Scottish History

The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft

further reading  
  1. Secondary works

    The standard book on the Scottish witch-hunt is Christina Larner, Enemies of God: the Witch-Hunt in Scotland (1981), which has been widely acclaimed and has influenced studies of witch-hunting all over Europe. It is complemented by a posthumously-published collection of essays: Christina Larner, Witchcraft and Religion (1984). For a more general collection of reprinted essays, see Brian P. Levack (ed.), Witchcraft in Scotland (1992). This book unfortunately includes several outdated works; relevant essays in it are noted individually below.

    Three books have recently appeared on aspects of Scottish witchcraft. Julian Goodare (ed.), The Scottish Witch-Hunt in Context (2002), contains eleven studies covering various aspects of the witch-hunt as a whole. Peter G. Maxwell-Stuart, Satan's Conspiracy: Magic and Witchcraft in Sixteenth-Century Scotland (2001), approaches the earliest trials with the unconventional assumption that witches were magical practitioners capable of engaging in genuinely maleficent conspiracy. Stuart Macdonald, The Witches of Fife: Witch-Hunting in a Scottish Shire, 1560-1710 (2002), is a regional study of witch-hunting that complements Larner's work and argues for the importance of church ministers and kirk sessions in orchestrating prosecutions. These are the only scholarly books dealing entirely with Scottish witchcraft, but some of the most important work on the subject has appeared in scholarly journals. There is also material in books dealing with related subjects.

    On the question of why women were targeted, and on women's experience of witch-hunting, see Julian Goodare, 'Women and the witch-hunt in Scotland', Social History, 23 (1998), and Lauren Martin, 'Witchcraft and family: what can witchcraft documents tell us about early modern Scottish family life?' Scottish Tradition, 27 (2002). Hugh V. McLachlan and J.K. Swales, 'Witchcraft and anti-feminism', Scottish Journal of Sociology, 4 (1980), is mainly about Scotland and contains some statistical tables.

    Witchcraft trials were criminal trials, and to understand them we need to understand criminal procedure. The best introduction is J. Irvine Smith, 'Criminal procedure', in Lord Normand (ed.), An Introduction to Scottish Legal History (Stair Society, 1958), especially pp. 437-43. Other chapters in this book may well be useful. There is more detail on one important aspect in Ian D. Willock, The Origins and Development of the Jury in Scotland (Stair Society, 1966), part 4. David M. Walker, A Legal History of Scotland, vol. iii: the Sixteenth Century (1995), ch. 13, and vol. iv: the Seventeenth Century (1996), ch. 14, are moderately useful. More focused on the justiciary court are the editors' introductions to the first two volumes of Stair A. Gillon and J. Irvine Smith (eds.), Selected Justiciary Cases, 1624-1650, 3 vols. (Stair Society, 1954-74). A corrective to the much-repeated idea that witch-hunting in the 1590s involved 'standing commissions' or a 'general commission' is offered by Julian Goodare, 'The framework for Scottish witch-hunting in the 1590s', Scottish Historical Review, 81 (2002).

    One of the processes of witch-hunting has been the subject of two articles: W.N. Neill, 'The professional pricker and his test for witchcraft', Scottish Historical Review, 19 (1922; reprinted in Levack 1992), and S.W. MacDonald, 'The Devil's mark and the witch-prickers of Scotland', Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 90 (1997), which focuses on the physiological aspect. See also S.W. McDonald, 'The witch doctors of Scotland', Scottish Medical Journal, 43 (1998).

