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Popular Superstitions - Witches In Scotland

( Originally Published 1884 )

The following scarce pamphlet, entitled "News from Scotland," etc., was communicated by a constant reader. The singularity of it will justify the republication. The title runs thus : " News from Scotland, declaring the damnable life and death of Doctor Fian, a notable Sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in January last, 1591. Which doctor was register to the devil, that sundry times preached at North Baricke Kirke, to a number of notorious witches. With the true examination of the said doctor and witches, as they uttered them in the presence of the Scottish King. Discovering how they pretended to bewitch and drown his Majesty in the sea coming from Denmark, with such other wonderful matters as the like have not been heard of at any time. Published according to the Scottish copy. At London printed for Thomas Nelson" [1592]. [See ante, p. 233 ; Hazlitt, "Collections and Notes," p. 155.]


The manifold untruths which are spread abroad, concerning the detestable actions and apprehensions of those witches, whereof this history following truly entreateth, hath caused me to publish the same in print : and the rather for that sundry written copies are lately dispersed thereof, containing that the said witches were first discovered by means of a poor pedlar travelling to the town of Trenent, and that by a wonderful manner he was in a moment conveyed, at midnight, from Scotland to Burdeux in, France (being places of no small distance between) into a merchant's cellar there ; and after being sent from Burdeux into Scotland by certain Scottish merchants to the King's Majesty, that he discovered those witches, and was the cause of their apprehension : with a number of matters miraculous and in-credible : all which in truth are most false. Nevertheless, to satisfy a number of honest minds, who are desirous to be informed of the verity and truth of their confessions, which for certain is more strange than the common report runneth, and yet with more truth, I have undertaken to publish this short treatise, which declareth the true dis-course of all that hath happened, and as well what was pretended by those wicked and detestable witches against the King's Majesty, as also by what means they wrought the same.

All which examinations, gentle reader, I have here truly published, as they were taken and uttered in the presence of the King's Majesty, praying thee to accept it for verity, the same being so true that it can-not be reproved.

A true Discourse of the Apprehension of sundry witches lately taken in Scotland : whereof some are executed, and some are yet imprisoned. With a particular Recital of their examination taken in the presence of the King's Majesty.

God, by His omnipotent power, hath at all times and daily doth take such care, and is so vigilant, for the weal and preservation of His own, that thereby He disappointeth the wicked practices and evil in-tents of all such as by any means whatsoever seek indirectly to conspire any thing contrary to His holy will : yea, and by the same power He hath lately overthrown and hindered the intentions and wicked dealings of a great number of ungodly creatures, no better than devils : who, suffering themselves to be allured and enticed by the devil, whom they served, and to whom they were privately sworn, entered into the detestable art of witchcraft, which they studied and practised so long time, that in the end they had seduced by their sorcery a number of others to be as bad as themselves, dwelling in the bounds of Lowthian, which is a principal shire or part of Scotland, where the King's Majesty useth to make his chiefest residence or abode : and to the end, that their detestable wickedness which they privily had pretended against the King's Majesty, the commonweal of that country, with the nobility and subjects of the same, should come to light:; God, of His unspeakable goodness, did reveal and lay it open in very strange sort; thereby to make known unto the world, that their actions were contrary to the law of God, and the natural affection which we ought generally to bear one to another : the manner of the revealing whereof was as followeth.

Within the town of Trenent, in the kingdom of Scotland, there dwelleth one David Seaton, who, being deputy-bailiff in the said town, had a maid servant called Geillis Duncane, who used secretly to be absent and to lay forth of her master's house every other night. This Geillis Duncane took in hand to help all such as were troubled or grieved with any kind of sickness or infirmity ; and in short space did perform many matters most miraculous ; which things, forasmuch as she began to do them upon a sudden, having never done the like before, made her master and others to be in great admiration, and wondered thereat : by means whereof the said David Seaton had his maid in some great suspicion, that she did not those things by natural and lawful ways, but rather supposed it to be done by some extra-ordinary and unlawful means.

