There have been many notable witch trials over the centuries, with the Salem and Trier trials among the most well-known.
From the 1600s through to the late 1700s, communities across Europe lived in a state of heightened anxiety due to 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. Fuelled by religious zealotry, the fear of witchcraft led to the introduction of policies which sought to target and eliminate this lingering threat. 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 executed by drowning.
Lying just outside of Edinburgh, the now picturesque town of North Berwick was also the site of one of Scotland’s most infamous witch trials. One that saw dozens executed and high society implicated in a tale of dark deeds and demonic pacts.
Trouble on the High Seas
The early beginnings of the North Berwick witch trials began in 1589 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. The journey from Norway to Scotland is also said to have been far from ideal, with the king’s ship encountering more perilous weather.
In Denmark, this stormy weather was 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.
The North Berwick Witch Trials
James VI appears to have been convinced that the troubled return trip 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 some admitting to having ‘met with the Devil’ at St Andrew’s Auld Kirk in North Berwick, located in what is now part of the North Berwick harbour.
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.
In addition to locals, members of the nobility were also dragged into the affair. Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell was identified as a conspirator in the demonic pact by an accused sorcerer.
Bothwell was arrested on charges of high treason and imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle in April 1591. He later escaped from captivity and spent several years on the run while seeking to restore his reputation.
As the investigation raged on, Sampson, Fian and Gellie were all subjected to horrific torture before being burned at the stake. Methods and devices used during such interrogations included the ‘breast ripper’, which was 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. The exact number of witches executed as a result of the trials ranges from 70 to 200 people.
The incident also unfolded during a tumultuous social period for Scotland. Tensions were rising between Catholics and Protestants, so the additional dynamic of religious hatred likely exacerbated the situation.
In the years following, thousands more people across Scotland were arrested, tried and executed for crimes of witchcraft.
And 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 – and 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.