    The relationship of witch-hunting to the wider moral discipline of the Scottish Reformation is a vital topic. There are many works on the Reformation; the two main ones to deal with kirk session discipline are Michael F. Graham, The Uses of Reform: 'Godly Discipline' and Popular Behavior in Scotland and Beyond, 1560-1610 (1996), including a chapter on 'social issues' including witchcraft, and Margo Todd, The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland (2002). John G. Harrison, 'Women and the branks in Stirling, c.1600 to c.1730', Scottish Economic and Social History, 18 (1998), notes that the social profile of women punished for 'scolding' (quarrelling) was similar to that of women witches (the 'branks' was the iron bridle used to punish scolds). Rosalind Mitchison and Leah Leneman, Sexuality and Social Control: Scotland, 1660-1780 (1989), discusses kirk sessions' main business—the punishment of extra-marital sex—and complements Graham and Todd by dealing with a later period. See also Leah Leneman and Rosalind Mitchison, 'Acquiescence in and defiance of church discipline in early modern Scotland', Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 25 (1993-5). Mitchison and Leneman posit a sharp distinction between church and state authority—an important point, since witch-hunting involved both. That church and state were a more unified whole is argued by Julian Goodare, State and Society in Early Modern Scotland (1999), ch. 8. Secular authorities' reliance on the church courts is a theme of Lesley M. Smith, 'Sackcloth for the sinner or punishment for the crime? Church and secular courts in Cromwellian Scotland', in John Dwyer, Roger A. Mason and Alexander Murdoch (eds.), New Perspectives on the Politics and Culture of Early Modern Scotland (n.d. [1982]). All these works agree that the kirk session was a powerful disciplinary institution.

    Moral discipline was a public matter, but was validated by people's internal religious experiences. A pioneering study of how Calvinist religion related to witch-belief and to demonic possession is Louise A. Yeoman, 'The Devil as doctor: witchcraft, Wodrow, and the wider world', Scottish Archives, 1 (1995). It argues that committed believers underwent a conversion process involving 'terrors' and intimate acquaintance with the Devil, and that if the process went wrong the results could be catastrophic. Yeoman takes a partly psychological approach, and a more explicitly psychiatric diagnosis of a famous case from 1697 is offered by S.W. McDonald, A. Thom and A. Thom, 'The Bargarran witch trial: a psychiatric reassessment', Scottish Medical Journal, 41 (1996).

    Intellectual ideas about witchcraft between about 1560 and 1600 are involved in a dense pioneering study by Arthur H. Williamson, Scottish National Consciousness in the Age of James VI (1979), ch. 2, 'The failure of Antichrist and the emergence of Satan'. That demonologists a century later had forgotten nothing and learned nothing is argued by Christina Larner, 'Two late Scottish witchcraft tracts', in Sydney Anglo (ed.), The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft (1977). Although it is primarily about England, there is material on Scottish intellectual beliefs in Ian Bostridge, Witchcraft and its Transformations, c.1650-c.1750 (1997).

    The ideas of Scotland's unique royal demonologist have been discussed in a number of works. The single most important one probably remains Stuart Clark, 'King James's Daemonologie: witchcraft and kingship', in Sydney Anglo (ed.), The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft (1977). The close relationship of James's Daemonologie (revised and published in 1597 but mainly written earlier) to the North Berwick witch-hunt and to the pamphlet about it Newes from Scotland (1590-1) is examined by Rhodes Dunlap, 'King James and some witches: the date and text of the Daemonologie', Philological Quarterly, 54 (1975). There is an elaborate literary discussion by Daniel Fischlin, '"Counterfeiting God": James VI (I) and the politics of Daemonologie', in Graham Caie et al. (eds.), The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature (2001). Christina Larner contended that James was introduced to demonological theory during his visit to Denmark in 1589-90; this is disputed by Jenny Wormald, 'The witches, the Devil and the king', in Terry Brotherstone and David Ditchburn (eds.), Freedom and Authority: Scotland, c.1050-c.1650 (2000), and by Thomas Riis, Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: Scottish-Danish Relations, c.1450-1707, 2 vols. (1988), i, pp. 266-9. Deborah Willis, Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England (1995), ch. 2, attempts to psychologise James. The king's later approach to witchcraft in England is important to understanding his Scottish ideas: on this see James Sharpe, The Bewitching of Anne Gunter (1999), ch. 8.

