- Kirsty Gibbins
- 10 September 2009
Since it’s Halloween, Kirsty Gibbins decides to delve into Scotland’s witch culling history. What she uncovers ain’t pretty, in fact, it’s decidedly gruesome
Scotland has many claims to fame … The home of the original freedom fighter William Wallace, famed poet Rabbie Burns and the ‘phenomenal’ Irn-Bru. It's a country of many varied and renowned achievements, yet there is a far darker accomplishment lurking behind the handsome poets and bottles of orange fizzy pop.
Responsible for the deaths of more than 4,000 people, most of them women, Scotland was the biggest persecutor of so-called witches in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. As the culling raged for more than 200 years, people faced lingering torture and almost certain death for crimes as ridiculous as being a single woman living alone or owning a black cat. It was a time when it was seriously believed that pacts could be made with the Devil himself to gain supernatural powers for evil purposes.
The last burning of a Scottish ‘witch’ took place in 1727 – the subject of Rona Munro’s recent play The Last Witch – though the fear and persecution was to continue for long after and the scars left by the witch hunts remain today. One lasting testament to the bloody legacy of Scottish witch hunts is a monument on the outskirts of Dunning, in Perthshire. Roughly one mile west of the village stands a pile of stones, erected in memory of Maggie Wall, who was burned there as a witch in 1657; although there are no records to show that a proper trial or execution ever took place.
And more than 350 years after her death, it's clear that there is still a strong local feeling towards Maggie, as the wording on the stone is repainted periodically to ensure the inscription is always legible – though, even to this day, it remains a mystery as to who undertakes the task.
Maggie Wall may be the only Scottish witch with a dedicated memorial, but there are other monuments scattered across the country. A small well, on the eastern corner of the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, marks the spot where, over a time span of 250 years, 300 women accused of witchcraft were burned to death.
But perhaps the most notorious witch hunt in Scotland took place in East Lothian; the trial of the North Berwick Witches saw 70 people arrested and ultimately tortured, tried or killed for their supposed part in a plot to assassinate King James VI and his new bride, Anne of Denmark. By all accounts, King James himself took part in questioning many of the accused and approved horrendous torture for those who the finger of suspicion fell upon.
One of the most famous victims of the North Berwick witch hunt was healer and midwife Agnes Sampson, whom the king interrogated himself at Holyrood Palace. She was fastened to the wall of her cell by a 'witch's bridle': a particularly gruesome torture device, it was made of iron and had four sharp prongs that were jammed into the victim's mouth. Two were forced against her tongue while the other two were forced against her cheeks. King James became convinced of her guilt and eventually ordered her execution.
It was not until the beginning of the 19th century that Scotland's fear of witches began to noticeably die out and it's likely that those of us drawn to the darker side of life have nothing to fear anymore … But, just to be on the safe side, we’d recommend packing away the stripy tights and pointed hat this Halloween and going for the safer option of a pumpkin outfit … orange goes better with your complexion anyway.