Early Scottish Witchcraft

The broad outline of the cultural changes and their effect upon the question of witchcraft in Scotland was the same as that in England. Pagan religions were declared heretic by the Catholic Church, then it in turn was declared heretic by the Protestants — witch and heretic being interchangeable for all practical purposes in each case. The political-witch probably played a greater part in historical events in Scotland but the nature of her role was the same. This chapter will concern itself mainly with the significant differences which made Scotland unique in the history of witchcraft in Britain.

The two main factors from which these differences sprang were that the country was predominantly mountainous and infertile, and that the more hospitable Lowlands were subjected to a series of invasions which prevented any form of indigenous cultural progress until the fifteenth century. The first traces of man in Scotland date from about 7000 B.C.E., when he lived in scattered, primitive groups. During the first and second centuries the Roman Legions marched north and established a temporary wall with a string of camps between the Forth and the Clyde; the troops ventured as far north as Perth, but their effect on Scottish culture was negligible.

Next came the Celts (or Scotti) from Ireland, who drove the Pictish inhabitants into the north-east and absorbed the remnants, thus forming the Scottish people. Following the Celts were the Vikings, whose way-stations on the Orkney Islands helped them to sustain their raids over a long period of time; this means a fairly constant Nordic influence until the fourteenth century. Not least among aspects of that culture which took root in Scotland were its beliefs in witchcraft and magic.

There is a tale told of King Natholocus who during the second century sent one of his Captains to consult a witch named Iona about the outcome of a rebellion in his Kingdom. After suitable consultations with the spirits the witch pronounced that the King would be assassinated by one whom he trusted. The loyal Captain was not to be put off with so incomplete a message and demanded the name of this foul betrayer: the name Iona gave him was his own.

Much perplexed and disturbed by this revelation the Captain returned to his King and sought a private audience with him This being granted, he realized at the last moment that the King would have him killed as a purely precautionary measure if he spoke the truth. Faced with the necessity to speak or act he slew the King, thus making the prophecy come true.

The ability to foretell the future, most particularly the tendency to do so in riddles, was the hallmark of the early Scottish witch, Traces of this tradition still lingered as late as 1600, when witches predicted that the Countess of Arran would be "the greatest woman in Scotland" and that Lord Arran was to have "the highest head in the kingdom". The Countess reacted after tile manner of Lady Macbeth and assumed that she and her husband would rule the land; but this was not what the ambiguous prophecy had meant. Her husband was murdered by Lord Douglas, who had Arran's head carried before him on the point of a spear, while she died of some "in a most extraordinary manner".

It was to this type of witch that Burton referred in his Criminal Trials of Scotland when he wrote: "Our Scottish Witch is a far more frightful being than her supernatural coadjutor on the South side of the Tweed. She sometimes seems to rise from the proper sphere of the. witch, who is only a slave, into that of the sorcerer, who is tile master of the demon."

Because. the Scottish political-witch was such a powerful and threatening figure, she was subject to the harsh punishment of the traitor. In the tenth century, a group of witches were caught In the act of roasting a wax image of King Duffus on a spit, reciting spells and basting it with poison. They said that the body of the King would decay as the wax melted and that the incantation was to rob him of his sleep. He had, in fact, been ill, but recovered after the image was destroyed. The witches were burned at Forres in Murrayshire. But it was not only the political-witch who might suffer death at the stake; in the sixth century King Kenneth had passed a law which ordained that wizards, jugglers, necromancers and any other dealers in spirits would be burned, and from that date the practice was firmly established.

After the Viking raids came to an end the English began to invade from the south and kept up continuous attacks between 1300 and 1400. Although the Scots had a strong leader in Robert Bruce, resistance to the far more powerful English was difficult. In 1320 a letter was sent from Arbroath to the Pope which contained a plea for help and a declaration of determination to fight until death. There was no positive response from Rome and in 1322 Bruce began to take preventive measures. He evacuated the fertile Lowlands and resettled the inhabitants in the mountains; he then laid waste the border areas, so that when English troops next launched an assault they found themselves attacking a desolate and unpopulated terrain.

Effective though Bruce's action may have been from a military standpoint, the migration to the Highlands had a devastating result on the life-style of the Scots. The conditions in which they found themselves living were little better than those of a stone-age culture; the fields did not lend themselves to cultivation, nor was there any kind of industry, and hunting and looting once again became the primary means of survival. Any iron implements or more complicated wooden artifacts which they needed were imported from the Low Countries; until the end of the fifteenth century Scotland produced very few artisans and engaged in commerce only in a very rudimentary way.

