THE WITCH REPORTS; They Were Burned at the Stake and Drowned in Our Lochs - but Were the Women Branded Spell-Casters Bad or Mad?

Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland), November 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

THE WITCH REPORTS; They Were Burned at the Stake and Drowned in Our Lochs - but Were the Women Branded Spell-Casters Bad or Mad?


As visitors flock past the small fountain on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, many admire the beautiful flowers that are blooming in the well.

But those who examine the site more carefully will see there is nothing beautiful or fragrant about the act the cast iron wall fountain commemorates.

For it marks the place where more than 300 people were burned at the stake after being accused of being witches.

Many more were drowned by being "douked" nearby in the Nor' Loch, where Princes Street Gardens now lie.

Despite its small population, Scotland holds the reputation of having been Europe's biggest persecutor of witches.

Across the 17th and 18th centuries, it is known more than 3800 suspected witches were strangled, hanged, drowned or burned at the stake.

The first major Scottish witch trials took place in 1590, presided over by King James VI.

The last Scottish woman to face trial for witchcraft was jailed for her crime as recently as 1944.

Researchers at Edinburgh University have used historical records to put together The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, which details the history of witchcraft and witch hunting in Scotland.

The survey reveals the names of almost all the 3837 people they know were killed after being accused of being a witch, between 1563 and 1736.

It also gives details of all that is known about the crimes and the sentences handed out - from being burned alive to being beheaded. While many people may have been accused of witchcraft before 1590, the first major trials of those suspected of being a witch began in Scotland after King James began to believe he and and his future bride had been cursed by a coven of witches.

Anne of Denmark had been sailing to Scotland with James when the ship they were in nearly capsized in stormy seas.

The storms were said to have been raised by a coven of witches who had gathered on the Auld Kirk Green in North Berwick, East Lothian.

As suspicion swept across the town over who could have cursed the king, Tranent businessman David Smeaton reported his family maid, Geillis Duncan, for having an interest in witchcraft. His suspicions were based on Geillis having a gift for helping the sick and infirm.

Geillis was arrested and tortured but refused to confess.

She was thrown in jail when her torturers declared they had found a "devil's mark" on her body.

Once in jail, the terrified maid was said to have accused a long list of other people of witchcraft.

In all, more than 70 women and men were implicated in the case.

King James took an active role in the trials of those accused, even questioning many of the accused himself. The king believed Francis Stuart, the 5th Earl of Bothwell, had plotted with the coven to cause his death and had him arrested for treason.

One of the suspected witches, Agnes Sampson, confessed under torture to being a witch and implicated many others.

As part of her torture, Agnes was shackled to her cell wall and stabbed in the face with a four-pronged iron fork which pierced through her cheeks and tongue.

A report of Agnes's confession claims she admitted a coven of as many as 200 other witches had met with the devil at the Auld Kirk Green. He had instructed them to use their spells - and even throw a dead cat into the sea - to summon the violent storm to strike the king's ship.

Agnes was condemned, then strangled and burnt for being a witch.

Schoolmaster James Fian was also questioned and confessed under torture to attending all the meetings of the coven - although he later withdrew his confession. …

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