    Folklore provides much material on popular belief. Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief: a History (2001), has much on the fairy beliefs which often emerged when accused witches were interrogated. There is still value in a pioneering article by J.A. MacCulloch, 'The mingling of fairy and witch beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century Scotland', Folklore, 32 (1921). Fairy lore was also important in the investigation of second sight, the subject of Michael Hunter, 'The discovery of second sight in late 17th-century Scotland', History Today, 51:6 (June 2001), and Michael Hunter (ed.), The Occult Laboratory: Magic, Science and Second Sight in Late Seventeenth-Century Scotland: The Secret Commonwealth and Other Texts (2001).

    Other folkloric and literary studies deal with particular themes. An unresolved puzzle concerning the witch 'Nicneven', involving literary, folkloric and historical evidence, is posed by Alison Hanham, '"The Scottish Hecate": a wild witch chase', Scottish Studies, 13 (1969). The folkloric material in a famous poem of c.1580 is discussed by Jacqueline Simpson, '"The weird sisters wandering": burlesque witchery in Montgomerie's Flyting', Folklore, 106 (1995). A literary approach to witches' confessions is used by Diane Purkiss, 'Sounds of silence: fairies and incest in Scottish witchcraft stories', in Stuart Clark (ed.), Languages of Witchcraft: Narrative, Ideology and Meaning in Early Modern Culture (2001). The relationship between Highland oral tradition and an important series of witchcraft cases from Easter Ross in 1577-90 is explored by W. Matheson, 'The historical Coinneach Odhar and some prophecies attributed to him', Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, 46 (1969-70). Material may also be gleaned from Alan Bruford, 'Workers, weepers and witches: the status of the female singer in Gaelic society', Scottish Gaelic Studies, 17 (1996). Three very old collections of material are perhaps worth mentioning: Sir Walter Scott, Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830), James G. Dalyell, The Darker Superstitions of Scotland (1834), and Charles K. Sharpe, Historical Account of the Belief in Witchcraft in Scotland (1884). The interpretations offered in all these works are outdated, so they should be used with caution.

    The crucial North Berwick witch-hunt of 1590-1 is discussed in detail by Lawrence Normand and Gareth Roberts (eds.), Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland: James's Demonology and the North Berwick Witches (2000), and more briefly by Jenny Wormald, 'The witches, the Devil and the king', in Terry Brotherstone and David Ditchburn (eds.), Freedom and Authority: Scotland, c.1050-c.1650 (2000). On the North Berwick hunt see also Helen Stafford, 'Notes on Scottish witchcraft cases, 1590-1591', in N. Downes (ed.), Essays in Honour of Conyers Read (1953; reprinted in Levack 1992); Edward J. Cowan, 'The darker vision of the Scottish Renaissance: the Devil and Francis Stewart', in Ian B. Cowan and Duncan Shaw (eds.), The Renaissance and Reformation in Scotland (1983; reprinted in Levack 1992); and Peter G. Maxwell-Stuart, 'The fear of the king is death: James VI and the witches of East Lothian', in W.G. Naphy and Penny Roberts (eds.), Fear in Early Modern Society (1997).

    The Paisley or Bargarran witch-hunt of 1697, sparked off by a case of demonic possession, is the subject of several works. Isabel Adam, Witch Hunt: the Great Scottish Witchcraft Trials of 1697 (1978), is a fictionalised book based on primary sources. More recently there are S.W. McDonald, A. Thom and A. Thom, 'The Bargarran witch trial: a psychiatric reassessment', Scottish Medical Journal, 41 (1996), and Hugh McLachlan and Kim Swales, 'The bewitchment of Christian Shaw: a reassessment of the famous Paisley witchcraft case of 1697', in Yvonne G. Brown and Rona Ferguson (eds.), Twisted Sisters: Women, Crime and Deviance in Scotland since 1400 (2002).

