NEARLY three years ago I wrote about witchcraft in Scotland and how King James VI almost singlehandedly made Scotland top of the European league for the number of witches executed per head of population.

A reader recently asked me if I could give more information about one of the most sensational and deeply disturbing witch trials, namely that of the North Berwick witches.

Let me first of all point out that I am using the term “witches” only as the description they were given then. Mostly women with some men and even children; of course, none of the people tried and usually burned to death were witches as we understand the term, but they were most definitely the victims of witch hunts. That term has been banded about a lot recently, especially in the pursuit of former national leaders subjected to trials and interrogations. Donald Trump has consistently declared himself the victim of a witch hunt, so perhaps we should remind ourselves of just how brutal and unjust real witch hunts are.

Once again I am indebted to Rosemary Goring’s excellent Scotland the Autobiography for putting me on to one of the prime sources of material on the North Berwick witches, the pamphlet Newes From Scotland, composed in the early 1590s, most probably by a Presbyterian minister at Haddington, James Carmichael, who personally witnessed many of the events.

Its original title was “Newes from Scotland, declaring the damnable life and death of Doctor Fian, a notable sorcerer who was burned at Edenbrough in Ianuary last”. There are still six contemporary copies of this remarkable document extant, and it is renowned because it contains the first description of the Osculum Infame, the kiss of shame, which damned everyone who confessed to it because it meant you had kissed the devil’s anus.

I am also indebted again to the extraordinary Survey of Scottish Witchcraft by Edinburgh University’s history department, which has identified a total number of 3837 people who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland. Around 4000 people were accused in the “burning time” and slightly less than two-thirds, or about 2500 people, of whom 85% were women, were found guilty and put to death, usually by being burned.

The North Berwick Trials began with King James VI when he sent for his new wife, Anne of Denmark, in 1589 in the eighth year of his personal rule over Scotland. James was paranoid about people trying to kill him and rightly so, but when Anne and her escort were almost lost during their voyage to Scotland due to bad weather, he took it personally and sailed to Oslo in Norway, then part of the Danish empire, to fetch his wife home. They had been married by proxy so stayed a while in Oslo and Copenhagen before sailing home. Again the weather was dreadful and by the time they reached Leith, trials were already under way in Denmark of women accused of witchcraft against the royal couple. Between five and 12 women were burned at the stake after the usual witch hunt – one was tortured, named the others, and the rest were then tortured, convicted and executed.

James learned of the burnings and decided to start his own witch hunt. Unfortunately for many good people in East Lothian, there was already suspicions around several local people.

The National: The North Berwick Witches meet the Devil in the local kirkyard, from a contemporary pamphletThe North Berwick Witches meet the Devil in the local kirkyard, from a contemporary pamphlet

It all began with David Seton of Tranent who became suspicious of his maid servant Geillis or Gillis Duncan. She suddenly began to help cure people of various illnesses, and sneaked out at night to do so. Seton and a gang of brutal friends tortured her until she confessed she was doing the devil’s work. Carmichael wrote that Seton, “with the help of others to torment her with the tortures of the thumbscrews upon her fingers, which is a grievous torture, and binding and twisting her head with cord of rope, which is a most cruel torment also, yet she should not confess anything. Whereupon they, suspecting that she had been marked by the devil, as commonly witches are…[they searched and] found the devil’s mark to be on ... the forepart of her throat. [After this was found] she confessed that all her doings was done by the wicked allurements and enticements of the devil and that she did them by witchcraft”.

She named other many people as witches around East Lothian, the most prominent of whom were Agnes Sampson and John Fian and whose number included Euphame MacCalzean and Barbara Napier.

There was only one punishment for being a witch and that was being burned to death in public. Curiously, there exists a document, “Denial at the Scene of Execution by Geillis Duncan to the Public Notary”, dated December 4, 1591: “[Geillis Duncan declared that] she never knew Barbara or Euphame to be witches or to use any sorcery or witchcraft in any of the places mentioned … After being questioned why she had spread these rumours … she answered that she was made to by David Seton, and that these were all lies, for which she begged God’s forgiveness.”

