King James VI and the Scottish Witchcraze

The witchcraze that occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries is often forgotten due to its short-lived existence and strange foundations. However, those willing to dig a little deeper uncover a world of old magic; a time steeped in doubt, fear and devoted religious belief. While pamphleteers portrayed those accused of witchcraft as impoverished and elderly, court records suggest that it was just as likely to be powerful women who stood trial. Furthermore, witchcraft affected the aristocracy and lawyers, as well as most notably and crucially, King James VI of Scotland.

Magic and the supernatural is a topic which has fascinated me since I was a child reading Harry Potter. Having read about the Salem witch trials and visited the museum dedicated to them in Massachusetts, I researched further and learned that the witchcraze originated in Europe in the 15th century. However, arguably the most vicious and vigilant hunting of witches began in Scotland in North Berwick, where the fear of witches was invoked by King James VI. The topic came alive to me as a result of discovering that the persecution, torture, and murder of hundreds of alleged witches happened on my doorstep. I remember walking down North Berwick beach with my Grandma when I was younger, and to imagine innocent women burning at the stake near such an idyllic town inspired me to investigate further. Although there are myriad reasons for the Scottish witch trials, it was the influence of King James and the brutality of the punishment faced by those accused that stood out to me in my research.

In 1589, James travelled to Denmark to be with his new wife, Princess Anne of Denmark. At that time, Denmark was infected by the “Malleus Maleficarum” or “Hammer of the Witches”, an influential book written by Heinrich Kramer, a German Dominican monk, that sparked an hysteria surrounding witches which spread through mainland Europe. It was essentially a legal manual for the execution of witches; depicting them as Satan workers who aimed to harm, murder and destroy. It was so influential that in 1484, a Papal Bill was issued stating that witches were heretics who had made a pact with the Devil himself.

In text.jpg
John Flan was convicted at the North Berwick Trials in 1590. Flan was burnt to death at Castlehill after having his fingernails forcibly removed. 

James and Anne sailed back to Scotland in April 1590, but the fleet was battered by storms and one ship was lost. Shortly afterwards, a Danish witch confessed that she had used sorcery to hinder Anne’s crossing to Scotland and accused several others of involvement. All were executed. This news deeply disturbed James and his paranoia of the paranormal began to spread throughout Scotland.

Between 1590 and 1707, approximately 3,000 people are thought to have been executed for witchcraft in Scotland. Possibly the most famous case was the trial of Agnes Sampson, a healer and midwife, also known as “The Wise Wife of Keith”. By the autumn of 1590, Scotland was aflame with witch hunts, and many of those sent to trial were questioned by the King himself. Agnes was named as the lead witch of the coven in Scotland which had cursed the Dutch fleet and was brought to Holyrood to be personally interrogated by King James:

“all the perswasions which the Kings maiestie vsed to her, might not prouoke or induce her to confesse any thing, but stood stiffely in the denial: whervpon they caused her to receiue such torture as hath been lately prouided for witches in that country”

“Newes from Scotland”

 The methods of torture used against witches were brutal, and many confessed not due to their guilt but rather to escape the relentless agony of their interrogation. The “nails upon all [her] fingers were riven and pulled off with… a pair of pincers, and under every nail there was thrust in two needles even up to their heads”. This vivid description from “Newes from Scotland” (published by James in 1591 to whip up popular fear of witches) describes a method regularly used to extract a confession. Other methods included pricking the skin with a ‘witch pricker’ all over the body to test for the Devil’s mark, and the strappado, which was the use of a rope and a beam that allowed the accused to be repeatedly dropped from a height, dislocating shoulders and arms.

Although Agnes originally denied involvement, the imprisonment and torture broke her and she eventually confessed to all fifty-three charges, including making a wax image of James to destroy him and conspiring to raise the storm that sank the ship returning with Anne. Sampson was found guilty on the 27th of January 1591 and was garrotted and burned at the stake the following day.

The North Berwick trials appear to have made a deep impression on James. Convinced that the Devil hated him, he determined to do battle with both the Devil and his supporters, and set up a commission to hunt witches. The institutionalised murder of hundreds of innocent people was further encouraged after the publication of James’ “Daemonology” in 1599. It condemned everyone who refused to believe in the existence of witches as in league with the Devil. Following this, the witchcraze spread through Britain like a plague and the King’s fervent belief in the supernatural sparked hunts across the country. It is no coincidence that Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, written and performed during James’ reign in England, contained a clear supernatural theme. The three witches in the play curse a ship and brew a storm, not only reflecting both the popular fear of witches at the time but also hinting towards James’ own experiences.

Scarlett Hamilton is a Sixth Form pupil at Glenalmond College, Perthshire. A native of Edinburgh, Scarlett is hoping to go on and study History at university.


  1. King James [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons,
  2. Glasgow University Library

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