Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A new interactive map project from Edinburgh University charts the bloody wave of persecution directed at women accused of witchcraft in Scotland.
In 1662 a woman named Janet McNicol, who lived on the Isle of Bute in Scotland, went on trial for witchcraft. She confessed—possibly under torture—of having met the Devil three times, in the form of a leper, a “gross copperfaced man” and a good-looking fellow who saved her from drowning on the quayside. For reasons undetailed, McNicol managed to escape sentencing for 13 years. When she was captured in 1673, she was strangled and her body was burnt—the usual punishment for witches in Scotland.
Thanks to a newly published interactive map, a dark passage in the history of Scotland is being brought into the light: the country’s fierce, centuries-long persecution of people accused of being witches. From the mid-16th to the early 18th century, close to 4,000 people in Scotland—overwhelmingly women—were tried for witchcraft. Up to two thirds of this number may have been executed.
This during a period when brutal witch persecution was relatively common in Europe. But in Scotland, the number of accused witches reached four to five times the European average. The new map of Scottish witch trials, created by students at Edinburgh University with data provided by its school of history, doesn’t just highlight the breadth of this persecution. It tells us exactly who the victims were, where they lived or were tried and, in some cases, even what they said.
The map’s geolocations were collated by University of Edinburgh Data and Visualisation intern Emma Carroll and the university’s Wikimedian in Residence, Ewan McAndrew. Embedded above, it’s perhaps most easy to navigate on its own website, and it makes for fascinating, if grim, browsing.
Take the fate of another woman featured on the map, Agnes Sampsoune. Employed by locals in the lowland town of North Berwick as a healer and midwife—sometimes to people of high status—Sampsoune got caught up in the North Berwick Witch Trials. More than 70 people were investigated in these notorious trials, on suspicion of raising storms intended to drown Scotland’s King James VI and his new wife, Anne of Denmark, on wedding journeys they made across the North Sea to and from Scandinavia. After being made to suffer a “pain most grievous” Sampsoune ended up implicating 59 other people for witchcraft; she admitted, among other things, to traveling in a chimney-shaped boat to meet the devil at sea, and baptizing a cat.
Such details, likely forced under torture, pose as many questions as they answer. Why did Europe witness this unprecedented spike in witch persecution—and why did Scotland in particular experience it more intensely? The possible answers are various and complex.
Edinburgh University’s Julian Goodare is one of the researchers and compilers of the database upon which the map is based. In his book The European Witch Hunt, he sees parallels between the witch craze and modern anxieties: “Nowadays we have a wider range of cultural fears, such as fears of aliens, paedophiles or terrorists. Some of these fears are encouraged by politicians, or by commercial popular culture… [for example] belief in abduction by aliens is the modern cultural form of a sleep disorder that shaped some accusations of witchcraft and witches’ own confessions.”
There were nonetheless some preconditions to the persecution that were specific to Early Modern Europe. Fears of being attacked by neighbors through magical means are not unique to the time, and nor are beliefs that visions of the type reported by some witch suspects have supernatural inspiration. What is specific to this period, however, is a vision of demonic witchcraft—the idea of a person, usually a woman, who channels the Devil’s power (but doesn’t possess any of their own) after entering into a covenant with the Evil One.
This specifically religious crime was a concept propagated not so much by a superstitious general populace as by an educated, empowered elite. It’s possible to trace this clash of wordviews even in the excerpts included on the map, where magical beliefs, such as those expressed in 1616 by Elspeth Reoch of Orkney, are repeatedly interpreted as diabolical. While trial records reference the Devil, admissions from the accused often talk instead of folkloric beliefs, such as fairies and the Queen of Elphame.
The trials happened during a period when, due to the Protestant reformation, Northern Europe’s institutions of both spiritual and temporal power were shifting seismically—perhaps more so in Scotland than elsewhere. The country’s witchcraft act of 1563, which kick-started its witch craze, came just three years after Scotland officially adopted Protestantism. As the state was urging people to accept the new faith, persecution of witches was encouraged by the King himself: James VI (who later became James I of England) not only believed himself to have been the subject of witchcraft during his wedding voyage, he published a defense of witch-hunting in 1597 called Daemonologie.
Add to this an ingrained cultural misogyny that deemed women more open to corruption and periods of want that followed poor harvests, and you have the makings of an ongoing social panic in which women bore the brunt of widespread fear and religious upheaval.
Official belief in witchcraft drained away in Scotland in the early 18th century, until the witchcraft acts were repealed in 1735. In recent years, there has been a rediscovery of this bloody history—and a determination to commemorate more fully its victims. The skeleton of Lillias Adie, one of the few accused whose body was not burned after her death in prison in 1704, is due to be returned to a burial site reimagined as a memorial.
There are also plans to reconstruct a historic lighthouse as a national monument to victims of witch persecutions. In the meantime, Scots have use this new map as a way to reckon with this wave of cruelty that happened not just in a vaguely misty faraway time, but in places they know, in some cases just around the corner.