North Berwick hugs the coast of East Lothian, not too far from Edinburgh, in Scotland. Today, if you walked along the streets there, you’d see a small and sleepy fishing town with lovely houses and kind people. This picturesque piece of land is also one of the sights of the most brutal and unforgiving Witch Trials in all of Scotland. In November 1590, David Seton accused his servant, Geillis Duncan, of being a witch. This one accusation was the very start of the now infamous North Berwick Witch Trials. Geillis Duncan was likely accused because she was a well-known healer in the area. Seton tortured Duncan and forced her to name other accomplices and witches.
Geillis, the first to be accused, was a well-known healer in the area. She was suspected (and later accused) of being a witch because some of her healings worked too well, according to local townsfolk. She was officially accused and subsequently tortured by her employer, David Seton. Although at first she claimed innocence and no have no dalliance with the devil, after so much torture the young woman finally broke. She confessed that she was a witch, had sold her soul to the devil, and all of his masterful healings were work of the devil. However, there wasn’t enough for her accusers to be sated. They continued the torture until she would name her coven. Breaking, once again, she named several others...many of them healers in town. The people accused now fit the stereotypes we in the contemporary age are familiar with when it comes to witch-based accusations. For example, Barbara Napier who was the powerful widow of an Earl, Eupherria Maclean the daughter of a local lord, Agnes Sampson a midwife and healer, and Dr. John Fian, a local school master. All of Geillis’ confessions could not save her, though. Gellis Duncan was burned at the stake.
The exact number of the accused and murdered is unknown, however somewhere between 70-200 witches were accused during this time in North Berwick and from several surrounding areas. Young women, like Geillis, who were known healers soon found themselves swept up in the madness. North Berwick became the epicenter of a rash of witch accusations and trials, with local gossip saying that the Devil met with many in the North Berwick churchyard at the witching hour. According to Witchcraft and Witches.com, “on Halloween of 1590, the Devil had the witches dig up corpses and cut off different joints or organs which were then attached to a dead cat and thrown into the sea in order to call up the storm which had nearly shipwrecked the King’s ship.” It is the implication that the witches of North Berwick had conspired against the king that would continue to raise the madness.
The reason James VI was in a ship in the first place was because he was journeying to Denmark for his new wife, Anne of Denmark in 1589. However, storms during the crossing proved too severe and the ship and the king were forced to retreat. James, unable to find a suitable solution, was convinced that his misfortune was caused by the menacing witches of North Berwick, which he had her rumors about.
James’ interest in witches, magic, and the occult is a very storied one and difficult to go into (and, honestly, deserves its own post) so, to make things simple here I will say that James wrote a book called “Daemonologie” which explored these strange subjects and some time later began a distinctive crusade against the wonders which he once wrote about.
Agnes Sampson, who I mentioned above, was personally inspected and interviewed by King James at his palace, Holyrood House. According to records, she was fastened to the wall of her cell with an iron instrument consisting of four sharp prongs forced into the mouth, two on the tongue and two on the cheeks. This instrument has many names, including the “Witch’s Bridle” and the “Scold’s Bridle.” If you think it would be hard to make a confession or defend yourself with this kind of contraption, you would be correct. After wearing this, being denied sleep, and other misfortunes she eventually confessed and was strangled and burned as a witch.
The trials in North Berwick would produce a pamphlet entitled “Newes from Scotland” which detailed the King’s role in the recent trials and began a rash of witch accusations, trials, and burnings.