Whereupon her master began to grow very inquisitive, and examined her which way and by what means she was able to perform matters of so great importance ; whereat she gave him no answer : nevertheless, her master, to the intent that he might the better try and find out the truth of the same, did, with the help of others, torment her with the torture of the pilliwinckes upon her fingers, which is a grievous torture, and binding or wrenching her head with a cord or rope, which is a most cruel torture also, yet would she not confess any thing; whereupon they, suspecting that she had been marked by the devil (as commonly witches are), made diligent search about her, and found the enemy's mark to be in her forecrag, or forepart of her throat; which being found, she confessed that all her doings were done by the wicked allurements and enticements of the devil, and that she did them by witchcraft.

After this her confession, she was committed to prison, where she continued for a season, where immediately she accused these persons following to be notorious witches, and caused them forthwith to be apprehended one after another, viz., Agnes Sampson, the oldest witch of them all, dwelling in Haddington; Agnes Tompson of Edenbrough; Doctor Fian, alias John Cunningham, master of the school at Saltpans in Lowthian, of whose life and strange acts you shall hear more largely in this discourse : these were by the said Geillis Duncane accused, as also George Motts' wife dwelling in Saltpans, Robert Grierson skipper, and Jennet Bandilandis, with the potter's wife of Seaton, the smith at the Brigge Hallis, with innumerable others dwelling in that part, and dwelling in those bounds aforesaid ; of whom some are already executed, the rest remain in prison, to receive the doom of judgment at the King's Majesty's will and pleasure.

The said Geillis Duncane also caused Ewphame Meealrean to be apprehended, who conspired and performed the death of her god-father, and who used her art upon a gentleman, being one of the lords and justices of the session, for bearing goodwill to her daughter : she also caused to be apprehended one Barbara Naper, for bewitching to death Archibalde last Earl of Angus, who languished to death by witchcraft, and yet the same was not suspected, but that he died of so strange a disease as the physicians knew not how to cure or remedy the same : but of all other the said witches, these two last before recited were reputed for as civil, honest women as any that dwelleth within the city of Edenbrough, before they were apprehended. Many others besides were taken dwelling in Lieth, who were detained in prison, until his Majesty's further will and pleasure be known : of whose wicked doings you shall particularly hear, which were as followeth.

This aforesaid Agnis Sampson, which was the elder witch, was taken and brought to Haliriud-house before the King's Majesty and sundry others of the nobility of Scotland, where she was straitly examined, but all the persuasions which the King's Majesty used to her with the rest of his council might not provoke or induce her to confess any thing, but she stood stiffly in the denial of all that was laid to her charge : whereupon they caused her to be conveyed away to prison, there to receive such tortures as bath been lately provided for witches in that country. And forasmuch as by due examination of witchcraft and witches in Scotland, it bath lately been found that the devil doth generally mark them with a private mark, by reason the witches have confessed themselves, that the devil doth lick them with his tongue in some privy part of their body before he doth receive them to be his servants, which mark commonly is given them under the hair in some part of their body, whereby it may not easily be found out or seen, although they be searched ; and generally so long as the mark is not seen to those which search them, so long the parties that have the mark will never confess any thing : therefore, by special commandment, this Agnis Sampson had all her hair shaven off in each part of her body ; and had her head thrawen with a rope, according to. the custom of that country, being a pain most grievous, which she continued almost an hour; during which time she would not confess any thing until the devil's mark was found upon her privities; then she immediately confessed whatsoever was demanded of her, and justifying those persons aforesaid to be notorious witches.

