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Scottish Witches - The Story of the Persecution of Witches in Scotland (1563 - 1736)

Scottish Witches  - The Story of the Persecution of Witches in Scotland (1563 - 1736)
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In sixteenth and seventeenth century Scotland, to be accused of being a 'witch' was extremely dangerous. An estimated 4000 witches were arrested, with 2000 put to their deaths in this period (from the first Act against Witches in 1563 to its repeal in 1736). Death was by strangulation at the stake, and burning, or drowning. The word of someone against you was enough evidence to be life-threatening in some cases. Today there is action to clear the names of those in Scotland who were accused and lost their lives. To date, unlike the witches of Salem, Massachusetts, USA, for example, Scotland's witches prosecuted under the law against them, have never been 'pardoned'.

This book explains the history of witchcraft in Scotland. It explains how the perception of what it was to be a 'witch' changed through time, and how persecutions became prevalent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Many of those accused of being witches were female, widowed, and middle-aged or elderly. It was mostly men who extracted confessions from so-called witches, and many of the methods used were barbaric. The torturers used a variety of methods, and there was no time limit on the torture sessions, nor a moderator of their sinister and painful punishments. Thumbscrews, fingernail-ripping with pincers (turkas); burning; leg crushing and beating and drowning were just some of the means used to extract confessions.

The most famous witch trials in Scotland are listed, and include that of Bessie Smith, and also the North Berwick witches, which was the first mass-witch trial to take place in Scotland.

This is a fascinating, matter-of-fact, informative book that captures the hysteria and paranoia that swept Europe, and the USA, but principally Scotland, four and five hundred years ago. The book also touches on the beliefs of modern white witches and the place of Wicca in society today.


The practice of magic and witchcraft had gone on for many centuries worldwide but with the adoption of Christianity after the Reformation in Scotland and across Europe, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so a fear and hatred of magic and its practitioners grew. The role of the practitioners of magic changed slowly, and as far as the authorities of the Christian church were concerned, witchcraft was heresy. Magical practices were long established but changed gradually in Scotland to integrate some elements of Christian services or prayers, albeit in a perverted form. Some practitioners absorbed elements of the Roman Catholic church which had been abhorred by so many leading Protestants and then practisers of magic became guilty of two-fold heresy ie they were practising witchcraft and acknowledging the rites of Roman Catholics. The idea of the Demonic pact, that witches had actively renounced their baptism and transferred their allegiance to Satan – was one which is thought to have originated in Europe and influenced Scottish witch-beliefs in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Fear drove changes to the statute book outlawing witchcraft.

However, as time went on, skepticism grew regarding the effectiveness of witchcraft. The law makers and enforcers began to realise that just as the connections between misfortune and witchcraft were spurious, that the practice of witchcraft itself, unless accompanied by physical violence, could not cause physical harm or death. In short, the law makers concluded that whatever the intent of the witch, whether good or evil, witchcraft did not work and therefore people could not commit crimes with witchcraft alone. Accordingly, the crime of witchcraft was removed from the statute books.

Salem, USA

It is interesting to look at, and to compare, other incidences of people accused of witchcraft. In Salem, Massachusetts, USA, 200 people were accused of and tried for witchcraft over 16 months between February 1692 and May 1693, and 20 were killed. These people have now all been pardoned. Elizabeth Johnson Jr was the last Salem 'witch' and pardoned by Massachusetts lawmakers only recently. Johnson was not hanged, but also not cleared or ever pardoned. Noone realised she had never been pardoned until a group of schoolchildren in North Andover, Mass., USA did a school project on witches and realised that Johnson remained accused of witchcraft. They then wrote a petition to get Johnson cleared. It was embarrassing to be associated with the judges. Nathaniel Hawthorne changed his name to avoid links with judge Hathorne, and author of Little Women, Louisa M Alcott and her sisters were g-g-grandaughters of Judge Samuel Sewall who later apologised for his involvement in the trials.

Scottish Parliament Petition

Sara Sheridan and Claire Mitchell QC have been vocal about the lack of a pardon for Scotland's 'witches' accused of witchcraft after the Witchcraft Act in 1563, and Claire Mitchell QC is leading the petition in the Scottish Parliament to clear the names of those accused and killed.


CONTENTS : List of chapters



Charmed Life - superstition, and witchcraft

The Years of Persecution

The Nature of a Witch

The Magic of Witches - things that witches could do, and be accused of: Health, Sickness and Death; Image Magic; The Taking of Milk, the spoiling of crops, fish and other food; The Sinking of Ships; Weather Predicting, and Weather Changing; Shape Shifting; Love; Elf Shoe; Witches and the Devil; Body Parts; Transport; Counter Charms

PROVE IT - the signs of a witch

Confession; Detection - Spot the Witch; Witch-Pricking; Ordeal by Water; Ordeal of Touch; Walking; Torture; Reputation; Evidence; Escape from the Flames; The Sentence; The Cost


Bessie Dunlop of Ayrshire

Katherine Ross, Lady Foulis

The North Berwick Witches

Margaret Barclay of Irvine

Alexander Hamilton, Elizabeth Steven and Katherine Oswald of East Lothian

Agnes Finnie of Edinburgh

Robert 'Hob' Grieve

Marie Lamont of Inverkip

Isobel Gowdie

Major Thomas Weir and Grizel Weir

Sir George Maxwell and the Witches of Pollokshaws

The Witches of Bo'ness

Christian Shaw of Bargarran and the Paisley Witches

The Witches of Pittenweem


Michael Scott - The Wondrous Wizard

Lord Soulis

Alexander Skene

Robert Grierson of Lag

John Graham of Claverhouse

Aleister Crowley



The Earl of Brodie and the Hare

The Witch of Laggan

The Lady and the Horse



Trimmed Page Size: 194 x 124mm; Paperback; 192pp; spine: 12mm; Weight: 150g. Date of publication: already published

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