The beautiful old fishing town of North Berwick, which lies on the East Lothian coast, is a wonderful place to visit, with the stunning Bass Rock nearby (home to an important seabird reserve) and the huge 613ft lump of North Berwick Law which looms over the town, all adding to North Berwick’s fantastic character. However, over 400 years ago, in the late 16th century, North Berwick found itself at the centre of one of Scotland’s most brutal historical events – the North Berwick Witch Trials.
The story begins in 1589 when King James VI of Scotland was set to marry the fourteen year old Princess Anne of Denmark who would travel to Scotland from Copenhagen for the marriage. Unfortunately for the young princess she encountered severe storms on the crossing and was forced to take refuge on the Norwegian coast for a considerable amount of time. King James VI being a considerable chap, decided to travel to Norway to marry his blushing bride there instead of in Scotland as originally planned. Unfortunately King James also experienced bad weather on his crossing to Norway and so understandsbly was a little bit peeved off.
On the return journey from Norway, with his new teenage bride in tow, the newlyweds encountered yet more storms on the way back which led to the admiral of the Danish fleet which was escorting King James and Queen Anne back to Scotland to blame the actions of witchcraft. The admiral then accused the wife of a Danish high official whom he had previously insulted of causing the storm and witchcraft trials commenced in Copenhagen. One of the first Danish victims of the trials was Anna Koldings, who under torture divulged the names of five other women who in turn all confessed to witchcraft and of raising storms that threatened the Princess’ boat on her attempted voyage to Scotland. Two women were burnt at the stake as a result.
News of the witchcraft ‘confessions’ reached the ears of King James VI who became more and more convinced that his bad luck was due to the actions of witches and so he set about setting up his own tribunal.
THE WITCH HUNT BEGINS
The following year a young servant called Gellie Duncan, who lived in the town of Tranent near Edinburgh, was arrested on suspicions of witchcraft as it was believed that some of her healing cures were too miraculous and therefore likely to be the result of sorcery. Understandably Gellie denied these accusations at first, but then following a lengthy bout of torture and the discovery of a ‘devil’s mark’ on her neck, she confessed to being a witch and selling her soul to the Devil who aided her in her healing arts.
Gellie then named various accomplices including Dr John Fian (a local schoolmaster) who was accused of being the leader of the ‘coven’, Agnes Sampson (a local midwife and healer of some repute), Barbara Napier (the widow of Earl Archibald of Angus), Francis Stewart (1st Earl of Rothwell, who also happened to be the King’s cousin) and Euphemia Maclean (the daughter of the Lord Cliftonhall). Gilly was burnt at the stake for her ‘crimes’, however the terror was only just beginning.
THE DEVIL IN THE KIRKYARD
About seventy people from Edinburgh and East Lothian were accused of witchraft, many of whom confessed under torture to having met the Devil himself at night in the Old Kirkyard in North Berwick, along with carrying out acts of evil tasked by the Devil including poisoning the King and members of his household, and attempting to sink his ship. The ‘Devil’ was believed to have been Francis Stewart, the 5th Earl of Bothwell who had designs on the throne and would have a very good reason to try and sink the King’s ship so that he could become King himself.
A few of the accused ‘witches’ confessed to being present in the Old Kirkyard in North Berwick on the night of Halloween 1590, where the Devil had the two-hundred or so witches present dig up corpses and then cut off various joints or organs which for some reason were attached to a dead cat and thrown into the sea. This act apparently caused a massive storm which nearly sank the King’s boat as he made his way back from Norway with his new wife.
TORTURE AND CONFESSIONS
These unbelievable confessions were obtained through rather gruesome torture methods so unsurprisingly the poor victims would admit to any wild accusations in order to make the unimaginable stop. Agnes Sampson underwent a grueling grilling which was overseen by King James himself at his palace at Holyrood House. Poor Agnes was fastened to the wall of her cell by an iron instrument called a witch’s bridle. This bridle had four sharp prongs which were forced into Agnes’ mouth so that two prongs were pressed against her tongue, and the other two prongs pressed against her cheeks. She was then kept without sleep and was thrown with a rope around her head. Agnes confessed under torture to being present at the Old Kirkyard in on Halloween 1590 and taking part in all of the events that allegedly took place there. It was said that King James didn’t believe her story at first, that was until she was said to have whispered in his ear the exact words that had passed between the King and his new wife on the night of their wedding. Agnes was strangled and then burnt on the 28th January 1591 for her part in the ‘witchcraft’.
