Kirk of Carnwath

Witchcraft in Scotland

The Scottish Witchcraft Act was passed in 1563 during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. Mary’s son King James VI became obsessed by witchcraft after witnessing trials during a trip to Denmark. On the return voyage his ship was nearly wrecked, and the King blamed the storms on witches who wanted to kill him and his new bride. People from East Lothian were quickly rounded up, accused of being witches and executed. 

Scotland prosecuted more people for witchcraft than any other country in Europe: over 4000 people were accused of witchcraft and about 2500 executed. At the time the country had a population of less than one million people meaning that few communities were untouched.

What exactly was witchcraft?

Witchcraft is supernatural evil, individual witches are evil persons, and individual acts of witchcraft are specific evil acts performed through supernatural powers.
The characteristic acts of witchcraft being that a witch should feel malice against an individual who has offended her and through cursing, incantation, sorcery, or the sheer force of her will cause illness or death to the livestock, family or person of the individual concerned.

Christina Larner, 1981

In Scotland, most allegations of witchcraft included testimony of the accused’s dealing with Satan. This ‘evidence’ now seems ridiculous but it had deadly consequences. Katherin Shaw from Carnwath parish was accused of witchcraft in 1644 following the intervention of Hew Kennedie, minister at Calder. Kennedie wrote to James Douglas, minister at Carnwath, to report that Helen Stewart from Calder had named Katherin as a witch. The Record of the Privy Council, recorded evidence of Katherin’s encounters with the devil:

She confest in generall, that it was of treuth that she had bene in the devill service and had renuncit hirself saule and bodie to him (RPC, p156)

The record notes that the Devil visited her in the night at her home in the form of a ‘meikle rouch dog’ {a big rough, shaggy, dog} and ‘ane colt foill’ {a colt foal} her neighbour, and her dead husband. Katherin was found guilty of this and executed.

For some of the accused their ordeal began when a neighbour or relative blamed them for something unfortunate that had happened such as a cow becoming sick or a crop failing. However, others just had the bad luck of being named by another person during a brutal interrogation.