Item, the same Agnis Tompson was brought again before the King's Majesty and his council, and being examined of the meetings and detestable dealings of those witches, she confessed that upon the night of Allhollen Even last she was accompanied as well with the persons aforesaid, as also with a great many other witches, to the number of two hundred, and that all they together went by sea, each one in a riddle or cieve, and went in the same very substantially with flagons of wine, making merry, and drinking by the way in the same riddles or cieves, to the kirk of North Barrick in Lowthian, and that after they had landed took hands on the land, and danced this reel or short dance, singing all with one voice

"Gommer goe ye before, commer goe ye, Gif you will not goe before, commer let me."

At which time she confessed that this Geilles Duncan did go before them, playing this reel or dance upon a small trump, called a Jew's trump, until they entered into the kirk of North Barrick.

These confessions made the King in a wonderful admiration, and he sent for the said Geillis Duncane, who upon the like trump did play the said dance before the King's Majesty ; who, in respect of the strangeness of these matters, took great delight to be present at their examinations.

Item, the said Agnis Tompson confessed, that the devil being then at North Barrick kirk, attending their coming, in the habit or likeness of a man, and seeing that they tarried over long, he, at their coming, enjoined them all to a penance, which was, that they should kiss his buttocks, in sign of duty to him ; which being put over the pulpit bar, every one did as he had enjoined them; and having made his ungodly exhortations, wherein he did greatly inveigh against the King of Scotland, he received their oaths for their good and true service towards him, and departed : which done, they returned to sea, and so home again.

At which time the witches demanded of the devil why he did bear such hatred to the King ; who answered, by reason the King is the greatest enemy he bath in the world ; all which their confessions and depositions are still extant upon record.

Item, the said Agnis Sampson confessed before the King's Majesty sundry things which were so miraculous and strange, as that his Majesty said they were all extreme liars; whereat she answered, she would not wish his Majesty to suppose her words to be false, but rather to believe them, in that she would discover such matter unto him as his Majesty should not any ways doubt of.

And thereupon, taking his Majesty a little aside, she declared unto him the very words which passed between the King's Majesty and his Queen at Upslo in Norway, the first night of their marriage, with their answer each to other : whereat the King's Majesty wondered greatly, and swore, by the living God, that he believed that all the devils in hell could not have discovered the same, acknowledging her words to be most true, and therefore gave the more credit to the rest that is before declared.

Touching this Agnis Tompson, she is the only woman, who, by the devil's persuasion, should have intended, and put in execution, the King's Majesty's death in this manner.

She confessed, that she took a black toad, and did hang the same up by the heels, three days, and collected and gathered the venom as it dropped and fell from it in an oyster-shell, and kept the same venom close covered, until she should obtain any part or piece of foul linen cloth, that had appertained to the King's Majesty, as shirt, handkercher, napkin, or any other thing, which she practised to obtain by means of one John Kers, who being attendant in his Majesty's chamber, desired him for old acquaintance between them to help her to one, or a piece of such a cloth as is aforesaid; which thing the said John Kers denied to help her to, saying he could not help her unto it.

And the said Agnis Tompson, by her deposition since her apprehension, saith, that if she had obtained any one piece of linen cloth which the King had worn and fouled, she had bewitched him to death, and put him to such extraordinary pains, as if he had been laying upon sharp thorns and ends of needles.

Moreover she confessed, that at the time when his Majesty was in Denmark, she, being accompanied with the parties before specially named, took a cat, and christened it, and afterwards bound to each part of that cat the chiefest parts of a dead man, and several joints of his body, and that in the night following the said cat was conveyed into the midst of the sea by all these witches sailing in their riddles or cieves, as is aforesaid, and so left the said cat right before the town of Lieth in Scotland : this done, there did arise such a tempest in the sea, as a greater hath not been seen : which tempest was the cause of the perishing of a boat or vessel coming over from the town of Brunt island to the town of Lieth, wherein was sundry jewels and rich gifts, which should have been presented to the now Queen of Scotland, at her Majesty's coming to Lieth.

