The Crime of Witchcraft & King James VI | Edinburgh History30th Jun 2021
Written by Mercat Tours Storyteller Simon Bendle
Keep the dates in mind when you hear grisly stories of witches and witchcraft on our ghost and underground vaults tours.
Scotland’s Witchcraft Act, which made sorcery a capital crime, was only passed in 1563. The last person to be burned as a witch in Scotland, Janet Horne, was executed in 1727 – that’s the Georgian era. Popular belief in magic and witchcraft dates back much further of course, way back into pre-history.
But it was from the mid-1500s – comparatively recent times – that witch mania gripped Europe and witch-burnings suddenly went through the roof.
King James VI a Victim of Witchcraft
There are all sorts of reasons why: religious upheavals, political unrest, economic hardship, crop failures. Tense, frightened people tend to look for scapegoats. In Scotland, the interest shown in witch-hunting by King James VI in the 1590s accelerated things further. James believed he was the victim of witchcraft; that a coven of witches in North Berwick had raised storms at sea in an attempt to sink his ship and drown him. The king took a personal interest in the interrogations that followed. He even published a book about witch-hunting called Daemonologie.
The Devil at Loose In The World
But all such attempts to eradicate witchcraft of course only made things worse. Those suspected of sorcery were frequently tortured - leading to dubious confessions and other innocent people being identified as witches. Those found guilty were strangled and burned – horrifying public
spectacles which further increased people’s anxiety and paranoia about witchcraft. Soon ordinary folk were seeing witches everywhere. The Devil, it seemed, was at loose in the world. Christian society was under attack. Scotland’s extraordinary witch-mania went on for more than a century, with panics gripping the country in the 1590s, the 1620s, the 1640s and again in the 1660s. By the early 18th century, however, things were starting to change. The country was becoming more peaceful and stable, and its educated elite increasingly sceptical about witchcraft. In 1736, Parliament finally passed an Act repealing laws against witchcraft and imposing fines on people who claimed to be able to use magical powers. That marked the end of it. It was now impossible for those who still believed in witchcraft to pursue cases in court.
But that date again: 1736. That’s barely 10 generations ago.