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1590 in North Berwick, United Kingdom

The Witch Trials of North Berwick

Story - told by Philip Dainton

The sleepy old fishing town of North Berwick lies on the coast of East Lothian, east of Edinburgh. The beautiful scenery makes it easy to forget that it was the location of a devastating witch trail.
The North Berwick witch trails ran from 1590 to 1592, the man behind the trials was King James VI. A year or so prior to these events, the King was travelling to Denmark to collect his new bride Anne of Denmark. After experiencing severe storms, James was forced to take refuge on the coast of Norway before eventually having to turn back, being greeted by more storms on the return journey.

James VI, the admiral of the escorting Danish fleet and many others blamed the storms on witchcraft. The king became convinced that this was the work of the North Berwick witches, some even speculated at the time that one of them had sailed out to summon the storm.

Somewhere between 70-200 so called witches were implicated from Southern Scotland, including several nobles of the Scottish court. They had been accused of holding their covens, dancing and summoning the Devil in the village of North Berwick on the Auld Kirk Green, or St Andrews Kirk. They were put on trial, tortured and executed, however the exact number of suspected witches is not known.

In such a seemingly insignificant and small town, a remarkably bizarre belief that these victims were responsible for the storms that prevented James’ travels resulted in horrible tortures and executions. Torture devices of the time included the breast ripper, consisting of 4 pronged levers that would encase the breast of the accused and tear it from her chest. Another was referred to as the Scold’s Bridle, a device to fit around the head of the victim with metal protrusions that made it impossible to speak.

You could be accused for witchcraft simply for having a birthmark, or ‘Devil’s mark’, being left-handed or having red hair. Midwives, older women, or those that worked with herbs and medicine were commonly targeted.

A young servant called Gellie Duncan was one of the accused victims after her healing cures had been branded as miraculous and the work of a witch. The year was 1590 and Gellie had originally denied to any dealings with the Devil. However, after discovering a ‘Devil’s mark’ on her neck and torturing her for days she confessed to selling her soul to the Devil, being a witch and using the Devil’s power for her healing cures.

Under further torture, Gellie started naming accomplices including a local midwife, a school master, the widow of Earl Archibald of Angus, the 1st Earl of Bothwell and the daughter of Lord Cliftonhall. She was burned at the stake. The local midwife, Agnes Sampson also named more accomplices after excruciating torture and confessed to digging up corpses from the graveyards, dismembering them, tying the limbs to dead cats and throwing it into the sea to conjure up a storm in order to kill the King. Agnes was examined by the King himself, she was fastened to a wall of her cell in a Witch’s Bridle and kept without sleep until she confessed to the 53 indictments against her. Thereafter she was strangled and burned as a witch.

The school master was tortured extensively, including having his nails ripped out. Bloodied and crippled he never confessed, and only signed the confession out of trickery. It is estimated that 4000 accused witches may have been killed in Scotland from 1560-1707. 

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