Although widely discussed, witchcraft is in fact, an almost unknown subject.  Most people think of a witch as an old crone out of Walt Disney, with a peaked hat and a broomstick, accompanied by a cat poking her long bony fingers at her cowering victims – a misconception reinforced every year by the traditions of Halloween.  

The words witch and witchcraft, in everyday usage for over a thousand years, has undergone several changes of meaning; and today witchcraft, having reverted to its original connotation of magick and sorcery, does not convey the precise and limited definition it once had during the 16th and 18th centuries.  If witchcraft has never meant anything more than the craft of “an old”, weather-beaten crone, leaning on a staff, hollow-eyed, toothless mumbling through the streets Europe would not of suffered, for the three centuries from 1450 to 1750, the shocking nightmare , the foulest crime and the deepest shame of western civilisation.  The following witch trials is a slice of that crime and shame. 

An 1868 drawing of the former prison for witches, St Mary’s Chapel, after it was restored to religious use. Credit: Open Space Trust/Mither Kirk Project

Witch’ Prison Revealed in 15th-Century Scottish Chapel

A two inch wide metal ring was embedded into the north wall of St Mary’s Chapel in the church and was used to chain the suspected witches to the wall. The ring remains there to this day (pictured)

An iron ring set in the stone pillar of a 15th-century chapel in the Scottish city of Aberdeen may not look like much, but historians say it could be a direct link to a dark chapter in the city’s past — the trial and execution of 23 women and one man accused of witchcraft during Aberdeen’s “Great Witch Hunt” in 1597.

At least 400 people were put on trial for witchcraft and various forms of diabolism during the witch hunt. The exact number of those executed is unknown, but is believed to be about 200. (Wikipedia

After the reformation the church was divided into two churches, the East and the West. St Mary’s Chapel sits within the East Church and was used as a prison for witches

“I was skeptical, to be honest — the ring is not all that spectacular, but it is actually quite genuine,” said Arthur Winfield, project leader for the OpenSpace Trust in the United Kingdom, which is restoring the chapel as part of a community-based redevelopment of the East Kirk sanctuary at the historic Kirk of St Nicholas, in central Aberdeen.

Witches were often accused of ‘kissing the devil’s anus’ in trials during the witch hunts that swept across Europe during the 16th Century (drawing of the Obscene Kiss from Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum)

Winfield has stated that two places within the kirk (the Lowland Scots word for “church”) had been equipped as a prison for witches snared in the Aberdeen witch hunt: the stone-vaulted chapel of St Mary, and the tall steeple of the kirk, which was at that time the tallest structure in the city.  

Winfield said that neither location would have been warm in the winter of 1597, when those accused of witchcraft awaited trail, and likely their execution: “In the winter nowadays, the temperature gets down to 3 degrees [Celsius] in St Mary’s Chapel, and I guess it would be even colder up in the spire.”

Witch hunting in Scotland in the 16th century was not carried out by mobs with pitchforks, but by royal commissions at the orders of the king. As a result, Aberdeen’s city archives today hold meticulous original records of the witch trials and executions in 1597, including payments to a local blacksmith for the iron rings and shackles installed to imprison accused witches at the Kirk of St Nicholas.
The city records also detail the costs for the rope, wood and tar later used to burn the convicted witches at the stake, at Castle Hill and Heading Hill in Aberdeen, before large crowds of onlookers. As a small mercy, most of the condemned were strangled to death before their bodies were burned, according to the University of Edinburgh’s online Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.

The Great Witch Hunt 

Women accused of witchcraft being beaten in front of King James VI of Scotland. Pucture: Getty.

The North Berwick Witches

Witches are prepared for execution on the gallows. Picture: Getty

North Berwick saw Scotland’s first mass witch trial take place in the late 16th century, at a time where a climate of fear surrounding magic had already compelled the Scottish justiciary to put into law the Witchcraft Act in 1563.

Chris Croly, a historian at the University of Aberdeen, has indicated that Aberdeen’s Great Witch Hunt of 1597 was one phase of a wave of witch persecutions across Scotland sparked by the witchcraft laws of King James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England in 1603).  It is thought that the involvement of King James VI, proved instrumental in the execution of many of those suspected of witchcraft in these cases, illustrated that fear of sorcery transcended class barriers.

