Mary Irvine’s Blog: Something for Hallowe’en

Witch Hunting in Scotland

Scotland was one of the countries in Europe where a lot of witch hunting took place. There were five national large scale witch hunts in Scotland between 1590 and 1662. Most of these were concentrated in the East Coast and the Borders, but there were also cases in the West. Not all witches were women. In Dumbarton in February 1656 John McWilliam, a slater, was accused of witchcraft. He was found guilty, strangled and burned; the usual punishment for Scottish witches. English witches were not usually strangled before being burned. 

Witches in Dumbarton

Dumbarton doesn’t seem to have gone in for a lot of witch-hunting. If you’re interested in the subject you have to go a little further afield. Paisley has a much greater number of witch hunts also hauntings and ‘possessions’. It was the general custom for accused witches to be held in tollbooths – there were some five accused witches held in a Dumbarton tollbooth in 1677 . Presumably this would be the tollbooth formally on the high Street. 

Daemonologie1 witches being tortured

James VI and I (1566-1625), Public domain, via Wikimedia Common

Witches were hunted down and in 1628 Janet Boyd, wife of Dumbarton man Robert Neill*, confessed to the provost, bailies and minister of Dumbarton that she had entered into a contract with the devil. She had been tortured, of course, before confessing that she had received his mark, had renounced her baptism and had “carnal dealings” with him “and that she had laid sundry diseases on different people by the powers granted to her by the devil”.

Later in the same year Janet Donald, wife of Humphrey Colquhoun, and two other local women were lodged in the tollbooth and charged with witchcraft. After almost a year in the tollbooth Janet Donald was taken out to be strangled with a rope and then burned at the stake.

At that time it was thought that the possession of the Devil’s mark on the skin, a spot insensitive to pain, was proof that a person was a witch or a warlock. For some men it was a full-time occupation, pricking the skin of witches with needles, at a time when witch-hunting was rampant.

Witchcraft and James VI

James_I;_Daemonologie,_in_forme_of_a_dialogue._Title_page._Wellcome_M0014280, via Wikimedia Commons

Although witchcraft pre 1590 was illegal in Scotland no-one seemed overly concerned by the law. The year 1590 was significant as it was then that some 300 witches were accused of plotting to assassinate James VI by witchcraft. The evidence against them seems to be very tenuous, calling up a storm in an attempt to kill James and his new wife, Anne of Denmark, by drowning, on their way back to Scotland, wax images being made of James. Accusations of performing Satanic rites were added. Accounts of the events are sketchy but it is believed about 100 people were eventually put on trial. How many were found guilty and executed cannot be verified. There have been suggestions there was a political aspect to these accusations with the Earl of Bothwell being accused of complicity. There is no proof of this

James became interested in witchcraft and demonology. In 1597 his book on witchcraft called ‘Dæmonologie’ was published in Scotland. Later, when he became James 1 of England in 1603, it was also published there. The book bears strong witness to James’ belief in magic and witchcraft, firmly stating the only punishment for dabbling in either was death.

Janet Horne (died 1727) was an alleged witch from Scotland and the last person to be executed for witchcraft in the British Isles. Janet and her daughter were arrested in Dornoch in Sutherland and imprisoned on the accusations of her neighbours.

* At this time women didn’t always assume their husband’s name on marriage.

The above is taken from Book 3 of ‘Anne and Mary’s Local Tales’ – the Hallowe’en Edition (2017). Copies are available at £3 inc. p&p (UK only). All profits from this series go to the Beatson Cancer Charity. Over £600 has been donated  so far. To buy the book contact by email 

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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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