As the panic of witchcraft swept over Northern Europe, witches in Scotland were not something to be feared. Scotland had its fair share of healers and herbalists. However, these people (who were also known as witches in Scotland) weren’t seen as evil beings working with the devil.
Many of them were sought out to help people alleviate their ailments or, in some cases, to keep superstitious sailors safe at sea. This all changed when King James IV went to Denmark in 1590.
When sailing to Scotland, Princess Anne of Denmark (destined to take the throne next to King James VI) ran into an intense storm that almost capsized her boat. The unruly weather forced her to retreat back to Denmark.
Not wanting to lose his queen-to-be, King James headed to Copenhagen to retrieve Anne so they could make the journey back to Scotland together.
However, on the way, his ship was also met by vicious storms. When he finally arrived at Kronborg Castle in Denmark, he was swallowed up by the witchcraft hysterics which were rife throughout the country.
Witches in Scotland – Witch Hysteria
The witch hysteria which consumed Europe was largely due to a single book written by Heinrich Kramer called The Malleus Maleficarum – The Witch Hammer. This became something of a guidebook for capturing and killing witches.
During King James’ stay at the castle, two women were arrested for witchcraft. After much interrogation, they ultimately confessed to being responsible for conjuring up the storms that Anne’s ships ran into. They claimed Satan told them what to do in order to murder her.
King James VI was terrified of suffering a violent death. He was convinced he was being tormented by witches.
Upon returning to Scotland, King James’ paranoia of witchcraft grew and with his increasing suspicions, he authorized the persecution and torture of all suspected witches as part of the Scottish witch trials, also known as the Great Scottish Witch Hunt.
Accusing Witches in Scotland
Those accused of being Scottish witches were generally healers, herbalists, midwives and poverty-stricken old women. People believed the witches of Scotland sank ships, injured and murdered innocent people, and brought famine and disease to Scotland.
Paranoia and superstition ran deep within Scotland, so much so that the Scots believed a woman’s body was at the height of vulnerability to bewitchment during childbirth. To avoid being bewitched, only the midwife and pregnant woman would be in the room during childbirth.
The midwife would tape up the windows and doors to keep the evil spirits out. Unfortunately, if the baby was stillborn or the mother had issues, the midwife would be accused of witchcraft.
History of Witchcraft and Witches in Scotland
Once James returned to Scotland, David Seaton (a deputy bailiff from a town near Edinburgh) started suspecting his housemaid, Geillis Duncan (also spelled Gillis Duncan), of witchcraft.
Thanks to the books and TV show Outlander, Geillis Duncan is now one of the most well-known witches in Scotland. Little do people know that the character in the books and show is actually based on one of the real witches in history. Want to read more books set in Scotland? Check out the post here.
Seaton claimed that Geillis would sneak out at night and suddenly obtain magical healing powers. This was enough proof of witchcraft for him, and he proceeded to torture her to extract a confession.
The persecution was brutal and included thumbscrew torture, called pilliwinks. This involved slowly tightening a screw-like instrument to gradually crush the victim’s thumbs. Geillis refused to confess, so she was also tormented by wrenching — crushing her head with a rope.
After all this torture, Seaton found a “devil’s mark” on Geillis’ skin. She finally broke, confessed to witchcraft, implicated several others and spent a year in The Old Tolbooth Prison before she was executed.
The Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563
Witchcraft became a capital offence in Scotland during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots when the Scottish parliament passed the Scottish Witchcraft Act in 1563. This meant that the Scots could legally hunt, torture and execute people as witches.
Witch Torture and Witch Tests
As torture to obtain confessions was legal in Scotland, the torture endured by those accused was barbaric. It didn’t end with the horrific witch torture Geillis Duncan endured mentioned above.
Other methods included shackling accused witches to cell walls and refusing to let them sleep for days. This sleep deprivation would cause the victim to hallucinate until they became hysterical.
Many torture implements were used, such as the scold’s bridle — essentially a muzzle to hold the tongue in place and prevent an accused witch from speaking. Other torture methods include removing fingernails and piercing their cheeks and tongues with four-pronged iron forks.
One of the most common witch tests in Scotland was known as witch pricking. 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.
The devil’s mark was thought to be branding issued by the devil to bind their deal as a commitment of servitude to Satan. If someone was discovered bearing the mark, it was considered a surefire sign they were 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 were largely considered devil’s marks.
