Scotland has long been seen as a country steeped in history, with castles and other centuries-old buildings littering the landscapes. While many of these ruins tell their own dark and creepy tales, few dark stories seem to darken the entire country. However, recent evidence suggests that the area has an extensive history of witch trials, with Scottish witches numbering in the thousands.
Though these kind of stories have been made popular around the world – the Salem Witch Trials are known by countless people – Scotland appears to have had a much greater seal for the persecution of reported witches. The result? The trials of between four and five times more women than the rest of Europe.
Scotland’s History Of Witch Trials
The country got caught up in witch hunts at roughly the same time as many other countries, with this hysteria lasting between the 16th and 18th Centuries. As such, many of the trials – of which there were reportedly thousands – took place during this time frame. However, this hasn’t meant that all of the trials resulted in an accused’s death.
In contrast, a reported 123 Scottish witches were sentenced to death. According to a new map released by the University of Edinburgh Data and Visualisation, many of these took place in clusters. The university’s study, which draws on an extensive number of documents related to the trials, also shows that quite a large number of these took place in or around Edinburgh.
Fate Of The Accused
While many people familiar with the Salem Witch Trials may believe that they’re familiar with the how the trials took place, this may not be the case, especially with some of the lesser-known cases. Instead, research suggests that the accused Scottish witches may have been put through a horror of their own. In many cases, torture was common to produce a confession, regardless of whether it was true.
Take the North Berwick-based Agnes Sampsoune, who worked in the area as a midwife and healer in the 1600s. Despite being well-liked by locals and working for people of high status, Ms. Sampsoune was soon accused of witchcraft after storms almost killed Scotland’s King James VI and his wife, Anne of Denmark, as they traveled from Scandanavia.
This event led to the North Berwick Witch Trials, where 70 accused witches were investigated, including Agnes Sampsoune. She was reportedly tortured, leading to her implicating 59 other women of witchcraft while giving other apparent details.
This process – suspecting, torturing, and subsequently killing accused Scottish witches – was quite common across the country. Others somehow managed to escape while a large number were imprisoned indefinitely.
What Led To Hunting Scottish Witches?
While there were specific incidents that led to these women being accused of witchcraft, there are several theories as to why the overall hysteria began. Perhaps the most prevalent is engrained cultural fear. Julian Goodare, who was a part of the research team outlining the deaths of witches in Scotland, compares them to some modern scares.
Speaking to CityLab, Mr. Goodare says:
“Nowadays we have a wider range of cultural fears, such as fears of aliens, pedophiles or terrorists. Some of these fears are encouraged by politicians, or by commercial popular culture… [for example] belief in abduction by aliens is the modern cultural form of a sleep disorder that shaped some accusations of witchcraft and witches’ own confessions.”
Regardless of underlying causes, Scotland seems to be the leader in women accused of witchcraft throughout its history. Though many people may not believe in magic, it’s clear that a considerable number used to believe in Scottish witches.
The City of Glasgow Colleague put this short documentary together at the start of this year, you can hear from a modern-day witch and a local history professor.