Alleged witches and warlocks from across Edinburgh and East Lothian were also implicated, including Agnes Sampson, Agnes Thompson, Doctor Fian, Robert Grierson, Barbara Napier and Euphame Macalyean.

“It is often said that Aberdeen burned more witches than anywhere else — that may not be entirely accurate, but what is absolutely accurate is that Aberdeen has the best civic records of witch burning in Scotland, and so it can appear that way,”  (Croly, 2016) 

He said the wave of witchcraft persecutions that began in Europe in the 15th century and reached Scotland in the 1590s, continued into the Americas in the 17th century and led to the infamous witch trials at Salem in Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693. 

Although the persecution of alleged witches took place in Christian Europe during the medieval period, it reached its peak during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. In that period, laws in many Catholic and Protestant countries brutally enforced the belief that witchcraft was the work of the devil.

Historians estimate that between 40,000 and 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft in Europe and the American colonies from the 15th to the early 18th centuries, and up to 75 percent of the victims were women.  Many Protestant and Catholic authorities at the time were united in a belief that witchcraft was the result of witches “communing with the devil” and that biblical scripture justified their execution

This excerpt is taken from a little book I own Caked Witchcraft and Demonology by Robbins published 1967 

One the most famous cases of the 1597 witch trials in Aberdeen involved two members of one family. The mother, Jane Wishart, was convicted of 18 counts of witchcraft, including casting spells that caused illness in her neighbors; inducing a mysterious brown dog to attack her son-in-law after an argument; and dismembering a corpse that hung on a gallows, to provide the ingredients for her magic.

Wishart’s son, Thomas Leyis, was also convicted of heading a coven of witches that had danced with the devil at midnight in Aberdeen’s fish market area. Both mother and son were strangled and burned, and the city records note that it cost “3 pounds, 13 shillings and 4 pence” to provide enough peat, tar and wood for Leyis’ pyre.

A picture of witchcraft from the book Newes From Scotland

Buried beneath the Kirk

In 2006 and 2007, the East Kirk of St Nicholas was the scene of a major archeological excavation before restoration work could be done to develop the former church as a community center. The redevelopment effort is known as the “Mither Kirk Project,” from the Lowland Scots words for “mother church.”  No remains of the accused witches were found at the site, and Croly noted that they would have been buried elsewhere, on “unhallowed ground.” But the excavations had provided archaeologists with an extraordinary look at the lives of the people of the city from the 11th to the 18th centuries, he said.

“Over the course of the excavation, the remains of more than 2,000 people, including 1,000 entire skeletons, were disinterred from grave sites that lay under the floor of the East Kirk” said Croly, who was Aberdeen’s city historian at the time of the excavations, and worked closely with city archaeologists on the project. 

It is thought that most  of the bodies were buried before the 1560s, when the Protestant Reformation in Scotland forbade burials inside churches, but the practice was profitable and continued in a small way until the 18th century.  

The excavations had also found evidence of earlier church buildings beneath the existing kirk that dated to the 11th century, and the graves of nine babies that had been laid out together in an arc near an 11th-century wall — possibly the victims of an epidemic of disease, Croly said. 

Now that archaeological tests on the bodies from the kirk have been completed, the Mither Kirk Project plans to hold a ceremony later this year to reinter the bodies in a vault beneath the current floor level.   At a later date, the former “prison for witches” in St Mary’s Chapel will be redeveloped as a “contemplative space,” said Arthur Winfield, the project leader for the OpenSpace Trust. “That space will be kept as an area of peace and tranquility — essentially, it is going to be respected for the chapel that it was, and will be again,” he said.

Modern Scottish Collections Curator, Nicola Stratton provides a fascinating insight into Scottish witches and witch hunts and highlights just a small sample of items in the National Library’s vast collections.

Twiggie Truth, 2016

Robbins, Rossel Hope, ed. (1959). “Aberdeen Witches”. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. Crown. p. 19.