IT WAS a macabre and dreaded career to take, during one of the darkest chapters in Scotland’s history when superstition brought about a culture of fear and panic that claimed the lives of hundreds of people.
Now, research into the grim role of the men who ended the lives of the nation’s witches has revealed how they were handsomely rewarded for their deeds yet feared by ordinary people.
A new book exploring the history of witch hunting throughout the 16th and 17th centuries shows that there was a recruitment crisis for executioners.
Laura Paterson, from the University of Strathclyde, found that in many of Scotland’s smaller communities, no-one was willing to take on such grisly work, meaning that sons often followed their fathers into the execution trade.
Her research is published in a new collection of academic studies of Scottish witchcraft, Scottish Witches and Witch Hunters, edited by Julian Goodare, a reader in history at the University of Edinburgh and a leading expert in witchcraft history.
Ms Paterson, a postgraduate student at Strathclyde, said: “One of the most pressing concerns must have been to find someone who was willing to execute the witch. The large towns, including Edinburgh and Aberdeen, appear to have had professional executioners – the Aberdeen accounts consistently refer to the executioner as Jon Justice, possibly a pseudonym.
“However, in many of the smaller towns and parishes, there was no-one willing to carry out the gruesome task. The occupation of executioner was unpopular in the early modern period. The executioner was paid to torment, maim and kill people for money.”
The difficulty of finding people willing to take up such a bloody role often meant that the position of executioner was hereditary, Ms Paterson said.
In one instance, in Peebles in 1629, the son of the executioner was paid 12 shillings at the execution of three witches to act as dempster, an official who pronounced the sentence and was sometimes asked to carry out the dark deed himself.
However, Ms Paterson’s research shows that, if an executioner was able to “cope with the bloody work and with the infamy that came with it”, the job paid handsomely.
One executioner tasked with ending the lives of three women in Peebles in 1633 received the then eye-watering sum of £10.
Similarly, John Kincaid, an “infamous witch pricker” in the 17th century, was paid up to £6 a time for “brodding” a suspect witch, a process designed to elicit a confession by inserting needles into her body.
Even so, executioners were regarded as pariahs by Scottish society. One man, William Kirk, was the executioner in a case in Kirkcudbright in 1698. But no-one was willing to offer him shelter during his stay in the town, and he was forced to live in the local prison.
As Ms Paterson notes, the executioner was a figure feared throughout Scotland and beyond at the time.
“There was other instances throughout Europe where the executioner’s infamy was considered contagious, damaging the reputation of any who associated with him,” she said. “In some communities the touch of the executioner, or even objects he had touched, could be contagious.”
According to the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, a total of 3,837 people were accused of witchcraft, 84 per cent of whom were women.
It remains unclear exactly how many people lost their lives as a result. The record books indicate only 205 instances where the accused were found guilty and executed, but the figure is thought to be higher.
Ms Paterson’s research indicates that, although the most common method for executing witches was strangling and burning, there were other grim means used to kill the “guilty”.
An Edinburgh man, Robert Erskine, along with his sisters, Annas and Issobell, was beheaded at the capital’s Mercat Cross in 1614 after being found guilty of consulting with witches and “poisoning and treasonable murder”.
There were also, Ms Paterson adds, a small number of cases where the witches who had “committed a particularly serious and wicked offence” were burned alive.
• Scottish Witches and Witch Hunters is published by Palgrave Macmillan.