It is not surprising that ignorance prevailed, nor that superstition was rampant in a people so cut off from the scientific and cultural advances of other communities. Burton noted how the Scottish environment was significant for the kind of magical beliefs it produced: "In a people so far behind their neighbors in domestic organization, poor and hardy, inhabiting a country of mountains, torrents, and rocks, where cultivation was scanty, accustomed to gloomy mists and wild storms, every impression must necessarily assume a corresponding character. Superstition, like fungi and vermin, are existences peculiar to the spot where they appear. And thus it is that the indications of witchcraft in Scotland are different from those of the superstition which ill England receives the same name."

One particularly striking difference was the strong belief ill fairies present among the Scots. This had sprung from Celtic traditions and many tales were told of visits by mortals to the underground homes of the elves and of fairy changelings placed in the cots of human babies. Written records abound of elf-bolts (Stone-Age arrowheads) and other items which support the theory that the tales of the little people stem from accounts of pre-historic peoples which have been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Evidence that these may be founded, to some extent, upon fact was unearthed at the beginning of this century. Between 1905 and 1912 a number of "pygmy" flints were discovered on the banks of the Dee, near Banchory, Aberdeenshire, and dated at about 5000 B.C.E. Most of these flint points, arrowheads, etc., are less than half an inch ill length; as no larger flints have been found on these sites the obvious inference is that the people who used them were pygmies or little people.

A unique situation arose from these beliefs which was repeated nowhere else in the world. Some of the persons accused of possessing magical powers through the agency of the devil, being unable to disprove the charges, tried to explain that the powers were given to them by the fairies in an effort to acquit themselves of a charge of witchcraft. Accordingly fairies were also declared heretic in Scotland along with other woodland spirits and minions of the devil. It was against this background of superstition that the Catholic Church founded in Scotland, very much as it had been in England. As with other countries the wealth and power of the Church grew until it was at its peak in the fourteenth century. The Catholic hierarchy in Scotland was far richer than those of other European communities, but despite this great wealth the ranks of the Church were none the less corrupt. The lower orders of ecclesiastics were quite illiterate and priests would willingly sell the sacrament for money — probably for magical purposes. The higher orders indulged in vices similar to those of their European brothers, enjoying a privileged depravity which eventually would bring the crusading forces of the Reformation down upon their heads: Cardinal Beaton was said to have fathered seven bastards; while Patrick Hepburn, Bishop of Moray, seems to have had at least fifteen children by different women.

Although the people had good cause to be dissatisfied, the Catholic Church was able to keep a firmer hold in Scotland than it had in England, at least for a while. Much of early Scottish history was a series of conflicts between overlord and monarch, with the former trying to safeguard his fief against rivals at all costs and pledging little allegiance to his King in the process. These same chiefs would band together to take action against an unwanted head of state, and there was no king who sat easily on the throne; the lords murdered James I and James III, rebelled against James II and imprisoned James V, James VI and Mary Stewart. But despite this continuous threat the monarchy maintained a tenuous control, principally because it was reinforced by the power and riches of the Church. Thus supported, the throne could not defy the clergy in any of their practices; if religious reform was to come to Scotland, the initiative had to spring from the discontent of the citizens themselves.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century a Protestant infiltration had begun in Scotland, and anti-Catholic ideas were beginning to take a stronger hold among the people. The dangers presented by this new theology were regarded as sufficiently severe for Cardinal Beaton, the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, to begin a campaign of extermination as soon as he was made Archbishop of St. Andrews in 1539. He decreed that all Protestants should be burned as heretics and set about taking over the reins of government himself, so that by the following year James V had become a mere puppet in the hands of the Church. Nor was James unwilling to be a pawn of the clerics: he felt that he was victimized by political witchcraft (one Janet Douglas, Lady of Glamis, had been burned in 1537 on charges of conspiring to poison the King), fiercely believed in omens and evil visitations, and was often tormented by visions of impending doom; without the strength of the Church his position would no longer be secure.

When James died in December, 1542, the Protestant lords seized power and placed the Earl of Arran on the throne; Beaton's aspirations had been circumvented and the time seemed ripe for a religious revolution. Shortly afterwards George Wishart, one of the first spokesmen of the Protestant cause in Scotland, returned to his homeland. Wishart, who called himself the "messenger of the eternal God", is said to have taught Greek at Montrose in 1558. While there, he denied that Christ was the Redeemer and was subsequently driven from the town by the Bishop of Brechin. The following year found him in Bristol, where he again came under attack for his ideas. Faced with the prospect of a heretic's death, he recanted and then fled to Germany, where he became even more convinced of the truth of the Protestant doctrine. Once back in Scotland, Wishart traveled the country preaching against Catholicism.

