History

Heresy, they say? James VI and the witch trials

We explore the macabre witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries and James VI’s grim obsession

Words by Kirsten Henton

Witches, of the pointy hat and broomstick variety, have long dominated popular culture but for the people of early modern Scotland, the fear posed by witchcraft and maleficent goings-on was genuine and omnipresent.

Thousands of terrified, innocent folks were tried by the God-fearing judiciary, encouraged by the Kirk and authorised, on occasion even presided over, by the King. Here, we take a look at how and why King James VI of Scotland involved himself so in the horrifying Scottish witch trials of the 16th century.

Witch panic ebbed and flowed across Europe between the late-15th and mid-18th centuries with Scotland emerging as especially fertile and dangerous ground during the 16th and 17th centuries. Dr Louise Yeoman, historian and co-presenter of BBC Scotland’s Witch Hunt podcast (available on BBC Sounds), says that “the way witch hunts worked is that you got a big witch ‘panic’ then things went too far, everybody backed off and then witch hunting ramped up again.”

North Berwick from West Links, East Lothian. Credit: Keith Fergus/Alamy

These waves swept across Scotland in a series of witch trials that took place in the likes of the Lothians, Strathclyde and Fife in 1590-91, 1597, 1628-31, 1649-50 and 1661-62. According to the fascinating Survey of Scottish Witchcraft by the University of Edinburgh, it’s thought that in total, 3,837 people were officially accused of witchcraft and around 2,500 were executed, 84 per cent of whom were female, indicating misogyny was also at work.

As Dr Julian Goodare, leader of the survey and Professor of History, highlights in his article, Remembering Scottish Witches , “per head of population, Scotland’s execution rate was about five times the European average.”

The mid-16th century witnessed the watershed of the Scottish Reformation. It established the Scottish Presbyterian Kirk, a Protestant system that brought sweeping changes to society. Often likened to English Puritanism, Scottish Presbyterianism implemented strict regulations over the arts, architecture, education and morality, while it was vehemently against superstitious or frivolous activities.

Geillis Duncan and the other North Berwick Witches on trial before James VI. Credit: Chronicle/Alamy

“The Scottish state and church wanted Scotland to be a very Godly society and so were zealous in cracking down on ‘sin’ of all kinds,” says Yeoman, “and accused witches were one of many categories of ‘sinner’.” Following the creation of the Reformation Parliament in 1560, The Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 was passed, outlawing both the practice of witchcraft and the consulting of witches.

Into the mix, we have King James VI, who succeeded to the Scottish throne at just 13 months old, following the forced abdication of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. Baptised Catholic, but raised by regents as a Protestant, he ruled Scotland from 1567 and, after the death of Elizabeth I and the Union of the Crowns in 1603, England and Ireland as well. Among the controversies of his reign, one of his most enduring legacies was his fascination with witchcraft.

While belief in the existence of magic was common, James is remembered for his active involvement in the persecution of witches, something that, as a monarch, Goodare says, was “unusual but not unique.” Yeoman adds that for James, “it seems to have been about facing down what he saw as ‘un-Godly’ threats to his throne and dynasty and showing that he was the Lord’s anointed doing God’s work.”

Although not the worst of Scotland’s witch hunts, the North Berwick Witch Trials of 1590-91 were personal for James and marked an escalation. In 1590, the fleet carrying his bride-to-be, Anne of Denmark, across the North Sea had to turn back owing to a dangerous storm. James then set out to collect her and on their return voyage, hit another storm. This, he believed, was the work of spell-casting witches and invigorated his desire to expunge un-Godly threats to his rule while feeding public anxieties.

Woodcut showing James VI overseeing the torturing of witches at Edinburgh, from the 1591 edition of ‘Newes from Scotland’. Credit: Charles Walker Collection/Alamy

Enter Geillis Duncan – a name no doubt familiar to any Outlander fan. Duncan’s is a sad story of a young woman accused of witchcraft by her powerful employer who was convinced she had conspired to sink the royal fleet.

A somewhat sadistic pamphlet, Newes From Scotland, commissioned by James and printed in 1591 gives us a painfully clear idea of what Duncan endured. Her fingers were crushed using “pilliwinkes” or thumbscrews, described as “a grievous torture” and her neck was winched or twisted using a rope tied tightly around her head, “a most cruell [sic] torment”. She was stripped, shaved from top to toe, and thoroughly examined until it was declared that they had found the ‘Devil’s Mark’ on Duncan’s throat.

