gathering of Halloween 1590 in North Berwick was one of the most
infamous gatherings, especially because of the ensuing trials,
which sentenced many innocent people to their death, purely for
Castle Esplanade. The Witches’ Fountain was designed by
John Duncan for Sir Patrick Geddes in 1894 and erected in 1912,
created to commemorate the more than 300 witches that had been
tied at the stake, strangled and then burnt between 1492 and 1722
on Castlehill, the rocky outcrop that rises above Edinburgh’s
city centre. In all, it is thought that over 4500 “witches”
were burnt in Scotland.
North Berwick Harbour. Currently a haven for tourists and boats
bringing them to the Bass Rock, this once tidal peninsula formed
an important crossing for pilgrims to St Andrews. But on Halloween
of 1590, the remains of St Andrew’s Auld Kirk, now situated
in front of the Scottish Seabird Centre, provided the backdrop
for one of the most notorious witches’ covens.
short, the story of the witches’ gathering in North Berwick
is this: a group of East Lothian men and women, some of them well-respected
members of society, had been gathering at various locations in
the county. Many of them were interested in herbal medicine, most
of them likely gathered purely for social reasons. But after their
gathering in North Berwick, on Halloween 1590, they were accused
of conspiring to do damage to King James VI during his voyage
from Denmark with his new bride, Queen Anne. Indeed, their ship
was caught in a terrible tempest and although the royal couple
escaped, the storm was blamed on the group of witches that had
met in North Berwick.
The key figure in the tragedy was a maidservant from Tranent,
Gelie Duncan. She was employed in the house of a wealthy local
man, Chamberlain David Seaton. Duncan had an exceptional gift
for healing and comforting the sick. In an atmosphere of fear
and misgiving, it was not long before her skills aroused suspicion.
Some feared that she possessed supernatural powers. Religious
zealotry is nothing new and then, as now, some ascribed such powers
to the devil. Seaton therefore confronted her and as she could
give no satisfactory explanation for her methods of healing, she
Duncan stood accused of performing medical wonders with the help
of the devil. Seaton used thumbscrews, which were designed to
extract quick confessions. When Duncan kept her silence, Seaton
had her body examined for marks of the devil, whose signs were
identified on the front of her throat. Though a more likely scenario
was that Duncan might have had a boyfriend, and that their togetherness
left certain traces on her throat, it was instead concluded that
she was “bedevilled”.
Eventually, Duncan did confess and was thrown in prison. Her confession
showed to everyone that evil forces were indeed afoot in Scotland.
Duncan claimed that she was one of 200 witches, who at the behest
of the Earl of Bothwell, one of James’s greatest enemies,
had tried to overshadow the king. Some of their most extraordinary
plotting she said took place in North Berwick. On Halloween, October
31, in 1590, the witches had allegedly sailed to North Berwick
and gathered at the Kirk. Among those present were Agnes Sampson,
Agnes Thompson, Dr. Fian (who was actually John Cuningham and
was named the leader of the group), George Mott’s wife,
Robert Gfierson, Janet Blandilands, Ewphame Mecalrean, and Barbara
Naper. On a dark and stormy night, the devil appeared to them
in the church. Surrounded by black candles dripping with wax,
he preached a sermon from the pulpit. While in the churchyard,
Duncan herself played a Jew’s harp and the throng danced
wildly, singing all the while.
arrests now followed, each “witness” tortured and
then placed on trial. What sets the North Berwick witch trials
apart from many other such trials, is that the king took a personal
interest in these trials. On November 28, 1590, it was reported
that the king himself had questioned some of the witches. It was
said that his investigation had led to confessions and betrayal
of their “fellowes”, as well as their odious acts.
Trials were announced to be held in the near future.
On the surface, the logical answer might be that because the allegations
were directly to do with the king’s fate, he took a personal
interest, but in retrospect, it is clear that the king wanted
to copy social trends that he had witnessed on the continent,
and use witchcraft and these trials as a means to a political
The king had everyone that Gelie had named brought before him.
They were tried and many were convicted, some to death. Among
the latter were Agnes Sampson from Humbie and John Fian, a Prestonpans
schoolmaster. Euframe MacAlyane’s “real crimes”
were that she had asked a midwife to relieve the pains of labour,
but as analgesia were condemned, MacAlyane was put to death.
Agnes Sampson was taken to Holyrood Palace, where she was interrogated
and tortured. On December 7, Agnes Sampson confessed that on October
31, she was one of the witches that convened in North Berwick
for a Sabbath. In contemporary correspondence, it reads that “The
King ‘by his owne especiall travell’ has drawn Sampson,
the great witch, to confess her wicked doings, and to discover
sundry things touching his own life, and how the witches sought
to have his shirt or other linen for the execution of their charmes.