    There are several studies of other witch-hunts. One of the best is Brian P. Levack, 'The great Scottish witch-hunt of 1661-1662', Journal of British Studies, 20 (1980; reprinted in Levack 1992). A detailed dossier of evidence from Aberdeenshire is the basis of Julian Goodare, 'The Aberdeenshire witchcraft panic of 1597', Northern Scotland, 21 (2001). The 1670 case of Major Thomas Weir and his sister Jean, involving incest as well as witchcraft, is discussed by David Stevenson, 'Major Weir: a justified sinner?', Scottish Studies, 16 (1972). Another case from that period is the subject of R. L. Harris, 'Janet Douglas and the witches of Pollock: the background of scepticism in Scotland in the 1670s', in S.R. McKenna (ed.), Selected Essays on Scottish Language and Literature: a Festschrift in Honor of Allan H. MacLaine (1992). Long after the repeal of the witchcraft act in 1736, a further case went through its preliminary stages: John Brims, 'The Ross-shire witchcraft case of 1822', Review of Scottish Culture, 5 (1989).

    It is important to set witch-hunting in the broader context of the social history of early modern Scotland. A good introduction to this is provided by Ian D. Whyte, Scotland Before the Industrial Revolution: an Economic and Social History, c.1050-c.1750 (1995). There is still value in T.C. Smout, A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830 (1969), a classic and readable book though now rather dated—and on the witch-hunt itself, wholly outdated. Rab A. Houston and Ian D. Whyte (eds.), Scottish Society, 1500-1800 (1989), contains a number of important studies. To see how trends in witch-hunting related to other social and economic trends, one can use the data in A.J.S. Gibson and T.C. Smout, Prices, Food and Wages in Scotland, 1550-1780 (1995).

  2. Printed primary sources

    There are two printed guides to witchcraft cases: George F. Black, A Calendar of Cases of Witchcraft in Scotland, 1510-1727 (1937; reprinted in Levack 1992), and Christina Larner, Christopher H. Lee and Hugh V. McLachlan, A Source-Book of Scottish Witchcraft (1977). Larner et al. gives more cases (though some are omitted) and is generally more accurate (though there are numerous errors and duplications). Black has more detail on each case, and a convenient chronological arrangement. There is also an electronic database of witchcraft cases, Stuart Macdonald's 'Scottish Witch Hunt Database' (SWHDB). This is an expanded and revised version of Larner et al.'s Source-Book. For more details of all these see Previous surveys of Scottish witchcraft.

    The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, 38 vols. (1869-1970), records the issue of many commissions of justiciary for witchcraft trials. Few details are given of most cases, yet this is a very important source, mentioning more witches than any other. There are also petitions from imprisoned witchcraft suspects, and other documents. A few volumes (notably 2nd series vol. viii) contain detailed trial documents. See the indexes under 'Witchcraft'.

    Those witchcraft trials that were held in the central justiciary court are mostly (up to 1650) reprinted in two vitally important selections from that court's records. Robert Pitcairn (ed.), Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, 3 vols. (Bannatyne Club, 1833), formally covers the period 1488-1624, but some later material (even up to the 1660s) is also crammed in. Pitcairn's work is continued under a different title by Stair A. Gillon and J. Irvine Smith (eds.), Selected Justiciary Cases, 1624-1650, 3 vols. (Stair Society, 1954-74). For witchcraft cases in SJC, see the 'Index of Subjects' in vol. iii under 'Witchcraft'. The Pitcairn and SJC volumes are selections, not records of every case in the archive, and the editors simply selected what interested them—but witchcraft often did. A few further cases, mainly from the 1660s, are found in Records of the Proceedings of the Justiciary Court, Edinburgh, 1661-1678, 2 vols., ed. W.G. Scott-Moncrieff (Scottish History Society, 1905), but this work is an abstract rather than full court proceedings and is less useful.

