North Berwick and the brew of tortured witches

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WHAT happened on Halloween 1590 in North Berwick is up for debate. What is certain is that the fragments of evidence handed down through centuries is a witches' brew of intrigue.

Some 200 witches met in Saint Andrew's Auld Kirk to raise the devil to help them kill the King. Or, it was on that day that King James VI said a witches coven assembled to conjure up a storm to drown him and his new wife Anne of Denmark as they sailed up the Firth of Forth to Leith. Whether it was true that witches gathered to plot his doom is debatable, but it was enough evidence for King James, who saw his top two fears made clear: treason and witchcraft.

When the alleged witches confessed under extreme torture a gruesome tale emerged. One accused claimed their horned master had commanded them to open up four graves and remove toe, finger and knee joints from the corpses. They told of throwing a dead cat with the organs of a corpse into the sea in order to raise the storm. Accounts of the confession of Agnes Sampson describe a black mass in the church with dancing, prayers, incantations and black candles.

Another so-called witch, Dr John Fian (also known as Cunningham), was a local schoolmaster. The good doctor revealed in his confession that he carried mole's feet as a talisman and that he kissed the devil's behind as he worshipped him. He further alleged that the devil was in fact Francis Stuart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, and that they had been commanded by Bothwell to make a wax image of the King and chant over it: "This is Jamie the Saxth, orderit tae be consumed be a noble man."

To James VI, a devout Calvinist, it all seemed frighteningly plausible, as his ship had almost capsized on his way back from Denmark. Bothwell was James's cousin and his family had been contenders to the throne for three generations. Convinced of his narrow escape he personally presided over the trials of the North Berwick witches. In doing so he helped to legitimise the anti-witch sentiment, which sparked off a wave of similar trials throughout Scotland during the 16th and 17th century.

The newly reformed church also played a central role in whipping up this fever. Accusations of witchcraft could be made anonymously by leaving a note in a box, and the church handed over their information to the authorities. Records show that at least 3,837 people were accused of witchcraft in Scotland. It is not known how many were put to death; it could be between 60 to 70 per cent of this number. The vast majority was women. Many suffered excruciating torture. A terrible number were strangled and their bodies burnt.

Yet Dr Julian Goodare, who helped set up the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database at Edinburgh University, remains unconvinced that the North Berwick coven actually happened.

"Whether the meeting really took place I doubt," says Goodare. "There are so many incredible elements to it that it looks like the invention of people under torture."

Today's sleepy North Berwick holds little reminder of these tragic times, apart from a small "witches' stane" - a rough stone left in nearby Spott that commemorates those who died. People undoubtedly remain fascinated by the stories of the witches. Roy Pugh, a local historian based in Dunbar, wrote The Deil's Ain, a history of witchcraft in Scotland.

Roy stresses that witches could be anyone that found disfavour in the community, and were just ordinary individuals who became scapegoats in difficult times. "Fishing villages are very superstitious places and in rural areas with uneducated people, if there was no obvious reason for your chickens not laying or your calf dying, then you made one up.

"The most common indictment for witchcraft was whose turn is it to clean the stair or rake the dung heap. They would argue and one would say 'the devil curse you'. Later a child (of the person cursed) might fall sick and the church would be told what had happened."

The incredible confessions that came out of people still challenge historians today. Defendants would speak of flying through the air or changing into an animal using their spells, and they confessed to making a pact with the devil. Most agree that these admissions were the product of horrific torture instruments, such as the witch's bridle, a padlocked frame, which fitted over the head with a sharpened crucifix inside the mouth. Defendants were also deprived of sleep - often for weeks - before trial. However, there is also a general consensus that not all of the confessions were made up, but rather the people involved may have had herb-lore or practiced superstitious rites.

Despite these rational explanations, even today there are signs that people continue to believe in the power of witches. As a child, Roy says he was told to leave a coin on the witch stane, and often when he passes someone has left a small offering.

A small, present-day reminder of the Halloween that shook Scotland more than 400 years ago.

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