Witches of Scotland

Agnes Finnie and Witch Pricker at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, characters in the Edinburgh Dungeon Witch Hunt tour_Nick Mailer Photography

Agnes Finnie and Witch Pricker, characters in the Edinburgh Dungeon Witch Hunt tour © Nick Mailer Photography

Few things beat a good ghost story for making your skin crawl, and a dead witch has to be among the spookier ideas.

This year marks the 420th anniversary of Scotland’s Great Witch Hunt, and the country is going all out to seriously send chills down our spines with a series of events marking this dastardly episode.

The Great Witch Hunt of Scotland took place between March and October 1597, instigated by James VI. According to the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, more than 3,800 people, both men and women, were accused of witchcraft in Scotland during the period 1563 to 1736, which is when the Witchcraft Act was enforced in Scotland*. It’s believed that two-thirds of those accused were executed.

Discover this shady period and source inspiration for your own dark tales by visiting some of the key locations.

From the Witches Well at Castlehill in Edinburgh to monuments and rock formations attributed to witchcraft, there’s plenty to fire you up.

I’m intrigued by the revelation that the seaside town North Berwick was the setting for Scotland’s first mass witch trial, on 31 October 1590. Used to get rid of anyone who made the crown uneasy, accused witches from across Edinburgh and the Lothians were accused of attempting to prevent James VI bring his prospective bride home from Denmark through rituals such as throwing a cat into the sea. Almost all of the accused were tortured into confessing witchcraft, with the ‘Devil’s mark’ apparently found on their necks.

Then there’s the sculpture of Helen Duncan at Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum. Helen Duncan was the last person in Britain to be prosecuted as a witch, but this was far more recent than seems palatable. Born in Callander in 1897, was eventually tried at the Old Bailey in London in 1944, after scaring folks at the séances she held through Britain. On the night of 19th January 1944, one of Helen’s séances in Portsmouth was raided by police. Disturbingly, officers failed to stop the ectoplasm issuing from Helen’s mouth! After some order had been restored, Helen was formally arrested, and eventually brought to trial at the Old Bailey in London.

Equally unsettling is the memorial at Maxwellton Cross in Paisley, where a circle of cobblestones surrounds a steel horseshoe centered within a modest bronze plaque. Located in the middle of a busy intersection, it may not seem like much at first glance, but actually marks the final resting place of seven people put to death on charges of witchcraft. All seven bodies were burned, and the ashes buried at Maxwellton Cross, where the intersection of Maxwellton Street and George Street now stands.

Finally, don’t miss the Witch Hunt tours at Edinburgh Dungeon.

According to records, Agnes Finnie was one of Edinburgh’s most infamous witches. She reportedly lived in the Potterrow Port area of the city and was convicted of Witchcraft in 1644 with a total of 20 charges made against her.

Evidence of her dark magic include a retaliation to a young boy calling her names. Agnes publically cursed him, and within 24 hours he had completely lost the use of his left side and became bedridden with “so incurable a disease” that one week later, he was dead.

You can find out all about Agnes at the Edinburgh Dungeon Witch Hunt’s interactive tour, and even discover if you would be accused of being a witch yourself! If you happen to be a creative writer or artist, then I’m thinking the answer is probably yes.