Dr John Fian, a noted local schoolmaster from Prestonpans in East Lothian, also admitted to doing a number of evil deeds, confessions also obtained under brutal torture. Poor Dr Fian was partially throttled and then when he still refused to co-operate, had his feet and legs crushed by an iron boot. Fian later escaped from prison but was captured and tortured further by having his fingernails ripped out and nails hammered into the tips of his fingers. Under this horrific ordeal Dr Fian confessed to being present at all the meetings at the North Berwick kirkyard when the Devil was there, and for taking part in the attempt to sink the King’s ships by whipping up storms by means of witchcraft. As a literate man it was alleged that Dr Fian was appointed the ‘clerk’ of the coven and took the oaths of service to the Devil from the ‘witches’ who were present.
One of the absurd tales Dr Fian confessed to under torture was about a love spell that he had cast which went very wrong. Supposedly Dr Fian fancied the sister of one of his students and wanted to use a love spell to woo her, however for the spell to work he needed the hairs from the unsuspecting lady and so asked the lady’s brother to obtain these for him. Understandably the brother was a bit put off by this and so went to his mother with this strange request. His mother decided to give the lovestruck Dr Fian three hairs, not from her daughter, but from the udder of a cow. When Dr Fian worked his spell instead of being chased by a passionate young woman he was chased around by a lovestruck cow! Dr Fian was later strangled and then burnt with the cost of his execution being recorded as £5 18s 2d.
A CLIMATE OF FEAR
The confessions were quite simply unbelievable, but due to the climate of fear and superstition in the late 16th century they were widely believed by the population. The witch trials in North Berwick ended in 1591 however this was not the end of the witch hunt. Just six years later in 1597 up to 400 people were put on trial across Scotland accused of witchcraft and other diabolical activities. Later witch hunts took place in Scotland in 1628-1631, 1649-50 and 1661-62. By the the early 18th century when people had become a bit more sensible about these things over 4,000 people had been burnt at the stake for witchcraft in Scotland which is a substantial number compared to the country’s size and population.
King James VI’s obsession with witchcraft didn’t end with the termination of the North Berwick witch trials, if anything it grew. In 1597, the same year the next round of witchcraft trials took place in Scotland, the King published an eighty-page book on the subject of witchcraft and witches called Daemonologie. In 1603 King James VI left for London to become King James I of England which united the two kingdoms under one crown, however his obsession with witchcraft seemed not to follow him. England was a bit more ‘civilized’ and whilst there were people accused of and tried for witchcraft, it was not to the level experienced north of the border. As such, King James would have probably been mocked by the English nobles for bringing up the subject of witchcraft he largely left the topic alone after his ascension to the throne of England.
The North Berwick Witch trials were a huge event at the time and were the subject of many books and plays, most famously Macbeth by William Shakespeare who adapted many aspects from the trials into his play, including the confessions by the ‘witches’. The ‘three witches’ (below) famously casting their spells “purposely to be cassin into the sea to raise winds for destruction of ships” was heavily inspired by the witch trials.
Nowadays, the beautiful fishing town of North Berwick is a lot more peaceful with absolutely no hint that the nefarious witch trials ever took place. The Old Kirkyard dedicated to St Andrew is little more than a ruin, with part of it collapsing into the sea during a storm in 1656. The local townspeople viewed this event at the time as divine retribution for the gathering of witches in the kirkyard during the dark days of the late 16th century. Whatever allegedly occurred at the Old Kirkyard in North Berwick it is certainly now a beautiful and peaceful place to visit, one far removed from the dark events of 1590 and 1591.