Witches in Scotland were brutally punished. Records suggest nearly 4000 people were accused of witchcraft in the country, with 2/3 of those being executed.
Scottish Witch Confessions
Suspected witches in Scotland all confessed to witchcraft before facing the ultimate punishment of death. Why would any of these innocent people confess to something they weren’t responsible for?
Confessing whether or not they were guilty was the only way they could put an end to the suffering forced upon them on a daily basis. It’s also possible some suspects genuinely believed what they were being told was true, even though they thought they were innocent before the torture began.
Others likely gave false confessions to put an end to the horrendous torture those accused of being Scotland witches were made to endure.
Were Scottish Witches Burned at the Stake?
After people were accused and tortured, innocent witches were then sent to witch trials in Scotland. Unlike most criminal trials, the Scotland Witch Trials permitted the torture of suspected witches for as long as possible to extract a confession.
Accusors were even known to bring in children as character witnesses. Those accused of witchcraft were always found guilty and ordered to suffer one final punishment. Death.
Witches in Scotland were burned at the stake. And as brutal as this is, the executors had at least some sympathy and strangled the accused to death first.
The idea was that, even after death, the witches were still a threat, and their bodies could be possessed by the devil if they weren’t set aflame.
Accused witches were also executed by placing them in wooden barrels studded with nails before pushing the barrels down the cobbled road of the Royal Mile. Once the barrel stopped, it would be lit on fire, ensuring the witch inside was definitely dead.
Witch pools were also used. These were 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.
Witchcraft Act 1735 – Witches in Scotland
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
Mercat Tours have recently released a new tour all about the Witch Trials in Edinburgh. It is such a fantastic tour if you want to know more about Scottish witchcraft in Edinburgh as well as the truths behind the mystery and horror that is Edinburgh’s witch history.
Book here: Edinburgh: Witches. Trials & Truth Small Group Guided Tour
Calton Hill – Edinburgh
Calton Hill was one of the locations where witches were burned at the stake. One of the most high-profile innocent witches was Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis of Glamis Castle.
Evidence against her was found by torturing her servants, who confessed that their mistress was involved with witchcraft.
Janet was tortured, and on July 17th, 1537, she was burned at the stake on the north side of Calton Hill. She was executed even though she was of noble blood, therefore, proving no one was safe.
Despite its gruesome past, Calton Hill now hosts the annual Beltane Fire Festival and is also the location of Edinburgh’s Hallow’s Fair Festival in the 1800s.
Castle Hill – Edinburgh
With such a sordid past when it comes to witches, it’s easy to come across a site associated with Scottish witchcraft in Edinburgh. But Castle Hill stands out in particular for all the wrong reasons. The spot, next to Edinburgh Castle, is where more witches were burned at the stake than anywhere else in Scotland.
Today, the location is occupied by a pub and hotel called The Witchery by The Castle, which got its name from Edinburgh’s witchcraft history.
Most of the Witches in Scotland were burned on Castle Hill
Edinburgh witches were commemorated with the Witches’ Well, constructed in 1894.
The tiny memorial has a plaque attached to it that reads, “This Fountain, designed by John Duncan, is near the site on which many witches were burned at the stake. The wicked head and serene head signify that some used their exceptional knowledge for evil purposes while others were misunderstood and wished their kind nothing but good. The serpent has the dual significance of evil and of wisdom. The Foxglove spray further emphasizes the dual purpose of many common objects”.
Book here: The Witchery at the Castle
The Museum of Magic, Fortune-Telling & Witchcraft – Edinburgh
Just off the Royal Mile sits a small museum dedicated to witchcraft in Scotland. Explore the museum and see tons of artifacts tied to witches, including a mummified cat, a 19th-century African Cursed Doll and other items dating back to the 17th century.
The museum is relatively small but well worth the visit if you are into witch history in Scotland.
The Museum of Magic is located just off the Royal Mile in Chambers Close.
Find out more here: The Museum of Magic, Fortune-Telling & Witchcraft
Princes Street Gardens – Edinburgh
Once home to the vile sewage-filled Nor’ Loch, Princes Street Gardens is where witches were rumoured to endure dunking. The accused witch would have her toes and thumbs bound together before she was tied to a stool and dunked in the loch.