In this Lord Claud and other noblemen are evill spoken of. The
witches known number over thirty, and many others accused.”
And: “Their actes are filthy, lewde, and phantasticall.”
The guilty verdict was based partly on the fact that, “[She]
foreknew from Devil the queen would not come to this country unless
the king fetched her”.
Duncan herself was burnt as a witch on Castle Hill, and she is
therefore one of the 300 witches commemorated by the Witches’
Fountain. But the story of the North Berwick witches as it has
come to be known relies primarily on the testimony of the schoolmaster
of Prestonpans, who had been identified by all as the leader of
the group. Fian was found guilty of being “approached by
the devil (dressed in white) while in Thomas Trumbill’s
room in Tranent.” Allegedly, the devil persuaded him to
burn Trumbill’s house.
Fian’s confession read that the devil had first asked him
to deny God and all true religion, secondly to give his faith
to the devil and adore him, thirdly that he said to the devil
that he should persuade as many as he could to join his society,
fourthly that he dismembered the bodies of dead corpses and specially
unbaptised children, fifthly that he destroyed men by land and
sea with corn, cattle and goods, and raised tempest and stormy
weather as the Devil himself, blowing in the air, etc.
No doubt the most impressive act was that while he was lying in
his bed at Prestonpans, he let himself be carried to North Berwick
church, “where Satan commanded him to make homage with the
rest of his servants.” There, as attested by others, Satan
spoke from the pulpit. During this sermon, John Fian sat on the
left side of the pulpit, nearest to “the devil”. At
the end of the sermon, the devil descended and took Fian by the
hand and led him about and afterwards made him kiss his “ass”.
After coming out of the kirk, Fian stood amongst the graves and
allegedly opened three of them, while two dead bodies were dismembered
by the women.
Fian pleaded guilty for the bewitching and possessing of Williame
Hutsoune in Windiegoull “with an evil spirit”. The
evil spirit remained with Hutsoune for 26 weeks, but left as soon
as Fian was taken into custody. He confessed that the group went
to sea in a boat, accompanied by Satan, with the intent to raise
the winds when the king was on his way to Denmark. They also sent
a letter to Marioun Linkup in Leith, to that effect, bidding her
to meet him and the rest, on the sea, within five days. There,
Satan “delivered a cat” out of his hand to Robert
Griersoune, saying ‘Cast the same in the see hola!”
Finally, still according to Fian, upon the king’s return
from Denmark, Satan promised to raise a mist and wreck the king
in England; “he took “a thing like a football”,
which to Fian appeared to be a wisp, and cast it in the sea, upon
which a vapour and smell rose from it.
tells us that though there was indeed a storm, both king and queen
made it safely to Scottish soil. If it occurred, then it is clear
that the devil was no match for the Scottish king. But historians
dismiss the witchcraft at the Auld Kirk as a total myth: no devil
worship ever occurred here and some even go as far as to argue
that not even a meeting occurred there that Halloween, that the
story was tortured out of the poor servant girl Gelie Duncan.
They place the blame firmly with king James VI. As one specialist
on James VI has observed: “It is impossible to study the
details of this period without realising the extraordinary fear
which James had of his cousin [Francis Bothwell]; it was fear
with an underlying horror, totally different from his feeling
towards his other turbulent subjects.”
The problem of the North Berwick witch trials, however, is that
they were political expedient. And that innocent people were tortured
and killed for a political, kingly agenda. Walter Ferrier in his
history of North Berwick wrote: “King James VI had been
spending the summer of 1590 in Denmark, wooing and winning his
bride, Princess Anne of Denmark. […] While the king was
absent from Scotland, Francis Stuart, Earl of Bothwell, had been
leading a conspiracy against him and his bride. […] He had
always been something of an enfant terrible and was a convinced
believer in the witch’s art. Such as there is in the North
Berwick “happening” suggests that Francis was motivated
by a desire to get the King and his bride out of the way, believing
that he could by witchcraft raise a storm in the estuary of the
Forth, thus hopefully to wreck the king’s ship with both
its royal occupants as they sailed into home waters.” Though
I agree with Ferrier that there was a clear political rivalry,
there is no historical information that Bothwell was interested
in witchcraft or might have believed that he could raise a storm
fierce enough to crash the king’s ship.
who is right? When the trial transcripts and confessions are analysed,
it is clear that these people indeed had gathered on a number
of occasions that year, like one previous meeting that had been
held at Prestonpans. But it is also clear that they did not gather
to perform witchcraft. At most, these were the New Agers of their
time, people with an interest in herbal medicine, convening to
talk about interesting subjects, and like.
