Scottish History

The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft

introduction to scottish witchcraft  

Q. How many witches were there in Scotland?
A. We have identified a total number of 3,837 people who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland. 3,212 of these are named and there are a further 625 unnamed people or groups included in our database. This is not a complete figure (see How complete is the database?), but it is probably fairly accurate.

Older accounts of the subject tended to produce much higher figures, such as 4,500 or 30,000. Sometimes these figures are still repeated, but they are based on speculation rather than detailed research. Usually they are given as figures for executions, making them even more misleading. Similarly, a figure of 9 million witches executed in Europe is sometimes given, when most scholars agree that it was about 60,000. These exaggerations are unfortunate. We think that 3,837 people accused of witchcraft is a lot.

Q. How complete is the database?
A. It is as complete as we could make it, but there are unavoidable gaps. A good deal of evidence is missing, and what survives is sometimes hard to find. We have 3,212 names of people accused of witchcraft. There are also 625 records for unnamed people or groups of unnamed people, making a total of 3,837 cases (including some groups of unknown size). This is probably most of the cases, but it is unlikely to be all of them.

There is also the question of how much information survives on each case. For most cases, we know that the accused witch existed, but not much more. In particular, we do not know whether these witches were executed (see How many witches were executed?). In most cases we have a record that a trial was authorised, but we do not know for certain whether the trial took place or what its outcome was. The number of those executed was probably much higher than those for whom we have definite records of their execution.

On the other hand, there are some very detailed cases which provide a great deal of information. There is information about the accused witches themselves, about their families and neighbours, about their working lives, and about the beliefs and practices that led to accusations of witchcraft. Early modern society's belief system encompassed ideas about religion and the supernatural, including the Devil, fairies and other spirits. It was used to explain misfortune and also as a means to rectify adversity. To find out about this, we don't need to have surviving evidence on every single case; we just need enough evidence to be able to see what was typical. The information that we have recorded will enable you to search the material for your own purposes and to build a more detailed picture of life in early modern Scotland.

Q. How many witches were executed?
A. It's hard to tell, but certainly not all. Of the 3,212 named individuals, we know the sentence of a trial in only 305 cases. 205 of these were to be executed, 52 were acquitted, 27 were banished, 11 were declared fugitive, 6 were excommunicated, 2 were put to the horn (outlawed), 1 person was to be kept in prison and 1 person was to be publicly humiliated. In addition, a further 98 were recorded as having fled from prosecution. This seems to suggest that 67%, two-thirds, were executed.

But this figure is probably not very accurate. It is based on only 305 cases—less than a tenth of the 3,212 people known to have been accused. The question is whether the 305 cases were typical, and in two ways they were not. Firstly, most of them come from trials in the central justiciary court (see What courts were involved?). This probably acquitted a higher proportion of witches than local courts—and most trials were in local courts. Secondly, however, our 3,212 people include a number whom we found being investigated by the church authorities. Probably some of these went on to receive a criminal trial, and may then have been executed; but others' cases were probably dropped before they came to trial. The first of the problems would suggest that the overall execution rate was higher than 67%; the second problem would suggest that it was lower. That does not mean that the figure of 67% is correct; it means that there is a good deal of uncertainty about it.

Q. How many were women?
A. Most, but not all: 84% were women and 15% men. The sex is not known for 1% of those accused.

Q. Were they old?
A. Based on the age of the accused that we were able to record:

7% were aged under 20
8% were between 20 and 30
22% were between 30 and 40
22% were between 40 and 50
31% were between 50 and 60
7% were between 60 and 70
4% were over 70.

Thus about half were over 40 when accused, at a time when life expectancies were considerably lower than they are today. The age of the majority of people accused is not known.

It should also be remembered that many 'witches' were defined as witches by their neighbours, through a process of gossip and quarrelling. Witches were believed to be malicious and vengeful. If someone suffered a misfortune after a quarrel, they might conclude that the other person had bewitched them in revenge. In trials involving neighbours' testimony, the accused witch is often seen to have lived with their reputation for a long time—twenty or even forty years. These witches were old when they were tried, but they were younger when they first acquired their reputation.