    There are Aberdeenshire trials in 'Trials for witchcraft, 1596-1598', in Spalding Club Miscellany, vol. i, ed. J. Stuart (1841), and Bute ones in 'Papers relating to witchcraft, 1662-1677', in Highland Papers, 4 vols., ed. J.R.N. Macphail (Scottish History Society, 1914-34), vol. iii. 'Trials for witchcraft at Crook of Devon, Kinross-shire, in 1662', ed. R.B. Begg, and 'The confessions of the Forfar witches, 1661', ed. J. Anderson, are both in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 22 (1887-8). Dumfriesshire cases of 1649-50, 1671 and 1697 are printed in 'Unpublished witchcraft trials', ed. A.E. Truckell, Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 3rd series, 51 (1975) and 52 (1976-7) (reprinted in Levack 1992). Material from Alloa in 1658-9 is printed in 'Confessions of Alloa witches', Scottish Antiquary, 9 (1895), which should be read alongside R.M. Ferguson, 'The witches of Alloa', Scottish Historical Review, 4 (1907), an article that is largely a précis of further primary records. Important jurisdictional issues are raised in 'The trial of Geillis Johnstone for witchcraft, 1614', eds. Michael B. Wasser and Louise A. Yeoman, Scottish History Society Miscellany, xiii (forthcoming). The influential advocate (subsequently lord advocate) Sir George Mackenzie of Rosehaugh published his important speech in defence of a witch (to whom he gave the fictionalised name 'Maevia') in his Pleadings in Some Remarkable Cases before the Supreme Courts of Scotland, since the year 1661 (1673), ch. 16.

    Scottish witchcraft generated literary comment, most famously a book by King James VI published in 1597. There are three modern editions of it (plus a facsimile reprint). The least useful is James I, Daemonologie, ed. G.B. Harrison (1924)—a basic text that also includes the pamphlet Newes from Scotland (1591), about the North Berwick trials. Daemonologie is also included in King James VI and I, Minor Prose Works, ed. James Craigie (Scottish Text Society, 1982), with a fuller critical apparatus and a detailed list of textual variations. As an appendix, this edition prints James's speech to the jury at a trial of 1591. Lawrence Normand and Gareth Roberts (eds.), Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland: James VI's Demonology and the North Berwick Witches (2000), provides accessible texts of Daemonologie and Newes from Scotland, numerous other documents from the trials of the period, and a detailed and up-to-date introduction.

    James claimed that he wrote Daemonologie partly as a reply to the sceptical English writer Reginald Scot, whose 1584 book The Discoverie of Witchcraft has attracted much attention from modern scholars; there is a facsimile reprint from 1971 in black-letter type, and an edition from 1930 with an extremely misleading introduction by Montague Summers. A poem by Alexander Montgomerie, 'Montgomeries Answer to Polwart', written c.1580, is an elaborate fictional account of a witches' sabbath, drawing on folklore about elves and witches as well as early witch-trial material; it was read before the king and could have influenced his beliefs. It is printed in Priscilla Bawcutt and Felicity Riddy (eds.), Longer Scottish Poems, vol. i, 1375-1650 (1987), 279-90, and discussed in the article by Jacqueline Simpson cited above. George Sinclair, Satans Invisible World Discovered (1685; reprinted 1871), is a collection of Scottish and other cases retold by a contemporary in a largely populist way. James Hutchisone, 'A sermon on witchcraft in 1697', ed. G. Neilson, Scottish Historical Review, 7 (1910; reprinted in Levack 1992), is a serious intellectual exposition of demonology. It was preached to the commissioners at the Paisley witchcraft trial, on the text 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live'. This, from Exodus 22:18, is a reminder that the ultimate written source of intellectual demonology was the Bible.

  3. Websites

    Very few websites on Scottish witchcraft reach an acceptable scholarly standard. For those that do, please see our Links section.

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

Page last updated by Kaye Brewster
Unless explicitly stated otherwise, all material is copyright © The University of Edinburgh