From the year 1563 to 1736 Scotland saw almost four thousand witch trials, with as many as 67% of the accused being executed by fire.
Two of the greatest concentrated periods of witch trials occurred under the stewardship of King James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots, who would come to succeed the English Queen Elizabeth in 1603. That year, lawmakers in London would also draft a new witchcraft act that created a two-tier system of trials, dramatically increasing the number of death sentences for the most serious categories of witchcraft.
And yet, James’ position on Witchcraft was never entirely clear. Throughout his reign he seemed to swing from belief to scepticism.
Witchcraft During James’ Childhood
James’ childhood was difficult and unhappy. Passed as a token between various powerful and ambitious men, his kingdom was run ragged and pushed to the verge of bankruptcy. It was also divided by tensions between the orthodox church rulership of the Bishops, and the desire for grass roots faith promoted by Presbyterian ministers.
In 1573, the Kirk (the Scottish church) ruled fairly moderately, stating that those who consulted witches, “The Kirk presentlie assemblit ordaines all Bishops, Superintendents, and Commissioners to plant kirks, to call all sick persons as salbe suspect to consult with withches before them, at their awin particular visitations, or vtherwayes; and if they be found to have consulted with the saids witches, That they cause them make publick repentance in sackcloath vpon ane Sonday in tyme of preaching, vnder the paine of excommunicatioun; and if they be disobedient, to proceid to excommunication, dew admonition preceiding.”
In 1576, when James was still very much a background figure in his own Kingdom, which was under the regency of James Douglas, the fourth Earl of Morton, Scotland saw the trial of cunning woman Bessie Dunlop – a fairly rare phenomenon for the era of the witch trial.
As Prof. Owen Davies confirmed in the research for his book Popular Magic, most defendants tried as witches were involved in no real attempts at magic whatsoever. Dunlop, however, was different. She was a local wise woman in Leith who dream travelled to a land known as ‘Elf-hame’. She had a close relationship with her guardian spirit, a fairy/dead man called Thom Reid. She was known in her area as someone able to predict the weather and heal the sick. She used the divination technique of ‘sieve and shears’ to find lost property.
She was found guilty and burned. However, the most important witch trials of James’ regency were still in the future.
Rebellion and a Witch
By 1585, James had broken free of the succession of regents, established his own rulership and begun to financially rebuild the nation. However, his advisors were concerned with his not having shown any interest in succession. The only interest James had shown in another had been his male cousin Esme Stuart, leaving Scotland without any prospect of an heir. Willing to listen to his trusted councillors, James began negotiations with the royal house of Denmark for the hand of their eldest daughter, Elizabeth.
When the Earl of Huntley rebelled, and James’ once-loyal cousin – Francis Stewart, fifth Earl of Bothwell – joined him, James was swift in meeting their forces Aberdeen, during which time he ventured inside the city to meet a wise woman there who had been accused of witchcraft.
The woman was Marion McIngaroch, who had become involved in a dispute between Hector Munro and his stepmother, Katherine, the Lady Foulis. The two had been involved in attempting to kill Munro’s stepbrother, Robert, ten years earlier, but now after a quarrel Hector was set on saving Robert and seeing his wicked stepmother punished.
Hector called three witches to attempt magic that could save his sick, supposedly bewitched, brother, stealing hair and fingernails to cast spells that would save him. Unfortunately, not only did they fail, but within a year Hector himself lay sick, and found himself calling for Marion McIngaroch.
Marion had advised Hector that his illness could not be cured, only passed on to another, leading him to choose his kinsman George, Lady Katherine’s eldest son. Although George did not immediately die, Hector recovered after a macabre ritual involving Marion in a psychopomp role and Hector buried in a ceremonial grave.
It was into this drama that the young and newly victorious James entered. The power play between Hector and Lady Katherine was in full force. Hoping to observe the spell in action Hector had brought Marion to his uncle George’s house, possibly engaging in a sexual relationship with her.
Hector tried to conceal her from the King’s requests for an interview until Lady Katherine made it impossible, finally bringing the local witch to a meeting where James quizzed her on magical matters and persuaded her to show him some magical stones that she used in curing – which he confiscated and gave to the Justice-Clerk. No other action, however, was taken.
A Storm and the New Queen
Victorious, James could now concentrate on the arrangements for his marriage, agreeing a union with a younger Danish princess: Anne. James sent the Earl Marischal to Copenhagen, where he took James’ role in a proxy marriage. By late August 1589 James had received news that the marriage was done, and he journeyed to await his bride at the Seton household.
By mid-September, the new Queen Anne hadn’t arrived. Another of James’ trusted advisors had been despatched to the continent to find the royal ship. After repeated storms had damaged both the vessel and its escorts, the party had decided to return to Copenhagen overland, and James decided to leave Scotland, marrying the Anne in person and only returning to Scotland the following Spring.
The trip back was equally storm tossed, with James returning to Scotland, to find that Admiral Munk had identified six women as witches who had caused the storm, resulting in their being executed only a few weeks after James and his bride returned to Scotland.
It was here that problems began to surface: Spanish propagandists had claimed that James had survived a magical storm by using a Catholic prayer taught to him by his mother, Queen Mary. Even at home in Scotland, troubles of witchcraft were brewing. During the James’ long wait at the Seton home, a local healer named Agnes Sampson (again, it is very unusual to see a genuine magical practitioner in one of these cases) had been arrested by authorities at Haddington.
