PAPER 3 - Witches c1580-c1750 - North Berwick 1590-91 REVISION


The North Berwick witches in Scotland, 1590-91 and the aftermath to 1597


The importance of North Berwick

A large number of women were accused (along with a minority of men). They were charged with fraternising with the Devil. A case of maleficium was central to the case.

Maleficium - Latin term means "wrongdoing" or "mischief", and describes malevolent, dangerous, or harmful magic. In general, the term applies to any magical act intended to cause harm or death to people or property.

Witch-hunting in Scotland

More widespread and intense than England, for a number of reasons:

Þ      Scotland had a less complex system of government than England. With fewer royal agents at the monarch’s disposal, local officials were allowed to pursue witch-hunts without interference, which typically resulted in trials dominated by feuds and paranoid neighbours.

Þ      According to the law, torture could only be used with the consent of the Privy Council/parliament of Scotland, however the monarchy was weak and local judges would allow torture without repercussions. Unlike England, the swimming test was hardly used.

Þ      A simple majority was needed to find a defendant guilty, rather than a unanimous decision.

Þ      The nature of religion played a part. Scotland witnessed a Protestant reformation but on stricter, Calvinist lines. Anti-Catholic feelings heightened leading to well-established suspicion. 

Þ      Scotland was poor, the Devil would supposedly offer ‘eternal riches’.

Þ      The children of accused witches often received the same reputations as their parents, and were referred to as a ‘witch’s get’.

Þ      Deeply held belief of fairies and folk magic used for helpful purposes.

Scotland between 1563-1727 had 402 confirmed trials, 216 executions, meaning 54% were executed.

Why did the persecutions begin?

Witch-hunting in the late 16th century

The majority of hunts happened in the South, where there were closer links to England, and away from the Highlands.

The Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 was passed under Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. She was heavily influence by Calvinist clergymen keen to enforce godly morals.

Commissions of judges could be set up under the Witchcraft Act to investigate cases, so were sent around the country when required. Witchcraft was one of the few crimes that could be dealt with on a national scale, rather than local one.

1590-91 were some of the tensest times for witch-hunts Scotland had seen. Accusations would peak at times of crisis or economic difficulty, such as years of poor harvest, political upheaval or war.

Witchcraft Act 1563 – The Act forbid anyone to use witchcraft or sorcery, or to consult with anyone claiming to be a witch. Both the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches were capital offences, resulting in the death penalty.

Gilly Duncan’s confessions

North Berwick persecutions began with her confession.

She was believed to have unnatural healing abilities. She’d never attempted healing before but began visiting her neighbours and the sick in effort to help. Some of her patients made miraculous recoveries. Yet some were suspicious…


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