Ciaran Jones: The Realities of Demonic Belief in Early Modern Scottish Witch Trials

‘Thereafter to the end she might recover her bairne, again she made promise to serve […] she received their mark upon her head by one Thomas Mcray, who is with them, who hade many carnal dealings with her.’ [1] – Isobel Watson, Stirling, 1590

‘And that thay come very fearful sometimes and make her scared and that she cries when they come: And that they came once in eight days, and […] they come to her and threatened her, saying, she would be worse handled than before.’ [2] – Alison Pierson, Fife, 1588

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the first quote was describing a witch’s interaction with the Devil. All the stock elements are in place: a shadowy and elusive man, servitude, followed by ‘the mark’, followed by demonic sex. These were all essential components of the so-called demonic pact that many witches in late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Scotland confessed to entering in. The second quote, by contrast, reads as if a group of men – or women – came and violently attacked a lonely individual. Both, however, describe various interactions with the ‘fair folk’ – otherwise known as the fairies. So, what do fairies have to do with demons or the Devil?

I explore how accused witches in early modern Scottish witch trials expressed, internalised and thought about supernatural entities, examining witches’ feelings and thoughts about evil fairies, demons, the Devil and the more, shall we say, morally questionable spirits. I ask how witches made sense of these entities and what significance they held. Indeed, one part of my research considers how witches themselves defined these beings, and whether they thought of them as demons or behaved in a demonic way. This is the subject of today’s post.

As the previous quotes emphasise, studies of this issue have generally considered abusive or evil actions in relation to the Christian Devil. He was, after all, the embodiment of evil, and a standard feature of early modern witch belief in Scotland and on the rest of the European continent.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, An Allegory of Melancholy, 1528 [Wikipedia Commons]
At the same time, many accused witches in early modern Scotland also confessed to dealings with ambiguous spirits, fairies and ghosts — all of which were condemned by the Church of Scotland. Scotland is unique in this respect. As my examples above highlight, there is a vast amount of folkloric material recorded in the witch trial records. People in early modern Scotland were devout Christians, but their orthodox faith also shared its place with a range of other beliefs that, at least according to accused witches and common folk, were entirely compatible with each other. These included the belief in fairies.

Compared to other areas – such as England, and many German regions – Scottish material on this topic is uniquely rich. Much of the evidence that survives is in the form of pre-trial evidence, such as witness depositions, confessions and Scottish ‘dittays’, the pre-modern equivalent of indictments. These enable an in-depth study into the mind-set of the accused witch. In England, by contrast, much trial evidence is lost; only the pamphlet literature remains as evidence of witches’ feelings and thoughts. In Germany, where witches were often brutally tortured and maltreated, much of the evidence was largely shaped by interrogators.

Many confession-narratives in the witch trial records seem to have structural similarities between different supernatural phenomena: demons, evil fairies, demonised-spirits. These are just a few of the terms historians use when discussing these beings. In trying to understand this, historians have usually placed responsibility on the interrogators, men in power who were able to shape and alter accused witches’ confessions to fit standard legal scripts. Others, in the same vein, have argued that wider cultural processes such as the influence of sermons and oral culture shaped the ways in which accused witches thought about these beings. More recently, historians have considered these terms as part of a so-called ‘shared culture’ of demonic belief. These, however, do not get to the heart of how accused witches actually engaged or thought about these beliefs.

I am exploring a more intimate, yet integral theory, which complements wider, previous explanations. My research focuses on the individual, often first-hand experiences of accused witches’ confession-narratives and examines the way the early modern mind used these to regulate identity, the ‘self’, and emotions. I am incorporating interdisciplinary approaches into the study of early modern Scottish witch-belief, which bypasses many criticisms of those historians who try to examine ‘belief’ using history alone.

From the field of folklore, I am applying methodologies of ‘vernacular religion’. Rather than identifying demonic belief mainly with the Devil, my research broadens this to include fairies and spirits as well as other supernatural phenomena that were demonized during the interrogation process. I suggest that the demonized fairies and spirits were not defined solely by the interrogators: accused witches’ own subjective understandings of evil, emotion and identity were also brought out in the overall narrative arch of the confession. We cannot downplay the role of interrogators, but to disregard witches’ agency is to do them an injustice. They had their own understandings of evil and, even in demanding environments, such as prison-houses and torture chambers, accused witches came to their own conclusions about the natural and supernatural world.

As such, I am also interested in the relatively new field of the history of emotions, selfhood, and identity. Here, I take inspiration from psychologists of belief and psycho-cultural anthropologists, all of whom seriously consider how people in contemporary society ‘experience their experiences’ and make sense of them. So, when accused witches in the past confessed to engaging in human-like relationships with evil fairies who acted like demons (just as Isobel Watson or Alison Pierson told their interrogators), we should take the opportunity to demonstrate that these supernatural narratives, albeit fantastical ones, enabled people to explore their own human identity by telling stories of beings that were both like humans but also unlike them.

The contents of the stories Isobel Watson told to the Presbytery filtered into her subconscious. This caused her to identify as a bad mother, a penitent witch, and ungodly woman who needed to repent. These stories did not solely reference the Devil, but also child-snatching fairies, mentions of an ‘elf queen bidding her to refuse god’, and the Devil as ‘an angel in the tollbooth’. Despite the cultural differences between these various supernatural entities, we can see how the evil fairies, the Devil, and other spirits became united within various internal processes during the confession process. They came together to express emotions such as fear, to comprehend identity and, above all, to allow witches to better understand, albeit coercively, their own human condition. It is with these thoughts in mind, that I include fairies and spirits under the umbrella-term ‘the demonic’.


Ciaran Jones is a Jenny Balston scholar and PhD candidate in Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh. You can read more about his research here, and find him on Twitter @ciaran_jonesy.


[1] My transcription from Middle Scots to modern English. See: Presbytery of Stirling records NRS CH2/722/2, 21 April – 10 June 1590

[2] My transcription from Middle Scots to modern English. See: Robert Pitcairn, Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, vol. i., part iii (Edinburgh, 1834), pp. 161-5.


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