Witchcraft in Scotland

Where to Find Witches in Scotland

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Witches in the Forest

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.

Where to find witches in Scotland. Witchcraft history in Scotland. #Witches #Witchcraft #Scotland #Europe #Scottish
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Accusations

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.

Black and White Drawing of Sharp Pins used to prick Suspected Witches in Scotland
credit: wikipedia.com
Witch Pricking Needles

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.

Witch confessions

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.

Witches Well in Edinburgh Scotland
Witches Well in Edinburgh

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

Calton Hill

Cannon on Calton Hill facing Edinburgh City Centre
Cannon on Calton Hill

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.

Castle Hill

The Witchery by the Castle in a rainy evening
The Witchery by the Castle

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.

Edinburgh Dungeons

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

St. Magnus Cathedral in Orkney with old weathered gravestones in front of the towering red/brown cathedral
St. Magnus Cathedral in Orkney

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.

North Berwick

St. Andrews Old Kirk in North Berwick - Old white building with steeped roof, open door.
St. Andrews Old Kirk in North Berwick

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.

Aberdeenshire

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.

St. Andrews

St. Andrews Cathedral in St. Andrews Scotland. Beautiful ruins towering over a grassy graveyard filled with several weathered tombstones.
St. Andrews Cathedral

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

Woman in white decorated in flowers at the Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill
Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill

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.

Harry Potter

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!

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Comments 18

  1. Very interesting Crystal.
    I’m glad times have changed, it must have been terrible times for people accused of witchcraft.
    Harry Potter books are the best!

    1. Post
      Author

      Agreed! I am glad that Scotland eventually made the Witchcraft Act that prevented people from accusing just anyone of being a witch. They definitely have put up a lot of memorials honouring the memory of those who died during the witch trails. Terrible – but glad they learned from their history. Yes – love Harry Potter!

  2. I didn’t realise Scotland had so much witch history. I know there was a big problem with it in Europe (and of course New England), I just never associate it with the UK. So this was certainly an enlightening piece!

    It always baffles me the ways they tested for witches. I always felt like if someone really WAS a witch, they could just get out of it – you know, supernatural powers and all that. But also, old torture devices are INSANE. We’ve certainly never struggled to create inventive means of hurting each other. Took thousands of years to invent electricity, but peeling skin, we’ve got that covered…

    Also, this is the most compelling reason I’ve ever been given for visiting St Andrews…

    1. Post
      Author

      Yeah – it’s crazy how much witch history is scattered all around Scotland. So many memories to the people who died. The country definitely feels sorry for how they treated all of those people back in the day. The witch pricking is just awful – also how can you react with so much pain when they start pricking your entire body? Eventually you will be exhausted and thats when they will get you. Witch! That is one thing us humans are good at – torturing each other.

      So, you mean golfing at St. Andrews never appealed to you? hahaha well I am glad I inspired you to visit St. Andrews for something other than golf.

  3. Very informative article Crystal ..and i want to visit all those places now and attending that festival must be so cool …great read … Zarina

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      Author

      Yeah, the festival was really cool. It gets busier and busier each year! It’s quite the experience. I would recommend attending at least once.

  4. Great post Crystal! I never knew that Scotland had all this creepy history.

    I feel so sorry for these women, what horrific treatment! I agree with Cultura Obscura too, I could never work out why people thought these ‘tests’ would actually work if the women were witches, if it were me I would definitely turn them into frogs (at the very least)!

    I will definitely be checking these places out when I make it to Scotland. I am determined to go this year!!

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      Author

      Thanks Sheree! Scotland is full of so much creepy history – it’s great! I would also 100% use my witch powers to get out of the torture if I was a witch! So stupid that they would torture people with no proof and expect people to react a certain way. Barbaric for sure. I hope you make it to Scotland this year!

  5. Girl, I would love to go to the Beltane Fire Festival! That sounds so interesting and with my love for makeup/dressup, I’m sure that would be a great time! I guess for now I’ll just stick to using my palos santos to cleanse myself instead of jumping over fires there.

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      Author

      Yeah! I had no idea what I was stepping into. All I knew was it was some festival on Calton Hill and my new friend invited me so I went. It was intense and so cool! You should definitely go someday. It gets better and more popular each year – someday in the future you will go!

  6. Hi Crystal, what a fascinating bit sad part of Scotland’s past. I’ve always held a fascination of Scotland and would love to get there one day, I live in Australia.

    I do have a question, did they ever test for male witches or warlocks? I’m sure with all the druids etc in Scotland’s past there must have been male witches too so I was just wondering if it was only the women who were persecuted?

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      Author

      Hello Angela! Yes – there were several males that were also prosecuted in the same way that women were in Scotland. There were far less men than women accused and prosecuted. I hear that it was about 75% women and 25% men who, as you said, were accused of being warlocks or partaking in suspect traditions.

      Hope you make it to Scotland someday! It will definitely be worth the trip.

  7. Holy cow, I think I am a little behind on your blog posts.

    I love your homepage, by the way. It’s changed a little bit since pre-Baltics, and can I just say that I LOVE IT!!! All of the icons, wording, and feel are just so spooky niche perfect and utterly WONDERFUL. I definitely think that Pip-mess was a blessing in disguise…even though I am still trying to recover.

    I actually did not realize that healers and herbalists were considered witches in Europe until I started reading “Books Set In” places. There is mention of these beliefs for Iceland (Burial Rites) and Lithuania (The Warrior Maiden). I guess I never considered Scotland to be a part of this condemnation. Growing up, I definitely thought New England only had a witch craze (but that is because I lived there).

    Of course, I love the modern day HP tie in!

    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you! I’m slowly working on it, getting it the way that I want. It definitely was a blessing in disguise! Although, as you know with the editing of that leaf out of your header – it can be super frustrating trying to figure stuff out. I think it’s making us all a little more tech savvy though!

      Yeah – they weren’t always thought of as witches though! It was really that damn King James and his paranoia that screwed over so many of these people. I also only really knew about the Salem Witch Trails from my youth. I became pretty invested in learning about them after reading The Crucible – I mean how could you not?! I still need to read Burial Rites! I really think I would enjoy that book!

      And yeah! Always have to mention HP when talking about witches! Although there was definitely some crazy controversy about witchcraft and HP when it came out. You’d think in this day and age people wouldn’t be so concerned over an entertaining book.

  8. I really enjoyed your website and plan to visit again and purchase your book. I had discovered that I am supposed to have had an ancestor in Scotland by the name of Isabella Hill who was wiccan. I was wondering if you know of a registrar where I could look and see if she is listed. Thanks for any help.

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      Author

      Thanks Melinda! I looked further into it and all of the Scots Witches names from the 1600s were released to Wellcome Library (https://wellcomelibrary.org/) and Ancestry.co.uk. Definitely look at both of those sites and see what you can find! Good luck! I hope you find the information about Isabella Hill. Keep me posted!

  9. Does anyone know story about witches being drowned in stream behind the Royal in glasgow city centre tre

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      Author

      I will look into it and get back to you! I am just updating this post now and should get an updated version out in the next few weeks.

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