Towards the end of 1543 Arran, together with a great number of lords, switched allegiances. Beaton was reinstated and began imprisoning those who, perhaps because of Wishart's exhortations, had been rioting in protest against Rome. Ironically, Henry VIII helped to further secure Beaton's position by his invasion of Scotland in 1544, for the Cardinal took advantage of the hatred which all Scots held for the English and united conflicting factions against the common enemy.

In 1545 John Knox joined Wishart's company as an aide and bodyguard. Knox held his mentor in great esteem and considered him to be a true prophet. Their association was a short one, for in the same year Wishart was apprehended by the Catholics and proclaimed a heretic and traitor; he died a witch's death, strangled and burned at St. Andrews. Following Wishart's execution there was a successful attempt on the life of Cardinal Beaton, and the Catholic Church lost its power as quickly as it had resumed it only two years before. The populace attacked the monasteries, looting and pillaging as they went, and the lords efficiently took over the lands that had belonged to the Church. The Protestants seized the castle at St. Andrews and held it until the intervention of troops from France forced their surrender. It was within the castle, preaching to the rebels and encouraging them, that Knox first assumed the role of a radical and outspoken reformer.

Knox was sentenced to two years in the galleys for his part in the uprising; once freed, he left Scotland and spent the next ten years in England, France and Switzerland espousing the Protestant cause. During this time he took up Calvin's misogynist philosophy and expanded it into a political ideology. While in Geneva, Knox put forward his ideas in The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

Nature doth paint them forth to be weak, frail, unpatient, feeble, and foolish, and experience hath declared them to be unconstant, variable, cruel, and void of the spirit of council and regiment. For these notable faults, which in all ages have been espied in them, men have not only removed them from rule and authority, but also some have thought that men subject to the council and empire of their wives, were unworthy of all public office.

He hoped that such an argument would remove all the women from the thrones of Europe and reinforced his position with an even weaker piece of reasoning, submitting that a queen was an idol to her people and as such committed treason against God; her rule and authority were not, therefore, lawful in the eyes of God.

Although Knox may have intended to attack Catholic queens only, he did not make such a distinction clear and Elizabeth, who was by this time reigning in England, was displeased. When he returned to Scotland in 1558 the Queen, as might be expected, would not permit him to travel through England. But disfavor had not softened Knox's tone, as Morel, the Chief Pastor of the Genevan Congregation in Paris, made clear in a letter to Calvin. "Knox was for some time in Dieppe, waiting for a wind to Scotland. He dared publicly to profess the worst and most infamous of doctrines: 'Women are unworthy to reign', 'Christians may protect themselves from tyrants'. I fear Knox may fill Scotland with his madness." He did fill Scotland with his madness — the devil's madness. Although there is no doubt either that he was a sincere man who would not be diverted from his principles or that he did lend strength to the Protestant cause in Scotland, he pursued his goals in a ruthless and unfortunate manner. An expert rabble-rouser, he 'concluded his incitements to kill the Catholic clergy and level their properties in the most lurid of terms. To Mary of Guise, James's widow and then Regent of Scotland, he addresses a letter: "To the Generation of Anti-Christ, The Pestilent Prelates and their Shavelings in Scotland". He referred to her as a "wanton widow" and implied that she had been the mistress of Beaton and other clerics, all of whom were an "impure crowd of priests and monks."

In taking this attitude Knox was at variance with the true leaders of the Protestant movement in Europe; he went his own way and led his own revolution. He was idolized and imitated, and for generations the pulpits of Scotland were filled by pastors who thundered their interpretations of the Scriptures in the manner he had pioneered. Whereas England had tried to discourage Catholicism by imposing heavy fines, Scotland took direct action and very soon there were few people who would admit to ties with Rome.

Knox, like Wishart, attributed to himself special powers granted by God. "I dare not deny," he wrote, "but that God hath revealed unto me secrets unknown to the world". He referred to himself as the "Prophet" and sanctioned his actions with the glamor of divine approval. This, again, was imitated until eventually no preacher who was worth his salt lacked a reputation for sooth-saying and working minor miracles.

By 1560 the Catholic Church was practically non-existent in Scotland and the Protestants were in control. It was then that Knox, with certain others, produced a Book of the Policy and Discipline of the Kirk, and from that date the Presbyterian Church can be said to exist. This book was the source from which the rigid control on all aspects of the lives of the people emerged, and it gave the Presbyterian Church more power over the subjects if the King than the Catholic Church had ever had.

This was the situation which had to be faced by Mary Queen of Scots, when she came to take her rightful place on the Scottish throne the following year.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License