13 of the most chilling witch trials in Scottish history

Records of Scotland’s witch trials, the majority of which stretched over a period of 200 years during the 16th and 17th centuries, shed light on a dark period in Scottish history, exposing a culture of fear and panic that cast a cloud over much of Scotland and Europe.

Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty

The passing of the Scottish Witchcraft Act in 1563 made witchcraft, or consulting with witches, capital crimes in Scotland. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 women were publicly accused of being witches in 16th and 17th century Scotland, a much higher number than neighbouring England. Here, we recount some of Scotland’s most infamous - and brutal - prosecutions for witchcraft.

Agnes Finnie was a trader in Edinburgh with a foul temper. when she was tried for witchcraft in 1642, there was no shortage of people to come forward to testify and she was found guilty of witchcraft and executed on Castle Hill.

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In 1576, thirteen years after the Witchcraft Act was passed in Scotland, Bessie Dunlop was arrested due to her reputation as a healer. A jury found Bessie guilty of all the charges against her, and she was condemned to death.
The case of Isobel Gowdie was marked by the accuseds readiness to confess her crimes. Under seemingly little duress, she confessed details of meetings with the Devil and of various witchcraft practices.
North Berwick saw Scotlands first mass witch trial take place in the late 16th century, at a time where a climate of fear surrounding magic had already compelled the Scottish judiciary to put into law the Witchcraft Act in 1563.
This eerie monument is said to mark the spot where witch Maggie Wall was burnt alive in 1657. But a mystery has always surrounded the identity of Maggie - with experts of witchcraft in Scotland doubting if she existed at all.
Margaret Barclay was married to Archibald Dean, a respected citizen of Irvine. After a quarrel erupted between Margaret and her in-laws in 1618 over an alleged theft, Margaret was accused of cursing her sister-in-law Janet Dean.
One of the last major witch trials in Scotland took place in Boness, where six people were tried and executed for partaking in witchcraft as well as associating with the Devil.
Six women from Auchterarder, in the parish of Dunning, were arrested and accused of witchcraft in July 1662. Three of them, Issobell McKendley, Elspeth Reid and Jonet Toyes were all strangled and burned following the trial.
Dame Euphemia Macalzean, daughter of Lord Cliftonhall, was burned at the stake in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle as part of James VIs determination to root out the forces said to have put his and his new bride's lives at risk.
At least 26 witches were tortured and 18 of them killed in Pittenweem in the early 18th century, victims of an over-zealous minister who ignored all legal constraints to indulge in an orgy of killing.
According to reports, 73 people were tried for witchcraft in Dunbar presbytery between between 1593 and 1705 but this is believed to be a modest indication as to the levels of persecution.
A disproportionate number witch trials were held in Inverkeithing. According to church records, at least 51 people - the majority of whom were women - were tried and executed for witchcraft in the town between 1621 and 1652.
Agnes Sampson was tortured at Edinburgh Tolbooth where she was pinned to the wall using a witchs bridle, an iron muzzle that clamps the head, and eventually she confessed to 53 charges against her.