In the past, healers and herbalists in Scotland were misunderstood and labeled as witches, leading them down a road filled with torture, hatred and ultimately death.
King James VI was terrified of suffering a violent death (who wouldn’t be though, right?) and was convinced he was being tormented by witches. After visiting Denmark, a place where witches were actively hunted, King James’ paranoia grew. On his trip back to Scotland, the ship he was travelling on was caught up in a terrible storm. The captain blamed witches, fuelling King James’ paranoia and influencing him to authorize the persecution and torture of all suspected witches as part of the Great Scottish Witch Hunt.
Scotland was brutal in its punishment of witches. Records suggest nearly 4000 people were accused of witchcraft in the country, with 2/3 of those being executed.
Older women, healers, herbalists and midwives were among those most often accused of witchcraft. Paranoia ran deep within Scotland and people were singled out for things such as bearing a stillborn child. If someone suffered a misfortune after an argument with a neighbour, they might believe they were bewitched and the accusations would start to fly.
Torture and proof of witchcraft
The torture endured by those accused was barbaric. Methods included everything from shackling accused witches to cell walls and refusing to let them sleep for days until they became hysteric to removing fingernails and piercing their cheeks and tongues with four-pronged iron forks. Many torture implements were used, such as the “scold’s bridle” — essentially a muzzle to hold the tongue in place and prevent a witch from speaking.
One of the most common witch tests in Scotland was known as “witch prickers”. This involved pricking the skin of suspected witches with a bodkin (a sharp needle). If the area did not hurt or bleed when pierced, it was deemed a sign of the devil’s mark — absolute proof that the suspect was a true witch.
The devil’s mark was thought to be branding given by the devil to bind a witch’s deal and servitude to Satan, making it a sure-fire sign someone was a witch. Many descriptions were given of the supposed devil’s mark. It could be anything as simple as a mole or skin lesion. Tattoos were also associated with the Pagan religion and largely considered devil’s marks.
Suspected witches in Scotland all confessed to witchcraft before facing the ultimate punishment of death. To get witches to confess, torturers denied them sleep, physically and mentally tormented them and kept them confined in isolation. The accused would be constantly told of their terrible sins and incessantly reminded they could be burned at the stake at any point, before being left alone for the night in a cold, dark dungeon until they were delirious. It’s possible some suspects believed what they were being told was true, even though they thought they were innocent. Others likely finally gave a false confession to put an end to the horrendous torture they were forced to endure.
How witches were killed
Witches in Scotland were generally hanged or burned at the stake. Although there are plenty of rumours about witch pools — places where suspected witches were lowered into the water in ducking stools. If the suspect drowned, it meant they were innocent and would go to Heaven. If they lived, it confirmed they were witches and they’d suffer more torture and torment before being burned at the stake.
Witchcraft Act 1735
In 1735, the Parliament of the Kingdom of Great Britain passed a law making it a crime in Scotland to accuse any other human being of possessing magical powers or practising witchcraft. This new law abolished the hunting and executions of witches in Scotland.
Historical witchcraft places to visit in Scotland
Once a site where women were burned as witches, Calton Hill now hosts the annual Beltane Fire Festival. This location was also the place where Edinburgh’s Hallow’s Fair festival was held in the 1800’s. The north side of the hill is where witches were burned, one of whom was Lady Glamis. She was tortured and killed, even though she was of noble blood, proving no one was safe.
More witch burnings occurred at Castle Hill than anywhere else in Scotland. Thankfully, today this space is filled with a pub and hotel called the Witchery by the Castle, as well as the Witches’ Well — a site commemorating the victims of the Great Witch Hunt in Scotland.
Princes Street Gardens
Once home to the vile sewage-filled Nor’ Loch, Princes Street Gardens is where witches were rumoured to endure dunking. Some people say this kind of torture never happened. But others argue that many suspected witches were drowned in the loch. If they didn’t die in the water, they’d be tortured and burned at the stake afterward.
A show called “The Witches’ Judgement” lets you briefly meet Agnes Finnie — a real witch accused of witchcraft in 1644. The interactive show gives you the chance to see what it was like to be accused of witchcraft back in the day. A visit to the Edinburgh Dungeons is a funny, over the top experience, rather than a place where you can learn about actual history. If you go with the mindset that you’re there for a fun trip into some of the insanities in Scotland’s dark past and nothing more, you’ll have a great time.
Orkney first believed in witchcraft and supernatural creatures following the arrival of the original Norse settlers in the 8th century. These islands shrouded in superstition were where sailors and fishermen used to buy favourable winds from local witch, Bessie Miller. The winds they’d purchased were filled with boiled water and charms and sold for sixpence. Before long, witch hunts began throughout the Scottish mainland and spread out to Orkney, stopping her practice.
To see where most of the Orkney witch trials took place, visit the St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.
Address: Broad St. Kirkwall.
You can also visit Gallows Ha’, a place of brutal executions that now features a stone memorial honouring the victims of the witch trials.
Because of King James VI, North Berwick was a setting for the torture and execution of 100-200 suspected witches. St. Andrews Old Kirk, which sits near the coast, just up the path from the Scottish Seabird Centre, was suspected as a favourite place for witches to summon storms. Just outside the kirk, you’ll find witches’ cauldrons now used as decorative flower pots.
A place where witch hunts were particularly gruesome, the 15th-century Kirk of St. Nicholas was used to imprison accused witches. Archaeologists excavated the east kirk of the church in 2006-2007 and discovered the remains of over 2000 people, many of which were buried during the Great Scottish Witch Hunt. St. Mary’s Chapel in Aberdeenshire was also used as a prison for suspected witches. Inside, you’ll find a ring attached to a stone pillar, once used to chain witches to the wall.
Bo’ness in Falkirk
Around 200m south-west of where the original Carriden Church stood is the “Witches Stone”. This site is believed to be where those accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake in Bo’ness.
Known as “Witch Hill”, the hill off North Street in St. Andrews is where witches were tied from toe to thumb and cast off into the tidal pools far below the cliffs, an area now known as “Witch Lake”. If the women drowned, they were deemed innocent. And, if they survived, they were carried up to Witch Hill and burned at the stake.
If you’re a fan of ghost tours, check out the Original St. Andrews Witches Tour to learn all about witchcraft in Scotland and the terrible fate met by many during the Great Witch Hunts of Scotland.
Modern witchcraft celebrations in Scotland
Beltane Fire Festival
I went to the Beltane Fire Festival when I first moved to Edinburgh and experienced a world of chaos, excitement and confusion one April evening on the side of Calton Hill. Some people had their faces and bodies painted, while others were dressed up in colourful outfits and balancing fire.
The festival began to celebrate the return of fertility of the land, when fire was seen as a purifier and healer. Just as they did when it first began, today people dance around and jump over fires to symbolise casting out darkness and embracing the light. In continuance, the start of summer is celebrated by lighting a huge bonfire.
Edinburgh was the place where British author J.K Rowling wrote the hugely successful book series about wizards and witches – Harry Potter. Various locations throughout the city inspired J.K. Rowling and are visited by people from all over the world. How times have changed!