King who sparked a witch-burning panic

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THE tiny fleet had barely sailed out of Copenhagen harbour when the storms set in. Again and again, the Danish admiral tried to break through the rising waves into the North Sea, but his vessels were forced back to the coast of Norway.

His failure to deliver Anne, the new Queen of Scotland, to her husband James VI in Edinburgh in 1589 was a source of acute embarrassment to the Danes. Some months later, six women were rounded up, blamed for trying to wreck the ships through witchcraft and burned at the stake.

Their deaths sparked a horrific episode in Scotland’s history when witch-hunting became the sport of kings.

For, as a result of the Danes’ failure, James decided he would personally collect his bride Anne - whom he had already married by proxy - from Denmark. He set sail in October 1589, and stayed for six months, during which time he had discussions with a Danish witchcraft expert, Niels Hemmingsen.

The couple and their entourage finally returned to Scotland on May 1, 1590, when storms in the Firth of Forth once again threatened the royal cargo. Although the King and Queen landed safely, one of the fleet’s ships was sunk.

A few months later, more than 40 men and women from East Lothian were accused of witchcraft and conspiring to kill the King by causing the storm in the Forth. They were all tried and brutally executed.

The court cases which ensued in Edinburgh have gone down in history as the North Berwick Witch Trials, and are surely a contender for one of the darkest and bloodiest episodes in Scottish history.

Now the trials, which have for four centuries held a macabre fascination for those growing up in the area, are attracting fresh interest.

Retired schoolteacher Iain Johnstone, from Macmerry, has just completed Acheson’s Haven, a historical novel based on the events, while a film crew is currently in East Lothian making a documentary for the Mysterious Scotland series, to be shown on STV early next year.

Johnstone’s interest in the subject was sparked when he came across a copy of "Newes from Scotland", a piece of propaganda believed to have been written by James Carmichael, the minister of Haddington who led the witch-hunts.

Published in 1591, at the height of the trials, it details the "damnable life of Dr Fian, a notable sorcerer, who was burned at Edenborough in Januarie last . . . which doctor was register to the devill, that sundrie times preached at North Baricke Kirke, to a number of notorious witches".

The story of the young schoolteacher John Cunningham - Fian was his witch-name - forms the basis of Mr Johnstone’s novel, which takes its name from the old port at Prestonpans where witches were reputed to have convened. But the themes go to the heart of the political, social and religious divisions of late 16th-century Scotland and reveal the unprecedented personal involvement of the King.

"Sometimes it is suggested that James was coming out in solidarity with the Danes," says Johnstone. "James had sent a proxy to marry his bride, Anne of Denmark, on his behalf.

"On their return to Scotland, they kept being swept back to Norway by the seas, but the admiral of the Danish navy blamed witches. So they produced six women and burnt them to death for stopping the Danish navy getting to Scotland.

"Finally, the word came that the Danish navy couldn’t get out, so James decided to go himself to collect his bride. They had a couple of storms, but he arrived safely and stayed in Denmark for six months. He came back in May, and then in July it suddenly all started."

It was in July that word reached Scotland of the arrests of the witches in Denmark. The first victim was Anna Koldings who, under pressure during interrogation, named five other women. They all confessed to sorcery and endangering Queen Anne’s voyage by sending devils up the keel of her ship.

Johnstone believes James VI had several motives for pursuing similar witch-hunts in Scotland - asserting his own position as King, strengthening the nascent Church of Scotland against the Catholics and using the testimony of the "witches" against his enemies, including the Earl of Bothwell, who was next in line to the throne and who, James was convinced, was trying to kill him.

"There had already been witch trials before, but the so-called North Berwick Trials were different because they directly involved the King," says Johnstone. "There is evidence that King James and James Carmichael, the minister of Haddington, were party to a witchcraft plot that entrapped many innocent people.

"More than 40 people, mostly women from Prestonpans - there were no ‘witches’ from North Berwick itself - were arrested on charges of plotting with the devil to cause storms that would kill James and his bride.

"The purpose was to strengthen the power and standing of both Kirk and Crown. James was using the extreme Presbyterians, and they were using him."

In November and December 1590, dozens of arrests were made, and according to Calderwood’s Histories of the Kirk of Scotland: "Sindrie of the witches confessed they had sindrie times companie with the devill at the kirk of Northberwick, where he appeared to them in the likeness of a man with a redde cappe, and a rumpe at his taill."

Mr Johnstone is convinced that many of the East Lothian "witches" who were targeted had aroused suspicion from church leaders because they used herbal remedies produced by monks at an ancient hospital at Soutra. Archaeologists have found evidence that the monks used sophisticated remedies and even carried out major surgery.

The first accused witch to confess was Agnes Sampson, a midwife who lived near Soutra, and one of the accusations against her was that she "cured" people.

"Some of the witches were just midwives - they were just nice helpful sort of people. I have surmised in the book that the monks must have given John Cunningham drugs to enable him to withstand the pain of torture," says Johnstone.

"There used to be one of the largest hospitals in Europe up there. It was run by Augustinian orders, and cannabis and opium seeds have been found there. Apparently they could cut limbs off and soldiers wouldn’t feel the pain.

"Agnes Sampson, who was called the Great Witch, was from Keith, which was only a couple of miles from Soutra, and she had a great reputation for healing people."

Witchcraft was punishable by death in Scotland between 1563 and 1735. During that time, Mr Johnstone estimates that thousands of men and women were tortured and executed in Scotland.

"It’s a monstrous amount - there is no other country which can compare. Some historians reckon that 17,000 witches were burned in Scotland, but most of the records have disappeared."

Long after the trials, James - often reputed to have been "the wisest fool in Christendom" - continued to use witchcraft to strengthen his position.

In 1599, he published Demonologie, which fanned the fear of witches across Europe at the time.

Such was his fascination with the subject that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, featuring the three witches, to please the King, and Johnstone believes Shakespeare used the North Berwick witches as his inspiration for the characters.

Geoff Holder, the writer and producer of Mysterious Scotland, a new series featuring the North Berwick Witch Trials, says James probably did believe in witchcraft: "James VI was personally involved because he believed he was the target. It was not just about witchcraft, it was about treason.

"Once the trials had taken place, the ecclesiastical and legal professions discovered they could use them to exercise power, and it had been legitimised because the King had been involved.

"A few years later, the King changed his ideas and reined in his beliefs a bit. But by then it was too late - the damage had been done."

Acheson’s Haven, by Iain Johnstone, is published by 1stBooks. It is available for 8.99 from Dunedin Books, 3 Piershill Place, Edinburgh, or call 07720 982920 to arrange to collect a copy for 6.99.