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Scottish witches, religion & education: International Women's Day 2024

7th Mar 2024
Scottish witches, religion & education: International Women's Day 2024

Celebrate International Women’s Day by exploring the lives of 3 women who influenced Scottish history! We’ll start with a figure from the Scottish witch trials (which you can learn more about here). Then we'll move on to Covenanters and LGBTQ+ Victorian academics.  


Geillis Duncan  

Does the name sound familiar? If you’re an Outlander fan, you might recognise it as the name of Claire’s friend from Season 1. But did you know that character is based on a real woman?  

The real Geillis Duncan was a maidservant and one of the first victims of Scotland’s witch trials.   

Her employer accused her of witchcraft in 1589, suspicious of her skill at curing illnesses. He took it upon himself to investigate Duncan—though nowadays we’d call it torture...  

He forced a false confession from Duncan which implicated dozens of other people. And so began the North Berwick Witch Trials, an event King James VI himself took special interest in.  

The resulting 'Witch Craze' saw thousands of people (most of them women) accused of witchcraft. The witch trials lasted until the 18th century. 

Geillis Duncan was executed at Edinburgh Castle on 4 December 1591.  

Three images: a news pamphlet on ‘Satan’s Invisible World’, The Witch, No. 1, lithograph by Joseph E. Baker from 1892, and a wood cutting from Newes from Scotland on the North Berwick Witch Trials.


Jenny Geddes  

Janet ‘Jenny’ Geddes, perhaps unintentionally, instigated an Edinburgh riot-turned-mob in 1637. The reason? She threw her little folding stool at the minister’s head during a service in St Giles’.   

This was a tense religious time in Scotland. King Charles I had recently begun implementing Anglican-style church services in Scotland.   

When the minister began reading from the new Book of Common Prayer, Geddes stood up and yelled: ‘De'il gie you colic, the wame o' ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in my lug?’*. Then, she hurled her stool. Chaos, as you might expect, ensued.  

7 months later, the National Covenant was signed, opposing Charles’s changes.  

*Scots, translates to: ‘The Devil give you colic! The hide of you! False thief! You dare say the Mass in my ear?’  

Two images: a woman throwing a sitting stool at a minister inside St Giles’ High Kirk, and the title page from the Book of Common Prayer.


Sophia Jex-Blake  

We often talk about Sophia Jex-Blake and the Edinburgh Seven (the very first women to matriculate at a British University). But one aspect of Jex-Blake's personal life is often left in the shadows: her romantic life partner, Dr Margaret Todd.  

Todd attended the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, founded by Jex-Blake. She even coined the scientific term isotope.   

Together, the two moved to East Sussex in 1899, where they lived until Sophia Jex-Blake passed away in 1912. Todd later penned The Life of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake.  

Three images: a portrait of Sophia Jex-Blake from 1865, the title page of The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake by Margaret Todd, and a black and white photograph of Margaret Todd from c. 1900.


Burning to hear more about other women like Geillis, Jenny and Sophia? Join us for a Witches; Trial and Truth tour and explore the stories of more of Scotland’s ‘witches’ and the women who suffered in the Scottish witch trials.

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