Some people say this kind of torture of witches in Edinburgh 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.
Witches Coven – Niddry Street Vaults – Edinburgh
If you take a ghost tour with Auld Reekie Tours in Edinburgh, you can step below the city streets and explore the Niddry Street Vaults. These vaults were once a breeding ground for criminals before one vault was transformed into a genuine witches’ temple used by Edinburgh Witches.
Although the Source Coven of the Blue Dragon no longer uses the vault today because of safety reasons, the vault is still intact, so you can see what it looked like when it was used by real witches.
I recommend taking a tour with Auld Reekie Tours when you are spending Halloween in Edinburgh. If you want to visit the vaults, I recommend checking out The 17 Best Edinburgh Underground Vaults Tours post.
Heart of the Midlothian – Edinburgh
Along the Royal Mile on the pavement next to St. Giles Cathedral and the Mercat Cross sits the Heart of Midlothian.
This heart marks the former entrance of Tolbooth Prison, where Edinburgh witches were held until their trials and executions. Geillis Duncan spent a whole year at Tolbooth Prison waiting to be executed for being a witch.
This part of Edinburgh also features another site associated with executions. If you walk up the Royal Mile towards David Hume’s statue and Deacon Brodies Pub, you’ll see golden bricks directly across the street from the Hume statue. These bricks mark the spot where people were hanged for witchcraft, amongst many other crimes.
Edinburgh Dungeons – Edinburgh
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.
Book here: Edinburgh Dungeons Ticket
St. Magnus Cathedral – 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 a 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.
You can also visit Gallows Ha’, a place of brutal executions that now features a stone memorial honouring the victims of the witch trials.
Book a tour of Orkney here: From John O’Groats: Orkney Islands Day Trip
St. Andrews Old Kirk – North Berwick
After King James VI returned from Denmark, he was met with incriminating stories of witches infiltrating Scotland.
Upon hearing this, he decided he had to kill the witches before they got him and became deeply involved in the initial trials, which led to the North Berwick Witch Trials.
The North Berwick Witch Hunt occurred after Agnes Sampson, a midwife from Edinburgh, confessed to witchcraft directly in front of James VI. She claimed her coven met in North Berwick, and they had summoned the storm to prevent Anne of Denmark from arriving in Scotland.
Why would Agnes confess to such a crime if she wasn’t guilty? The torture and torment of innocent men and women were so horrible that death was a welcome escape.
North Berwick, sometimes referred to as East Lothian, became the 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 the favourite place for witches to summon storms. Just outside the kirk, you’ll find witches’ cauldrons now used as decorative flower pots.
Gallows Green – Paisley
The Paisley Witch Trials (also known as the Bargarran Witch Trials) were the last witch trials in Western Europe. A total of 35 people were accused of witchcraft, and 7 people were executed in Paisley as a direct result of one girl named Christian Shaw.
Christian accused one of the Shaw family servants, Catherine Campbell, of stealing a glass of milk. According to the Christian, the servant cursed her and called for the devil to haul her soul through hell.
After coming into contact with Paisley resident Agnes Naismith (an elderly woman already rumoured to be a witch), Christian was seen having violent fits and pulling out her hair. Christian’s doctor couldn’t find anything physically wrong with her, so he concluded she was bewitched.
Before her death at Gallows Green, Agnes Naismith cursed the crowd, and whenever tragedy hit the area, the town blamed the witch’s curse.
Visit the site of the Paisley executions and the Paisley Witch Memorial at Gallows Green. You’ll find the memorial where the remains were buried at a crossroad junction at Maxwellton Street and George Street. The memorial is a cement and bronze circle (almost like a manhole) with a horseshoe placed on top.
Kirk of St. Nicholas – Aberdeenshire
A place where witch hunts were particularly gruesome, the 15th-century Kirk of St. Nicholas was a prison for accused Scottish witches.
Archaeologists excavated the east kirk of the church in 2006-2007 and discovered the remains of over 2000 people.
Many of these people were buried during the Great Scottish Witch Hunt. St. Mary’s Chapel in Aberdeenshire was 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.
Auldearn Witches – Isobel Gowdie
Auldearn, the tiny village between Inverness and Aberdeen, is home to one of Scotland’s most famous witches, Isobel Gowdie. Rumour says that Isobel admitted to witchcraft without being tortured.
