in the trials were:[4]

  • Agnes Sampson
  • Barbara Napier
  • Doctor Fian (John Cunningham)
  • Euphame MacCalzean
  • Geillis Duncan
  • Robert Grierson
  • Lennit Bandilandis
  • The Porter's wife of Seaton
  • The Smith of bridge Hallis
  • The Wife of George Mott - Margaret Acheson[5]
  • Alanis Muir
  • Others not named

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.[2]

The two most significant accused persons were Agnes Sampson, a respected and elderly woman from Humbie, and Dr John Fian, a schoolmaster and scholar in Prestonpans. Both refused to confess and were put to severe torture. Sampson was brought before King James and a council of nobles. She denied all the charges, but after being tortured horrifically, she finally confessed. By special commandment, her head and body hair was shaven; 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 and thrown with a rope around her head, and only after these ordeals did she confess to the fifty-three indictments against her. She was finally strangled and burned as a witch. 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.[6][7]

Dr. Fian also suffered severe torture. He endured having his fingernails forcibly extracted, then having iron pins thrust therein, the pilliwinks, and the boot. He was finally taken to the Castlehill in Edinburgh and burned at the stake on 16 December.

According to Christopher Smout, between 3,000 and 4,000 accused witches may have been killed in Scotland in the years 1560–1707.[8]

Geillis Duncan[edit]

Scottish witches were linked to storms when a maid named Gillis Duncan (or Geillis Duncan), who worked for a man named David Seaton in the town of Tranent, was forced into a confession by her employer. 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.[9] According to the contemporary pamphlet Newes from Scotland, 1591, she named numerous individuals, both women and men:

Agnes Sampson the eldest witch of them all, dwelling in Haddington; Agnes Tompson of Edenbrough; Doctor Fian alias John Cuningham, master of the school at Saltpans in Lowthian, of whose life and strange acts you shal hear more largely in the end of this discourse. These were by the said Geillis Duncane accused, as also George Motts wife, dwelling in Lowthian; Robert Grierson, skipper; and Jannet Blandilands; with the potter's wife of Seaton: the smith at the Brigge Hallis, with innumerable others in those parts, and dwelling in those bounds aforesaid; of whom some are already executed, the rest remained in prison to receive the doome of judgment at the Kinges Majesties will and pleasure.[9][10]

Duncan was also found to have conspired with Euphame MacCalzean in the murder of Duncan's godfather.

Barbara Nap(i)er[edit]

Gillis Duncan caused the apprehension of Barbara Naper for bewitching to death Archibald Douglas, 8th Earl of Angus. Archibald was reported to have died from a disease so strange there could be no cure or remedy.[4] He fell ill at Langhope and died at Smeaton near Dalkeith on 4 August 1588.[11]

Barbara Napier had come from a good family and had married a book dealer named George Ker in 1572. George died at La Rochelle in 1576, and she then married Archibald Douglas whose brother was the laird of Corshogill.[12] Napier had bought charms to help her own health and to try and fix her poor relationship with Jean Lyon, Countess of Angus who employed her and her husband. They did not work as she lost her job. When it all came to trial, Napier was accused of a practice to kill the king by witchcraft but was found guilty of only the lesser crime of conspiring with witches. James VI ordered the Chancellor to have physicians examine her to see if she was pregnant, and if she was not, to have her burnt and publicly disembowelled.[13] James wanted an appeal to overturn the first verdict, and although her fate is unclear, it is possible that she was eventually burnt to death.[14] The town council bought materials to build a fire for her execution and these were used on 25 June 1591 at the burning of Euphame MacCalzean.[15] The opinion of the 17th-century historian of the Douglas family, David Hume of Godscroft, was that she had been released.[16]

Popular culture[edit]

Shakespeare adapted many concepts from the trials, including the rituals confessed by the witches and the Scottish setting, in his tragedy Macbeth. Heavily influenced by the incidents made public, the play was published a few years after King James's Daemonologie. Borrowing many quotes from the treaties, the three witches cast their spells in the same manner:[17] "purposely to be cassin into the sea to raise winds for destruction of ships."[18]

The trials and the events leading up to them are fictionalised in the 1971 young adult historical novel The Thirteenth Member by Mollie Hunter.

Heavy/doom metal group Cathedral has a song called "North Berwick Witch Trials" on their 2005 album The Garden of Unearthly Delights.[19]

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series of novels features a recurring character named Geillis Duncan who is tried and convicted of being a witch. In the television adaptation she is portrayed by Lotte Verbeek.[20]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Kallestrup, Louise Nyholm: Heksejagt. Aarhus Universitetsforlag (2020)
  2. ^ a b Ankarloo, B., Clark, S. & Monter, E. W. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. p. 79
  3. ^ Ethel Carleton Williams, Anne of Denmark (London, 1970).
  4. ^ a b King James (2016), p. 101
  5. ^ Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database, University of Edinburgh
  6. ^ Rosen, Barbara (1969). Witchcraft in England, 1558–1618. Univ of Massachusetts Press.
  7. ^ Guiley, Rosemary (2008). The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca. Infobase.
  8. ^ Smout 1969, pp. 184–92.
  9. ^ a b "Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of History". The Witch Persecution in Scotland. 3. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History. 1912. pp. 19–23. Retrieved June 17, 2016.
  10. ^ Newes from Scotland (London, 1591), reprinted in Robert Pitcairn, Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, vol. 1, pt. 2 (Edinburgh, 1833), pp. 215-223.
  11. ^ David Reid, David Hume of Godscroft's History of the House of Angus, vol. 2 (Edinburgh, 2005), p. 396-8.
  12. ^ David Reid, David Hume of Godscroft's History of the House of Angus, vol. 2 (Edinburgh, 2005), p. 397.
  13. ^ Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 10 (Edinburgh, 1936), pp. 510, 514-5.
  14. ^ "North Berwick witches (act. 1590–1592) | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/69951. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  15. ^ Marguerite Wood, Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh: 1589-1603 (Edinburgh, 1927), p. 334.
  16. ^ David Reid, David Hume of Godscroft's History of the House of Angus, vol. 2 (Edinburgh, 2005), p. 398.
  17. ^ King James (2016), p. 107
  18. ^ Macbeth, I. iii. 15-25
  19. ^ Lye, Andy. "Cathedral - The Garden of Unearthly Delights review". Jukebox Metal. Retrieved August 16, 2019.
  20. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (October 17, 2013). "Outlander & The Black Box Cast Regulars". Deadline Hollywood. Archived from the original on May 11, 2015. Retrieved August 12, 2015.


External links[edit]

  • "13", Memoirs of Popular Delusions, 2, World wide school, archived from the original on 2003-11-27.