Q. Were they widowed?
A. It's hard to say. Of those women whose marital status was recorded the majority were married—78%. Those who were recorded as widowed accounted for 19%. But marital status is unknown for the great majority of those accused. The problem is that a married woman would be more likely to have her status recorded, because she had a husband with an interest in his wife's trial. An unmarried woman or widow did not need to have her marital status mentioned. So these figures are probably untypical, and at present we don't know how untypical.

Q. Where did they come from?
A. 32% of named accused witches came from the Lothians. Strathclyde and the west produced 14%, and 12% were from Fife, 9% from the Borders, Grampian including Aberdeen produced 7%, Tayside and the Highlands and Islands produced 6% each, 5% were from Caithness, Orkney and Shetland, and 2% from Central region. The remainder came from unknown locations. The population of early modern Scotland was more evenly distributed than it is today, so the preponderance of witches in Scotland's central belt is really striking. The top county for witch-hunting was Haddingtonshire (East Lothian).

Q. When were the prosecutions?
A. The Witchcraft Act was in force between 1563 and 1736. Between these years there were five episodes that stand out as periods of high level accusation and prosecution of witches: 1590-1, 1597, 1628-30, 1649 and 1661-2. These episodes of high level accusation were not national but were the result of a number of local or regional activities, particularly the Lothians. Prosecution in other parts of Scotland was more varied and many areas follow a very different chronological pattern to that of the Lothians.

Q. Were the witches midwives or healers?
A. Not usually. We have recorded 9 individuals whose occupation was recorded as being a midwife, and for 10 people midwifery practices were included as part of the accusations of witchcraft levelled against them. This is a tiny percentage of the overall total. Folk healing was more common and featured in the witchcraft accusations of 141 people—about 4%. Even so, it was not something that the typical witch seems to have engaged in—though the beliefs that underpinned folk healing were closely related to witchcraft beliefs. If magic could be used to heal, it could also be used to harm.

Q. Were they poor?
A. No, at least not by contemporary standards. It is difficult to classify early modern people into socio-economic categories, but of those individuals whose status was indicated the majority fell into the middle range—64%. The total of those who came from lower socio-economic categories—lower, very poor and landless—accounted for 29%, with upper, lairds and nobility accounting for 6%. We do not know this information for the majority of those accused, but these figures may be typical.

Q. How does Scotland compare to England and the rest of Europe?
A. Comparisons are interesting but at the same time can tell us relatively little. They are also influenced by which part of Europe is used as a comparison. A gender division of 85% women and 15% men is seen in most other parts of Europe, but in areas like Estonia, Russia and Finland the percentage of men accused is as high and in some areas higher than of women. In Iceland the percentage of men executed was as high as 90%. It is possible therefore to say that Scotland is quite similar to the rest of mainland Europe, but France and many parts of Germany, where many of the European witch trials occurred, were politically, religiously and culturally quite different from Scotland. The Scandinavian comparison should not be ignored even if it demonstrates very different patterns.

Q. Were the witches tortured?
A. Yes. Torture was used to exact confessions—though we don't know how often, as the records that survive in most cases aren't the kinds that mention it. In theory, torture was only to be used with the permission of the state; however in reality it would seem that torture was frequently used without any official permission. It was not until after the 1661-2 period of high level witch accusations that the privy council issued a declaration that torture was only to be used with its permission. Despite this, torture continued to be used in many cases, even as late as 1704.

Q. What kinds of torture were used?
A. The most common form was sleep deprivation—a very effective way of obtaining confessions, because it leads to hallucination. Before 1662 this was rarely regarded officially as torture at all. It was usually done by local authorities—burgh bailies, or elders of the kirk session—in order to get the evidence that they needed before they went to the privy council to obtain a commission to hold a criminal trial.

