There have been many notable witch trials over the centuries, with the Salem Witch Trials and Trier Trials among the most well-known.
From the 1600s through to the late 1700s, communities across Europe lived in a state of vigilance over the perceived threat of witchcraft and all manner of dark deeds. Suspicion of one’s neighbour would have been common and thousands of people – predominately women – across the continent were tried and condemned to death for crimes we today would deem absurd.
In Scotland, the situation was no different. The fear of witchcraft was fuelled by religious fervour and policies introduced by government. The nation’s capital, Edinburgh, was the site of many witch trials and executions. The Nor Loch, now home to Princes Street Gardens, was a well-known spot where witches were both tried and executed – mostly by drowning.
Lying just outside of Edinburgh, the now picturesque town of North Berwick was the site of one of Scotland’s most infamous witch trials. By modern standards, one could consider the North Berwick witch trials to be an absolute scandal.
Trouble on the High Seas
The early beginnings of the North Berwick witch trials began when King James VI of Scotland sailed to Denmark to wed Princess Anne, sister of the Danish king, Christian IV.
While returning from Denmark, the king’s fleet encountered terrible weather and was forced to take shelter in Norwegian waters before embarking across the North Sea. Indeed, the journey back to Scotland is said to have been far from ideal as well.
In Denmark, the stormy weather is said to have been blamed on the wife of a Danish political official at the time, and trials were held in the Scandinavian kingdom to root out any potential evil-doers.
Among the first victims of this campaign was Anna Koldings, who is said to have exposed several other witches. All are believed to have confessed, likely under torture, to crimes of sorcery. In particular, they confessed to raising the storm that threatened James VI and Princess Anne’s vessels. Two of the accused witches were burned at the stake in Kronborg.
North Berwick Witch Trials
James VI appears to have been convinced that the troubled journey back from Denmark was due to witches at home in Scotland. Wild claims circulated at the time that one North Berwick-based witch even sailed into the Firth of Forth to summon the perilous storms.
Upon his return to Scotland, James established his own tribunal dedicated to investigating the threat of witchcraft. Arrests were made swiftly and before long several dozen suspected witches in North Berwick and the surrounding area were detained.
In fact, most of the accused in this affair were from villages dotted across East Lothian, including Tranent, Prestonpans and Haddington. Of these, many confessed under extreme duress and torture, with many admitting to having ‘met with the Devil’ at St Andrew’s Auld Kirk in North Berwick.
Notable accused persons during James’ witch hunt included Agnes Sampson, a well-liked and respected woman from the village of Humbie, Dr John Fian, a schoolmaster and alleged sorcerer from Prestonpans and Gellie Duncan, a renowned healer.
Sampson, Fian and Gellie were all subjected to horrific torture before being burned at the stake.
Torture methods employed during the investigation are particularly brutal. With devices including the ‘breast ripper’ used on a number of accused women.
Similarly, a device known as a ‘Scold’s Bridle’ was also used to prevent Sampson from speaking.
This was a crude iron device which forced four sharp prongs into the victims mouth. Two of these would press on the victim’s tongue while the other two pressed against the person’s cheeks.
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The North Berwick witch trials marked a significant moment in Scottish history as it was the first trial for witchcraft under criminal law. They also came during a tumultuous social period for Scotland. Tensions between Catholics and Protestants were rising, so the additional dynamic of religious hatred merely fuelled suspicions.
In the years following, thousands more people across Scotland were arrested, tried and executed for crimes of witchcraft.
While exact figures are unknown, it is estimated that more than 4,000 people were burned alive from the mid-16th to early 18th century. Women accounted for the vast majority of those arrested and executed.
James’ hatred for witches continued long into his reign. Shortly after he succeeded Elizabeth I as King of England, he published the highly-popular book, Daemonologie, which examined witchcraft, wizardry and a host of dark arts.
The North Berwick witch trials also acted as inspiration for William Shakespeare. The famed English playwright adapted aspects of the trials – including some of the rituals to which the accused confessed – in Macbeth.