Scotland has had some problems with witchcraft for years! All those pesky sorceresses have been poisoning the wells, killing off the livestock, and spreading the plague since the beginning of time! But when did witches and the devil’s brides really come to light in Scotland? When did the downfall of women like Geillis Duncan begin? Gather ’round, fellow Sassenachs and I’ll tell you the story of witchcraft in Scotland…and it doesn’t begin with ancient druids…
Picture it, Scotland, 1563. The crops are failing, the animals are sick, and the children are all being born weak. Things aren’t looking too good and they can’t figure out why. They’ve been to church, pay their taxes, and try to be good people. So, obviously, it must be the work of the devil. And the historic tools of the devil’s work? Wayward women, who are often swayed by promises of beauty, wealth, and the power sorcery can provide. That gave birth to the Witchcraft Act of 1563, which was based on several others put into action in England. It made witchcraft and associating with witches a capital offense. Sound familiar?
There were a few witchcraft trials here and there in Scotland, but the North Berwick trials from 1590 to 1592 put them all to shame. They involved nobles, various countries, and 70 victims who were put to death…one such person was named…Geillis Duncan.
I know this might not be a shocker if you like to dabble in history, ever gave Geillis a google search, or read one of our previous Outlander posts about the real history mentioned in the books. But Geillis was a real, flesh and blood, woman whom the book character was based on. First, let’s talk about how these trials first started and then get into how Geillis got roped in.
The real trials began with King James of Scotland, who had been very nonchalant about earlier talks of witchcraft in Scotland. But rough sailing in 1589 changed all that. There were so many violent storms during his way to pickup his new wife Anne of Denmark, and on his way home, that he thought it would only be the work of witches. In his mind, no one else would dare mess up his blessed nuptials.
I mean, as anyone who has ever planned a wedding knows, it’s stressful enough without witches ruining your big day. And since James had the pleasure of seeing a few witch trials in Denmark and learning how their tried their witches, he knew he needed to clean up his country. So he dipped back to the Witchcraft Act of 1563 and pushed it to those in power, giving way to the North Berwick trials, which James couldn’t help but attend.
With the green light from the king, there were arrests left and right. The charges, beside overall sorcery, were things like poison, trying to sink the king’s ship, killing a neighbor, and overthrowing the monarchy with help from the devil. Getting someone arrested for witchcraft was as easy as a pointed finger and a bad word. Hmm…reminds me of someone…
Anyways, once someone in North Berwick was accused of dancing with the devil, the torture would begin. I’m not going to be graphic, but in evolved poking, pricking, beating, drawing, and many other violent ways where the victim would be basically forced to not only confess to witchcraft, but also name the other members in their “coven”. This created a domino effect that ended up with even more people being tried.
Geillis Duncan was nothing but a lowly maid in Tranent when she was arrested. Her employer accused her of having magical healing powers and generally sneaking around to do the devil’s bidding. What followed were weeks of torture, the finding of a so-called “Witches Mark”, and her naming more than 7 fellow witches, who were also tried and put to death by hanging.
Geillis Duncan’s confession
Then there were the Great Scottish Witch Hunts of 1597, 1628, 1649, and 1661. Each time, hundreds of accused witches would be arrested, tried for their supposed crimes, and then put to death. Torture was throughout, and the loose tongues brought on by hot pokers and pliers resulted in more “confessions” and accusations. In 1597 almost 400 people were put in trial throughout Scotland with around 200 being executed. In the last hunt, in 1661, nearly 700 people were tried in a 16 month period.
By the time of the last witch trial in 1727, between 4,000 and 6,000 people were tried with around 2,000 actually being executed. It declined mainly for two reasons, the first being that a larger portion of the population was getting educated. The second was when Scotland became a commonwealth to England in 1652, which largely took the power of the smaller Scottish courts…not that it really made much of a huge difference at first. The hysteria over witchcraft really came to an official end in 1763 when the British government repealed the original Witchcraft act of 1573, making the whole “death to witches” thing legally impossible. Good news, right, Claire?
Finally, what made someone a prime target to be tried as the devil’s mistress in those days? Certainly not just a rocking’ bod and a soul you’re willing to bargain for. A witches’ mark was one of the first things the captors searched for. Now these weren’t all forms of birthmarks, but if there was a raised feature on your body like a mole, wart, or even ac actual third nipple, they would claim it was the teat from which you fed your familiar, the personal helper of the accused. Usually, these perfectly normal marks would be pricked to check for bleeding, since everyone knows that black cats and crows only drink blood.
And not just birthmarks were in the spotlight, your ability to say certain prayers would be tested as well as your ability to handle holy items like crucifixes and the sacraments. They would also take a look at your livestock. If you had a shifty looking rooster or an owl roosted in the barn that couldn’t say The Lord’s Prayer, they were probably in league with the devil, thus helping you in your evil schemes. And if you had the misfortune to have a spouse die? Obviously that would be a sign that you’ve killed them off. And finally, after all the torture and seeing if you died when thrown in a river or hung from a tree, they would ask again the most important question…
That’s all for this week! I hope you liked reading a bit more about the witch trials in Scotland and you come back soon to see what else we have cooking for season three. If you want to read our other posts, or even take our Outlander witch quiz, click HERE!
And did you see our product review this morning? This great shop Fangirl Pixie Jar is selling Outlander, and other fandom, necklaces for only $12.35 and that’s without the 15% discount that comes only from us! To see more, click HERE!
My blog partner Sarah’s latest book just came out and it’s my fav of her college romance series. So if you like steamy stories, bad boys with hearts of gold, street racing, true love, and some action, click HERE to preorder Third Wheel now!
Finally, I personally have two romance novels out that are set in Scotland! The third book will be out soon, but the first two are all set for your reading pleasure. Queen of Emeralds is available HERE and The Amethyst Bride can be picked up HERE!