AGNES Sampson was well known in and around North Berwick because she was a midwife known as the Wise Woman of Keith. Her fate is recounted by Carmichael, and I have merely modernised the spelling: “This aforesaid Agnes Sampson which was the elder witch, was taken and brought to Holyrood Palace before the king’s majesty and sundry other of the nobility of Scotland, where she was straightly examined, but all the persuasions which the king’s majesty used to her with the rest of his counsel, might not provoke or induce her to confess any thing, but stood stiffly in the denial of all that was laid to her charge: whereupon they caused her to be confined away to prison, there to receive such torture as hath been lately provided for witches in that country: and for as much as by due examination of witchcraft and witches in Scotland, it hath lately been found that the devil doth generally mark them with a privy mark, by reason the witches have confessed themselves, that the devil doth lick them with his tongue in some private part of their body, before he doth receive them to be his servants, which mark commonly is given them under the hair in some part of their body, whereby it may not easily be found out or seen, although they be searched: and generally so long as the mark is not seen to those which search them, so long the parties that hath the mark will never confess anything. Therefore by special commandment this Agnes Sampson had all her hair shaven off, in each part of her body, and her head thrawen with a rope according to the custom of that country, being a pain most grievous, which she continued almost an hour, during which time she would not confess any thing until the devil’s mark was found upon her privates, then she immediately confessed whatsoever was demanded of her, and justifying those persons aforesaid to be notorious witches.”

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Under torture Sampson confessed that she had tried to use witchcraft against the king. James VI asked her to prove it and according to Carmichael, “she declared unto him the very words which passed between the king’s majesty and his queen at Oslo in Norway the first night of their marriage”. James VI had her burned at the stake, not surprisingly.

ONE of the men named by Duncan was Dr Fian, aka Cunningham, a school teacher who was dragged before the king himself. This tale of the extraordinary encounter between the accused and the monarch is most definitely as recorded by Carmichael because James VI later wrote about it in his infamous 1597 work Daemonologie, a piece of propaganda to convince the people of England, over whom he was soon to reign, that their future king was a witchfinder general of astonishing talents. The same man, don’t forget, would within a few years commission the Revised Version of the Bible in English. No wonder they called him the wisest fool in Christendom.

I have modernised some spelling, but otherwise this is a word-for-word account. According to Carmichael, “Fian confessed, that by his witchcraft he did bewitch a gentleman dwelling near to the Saltpans (Prestonpans), where the said doctor kept school, only for being enamoured of a gentlewoman whom he loved himself; by means of which his sorcery, witchcraft and devilish practises, he caused the said gentleman, that once in every 24 hours he fell into a lunacy and madness, and so continued one whole hour together: And for the verity of the same, he caused the gentleman to be brought before the king’s majesty which was upon the 23rd day of December last, and being in his majesty’s chamber, suddenly he gave a great screech and fell into madness, sometime bending himself, and sometime capering so directly up, that his head did touch the ceiling of the chamber, to the great admiration of his majesty and others then present; so that all the gentlemen in the chamber were not able to hold him, until they called in more help, who together bound him hand and foot; and suffering the said gentleman to lie still until his fury were past, he within an hour he came again to himself”. Then Fian gave the real reason for his witchcraft and it was nothing to do with sinking the king’s ships, but was actually about seducing that poor woman and making her other suitor mad.

“The said doctor did also confess, that he had used means sundry times to obtain his purpose and wicked intent of the same gentlewoman; and seeing himself disappointed of his intention, he determined, by all ways he might, to obtain the same; trusting conjuring, witchcraft and sorcery, to obtain it, in this manner. It happened this gentlewoman, being unmarried, had a brother, who went to school (to be taught) by the said doctor; and calling the said scholar (a pupil) to him, demanded ‘if he did lie with his sister’ who answered ‘he did’: By means whereof, he thought to obtain his purpose; and therefore secretly promised, to teach him without stripes [beating], so he would obtain for him three hairs of the sisters privities, at such time as he should spy the best occasion for it; which the youth promised faithfully to perform.”

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At this point, according to Reverend Carmichael, God intervened and the woman’s mother became suspicious of the boy’s actions towards his sister. The mother beat the boy until he confessed the plot at which point she went to a local cow and snipped off three pubic hairs which she made the boy take to Dr Fian. He promptly wove a magic spell over the hairs and was rewarded when at church, the cow came into the kirk and went right up to him.

After being interrogated by James VI, Fian was flung into prison and under pressure he confessed to being in league with the devil. He renounced the devil but the following day recanted that renunciation and escaped, only to be re-captured and this time he received the full torture regime and hence the real North Berwick witch hunt began, because Fian named possibly dozens of people who were also devil worshippers.

The inquiries began to take on a basic form. Women and girls – and they were nearly all female – were arrested and taken to prisons where they were tortured to confess what they had done and name others. Sometimes the mere sight of the dreaded “bootes” which crushed a victim’s feet was enough to extract a confession. By 1592, more than 70 people had been tried as part of the North Berwick witch hunt.

The exact number who were burned at the stake is unknown, but is in the dozens.