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Thursday, 2 December 2010

The North Berwick Witches

The North Berwick Witches were a group of seventy or so people from southern Scotland prosecuted for witchcraft between 1590 and 1592.
At this time Scotland was ruled by King James IV, who had always been very relaxed with regards to implementing laws against witchcraft. However, this attitude changed when he sailed to Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne of Denmark. During the journeys both there and back they were met with horrific storms. The Admiral of the escorting fleet of Danish ships blamed the extreme weather on witchcraft, an opinion shared by many crew members. This experience drastically changed his views on witchcraft, and upon returning to Scotland set about eradicating any trace of it.

One of the first people accused was Gellie Duncan. She worked as a servant, but often provided healing cures to people. Her cures were deemed to be a little too successful, and quickly drew suspicion. Initially she resolutely pleaded her innocence, however after ongoing interrogation and the discovery of a 'Witches Mark' on her neck, she changed her plea. She confessed that her treatments were prepared with the help of the Devil. She also implicated several other people.

One of the most shocking things is that one of the people she named as an accomplice was King James's cousin, Francis Stewart, 1st Earl of Bothwell. However, he was by no means the only member of high society accused. Others that Gellie accused included Barbara Napier, widow of Earl Archibald of Angus and Euphemia Maclean, daughter of the Lord Cliftonhall. Gellie was eventually burnt at the stake.

King James was heavily involved with the trials, presiding over many of them. One story tells of how he examined Agnes Sampson at Holyrood House. She was kept without sleep for days and fastened to a wall with a 'Witches Bridle'. A Witches Bridle is a metal contraption that places sharp metal prongs against the tongue and the inside of the cheeks. Eventually she confessed, and was subsequently burnt as a witch.

Most of the confessions obtained during these trials were done so under horrendous torture. The accounts given where often of coven meetings at Auld Kirk Green, which now forms part of the modern day North Berwick Harbour area. North Berwick churchyard also featured heavily. Many of the accused claiming they went there at night to meet with the Devil. There were numerous confessions that detailed an attempt to sink the kings ship. They detailed that on Halloween 1590, they had met with the Devil in North Berwick churchyard. In order to raise a storm they retrieve limbs from corpses, attached them to a dead cat and threw this into the sea.

King James went on to write a book, 'Daemonologie', instructing his followers on the prosecution of witchcraft. The North Berwick trials were the first major occurrence of many witch trials in Scotland, it is estimated that from the late 16th century to the early 18th century between 3000 and 4000 people were executed for witchcraft in Scotland.

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