The European witch-hunts that took place from 1400 to 1800 were complete monstrosities of justice, but the brutality seemed to have been concentrated more in certain parts of Europe than other parts. This is especially true in the British Isles during the witch trials of 1590-1593, where Scotland, a country with a fourth of the population of England, experienced three times as many executions as them. Before these particular trials, England and Scotland were both only mildly involved in the hunts, but a Scottish witch’s confession in late 1590 unveiled a plot to kill King James VI by creating a storm to sink his ship.
This confession led to the implementation of others and quickly festered into the widely publicized hunts throughout Scotland in the late 16th century. The Scottish witch-hunts of 1590 began in Tranent, a city just outside of Edinburgh, with the accusation of a maidservant named Geillis Duncane. Duncane was a kind hearted woman who used her vast knowledge of medicinal herbs and healing techniques to “[take] in hand all such as were troubled or grieved with anie kinde of sickness or infirmitie: and in short space did perfourme many matters most miraculous (sic).
Her ability to cure illness caused her master David Seaton, a deputy bailiff, to become suspicious of her. He was a callous and unsympathetic man who could not comprehend why someone would continuously go out of their way to help others. He was also wary of how a woman in such a humble position had acquired such an extensive knowledge of medicines and healing. Seaton’s suspicions seemed to be confirmed when he found Duncane sneaking out of the house late at night. When she was unable to answer where she was at night and how she gained her power to heal, she was immediately accused of consorting with the Devil.
When she refused to confess to the crime of witchcraft, Seaton had her tortured. There was a plethora of torture devices used on those accused of witchcraft in the 1500’s, Duncane was fortunate to only have experienced a few. The first device used on Duncane was a vice called the pillwinkles, also known as thumbscrews, which crushed the bones in her fingers. When that did not work, her head was “thrawed”, which consisted of it being bound with rope or cord, then twisted and wrenched savagely.
When she still would not confess, a diligent search of her body was conducted where the Devil’s mark was found on her throat. Once the mark was found Duncane confessed that her attention to the sick had been done at the wicked suggestion of the Devil and that her cures were results of witchcraft. Immediately upon imprisonment Duncane began to implement others, men as well as women. Some of the first victims of her accusations were Agnes Sampson, Doctor James Fian, alias John Cunningham, Grey Meal and Agnes Tompson.
These are just a few of the seventy people that Geillis Duncane accused. Upon torture, they not only confessed to the crime of witchcraft, but they also invented a colorful story that professed that the Devil had told them that they were to be led by the Earl of Bothwell to murder King James VI and overthrow the Scottish throne. There have been conflicting accounts to whether or not the Earl was involved with the North Berwick witches, but his involvement, or lack thereof is irrelevant to the fate of these accused witches.
Their accounts included a detailed meeting of as many as 200 witches, who were all named by Duncane as well as those she accused, in the Kirk of North Berwick on Halloween of 1589. Once the accused witches admitted to this convention, elaborate accounts of the meeting surfaced. Everybody that Duncane accused, including Duncane herself had an important role in this wicked gathering at the North Berwick shore. James Fian acted as the President of the coven and Grey Meal was the doorkeeper, insuring that no one would intrude on their meeting.
When the King’s ship was spotted the Devil instructed Agnes Tompson to christen a cat by drawing it nine times across a fire, then she was to throw the dead cat in the sea to create a great storm. After the cat was thrown into the water, the witches marched back to the forest, all following the lead of Geillis, who “was playing a quick-step on the Jew’s harp. ” On reaching the Kirk they marched three times around, in the opposite direction of the rotation of the sun, then Dr. Fian blew into the “keyhole of the forest,” which allowed the coven into the Devil’s den.
When they entered the sacred office of the Devil he was seen standing in the darkness wearing a black robe. He then proceeded to take roll and then he began his sermon. He ended his sermon by lifting his coat tails and requested his followers to kiss his backside as a token of their allegiance, which they all did. The intended outcome of this convention was the death of the King and his wife by drowning. The witches appeared to be successful in creating a devastating storm due to the fact that it destroyed one of the ships in the Kings fleet.
The King was told that he was the target because once he was dead, the witches hoped that another might rule in his place and rule would go to the Devil. Although James VI was a believer of witchcraft, he had a hard time believing that these witches of North Berwick had developed such a complicated political plot. He even went as far as calling the accused “extreame lyars,” but Agnes Sampson soon changed his mind. Sampson took the King aside and told him the exact conversation he had with his wife on their wedding night.
This was irrefutable proof that the accused were witches. Once the King realized that the witches were telling the truth about their plot he took delight in being present at their inquisitions, as well as personally interrogating Duncane, and those she accused. In his interrogation, James made references to Eve’s seduction by the snake in the Garden of Eden, explaining that women are more easily entrapped by the Devil then men. The King was so concerned about the threat that witchcraft posed for himself and his country that he decided to study the subject in great depth.
He published the results of his study in his book Daemonology in 1597. King James, a stanch Calvinist, throughout his book used his religious knowledge to prove that witchcraft existed, and how the secular courts should punish the accused. He wanted to make sure that the general public took the threat of and belief in witchcraft as seriously as he did. The introduction to Daemonology illustrates his serious alarm in the witch epidemic. “My intention in this labour, is only to proue two things, as I haue alreadie said: the one, that such diuelish artes haue bene and are.
The other, what exact trial and seuere punishment they merite: & therefore reason I, what kinde of things are possible to be performed in these arts, & by what naturall causes they may be, not that I touch every particular thing of the Deuils power, for that were infinite: but onelie, to speak scholasticklie, (since this can not bee spoken in our language) I reason vpon genus leauing (sic). ” The “seuere punishment [that] they merite (sic)” is almost always death.
James claimed that witches ought to be put to death according to the law of God, the civil and imperial law, and the municipal law of all Christian nations. Witchcraft is a crime so abominable that it may be proved by evidence, which would not be received in other cases. That the testimony of young children and infamous characters ought to be sufficient, but to make sure the Devils’ mark should be looked for, and the suspected person be put into the water to try whether she would sink or swim. If she floated it would be a proof that she was guilty-if she sank she would be drowned, but her innocence would be apparent.
James’s Daemonology appropriately captured the 16th century attitude towards witchcraft, as ridiculous as it appears now in the 21st century. Geillis Duncane, along with those she accused, can be seen as a cause of his treatise. All of the witches that were convicted in the North Berwick trials were tortured and killed. Some of them suffered more than others. Dr. Fian for example was condemned to die, and then to be burned after his trial, “whereupon hee was put into a carte, and being first strangled, hee was immediately put into a great fire (sic).
There are differing accounts to the way that Geillis Duncane was killed, but most imply that she was also strangled to death, then burned like Fian. The case of Geillis Duncane is one of monumental proportions. Persecutions had indeed not been unknown to Scotland before she was brought to the stake, but they had been comparatively far and in between. It was her accuser’s venomous tooth that gave the bite that set the whole pack in Scotland into a state of madness and hysteria that it had never seen before, and has not seen since.