An extraordinary episode saw her and another accused, Agnes Sampson, interrogated – some suggest physically – by the King himself at Holyrood Palace. Forced to confess, Duncan claimed to have gathered with witches who’d concocted fanciful spells to bring about the storms. Although she retracted her confession, the damage was done; she was executed along with others falsely implicated.

What sets James apart is his determination to continue witch-hunting even when educated elites were beginning to question the validity of witchcraft. Of the 1597 witch hunt, Yeoman says James “goes too far. At the point where the most zealous ministers are backing off, James is still driving this hunt forward, even after terrible miscarriages of justice have been exposed.”

James was also quite the scribe, penning Daemonologie in 1597. His three-part treatise, said to have inspired elements of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, includes insights into necromancy, witchcraft and sorcery. While Goodare asserts that “the main thrust of the argument of his book was completely mainstream,” that Daemonologie was written by a ruling monarch must have added weight to its message. It confirmed that James not only believed in witchcraft but, referring to it as “high treason against God” gave hunts a royal seal of approval.

The North Berwick Witches fly round a church conjuring up storms, as confessed to James VI under interrogation. Credit: Chronicle/Alamy

When James arrived in England in 1603, he was surprised to find more sceptics and fewer judges willing to prosecute with scant evidence obtained by torture. He set about amending the law in England with The Witchcraft Act of 1604 that made hanging mandatory, but public appetite was not quite the same.

In the years following the Union of the Crowns, James inevitably focused on the bigger issues of state. “Later in his career [in England],” Yeoman explains, “he loses interest and even helps debunk some witch accusations.” Crucially, she concludes, “the biggest witch hunts come 60 to 70 years later,” after the Restoration of the Monarchy “under the government of Charles II in 1661-62.”

Scotland’s witch trials didn’t begin or end with James, but it could be said that cycles of witch panic were validated by the support of the monarch who openly stoked the embers. Goodare goes as far to say that when it comes to the impact James had on the scale of witch-hunting in Scotland, “his contribution seems, as far as I can tell, to have been pretty small but not completely negligible. He certainly was interested and thought it was important,” he continues, “[but] the intensity of the Scottish Reformation and the broader pressure for a Godly state” played a far greater role in the ferocity of Scotland’s witch hunts.

Regardless, through his active pursuit of witches, James VI will likely remain inextricably linked to the Scottish witch trials of the 16th century, which fills a forever a dark and uncomfortable chapter in Scotland’s story. 

Facts vs Myths

There’s a morbid curiosity surrounding the methods used to extract confessions from accused witches. In Scotland’s case, some tall tales have lingered, so we’re going to start with a bit of myth-busting.

  • Haunted by stories of the ducking stool as a child, I was surprised to learn that this, in fact, was largely fiction in relation to Scotland. So, it went that an accused witch was ‘ducked’ underwater to see if they drowned (innocent) or floated (guilty, then typically executed), thereby determining their inescapable fate, either way. This belief has long perpetuated, but Dr Goodare insists that “there are no documentary sources saying that witches were ducked in the North Loch of Edinburgh or anywhere else in Scotland – apart from a passing mention in 1597. The idea that the innocent drowned is a modern myth, originating in the 19th century.”
  • Another misconception is that all witches were burned alive at the stake. Although witchcraft was seen as a form of heresy, very few condemned witches were executed this way in Scotland. For the majority sentenced to death, they were garrotted – strangled with a cord or similar – before their dead bodies were then burned at the stake. Whether that’s an improvement or not is another matter.
  • The search for the ‘Devil’s Mark’ however, a branding bestowed upon anyone who’d made a pact with the Devil, was enacted in Scotland. It involved an invasive search of the body and ‘pricking’ – using pins to find a spot that was blemished or insensitive, sometimes carried out by specialist “witch-prickers”.
  • It appears that more nuanced forms of torture were frequently employed. As stated in The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, “The most common form was sleep deprivation,” which was “very effective […] because it leads to hallucination,” which inevitably gave the absurd evidence sought after. 

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