Scotland set to forgive thousands of executed witches, 400 years later

NORTH BERWICK, Scotland — The wind blew hard one autumn night here in 1589. So much so that King James VI concluded that the witches must have gathered in this fishing town to recall the storm that delayed the arrival of his new wife, the sister of the Danish king.

Much of Europe had succumbed to a mania for witchcraft, just over a hundred years before a similar frenzy swept through the town of Salem, Massachusetts.

King James, later King James I of England and Ireland, personally interviewed many of those who were rounded up and accused of summoning the storm during a late night mass with the devil in Town’s Auld Kirk. He later wrote a bestselling guide on how to spot a witch. William Shakespeare used some of the details of the trials in “Macbeth”.

“Macbeth and the Witches” by Joseph Anton Koch.



Many of the 19 people executed in Salem were cleared in the years following the witch trials, and another group was cleared 20 years ago.

But it is only now that legislation is passed by the Scottish Parliament to pardon the thousands of women who were trapped in the Great Scottish Purge, including some who were tortured to death in the witch trials from North Berwick.

In total, until the repeal of the Witchcraft Law in 1735, some 3,837 people were charged with the crime, the overwhelming majority of whom were women, and about two-thirds were executed, more per capita than everywhere else in Europe.

For activists scrambling to clear their names, this is an important reckoning with Scotland’s past as they contemplate their future in the UK.

“It’s no different than the way Scotland has to come to terms with its role in the transatlantic slave trade,” says Claire Mitchell, a lawyer who, along with teacher and author Zoe Venditozzi, has been asking for a general pardon since launching their “Witches of Scotland” Podcast inspired by #MeToo.

In Edinburgh and other Scottish cities, the purges became part of a larger power struggle during the Reformation.



More than a third of the land in the West Highlands and Islands has been combined into vast estates with money from the slave trade, history professors Iain MacKinnon and Andrew Mackillop found in a recent study. The matter has received increasing attention in recent years, with the University of Glasgow, which profited from the exchange, led the way in offering reparations through donations to research projects at the University of the West Indies.

The push for forgiveness for women killed in witch trials has also been politicized in some quarters. In supporting the candidacy, some critics say the party of Scottish independence leader Nicola Sturgeon is integrating it into a larger assessment of Scotland’s past and potentially its future.

Its importance, however, has been noted elsewhere.

Leo Igwe, a professor at the University of Cape Town, who has worked for years defending women and children against accusations of witchcraft in his home country of Nigeria, says this could give new impetus to abolish the witchcraft crime in many countries.

He and Scottish activists draw parallels between witch hunts in present-day Africa and 16th-century Scotland, from the upheavals of urbanization to the religious fervor behind them. In Edinburgh and other Scottish towns, the purges became part of a larger power struggle between the Catholic Church and Protestant reformers inspired by Martin Luther and John Calvin, with innocent women targeted as a means to demonstrate the holiness of their cause.

“There was an absolute fever to find out who was closest to God,” says Ms. Venditozzi.

Likewise, Mr Igwe has clashed with evangelical pastors in Nigeria who he says have instigated allegations of witchcraft to increase their numbers, sometimes storming his meetings to warn of purges or taking legal action. to silence him.

“There are many different groups competing for legitimacy and relevance and they do this by identifying people as witches,” he says.

Although the United Nations passed a resolution last year calling for an end to witch trials, they continue in parts of the world, from Nigeria and Tanzania to India and Papua New Guinea. Malawi’s Law Commission last week recommended that witchcraft be added to the country’s penal code, baffling human rights activists. “Not to do it is to not recognize what is going on in society,” he said.

In Scotland, it took decades for the witch hunts to end.

A depiction of Satan attracting John Fian, who will later be burned alive at the stake.



In some cases, people have accused their neighbors of the crime to settle scores. Much of the Scottish aristocracy supported the purges, hoping they would hasten the decline of the Catholic Church and allow them to choose from its land holdings, say academics who have studied the phenomenon.

Others, including King James, believed in witches and developed what they thought were scientific methods to detect them, such as pricking them with long needles to see how much they were bleeding. If there was not enough blood, it was taken as a sure sign that the accused was a wizard.

Usually they got the answers they wanted, as they did in the North Berwick hearings, the first big show trial of the time.

The investigation began with Geillis Duncan, a young woman who worked as a maid in the house of David Seton, an ally of the king.

Remains of the Auld Kirk in North Berwick, Scotland, where witches are said to have caused a storm that delayed the arrival of King James VI’s new wife from Denmark.



After learning that she had secretly left the property at night, Seton began questioning her. Weeks later Duncan broke and admitted to invoking the storms that had delayed the King’s ship from Denmark and was part of a plot to kill him.

She named several accomplices who had supposedly gathered near the port of North Berwick to participate in a satanic rite, including Agnes Sampson and a physician, John Fian. They were arrested and tortured, their fingernails broken and shattered. Sampson’s hair was shaved from her head and she was tied up in an iron cage hung on the wall of her cell in Old Tolbooth in the capital, Edinburgh.

King James himself participated in the interrogation. Accounts from the time claimed that Sampson had accurately recounted a private conversation the king had with his wife on their wedding night, proof, they said, that she was indeed a witch.

Agnes Sampson was then strangled and burned near Edinburgh Castle, along with many others, so there was nothing more to bury. Fian was burned alive at the stake.

Agnes Sampson, John Fian and others are pictured during their trial before King James.



A series of other purges swept the country over the next 150 years before the mania began to abate.

One of the last to suffer was Lilias Adie of Torryburn, who was arrested in 1704 and put on trial after a series of unexplained illnesses near her home. About 60 years old at the time, Adie was interrogated for a month, deprived of sleep, before finally confessing to sleeping with the devil.

She was never convicted and died in custody after hanging herself, it was said, before she could be sentenced or given the names of other women.

Lilias Adie was buried on a beach under a thick slab of sandstone, the tide rising and falling twice a day – a void through which it was believed no spirit could pass.

Write to James Hookway at [email protected]

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