Occasionally, physical tortures were used—particularly in the 'North Berwick' witchcraft panic of 1590-1, where the witches were accused of treason against King James VI. The pamphlet Newes from Scotland (1591), from which our illustration comes, describes these tortures with relish. But they were unusual.

Q. What about the swimming test?
A. This was hardly ever used in Scotland, though it was in some other countries. It's often said that witches were detected by dropping them in water. If they floated they were guilty; if they sank they were innocent—but they drowned. This is a misunderstanding, since ropes were tied to them to pull them out of the water. In Scotland the swimming test was used for an unknown number of suspects in 1597, but it seems to have been discredited on that occasion, and we have found no evidence that it was ever used again.

Q. What evidence was used in the trials?
A. Four main types were used.

  1. Confession evidence, often extracted under torture. Typically if a suspect was interrogated they would be expected to confess to making a pact with the Devil and to harming their neighbours by maleficent witchcraft, though one or other of these was often omitted.
  2. Neighbours' testimony. Statements by neighbours usually ignored the Devil. They usually described quarrels with the suspect followed by misfortune they had suffered.
  3. Other witches' testimony. When witches were interrogated they were sometimes asked about their accomplices. The people they named could then be arrested and interrogated. This was an effective way of increasing the numbers of suspects; it seems mainly to have happened during short periods of intense witch-hunting.
  4. The Devil's mark. The Devil was believed to mark his followers at the time when they made a pact with him, as a parody of Christian baptism. A physical search of the suspect's body could find this mark—either a visible bodily blemish or an insensitive spot. The insensitive spot was discovered by pricking with pins, sometimes by the interrogators themselves and sometimes by itinerant professional witch-prickers (of whom about 10 are known to have acted in Scotland).

Q. Was it a rapid process from accusation to execution?
A. Not necessarily. The length of time between initial accusation, or denunciation, to trial and possible execution was not set and could vary greatly. Some individuals appear to have had a long reputation before they were investigated or may have been in trouble with the church authorities a number of times before they were investigated for witchcraft. In some cases there may have been some investigation decades before the official date of prosecution. On the other hand some cases appear to have been processed very quickly. There were also numerous acquittals, as well as other occasional outcomes—escape from prison, or death in prison either from natural causes or from suicide.

Q. What courts were involved?
A. Several types of court, often with their own specialised roles. More than one could be involved in the same case at different stages.

  1. Local church courts (kirk sessions and presbyteries). These were often the bodies to which people complained about witchcraft; they interrogated suspects and gathered evidence from neighbours. But they had no criminal jurisdiction; they couldn't execute witches. So they had to pass the case on to one of the following:
  2. Privy council, committee of estates or parliament. These were central bodies that didn't hold trials themselves, but they did issue commissions (known as 'commissions of justiciary') authorising people to hold trials. See no. 6 below.
  3. Court of justiciary. The highest criminal court, held usually in Edinburgh. Tried numerous witches.
  4. Circuit courts. Travelling versions of the court of justiciary that occasionally visited the localities. Often tried witches when they were held.
  5. Regular local courts (sheriff courts, burgh courts). Witchcraft was a serious crime, normally beyond their jurisdiction.
  6. Local criminal courts held under commissions of justiciary (issued by the bodies listed in 2 above). These were usually ad hoc courts convened to try just one person for one crime. Most Scottish witches were tried in such courts. Few of their records survive, though we do usually have a record of the issue of a commission.

Q. How were witches executed?
A. Those convicted were almost always strangled at the stake and then their dead body was burned. We have records of 141 sentences specifying an execution method; 120 were for strangling and burning. Of the 17 sentenced simply to burning, many may have been strangled first—though a very small number are known to have been burned alive. In the sentences of beheading (3) and hanging (1), crimes other than witchcraft were also involved.

