There were two types of individual accused of being witches. On one hand there were those who believed themselves to be a willing accomplice of evil and took steps to practice the dark arts and seek others who do so. On the other there were the poor souls who were singled out by others and were quite innocent of any misdeeds. They were tried the same and the jury didn’t always see the distinction.
In an age when medicine was entirely unscientific a person who practised healing by means of natural potions was in a very vulnerable position. Scotland is reputed to have upward of 600 healing wells, so the idea that magic could be used to cure was widespead and well established in everyday life. Unfortunately for the folk healers of the time, however many they cured and treated there was always the shadowy knowledge that magic of healing plants could be used for good or evil, they could kill as well as cure , and people knew this. Many were unashamed of being entirely two-faced in their use of the local healer, especially where churchmen were concerned. They were happy to be cured by magic while they thought they were dying, but once cured reverted to their ‘holy’ ways. An example can be sought at Byrehill in Ayrshire in the year 1588. A woman, ‘Alesoun Peirsoun’ was well known for her healing abilities, so much so that she was called to attend the Archbishop of St Andrews. She successfully treated him and he was cured, where upon he refused to pay her fee. Not only this, but he then proceeded to have her arrested and charged with witchcraft. Her trial note read “Convicta et Combusta”. As today, a number of the most commonly available plants were used in small doses to heal and in larger doses to harm – every flower a double edged sword. The population did have some natural defences of their own though. Blackthorn juice was used as an antidote to witches magic – not unreasonably even to modern eyes given that it is still associated with well-being and with suitable knowledge used as a natural remedy. To keep the witch at bay entirely folk sometimes planted Rowan trees by their gates. Rowan trees have a long history in world mythology, but were thought especially effective against witches due to the visible pentagram on the berries opposite the stalk and because of the vibrant show of red berries each autumn, thought to be a protective colour in many branches of magic. For this reason there are reports as late as the last century of people in Scotland being warned against removing Rowan trees from their gardens.
The exact number of witches accused in Scotland is almost impossible to tell exactly. We know from contemporary accounts naming or referring to specific persons, that there are something over 3,800. All of which date from the 16th to the 18th centuries. However, the concept of the ‘witch’ has earlier roots and how many men and women suspected of using magic or demonic will prior to the Witchcraft Act in 1563 will never be known. It is interesting to note that very often when times were at their hardest, during social or economic upheaval the witch-hunts peaked, almost as though the populous at large were keen to show their own godliness and moral worth by incriminating others.
It is a mistake though to think that all who were accused were executed. Many were ofcourse, but there were other outcomes. Some, after evidence, were acquitted. A case in 1589 states that ‘certain honest neighbours’ were brought together to declare whether a woman, Guddal, was a witch as one of her kin had stated. In this case four men were examined by the kirk-session and declared that “they never saw such thing of her whereby they might suspect her of witchcraft, but that she was an honest poor women.”
It is also an error to think that all who were sentenced to death were burnt alive, This is a very graphic image and as such often depicted as a most sensational fate and ultimate deterant to any misguided soul contemplating calling upon evil to achieve their goals. In reality only a few were still alive when the fires of hell licked at their feet. By far the most common method of despatch was strangulation, followed by the burning of the body at the stake. Where a witch was accused of other crimes, the more human crime of murder for instance, they could be beheaded or hanged the same as any ordinary criminal. In addition, and according to the type of court presiding, a witch could be banished or excommunicated. Some escaped and fled, but this was no easy was out either in a country where rural life was harsh and kin and communities were close.
Such was the growing paranoia that there was a number of ways a person could be identified and thus tried as being a witch. Aside from the Devil’s Mark, as already mentioned, having or indeed causing physical defect was also deemed incriminating. In times when genetics and science couldn’t teach that occasional random mutations took place in nature the only explanation was that there was someone to blame. Someone had actually done this and by means that a God-fearing community could not hope to understand. Indeed some of the deformations were so sensational it had to have been done with the help of a force beyond a mere human. In the reign of King Caratake “in Carrick was a child born perfect in all his limbs saving the head, which was like unto a raven’s” . This, however, was a very early example, and by the time of the main persecutions the defects could be far more subtle, but equally damning. At trial other forms of evidence were brought forward. The most useful for the prosecution was a confession, usually procured under torture – a valid form of interrogation. Not only did they hear what they wanted to hear, they very often got the names of other witches. If a confession was not secured there was always Neighbours Testimony. Curiously, these cases rarely included mention of the Devil, but rather the accused just being held to blame for some local misfortune. As already mentioned, other witches often provided the names to the authorities and this was considered quite damning evidence, especially if the original witch had indeed been condemned. The accused would then be subject to the same indignities and hopefully produce more names for consideration. Trials were not always swift. An accused witch could be thrown into gaol for a year or so before moving on to a more final fate. Such was the case for a witch named Elspeth McEwan, from the parish of Balmaclellan. Her story is told in another blog.
In the final part of this blog I'll cover some of the trials and and final days of the witch hunts....