Time for witches to rest in peace

This week a petition was submitted to the Scottish Parliament asking for a posthumous pardon for the thousands of people throughout Scotland who were tried under the Witchcraft Act between 1563 and 1728. Here, ROSALIND GIBB looks at the history of the act and infamous cases in Edinburgh and the Lothians.

FLAMES leapt into the cold afternoon air as Agnes Sampson's body was burnt at the stake on Castlehill. She had earlier been strangled to death after being found guilty of dozens of offences under the Witchcraft Act, including dancing with the Devil in a North Berwick church and attempting to sink King James VI's ship, and now a jeering crowd gathered to watch as her body was engulfed by the fire.

The year was 1591 and Scotland was gripped by a climate of religious paranoia which manifested itself in a fear of witches. Agnes, who was a widow and midwife, but also a devout Catholic, would normally have been expected to live and die without making any mark on history.

Instead she became one of the 4000 ordinary people – mostly women – who were tried, tortured, and executed after being accused of witchcraft throughout Scottish history, often as a result of their religious beliefs.

Roy Pugh, author of The Deil's Ain, an account of witch persecution in Scotland, says: "The Reformed Protestant religion was adopted by the state in Scotland in 1560. It was heavily larded with a dour, dreary Calvanism and a morbid obsession with sin, especially that believed to be inherent in or caused by women.

"Papistry was denounced as heresy, the worship of saints was declared blasphemous. And those who clung to the old faith were branded as heretics."

The last witch was hanged in Scotland in 1728, but the persecution continued under the Witchcraft Act of 1736.

"We believe more than 4000 people were tried under the act," says Dr Julian Goodare, lecturer in Scottish history at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft. "Records show around 3000 names, the rest were unnamed or groups of unknown sizes.

"There was a high concentration of trials of witches in Edinburgh and in particular East Lothian. Those tried were mostly poor, and mostly women. There were two main aspects to the accusations: the crime of witchcraft and causing harm to neighbours.

"What often happened was neighbours would quarrel, one of them would suffer a misfortune and think they had been cursed, and accuse the neighbour of making a pact with the Devil. Remember, in a society where God is very active, the Devil will be too."

Torture was regarded as a fair means of extracting the truth. If a witch still refused to confess, it was seen as evidence, not of innocence, but that the Devil was in too deep.

There would usually be a pre-trial at the local church, gathering evidence of guilt, then a proper trial, many of which took place at the Tolbooth in the Canongate or at the High Court.

"If they were found guilty, they faced being burned at the stake," says Julian. "They were usually strangled first. The burnings were a public spectacle, and took place at Castlehill." A small well on Edinburgh Castle's esplanade marks the spot where, over 250 years, 300 women accused of witchcraft were burned.

"This persecution over two centuries is a dark chapter in Scotland's history," says Roy, who lives in Dunbar. "It was by no means unique to Scotland, but the hysteria generated from time to time reached epic proportions."

The act was only partially repealed, however, and in 1944, Helen Duncan, an Edinburgh housewife and medium who conducted seances, was the last person in Britain to be jailed under the Witchcraft Act for pretending to raise the spirits of the dead.

This week, a group of Lothian-based mediums who run paranormal group Full Moon Investigations submitted a petition to the Scottish Parliament asking for a posthumous pardon for the thousands of people throughout Scotland tried under the act.

Roy says: "I think asking parliament for a posthumous pardon is a great idea. Of course it would be just a gesture, but it is an important one."



Devout Catholic, Agnes Sampson, who lived at Nether Keith near Haddington, East Lothian, was accused of dancing with the Devil in a North Berwick church and being part of a witches' conspiracy to kill James VI. After being tortured, she made a series of confessions, including that she had raised storms to prevent the voyage of Anne of Denmark to Scotland in 1589, and plotted to bewitch the King. She was convicted in 1591, and strangled and burned at Castlehill.


In 1670 Major Thomas Weir was living with his sister Jean at the foot of the West Bow, by Edinburgh's Grassmarket. In 1641 he was sent by the Covenanting Committee of Estates to quell Irish Papists and was appointed captain of the city guard in 1649. But by 1670 he had fallen foul of the Edinburgh authorities.

Weir and his sister were put in the Tolbooth, where Weir voluntarily confessed to a life of fornication, incest, sodomy and bestiality, and to using witchcraft by means of a black walking stick.

Sidestepping the issue of witchcraft, Weir and his sister were declared guilty of incest and foul fornication with others, including, in Weir's case, men and animals.

Weir was hanged and then burnt – with his walking stick – at Edinburgh's Gallowlee on April 14, 1670. Jean was hanged at the Grassmarket the following day.


Agnes Finnie sold goods at the Potterrow Port in Edinburgh. One day she threatened a boy with lameness because he was rude to her. Next day he lost power in his left side, and doctors said it was a clear case of witchcraft. The boy subsequently died.

Agnes then sold Jonet Grinton herrings that weren't fresh, and when Grinton came to ask for her money back Agnes cursed her and said she'd never eat again. Grinton died shortly afterwards. Shortly after, Agnes fell out with another woman, who broke her leg in a fall from a horse soon afterwards.

Agnes was growing alarmed by her "power", but unable to resist using it. New charges were brought against her – one being that she made a woman blind – and she was executed in 1645.


In 1658 Catherine McTaggart from Dunbar quarrelled with one John Milne, and swore he would never thrive. One day his horse strayed into her yard, trampling her plants. While coaxing the horse out of it, she said it would never get home because it would break its neck. The next night her prediction came true – the horse broke its neck in a fall.

Countless more incidents happened until 1685, when Catherine approached four-year-old George Ferguson and put his bonnet on upside down. The child went home, complained of a sore head, cried for three days, then died.

She was tried under the Witchcraft Act 1563, and 46 people testified against her.