Q. Who profited financially from witch-hunting?
A. Hardly anyone. Witches' goods were often confiscated by the courts, but most witches were too poor for this to be lucrative; only rarely would it cover the cost of pre-trial imprisonment, obtaining a trial commission, holding a court and organising an execution. Attempts to organise the prosecution of richer suspects were sometimes mounted, but these usually failed. The main people to benefit financially from witch-hunting were low-level official servants—jailers and executioners—plus a few witch-prickers. By contrast, most of the people involved in witch-hunting gave up time and money to do it. They did so because they believed in what they were doing. Witches were hated and feared, and it was important to eliminate them.

Q. Did witches meet in groups of thirteen?
A. No. There are some cases where people described meeting in groups and indulging in communal rituals. However, the numbers involved varied greatly: from 2 to over 100, and in one case 2,400. Moreover, most of these meetings were probably invented by suspects under heavy pressure to confess. The stereotype coven of 13 is a modern invention. The idea derives largely from the confession of a Scottish witch, Isobel Gowdie, but there are so many fantastic elements in this confession that it cannot be taken as a literal account of what she had done.

Q. Did they worship the Devil?
A. No, but they were thought to do so. Descriptions of meeting the Devil and entering a relationship or pact with him feature in the majority of our records that have detailed information. This relationship with the Devil was crucial to the church and the law in proving someone was guilty of witchcraft. 90% of those whose records show demonic features were women. Many people were tortured into confessing to Devil-worship. We have not seen any evidence of an organised witchcraft cult.

Q. Did they have drug-induced hallucinations?
A. No. Television has recently popularised the dubious idea that the symptoms of demonic possession were really ergotism—a disease caused by eating rye contaminated by the ergot fungus. Those afflicted accused others of 'bewitching' them, thus causing witch hunts. The theory of ergotism was originally developed to explain the witchcraft panic of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts; it has largely been discredited there, and has had little success anywhere else. There is certainly no evidence for it in Scotland, where very little rye was eaten.

Q. What did witches look like?
A. Some contemporary Continental woodcuts show so-called witches with strange or grotesque appearances, but in reality there is little evidence for what those accused of witchcraft looked like or wore. Probably they were much the same as everyone else. Our illustration shows witches wearing the normal dress of the period.

Q. Did they fly on broomsticks and own cats?
A. There are a few descriptions of accused witches shape shifting, mostly as animals or some form of apparition, and sometimes they were said to have flown. However, in Scotland they did not claim to use broomsticks—this is a Continental idea.

Familiars—particularly in the form of cats—are another feature commonly associated with witches today. However, at the time, familiars were mainly found in England. There are only 9 cases where we have identified what could categorically be defined as a familiar, so this does not seem to have been an important aspect of Scottish witchcraft.

Q. How did witch-hunting come to an end?
A. The lawyers in charge of the central courts gradually became less convinced that the usual kinds of evidence could prove guilt. The validity of confessions made under torture was questioned, and pricking for the Devil's mark came to be seen as fraudulent. During some of the major panics, notably in 1661-2, there were miscarriages of justice which led to tightening up of procedures. After the Glorious Revolution of 1689 the state became more secular and no longer needed to prove its godliness by executing witches. A trickle of local prosecutions continued—the last was in 1727. The Scottish Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1736 when the British Parliament decided to repeal the parallel English act. The 1736 Act abolished the crime of witchcraft and replaced it by a new crime of 'pretended witchcraft' with a maximum penalty of one year's imprisonment.

Q. This is fascinating, where can I find out more?
A. This 'Introduction' has given some idea of the kind of information you can find within the database; check it out for yourself. But the database won't tell you everything, and this project isn't in a position to answer enquiries. At this point, you probably need to read a book. The Internet is full of poor-quality and downright misleading information on witchcraft, whereas there are some really good books. For these, see our Further Reading section. We do have some Links to other websites, but most of these tell you about books.

Survey of Scottish Witchcraft,
Scottish History, School of History and Classics,
The University of Edinburgh,
17 Buccleuch Place,
Edinburgh, EH8 9LN

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