Isobel, with a vivid imagination, recalled the Scottish folklore-like tales of her meetings with the devil, her coven flying around Auldearn on flying horses, shapeshifting into animals and meeting with the royal family of fairies.
Did witches in Scotland sometimes appear as fairies?
Isobel’s imaginative stories of witchcraft, her coven and fairies inspired musicians, poets and writers to create magically artistic works. You can listen to the song “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie” by James McMillan to get a feel of how she influenced so many artists.
The kirkyard in Auldearn is the alleged meeting place of Isobel and the devil. Auldearn was also the location of the 1645 Battle of Auldearn, where a fight between the Scottish Covenanter army and the English Parliament took place.
Brahan Seer Monument – Chanonry Point – Fortrose
Brahan Seer (also known as Kenneth Mackenzie or Coinneach Odhar — the Scottish version of Nostradamus) was cursed with the gift of sight. He was known for predicting many of Scotland’s tragedies, including the Battle of Culloden.
History says that Brahan was accused of witchcraft. However, there are no historical records to confirm he was tortured or executed. There isn’t even any real proof that he ever existed. But the stories of his prophecies have become ingrained in Scottish legend and folklore.
Today, you can visit his monument on Chanonry Point, overlooking the Moray Firth, where people go to view dolphins.
Bo’ness – Falkirk
Around 200m southwest 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 Cathedral – St. Andrews
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 in an area now known as Witch Lake.
If the women drowned, they were innocent. If they survived, they were carried up to Witch Hill and burned at the stake.
Fife was the site of famous Scottish witches Margaret Aitkin, The Great Witch of Balwearie, Lilias Adie and The Pittenweem Witches.
Soon their memories will be honoured in the Kingdom of Fife with The Beamer Beacon – a 200-year-old lighthouse soon to be rebuilt at Torryburn as a memorial to the innocent lives lost during the witch trials.
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.
Daemonologie (Demonology) – The Book about Witchcraft by King James
In addition to the original book of witchcraft, The Malleus Maleficarum – The Witch Hammer by Heinrich Kramer, King James also wrote a book about witchcraft called Daemonologie.
The primary idea behind the book was to ensure people believed that witchcraft was real. But it was also designed to make sure suspected witches in Scotland were properly examined so as to avoid convicting innocent people based on superstition alone.
However, most people misunderstood the book and used it as a guide for torturing and executing witches throughout Scotland instead.
Throughout history, several other books were written about witches in Scotland and The Great Scottish Witch Hunt. Check out my recommendations below for further reading.
Dark Tourism and Witches in Scotland
The torment and torture of witches in Scotland fall under the realm of dark tourism. Dark tourist sites exist around the world to help educate people about the atrocities that occurred in the world.
These things did happen in the past, and as horrible as they may be, we must learn from them. We must never forget about the innocent lives lost. The witch memorials located around Scotland commemorate and honour the memory of the people affected by a different time.
Modern Witchcraft Celebrations in Scotland
Beltane Fire Festival – Edinburgh
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 a 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 symbolize casting out darkness and embracing the light. In continuance, the start of summer is celebrated by lighting a huge bonfire.
Witches in Scotland – 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. These sites are visited by people from all over the world. How times have changed!
Descendants of Witches in Scotland
Do you have Scottish ancestry or want to find relatives that were associated with witchcraft in Scotland?
The University of Edinburgh recently released this incredible witch database that shows the names of witches, where witch executions took place and forms of torture. Check it out for more information! It is an incredible source of information for those looking for their Scottish witch ancestors.
Another source for finding out about your ancestors in Scotland is the Wellcome Library. All of the witches’ names from the 1600s were recently released to the Wellcome Library, which is working with Ancestry.co.uk to help families interested in tracing back their ancestry to the time of the Great Scottish Witch Hunt.
Check out the Everything is Spooky in the Dark Podcast Episode – Witches in Scotland
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More Information about Dark Travels and Dark History in Scotland
- The Ultimate List of Spooky and Haunted Things to Do in Edinburgh
- Ghosts of St. Andrews Scotland
- Top 10 Seriously Spooky Things to Do in Scotland
- Historic Edinburgh Cemeteries to Explore
- Things to do in Edinburgh: Surgeons’ Hall Museum