Witches' kirk set to cast spell on visitors

IT WAS the scene of one of the most infamous events in 16th century Scotland, when a band of witches gathered to cast a deadly spell on the king.

Their failed attempt triggered the hideous tortures of the witch trials that swept across Britain.

Now the tale of that fateful night is to be brought vividly to life, as part of a new visitor centre which opens to the public today.

The centre at St Andrew’s Auld Kirk in North Berwick tells the history of the church from its earliest beginnings in the seventh century up to modern times.

The Kirk has been restored and transformed thanks to a heritage lottery grant of 50,000.

And now residents and tourists will be able to find out more about the gruesome history of the place which sparked the witch hunts across Scotland and England in the late 16th and 17th centuries. The project to create the visitor centre was started by the local community in partnership with the nearby Scottish Seabird Centre, Historic Scotland and East Lothian Council, in a bid to save the Kirk’s slowly crumbling ruins.

The funding has allowed expert conservators to complete an extensive programme of work ensuring the long-term preservation of the monument.

And new information boards have been installed within the porch of the Kirk and all around the Anchor Green area, with illustrations and photographs bringing the Kirk’s rich and fascinating history to life.

Tom Brock, chief executive of the Scottish Seabird Centre, said: "The project will further enhance the historic area next to the Scottish Seabird Centre and will help to conserve an important part of Scotland’s heritage."

On Hallowe’en in 1590 a massed gathering of 200 witches took place in the Auld Kirk on Anchor Green.

The witches had allegedly been convened by Francis Stuart, the 5th Earl of Bothwell, who had a tenuous claim to the throne.

He is said to have assumed the identity of Satan and gathered the witches to him so that they might raise a storm to sink the fleet bringing James VI from Denmark with his new Queen, Princess Anne.

In the small church, it was said, the witches huddled around a cat, which was christened King in a ritual ceremony, before being passed back and forth across a flaming hearth.

They also attached the hands and feet of a dead man, whose body they had stolen from a cemetery, to the cats paws, before flinging it into the sea.

A recent documentary examined how King James had survived the attempt on his life, which was said to have sunk a ferry making the crossing from Kinghorn to Leith.

On his return the King initiated the first great witch hunt, which scourged first Scotland and then England, to wreak vengeance on those who had attempted to bring about his death. He later wrote a book on demonology.

The story of the witches is just one part of the Auld Kirk’s history, however.

Before this, from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, the town was a thriving centre of medieval tourism.

Its harbour was the ferry crossing point for pilgrims crossing the Firth of Forth to the Isle of May and St Andrews, via Earlsferry, to worship the relics of St Andrew.

At its height it is thought the pilgrim traffic brought 10,000 people a year to North Berwick.

The ferry service was restarted last year after nearly 500 years.

A spokesman for East Lothian Council said today: "We are delighted to have another visitor attraction in North Berwick, which has such a fascinating history.

"It is also a relief to know that the Kirk has been saved for posterity as it was in a very poor state a few years ago."

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