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In 1590, the witch craze that had been spreading through mainland Europe made its way to Scotland. Although accusations of witchcraft were not new to Scotland, the North Berwick Witch Trials were the first mass trials to take place. But what caused the obsession to spread to a country that had remained mostly untouched by the craze?

Scotland’s monarch, King James VI of Scotland (and later I of England), is well-known today for his obsession with witches. He wrote a dissertation on witchcraft called Daemonologie, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth functions partly as a nod to his obsession. However, no evidence suggests that James had been interested in witches before 1590. Scotland did have the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563, but this statute treated the existence of witchcraft with scepticism and indicated that those who were accused of being witches were frauds rather than actual worshippers of the Devil. Historians often point to his voyage to Denmark in 1589 as being primarily responsible for his change of heart.

Unlike Scotland, Denmark was seized by a witch mania, with many influential witch-hunts taking place since the craze began somewhere around 1450. Witchcraft was cited as the reason for the atrocious storms that had beset the voyages of James and his wife Anne of Denmark, the latter of whom had attempted to set sail to England before James went to fetch her. Consequently, at least thirteen women were accused and later executed under the suspicion that they had used witchcraft to raise the storms that had affected James and Anne. Given the perceived threat to his royal person, James – already wary of potential plots against his life – may have been convinced of witches’ existence from this incident. Literature relating to witches and witchcraft was also very scant in Scotland up to this point, suggesting that little else would have instigated James’s interest in witches until his voyage.

James’s newfound interest in witches aside, however, the North Berwick trials and the subsequent craze that began to grip Scotland thereafter may not have gone to such extreme lengths had it not been for the confession of one individual: Gilly (also known as Gellie or Geillis) Duncan. A maidservant of the local deputy bailiff, David Seaton, Duncan aroused suspicion from her master for having acquired ‘unnatural’ healing skills and being repeatedly absent from his house for seemingly unknown reasons.
After remaining silent during a round of questioning by Seaton, Duncan was then subjected to torture to extract an answer from her. Surprisingly, Duncan continued to deny any wrongdoing throughout her painful ordeal; it was only when Seaton found the ‘Devil’s Mark’ (which could be something as small as a mole) on her throat that she confessed to working for the Devil. Significantly, however, she also accused several suspects of witchcraft, which kickstarted the string of accusations and executions that characterised the North Berwick trials. The next suspect to be interrogated was Anges Sampson, a healer and experienced midwife. After being tortured and subjected to the indignity of being shaved and probed for the Devil’s Mark, she also admitted to being in league with the Devil. Like Duncan, she, too, accused several individuals of being witches – but her accusations arguably had an even greater impact. Her duties as a midwife meant that Sampson had travelled greater distances than most people, meaning that the allegations were quick to move away from the region surrounding North Berwick and into Edinburgh. This spread allowed the hysteria to reach more extraordinary lengths and a greater impact.

In considering the impact that the confessions of Duncan and Sampson had on the spread of the craze, it’s worth noting the role that torture played in their interrogations. Whilst Duncan had remained quiet throughout her ordeal, it’s possible that the physical and psychological impact of being tortured exhausted her, prompting her to give in and confess when Seaton found the mark on her throat. There’s also little doubt that Sampson was certainly pressured into confessing after being subject to similar torments. The role of torture in these confessions shouldn’t be underestimated: had it not been for these practices, the confessions and subsequent accusations given by Duncan and Sampson may not have gone so far if they had been elicited at all. After enduring so much humiliation and pain, it would not be a stretch to believe that they had become desperate enough to confess to anything that was asked of them.

The role that James I took in the trials cannot be overstated. It was virtually unheard of for a monarch to get so deeply involved in cases such as these, so James taking a personal interest in Sampson’s case and all subsequent cases essentially signalled to the country that he was approving the witch hunts that were taking place. At any rate, he condoned the use of torture to extract confessions, which certainly would have increased the amount of them. It’s possible that James even went so far as to promote the witch hunts, as they acted as propaganda that presented him as a strong, moral king who staunchly defended his subjects. Newes from Scotland was a pamphlet published in England around 1591, and it included the confessions of Sampson and other ‘witches’. Given that James had his eye on the English throne, he wouldn’t have hesitated to use the trials as an opportunity to advertise himself in England and assist his political agenda. Compounding the issue was how difficult it was to keep tabs on legal proceedings that occurred far from Edinburgh, from where reports back to the Privy Council were sparse. As such, many unauthorised trials and interrogations were likely carried out, contributing further to the spread of the hunts.

Regardless of what ignited the North Berwick witch hunt, the events of 1590-1 profoundly impacted Scotland. These trials and interrogations laid the foundations for later hunts like the 1597 Scottish Witch Hunts. They induced an obsession with witches in James that he would later transfer to England upon succeeding Elizabeth I in 1603. The North Berwick trials effectively instigated what would become decades of suffering in the Kingdom of Scotland and England in the years to come. It would take until 1727 for the final execution on suspicion of witchcraft to happen in Scotland, whilst in England, it wasn’t until the passing of the 1735 Witchcraft Act that all formal trials and executions were outlawed.

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