Into these gatherings, the trials injected Bothwell. It seems
unlikely that Bothwell actually attended, but if he did, it is
clear that on Halloween, he was not dressed up as the devil, prancing
around the cemetery! Indeed, after the hearings, in which he had
condemned all of these people to death, James VI next declared
that they were “all extreame lyars”, for he did not
get the material he wanted to hear, which was material that would
inculpate Bothwell. Bothwell denied any part in the affair and
without confessions, the king was powerless to act against Bothwell.
With the North Berwick witch trials, James VI copied behaviour
that he had learned abroad. The summer of 1590 had seen a great
witch hunt in Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, the home of
James VI’s wife. One of the first victims was Anna Koldings,
who under pressure divulged the names of five other women. One
of them was the wife of the mayor of Copenhagen. They all confessed
that they had been guilty of sorcery in raising storms, which
menaced Queen Anne’s voyage and that they had sent devils
to climb up the keel of her ship. In September, a month before
James VI left with his new wife, two women were burnt as witches
By the end of July 1590, news of the arrests of witches in Denmark
was reported in Scotland, and arrests were also held in Edinburgh.
“It is advertised from Denmark, that the admirall there
hathe caused five or six witches to be taken in Coupnahaven, upon
suspicion that by their witche craft they had staied the Queen
of Scottes voiage into Scotland, and sought to have staied likewise
the King’s retorne.”
The available evidence therefore strongly suggests that the king
had a predetermined agenda, in which there “had” to
be witches in Scotland, witches that were trying to bring him
and his new wife down.
there was more. The trials were also at the origins of a book
on witchcraft that James VI would publish in 1597, a book called
“Daemonologie”. Walter Ferrier has also wondered whether
there was a connection between the witch trial and James’
doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, about which the king also
wrote. Ferrier wonders whether James VI wanted to chart the “occult
powers” that were trying to get his throne. He even goes
as far as to suggest that perhaps James VI believed that all the
witches’ doings, all his enemies, could not get him from
his throne, that he therefore believed that he was favoured by
God, and as such was a Divine King, graced by god. In retrospect,
it is clear that James VI used lies to boost his own importance,
using the lives of innocent people to create the false impression
that the Devil himself was out to get him, and that somehow, not
even the Devil could oust him from his royal throne.
the North Berwick witch trials, the records of the Scottish courts
started to show increasing numbers of people being accused of
witchcraft. In 1597, Janet Stewart of Canongate and Christian
Livingston of Leith were accused of casting spells on Thomas Guthry.
They were sentenced to be executed on the Castle Hill. The Kirk
records of South Leith show many trials occurring in their parish.
This included the search for the devil’s mark on bodies
by a man from Musselburgh who had a reputation for finding these
marks. The usual trial was to find blue or red birthmarks and
to burn them with a hot iron or to insert a pin or needle. If
the victim felt no pain then they were declared a witch. Suspected
people were bled at between the eyes, which was supposed to make
a witch powerless. If found guilty, the victim was burned alive.
It is apparent that James VI had created a reign of terror, in
which anyone could suddenly be accused of being a devil worshipper,
based on no evidence whatsoever.
the North Berwick witch trials are primarily linked with James
VI, others have argued that the Reformation had given those who
practiced the old Celtic ways an impetus to gather more freely
than before, in the mistaken belief that there was now more religious
freedom. That turned out to be not the case. Before 1563, witchcraft
had been dealt with by the Church, but in 1563, the witchcraft
act was passed, and it is this act that would see its first full
use in 1590. And history has shown that such a perverse act, whether
used by the Church or by the king, will be abused.
King James VI wanted to be both a social example and a legislator.
Furthermore, the trials became a method in which the king could
dispose of his enemies and portray himself as a more important,
powerful figure than he actually was. He became depicted as the
“Man the devil had to the fear the most”. For this,
however, witches had to suffer, as they had to be portrayed as
being in alliance with the devil, against the king.
After their arrest, the “witches” were held in the
Tolbooth, on Edinburgh’s lower High Street, where they were
tortured and interrogated. At one point during his captivity,
John Fian escaped by stealing a key. When he was captured, he
was subjected to even more horrific torture. He was executed,
after having withdrawn his earlier confession. And is remembered
as one of 300 innocent people that were killed for purely political