In early modern Scotland witches and witchfinding became something of a national obsession. Between 4,000 and 6,000 people were tried for witchcraft in this period, but the number of people executed is unknown. Estimates vary but it could have been more than 1,500 people.
A high proportion of those accused, a shocking 84%, were women. This witch-mania reflected a general trend across Europe, but in Scotland the public’s fears were exacerbated by the passing of the Witchcraft Act in 1563, which made being a witch or consulting a witch a capital crime, punishable by death.
In Scotland, those who were found guilty of witchcraft were strangled and then burned. King James VI (1566-1625) further fuelled the nations fear of witches and witchcraft by publishing his very own book on the subject in 1589, ‘Daemonologie’, which ended up influencing Shakespeare to write Macbeth. The first major witch trials in Scotland took place in the picturesque seaside town of North Berwick in 1590 after James VI returned from Denmark, where witch trials were all the rage.
After experiencing violent storms on returning to Scotland by sea with his Danish wife, Princess Anne, he decided to set up his own witch trials to find the witches responsible for causing this abrupt and potentially life-endangering change in the weather.
The causes of the Scottish witch trials and witch hunts are complex, but perhaps unsurprisingly most of the individuals identified as witches were people who didn’t fit in or who challenged authority; older women, folk healers, and outspoken women. Relatives of those initially accused could also become embroiled and accused just by association. Confessions were extracted using a variety of unpleasant methods, with Scottish methods being recognised as particularly brutal. These trials seem like something straight out of a Susan Hill story, but they had a huge impact on the country and communities they affected. So, as it is Halloween, we thought we would take a look at how the witch craze affected Stirling, and its inhabitants.
Thanks to initiatives like the Witches project at the University of Edinburgh we can now place accused witches within our towns, cities, and villages. From 2017 to 2019 a team at the University of Edinburgh used a variety of historical records to ‘geographically locate and visualise the different locations recorded within the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database’. The result is a rather chilling interactive map of Scotland which reveals the places of residence of accused witches, a terrifying 3,141 people. In Stirling 33 people were accused over the course of the 17th century, unfortunately, there are gaps in the historical record, so whilst we know the names of the majority of accused witches, we don’t know if they were executed after they were tried. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh suggest that 67% of those accused in Scotland were executed, so some of Stirling’s witches certainly could have been.
In 1615 in Stirling Helen Nicoll and her daughter Issobell Atkine who lived on what is now King Street, were accused of witchcraft relating to the use of ‘charms’. Issobell eventually confessed to ‘charming’ and her mother was then implicated, but the result of their trial is not recorded. In 1659 49-year-old Stirling resident Bessie Stevenson confessed to ‘being with’ Satan for 24 years. Bessie practiced folk healing and even admitted to using the nearby St. Ninian’s Well waters to heal people, as well as curse them. She was imprisoned in Stirling, where her confessions were extracted, and she was tried at the Tolbooth. She was found guilty, but her fate is not recorded. In 1677 Mary Mitchell was accused of murdering two sons of Robert Douglas of Barloch by drowning.
She was also imprisoned in the Tolbooth in Stirling, before being transferred to Edinburgh’s Tolbooth. She was ‘pricked’; whereby a person’s body is pricked with pins to find a Devil’s Mark. A Devil’s Mark was left on the body of a witch after they had made a pact with the devil and could be anything from innocuous blemishes to rashes or moles, which if pricked were not painful and did not bleed. During this process, Mary was held in prison for 15 weeks, but she was one of the lucky ones, at her trial she was found not guilty and was released.
These are the stories just three of the accused witches from Stirling, so to discover more, visit the Witches map web page. Oh, and when you’re walking past the Tolbooth, now a modern events space, think about the medieval building which sat there previously, and all the witches who were held and tried within its walls…