The practice of witchcraft was widespread in 16th and 17th century Scotland. In 1563 during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots a law was passed making witchcraft a capital crime. Witchcraft was described as a “havy abominabill superstitioun”, “against the Law of God” “abusand the pepill”. In other words it was an offence against both God (and therefore the church) and society.
The passing of the Act did not immediately lead to a large scale witch hunt although there were a number of trials and executions between 1563 and 1590. The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597 took place during the reign of James VI who himself wrote his own work “Daemonologie” on the subject in 1597. The exact number of those executed at this time is unknown but believed to be about 200. This was the second of five nationwide witch hunts between 1590 and 1662. One of the most famous trials took place at North Berwick but many other areas were affected including Perthshire, Fife. Stirlingshire and specially Aberdeenshire.
“The Annals of Auchterarder and Memorials of Strathearn” recounts a record from the Register of The Privy Council on 1st May 1610. ‘The Drummonds of the Kirktown of Auchterarder appear to have been a troublesome family. John Drummond came under notice of the Privy Council of Scotland and he and Duncan Neishe, Burgess of the Cannongait as his cautioner had to grant bond of £500 not to harm David and Robert Grahame of Callander. The fate of Alexander Drummond, probably the father of John, was a tragical one. Without being a practiser of witchcraft in the acceptation of the term he used unlawful acts which brought him within reach of the Act of 1563. His crime appears to have been using charms for curing sickness both in men and cattle which he did openly. He was brought to trial in January 1629 and on 3rd July he was sentenced to death and suffered accordingly at the Market Cross of Edinburgh. One of the witnesses was Mr Freebairn, who was minister of Madderty from 1620 to 1657.’
This of course was in an age when medicine and doctors were not generally available so people turned to witches to cure illnesses and many of the herbs used then have now been shown to have medicinal benefits. Similarly in an age of ignorance some people thought that illnesses particularly in children such as epilepsy, convulsions and fevers were the work of witches. Often their fears were confirmed by unskilled Physicians.
Most of the persecuted were women, the traditional description of a witch as contained in “Scots Discover of Witchcraft “ 1665 which describes them as ‘ women which be commonly old, lame, blear eyed, pale, fowl and full of wrinkles’. A description which could be applied to many older women.
Scotland is estimated to have been Europe’s biggest persecutor of witches, in the 16th and 17th century it is thought that over 1500 people were executed, most were strangled then burnt. The last hanging for witchcraft took place in 1728.
Explore books about witchcraft in the Library any time during our opening hours.