Again it is confessed, that the said christened cat was the cause that the King's Majesty's ship, at his coming forth of Denmark, had a contrary wind to the rest of his ships, then being in his company; which thing was most strange and true, as the King's Majesty acknowledgeth, for when the rest of the ships had a fair and good wind, then was the wind contrary and altogether against his Majesty; and further, the said witch declared, that his Majesty had never come safely from the sea, if his faith had not prevailed above their intentions.

Moreover the said witches, being demanded how the devil would use them when he was in their company, they confessed, that when the devil did receive them for his servants, and that they had vowed themselves unto him, then he would carnally use them, albeit to their little pleasure in respect of his cold nature ; and would do the like at sundry other times.

As touching the aforesaid Dr. Fian, alias John Cuningham, the examination of his acts, since his apprehension, declareth the great subtilty of the devil, and therefore maketh things to appear the more miraculous : for, being apprehended by the accusation of the said Geillis Duncane aforesaid, who confessed he was their register, and that there was not one man suffered to come to the devil's readings but only he ; the said doctor was taken and imprisoned, and used with the accustomed pain provided for those offences, inflicted upon the rest, as is aforesaid.

First, by thrawing of his head with a rope, whereat he would confess nothing.

Secondly, he was persuaded by fair means to confess his follies, but that would prevahl as little.

Lastly, he was put to the most severe and cruel pain in the world, called the bootes, who, after he had received three strokes, being enquired if he would confess his damnable acts and wicked life, his tongue would not serve him to speak ; in respect whereof, the rest of the witches willed to search his tongue, under which was found two pins thrust up into the head ; whereupon the witches did say, " Now is the charm stinted ;" and shewed, that those charmed pins were the cause he could not confess any thing ; then was he immediately released of the bootes, brought before the King, his confession was taken, and his own hand willingly set thereunto, which contained as followeth.

First, that at the general meetings of those witches he was always present; that he was clerk to all those that were in subjection to the devil's service, bearing the name of witches; that always he did take their oaths for their true service to the devil, and that he wrote for them such matters as the devil still pleased to command him.

Item, he confessed, that by his witchcraft he did bewitch a gentleman dwelling near to the Saltpans, where the said doctor kept school, only for being enamoured of a gentlewoman whom he loved himself: by means of which his sorcery, witchcraft, and devilish practices, he caused the said gentleman that once in twenty-four hours he fell into a lunacy and madness, and so continued one whole hour together; and for the verity of the same, he caused the gentleman to be brought before the King's Majesty, which was on the 24th Dec. last, and being in his Majesty's chamber, suddenly he gave a great screach, and fell into a madness, sometimes bending himself; and sometimes capering, so directly up, that his head did touch the ceiling of the chamber, to the great admiration of his Majesty and others then present ; so that all the gentlemen in the chamber were not able to hold him, until they called in more help, who together bound him hand and foot : and suffering the said gentleman to lay still until his fury were past, he within an hour came again to himself; when being demanded of the King's Majesty what he saw or did all that while, answered, that he had been in a sound sleep.

Item, the said doctor did also confess, that he had used means sundry times to obtain his purpose and wicked intent of the same gentlewoman, and feeling himself disappointed of his intention, he determined by all ways he might to obtain the same, trusting by conjuring, witchcraft, and sorcery, to obtain it in this manner.

It happened, this gentlewoman being unmarried, had a brother who went to school with the said doctor, and calling his scholar to him, demanded if he did lay with his sister, who answered he did, by means whereof he thought to obtain his purpose; and therefore secretly promised to teach him without stripes, so he would obtain for him three hairs of his sister's privities, at such time as he should spy best occasion for it : which the youth promised faithfully to perform, and vowed speedily to put it in practice, taking a piece of conjured paper of his master to lap them in when he had got them : and thereupon the boy practised nightly to obtain his master's purpose, especially when his sister was asleep.

