Witchcraft is a universal practice of magic and supernatural powers that spans throughout time and place. The common element of all witchcraft is general evil (Larner, 1981). Compared to other European countries, Scotland had the highest number of accusations from the 16th to 18th century, making Scotland one of the countries with the most witchcraft activity (Larner, 1981). The records show that as many as 3219 men and women were accused of witchcraft and researchers estimate a 60% execution rate for those accused (Willumsen, 1948). People were accused of demon pacts, devil charges, white magic, as well as other charges. Confessions were often extracted through various torture methods such as sleep deprivation, rope binding, and feet burning. The trials should be remembered as a dark chapter of Scotland’s history: a period where courts accepted neighbour and children’s testimonies as evidence and stacked great odds against any poor soul who was accused (Poole, 2012).
Generally, women were persecuted more than men for witchcraft across Europe, and this trend also occurred in Scotland. With this information, we want to explore possible gender disparities in other stages of Scottish witchcraft trials from 1563 to 1736 besides the number of accusation records to obtain an image of how gender would impact how one was treated. We are interested in accusation attributes (what constituted being labelled as a witch), torture, and trial verdicts across counties in Scotland. In examining this, we also pay attention to the county where each case was recorded and hope to attain greater insight into a potential relationship between geographical location and the witch hunts.
In 1563, the Protestant Church passed the Scottish Witchcraft Act, criminalizing witchcraft and consultations with witches. Accused individuals were prosecuted based on the 1486 treatise “Malleus Maleficarum,” written in Germany, which describes the beliefs of witches, methods to identify them, and ways to convict and execute them. After this treatise became popular, witch hunts were initiated throughout Europe. In 1567, King James VI (King James I of England) became king of Scotland.
King James VI frightened all of Scotland with his fear of witches and prompted national panics that would set the stage for the torture and execution of thousands for the next two hundred years. He believed he was the target of an attempted assissination in 1590, so he personally tried three people and had them publicly tortured and killed. A national panic of intensive hunting occurred in 1590 and lasted until 1591. During this time, King James VI printed the “Newes from Scotland” to recount and illustrate the account of those three witches who attacked him. The written work instilled and intensified a strong fear of witches amongst the people. He then continued interrogating accused individuals, and many of the confessions were extracted under torture.
In 1597, he wrote another book “Daemonologie” which attempted to elaborately prove the existence and dangers of witchcraft. The compendium also lists the trials and punishments for the practices. There were some rises and falls in the recorded cases, but 1597 had the sixth highest recorded cases in our dataset. Another national panic occurred during the years 1628 to 1630 with the fifth highest number of records. In 1649, a second Witchcraft Act was passed, giving more power to the church courts in order to create a more godly society. That same year saw the second highest number of recorded cases. The year 1650 saw the fourth highest number of cases. The highest number of cases was in 1662 and third highest was in 1661.
Map of Scottish counties from 1500-1700’s
Description of the Map of Counties
A disproportionate number of witchcraft cases occur in the Lowlands of Scotland, while few were located in the Highlands. This is notable because it highlights geographical disparities across the country in witchcraft cases. A possible reason for the Highlands having fewer cases its unique governing system. The Highlands had clan authority, with lower ties to the church and state institutions, which were the main driving forces of witch accusal and prosecution (Goodare, 1998). On the other hand, the Lowlands were under the strict authority of the church and state, which fostered higher numbers of witchcraft cases (Goodare, 1998). This ties into the significant role the church and state played in the witch trials; without the church and state imposing on clan authority, fewer women and men were accused of witchcraft.
The Highlands had significantly fewer number of cases compared to the Lowlands. The Lowland counties with the highest recorded cases were Haddington (543), Fife (381), and Edinburgh (372). Aberdeen straddles between both areas, which may explain why it has the largest amount of accustions occurring in the Highlands. Although Dunbarton, Stirling, Perth, Kincardine, Banff, and Aberdeen are labelled as either Highlands or Lowlands, they are actually straddle between the two regions.
How did we find the coordinates of the counties?
We found the coordinates dating back to the witchcraft time periods in order to create accurate maps of Scotland during the 16th to 18th century. The most accurate coordinates we found were through the National Library of Scotland’s interactive map. We filtered the map by county and set the year to 1707, since the counties from the original data set were taken from county boundaries of 1707. From that, we recorded the longitude and latitude for a general point of each county. We could not map the county borders because the county boundaries of Scotland have changed since the 1700s and there is no known information on exact boundaries.