North Berwick Witches An alleged Coven of wItches exposed in 1590–91, providing Scotland with its most celebrated witch trials and executions. king James VI (who became James I of England), a believer in witchcraft, took part in the proceedings himself. The torture applied to the victims was among the most brutal in Scotland’s entire history of witch trials.
The North Berwick witches were accused by a maid named Gillis Duncan, who worked for a man named David Seaton in the town of Tranent. Duncan suddenly began to exhibit strange behavior: a miraculous power to cure virtually any kind of sickness. During the night, she would sneak out of her master’s house. Seaton suspected that her nocturnal activities, and her miraculous healing power, were related to the Devil.
Duncan was not able to explain to Seaton’s satisfaction how she had obtained her power, so he had her tortured. Duncan’s fingers were crushed in a vise called the pillwinkes, and her head was “thrawed,” which consisted of it being bound with a rope that was twisted and wrenched savagely. Still she would not confess to witchcraft. A diligent search of her body was made, and a Devil's Mark was found on her throat. At this incriminating evidence, Duncan confessed to being in league with the Devil.
Duncan was imprisoned and induced to betray others. She named John Fian, a Saltpans schoolmaster and alleged leader of the coven; Agnes Sampson, a respected and elderly woman of Haddington; Euphemia maclean and Barbara Napier, two respected women of Edinburgh; and a host of other men and women. Duncan said maclean had conspired to kill her own husband, and Napier had bewitched to death her husband, Archibald, the last earl of Angus. The suspects were arrested.
Sampson, who had a reputation as a wise woman, was brought before king James and a council of nobles but refused to confess. Her body was shaved, and a Devil’s mark was found on her genitals. Then she was tortured. She was pinned to a wall of her cell by an iron witch’s bridle, which had four sharp prongs that were forced into her mouth, against her tongue and cheeks. Her head was thrawed, and she was deprived of sleep. Finally, she broke down and confessed to 53 counts against her, most of which concerned diagnosing and curing diseases by witchcraft.
According to Newes from Scotland, Declaring the Damnable Life of Dr. Fian, a Notable Sorcerer, a pamphlet published in 1591, Sampson confessed to attending a Sabbat with 200 witches on All Hallow’s Eve, and that “they together went to sea, each one in a riddle, or cive [seive] . . . with flagons of wine, making merrie and drinking.” They landed in North Berwick and danced and sang, with Duncan playing the Jew’s harp. The Devil appeared and chastised them for tarrying so, and ordered each of them to kiss his buttocks as penance (see Kiss of Shame). This the witches did, said Sampson, and made their oaths of allegiance. They asked the Devil why he hated king James, and he answered that the king “was the greatest enemie hee hath in the world.” Then the witches went home.
James, though he believed in witchcraft, doubted the confessions and accused the witches of being “extreme lyars.” To convince him she spoke the truth, Sampson took the king aside and whispered in his ear the words he and his queen exchanged on the first night of their marriage in Norway.
Sampson also confessed to hanging up a black Toad by the heels and catching the poison that dripped from its mouth in an oyster shell. She obtained from the king’s chamber attendant a piece of soiled clothing worn by the monarch and used it with the toad venom to make a ChArm to bewitch the king into feeling “extraordinary pains as if he had been lying upon sharp thorns and endes of needles.”
Finally, Sampson revealed to the king how she and the coven of witches had tried to drown James at sea by raising a storm during his journey to Denmark to fetch his bride-to-be. The Devil told them to catch a CAt for the storm-rAIsIng charm. When the victim they chose proved to be too fleet-footed for Fian, the Devil raised Fian up in the air and enabled him to catch the cat. The witches christened it and bound to each of its paws the limb of a corpse. Then, sailing through the air in their riddles and cives, they threw the cat in the ocean, crying Hola! A terrible storm arose and sank a boat traveling from Brunt Island to Leith, but the king’s vessel was unharmed.
Sampson said the same cat was responsible for a foul wind encountered by the king’s ship on his way back from Denmark, while the other ships in his company enjoyed a fair wind. The king never would have arrived safely if his faith in God had not prevailed against the witches’ charm, she said.
She described another witches’ sabbat, which took place at 11 p.m. one night in the North Berwick church and was attended by more than 100 witches, men and women. The witches paid homage to the Devil by curtsying and then turning wIddershIns, the men doing this nine times and the women six. Fian blew open the church doors with his breath. Surrounded by the light of black candles, the Devil mounted the pulpit and preached a sermon, exhorting them to “not spare to do evil; to eat, drink and be merriye, for he should raise them all up gloriously at the last day.” Then the company went out to the cemetery, and Satan showed them which graves to open and which corpses to dismember for body parts for charms.
If Sampson had hoped to save herself by making these confessions, she was sadly mistaken. She was condemned, strangled and burned.
John Fian suffered the most extreme torture. He confessed but then recanted. He was strangled and burned in January 1591.
Euphemia maclean, the daughter of Lord Cliftonhall and the wife of Patrick moscrop, a wealthy man, possessed her own considerable estate. She was accused of scheming to kill her husband in order to get another man; of conspiring with the other witches to kill the king by destroying a wax image of him; of conspiring to drown a boat between Leith and Linghorne, in which 60 persons drowned; and “many other monstrous points.” She was vigorously defended by half a dozen lawyers, but James insisted on a guilty verdict. maclean was burned on July 25, 1591, and her lands were forfeited to the king, who gave them to Sir James Sandilands. maclean’s children were relieved of making further forfeitures by an act of Parliament in 1592.
Barbara Napier, wife of Archibald Douglas, was accused of consulting with Richard Graham, a “notorious necromancer,” and of killing her husband with witchcraft in 1588. She also was accused of the aforementioned crimes along with the other witches and was condemned to be burnt. According to some accounts, her execution was stayed because she pleaded pregnancy. Later, she was set free.
The witches accused the earl of Bothwell of conspiring with them to drown the king at sea. Bothwell, a reputed necromancer, was an enemy of the king. He was charged with high treason and was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle, but he eventually escaped.
Richard Graham was convicted of witchcraft and sorcery and was burned in February 1592. In all, approximately 70 persons were accused of witchcraft or treason in the North Berwick trials. All were probably imprisoned, but the records are unclear as to how many of the rest of them were executed, left in jail or released.
- Hole, Christina. Witchcraft in England. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1947.
- Sharpe, C. k. A History of Witchcraft in Scotland. Glasgow: Thomas D. morison, 1884.
- Summers, Montague. The Geography of Witchcraft. London: kegan Paul, Trench, Truner & Co. Ltd., 1927.