But God, who knoweth the secrets of all hearts, and revealeth all wicked and ungodly practices, would not suffer the intents of this devilish doctor to come to that purpose which he supposed it would ; and therefore, to declare that He was heavily offended with his wicked intent, did so work by the gentlewoman's own means, that in the end the same was discovered and brought to light : for she being one night asleep, and her brother in bed with her, suddenly cried out to her mother, declaring that her brother would not suffer her to sleep; whereupon her mother, having a quick capacity, did vehemently suspect Dr. Fian's intention, by reason she was a witch of herself, and therefore presently arose, and was very inquisitive of the boy to understand his intent, and, the better to know the same, did beat him with sundry stripes, whereby he discovered the truth unto her.

The mother, therefore, being well practised in witchcraft, did think it most convenient to meet with the doctor in his own art, and there-upon took the paper from the boy, wherein he should have put the same hairs, and went to a young heifer which never had borne calf or gone to the bull, and with a pair of sheers clipped off three hairs from the udder of the cow, and wrapped them in the same paper, which she again delivered to the boy, then willing him to give the same to his said master, which he immediately did.

The schoolmaster, so soon as he had received them, thinking them indeed to be the maid's hairs, went straight and wrought his art upon them ; but the doctor had no sooner done his intent to them, but presently the heifer or cow, whose hairs they were indeed, came unto the door of the church wherein the schoolmaster was, into which the heifer went, and made towards the schoolmaster, leaping and dancing upon him, and following him forth of the church, and to what place soever he went, to the great admiration of all the townsmen of Salt-pans, and many others who did behold the same.

The report whereof made all men imagine that he did work it by the devil, without whom it could never have been so sufficiently effected; and thereupon, the name of the said Dr. Fian (who was but a very young man) began to grow so common among the people of Scotland, that he was secretly nominated for a notable conjurer.

All which, although in the beginning he denied, and would not confess, yet having felt the pain of the boots (and the charm stinted as afore-said), he confessed all the aforesaid to be most true, without producing any witnesses to justify the same, and thereupon before the King's Majesty he subscribed the said confessions with his own hand, which for truth remaineth upon record in Scotland.

After that, the depositions and examinations of the said Dr. Fian, alias Cuningham, were taken, as already is declared, with his own hand willingly set thereunto, he was by the master of the prison committed to ward, and appointed to a chamber by himself, where forsaking his wicked ways, acknowledging his most ungodly life, showing that he had too much followed the allurements and enticements of Satan, and fondly practised his conclusions, by, conjuring, witch-craft, inchantment, sorcery, and such like, he renounced the devil and all his wicked works, vowed to lead the life of a Christian, and seemed newly converted towards God.

The morrow after, upon conference had with him, he granted that the devil had appeared unto him in the night before, apparelled all in black, with a white wand in his hand, and that the devil demanded of him if he would continue his faithful service, according to his first oath and promise made to that effect. Whorn (as he then said) he utterly renounced to his face, and said unto him in this manner, "Avoid, Satan, avoid ! for I have listened too much unto thee, and by the same thou hast undone me, in respect whereof I utterly for-sake thee." To whom the devil answered, that " once ere thou die thou shalt be mine." And with that (as he said) the devil broke the white wand, and immediately vanished forth of his sight.

Thus all the day this Dr. Fian continued very solitary, and seemed to have care of his own soul, and would call upon God, showing him-self penitent for his wicked life ; nevertheless the same night he found such means, that he stole the key of the prison door and chamber in which he was, which in the night he opened, and fled away to the Salt-pans, where he was always resident, and first apprehended. Of whose sudden departure, when the King's Majesty had intelligence, he presently commanded diligent enquiry to be made for his apprehension, and for the better effecting thereof, he sent public proclamations into all parts of his land to the same effect. By means of whose hot and hardy pursuit he was again taken and brought to prison, and then being called before the King's Highness, he was re-examined as well touching his departure, as also touching all that had before happened.

But this doctor, notwithstanding that his own confession appeareth remaining in record under his own handwriting, and the same thereunto fixed in the presence of the King's Majesty and sundry of his council, yet did he utterly deny the same.