During her interrogation, and that of a young woman named Gellis Duncan, Sampson had a particular statement attributed to her: that the new queen would only return to Scotland if James fetched her himself. With the king disquieted, and the eyes of Scotland upon him, this would be the remark that started a witch hunt.
If we are to believe the rather lurid pamphlet Newes From Scotland, King James was initially sceptical of Sampson’s magical powers. He questioned her and remained unconvinced until she took him aside and whispered not only the words he had spoken to Anne on their wedding night, but also described the spell by which she would have killed him with magic, should she have been able to obtain a piece of his clothing.
James’ inquisitiveness and disbelief rings true here. Agnes Sampson’s confession is said to have been so ‘wonderous’ and unbelievable that he calls both women liars, and when told that Gellie Duncan can play the Jew’s Harp he has her summoned so that she can demonstrate it to him. Yet… the women are eventually convicted.
Kirk, State and Presbytery
It was certainly convenient that the witches –interrogated by the aforementioned Bothwell’s arch-rival John Maitland – implicated the earl as the witch master in their depositions, hiring them for a magical hit on the young James, but another tension had been in play.
James’ final regent had also been his kidnapper – William Ruthven, the Earl of Gowdie. Gowdie had not only wanted financial reform within the country, since the Duke of Lennox’s lavish spending was doing nothing for a crippled treasury, but was also a prominent Presbyterian whose regency had been characterised by an attempt to break the Kirk away from the rule of the Bishops.
Upon breaking free from Gowdie’s clutches, James had been ruthless in his suppression of militant Presbyterians, causing many of them to flee Scotland and take refuge elsewhere. However, by 1590 James’ Chancellor, John Maitland, had rebuilt bridges with major Presbyterian figures and tempted them back to take up roles within James’ new government.
This solidarity between the Scottish kirk and the Presbyterian movement removed a potential thorn from James’ side, and witchcraft was one place where it was relatively harmless for James’ government and the Presbyterian movement to agree. When the preacher James Carmichael was tempted back to Scotland it’s little wonder he was given the role of Judge of Ecclesiastical Causes, stating that “Satan and all of his minions shall be hounded out of their nests.”
The witch hunt also allowed James to demonstrate his principals of divine kingship: that the king was chosen by God and the enemy of Satan; invulnerable to Satanic forces and more than human: in Ben Jonson’s Masque of Queens he sought to flatter both Anne and James by having them dispel witches’ power with the radiance of their legitimate monarchy. Even Anne’s arrival in Scotland was marked by a ceremony of sacralisation, reluctantly endorsed by the Kirk as a civil ceremony where Anne was anointed with oil.
James’ Belief in Witchcraft
James certainly had a curiosity about the world and the supernatural. His avidness in interviewing Marion McIngaroch and personal role in the interviews of the North Berwick Witches show that. However, his time as King in Scotland also saw, as it would too in England, his acting in a role of moderator as well as persecutor.
In 1592, after the trial of the victims accused by Agnes Sampson and Gellis Duncan – collectively known as the ‘North Berwick Witches’ – James had empowered a number of local commissioners, devolving the power to hunt witches to local officers.
This began Scotland’s most fertile period of witch hunting. While the most pronounced spike in trials had been 1590-91, prosecutions certainly continued through the next five years.
In James’ State Papers for 1597, though, we find a seemingly innocuous question. At the assembly of the Kirk of Scotland, where the Commissioners from Scotland’s various towns and shires were convened, a question was listed to be asked: “To advyce with his Majestie, if the carieing of prosest witches from towne to towne, to try witchcrast in vthers, be laufull ordinar tryall of witchcrast, or nocht.”
At the time, the Presbytery resolved to redouble its resolve against witches, but the question itself had come about due to a case from Glasgow. Margaret Aitken, the ‘Great Witch of Balwery’ was said to have the power to recognise a fellow witch by simply looking her in the eye. She was trucked around from one village to another, identifying witches who were stripped of their property and tried, sending many of them to their deaths.
However, Aitken was a fraud. When a woman she had condemned was presented to her the following day in new clothes, she declared her free from all taint of witchcraft, and when brought to trial she freely confessed the whole thing. This led to the immediate revocation of most of James’ 1592 commissions to hunt witches and the start of a more cautious approach…
And yet, 1597 is also the year that we see the release of James’ Demonology, an affirmation of his belief in witches and the power of supernatural kingship to fight the powers of Satan. This pattern of caution, scepticism and reaffirmation is one that we shall see repeated in James’ regency over England when we look at his English kingship in our article next week, where we examine his debunking of demoniacs, his discrediting of child-witnesses in Leicester in 1616, and a further reaffirmation of his beliefs in a letter during the Francis Howard/Deveraux divorce case.
NOTE: as of 1953, a convention was established by none other than Winston Churchill that British monarch’s regnal numbers should list the highest number only. This means that Queen Elizabeth is not ‘Queen Elizabeth II & I’ in Scotland, and likewise, in this article I shall refer to James Stuart as ‘James VI’ and not the archaic ‘James VI & I’.