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The witches’ dance

The witches’ 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 political gain.

Philip Coppens



Edinburgh 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.

In 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 was tortured.
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.

Several 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 end.
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.

History 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.

So 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 at Kronborg.
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.

But 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.

Following 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.

Though 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 reasons.