Whereupon the King's Majesty, perceiving his stubborn wilfulness, conceived and imagined that, in the time of his absence, he had entered into new conference and league with the devil, his master, and that he had been again newly marked, for the which he was narrowly searched, but it could not in any wise be found ; yet for more trial of him, to make him confess, he was commanded to have a most strange torment, which was done in this manner following :

His nails upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument, called in Scottish a turkas, which in England we call a pair of pincers, and under every nail there were thrust in two needles, over even up to the heads. At all which torments, notwithstanding, the doctor never shrunk any whit, neither would he then confess it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted upon him.

Then was he, with all convenient speed, by commandment, conveyed again to the torment of the bootes, wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blows in them, that his legs were crushed and beaten together as small as might be, and the bones and flesh so bruised, that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever. And, notwithstanding all these grievous pains and cruel torments, he would not confess anything; so deeply had the devil entered into his heart, that he utterly denied all that which he had before avouched, and would say nothing thereunto but this--that what he had done and said before was only done and said for fear of pains which he had endured.

Upon great consideration, therefore, taken by the King's Majesty and his council, as well for the due execution of justice upon such detestable malefactors, as for example' sake, to remain a terror to all others hereafter, that shall attempt to deal in the like wicked and ungodly actions, as witchcraft, sorcery, conjuration, and such like, the said Dr. Fian was soon after arraigned, condemned, and adjudged by the law to die, and then to be burned, according to the law of that land provided in that behalf. Whereupon he was put into a cart, and, being first strangled, he was immediately put into a great fire, being ready provided for that purpose, and there burned on the Castle-hill of Edinburgh, on a Saturday in the end of January last past, 1591.

The rest of the witches which are not yet executed remain in prison till further trial, and knowledge of his Majesty's pleasure.

This strange discourse before recited may perhaps give some occasion of doubt to such as shall happen to read the same, and thereby conjecture that the King's Majesty would not hazard himself in the presence of such notorious witches, lest thereby might have ensued great danger to his person and the general state of the land ; which thing, in truth, might well have been feared. But, to answer gene-rally to such, let this suffice : that, first, it is well known that the King is the child and servant of God, and they but servants to the devil; he is the Lord's anointed, and they but vessels of God's wrath ; he is a true Christian, and trusteth in God, they worse than infidels, for they only trust in the devil, who daily serves them, till he have brought them to utter destruction. But hereby it seemeth that his Highness carried a magnanimous and undaunted mind, not feared with their inchantments, but resolute in this, that so long as God is with him, he feareth not who is against him. And truly, the whole scope of this treatise doth so plainly lay open the wonderful providence of the Almighty, that if he had not been defended by His omnipotence and power, his Highness had never returned alive in his voyage from Denmark ; so that there is no doubt but God would as well defend him on the land as on the sea, where they pretended their damnable practice.


There is a woman in the village of Ochiltree who has had the misfortune to be reputed a milk witch, and under that character blamed for every wayward thing that happened. A woman who had gone with child longer than ordinary, had some difference with this witch, and this circumstance was imputed to her sorcery. The rumour in-creased, the parties grew incensed : and the matter came to a hearing at the Sessions of the Peace. A reconciliation was proposed, and, as a test, the witch was enjoined to satisfy the woman so far as to "wish her well, and that God might bless her and all that she had." This at first was refused, on the score that if the woman should afterwards be delivered the opinions that had taken place would be confirmed. By this refusal the woman's apprehensions were increased. Two years elapsed, and the woman still remained in the same condition. On Monday, the 22nd September, the affair was brought to a serious hearing before the Magistrates; many witnesses were examined; the Justices insisted on mutual forgiveness, and the former injunction was insisted on ; which was no sooner pronounced than the woman was taken with labour pains, and soon delivered of a living child, and afterward, by the assistance of surgeons, of part of a dead one : the first supposed a fresh conception ; the latter, the one that should have been born in due time. This has excited much speculation.

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