North Berwick Trials

North Berwick trial depictionThe North Berwick trials began in November 1590 when David Seton accused his servant, Geillis Duncan, of being a witch. Duncan was a known healer in the area, which contributed to Seton’s suspicions. He tortured her and forced her to name other witches that had been her accomplices, thus beginning the first great witch-hunt in Scotland.

An important characterization of the North Berwick trials was the involvement of royal figures. King James VI of Scotland became involved in the trials when one of the witches mentioned that the devil wanted to overthrow or kill him. He had previously built up that suspicions that witches were involved with his misfortune. In these trials, at least a couple of witches admitted to causing the storms to prevent the arrival of the king’s new bride, Princess Anne of Denmark. Anne’s ships experienced a series of events that prevented her from reaching Scotland. The king eventually went to retrieve her, facing several bad storms as well.

This was the first time in Scottish witchcraft history that witches were accused of and admitted to meeting in a large, conspiring group. However, unlike in many other parts of Europe the descriptions of these meetings did not include obscene sexual activities. Instead, the accused witches mostly confessed to practicing maleficium and plotting treasonous acts. Following these trials, a pamphlet titled Newes from Scotland was published, detailing the king’s role in the trials and his belief in the existence of witchcraft. This document became an important tool in justifying and accepting the process for trying of witches.

Levack, Brian P. Witch-Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics, and Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

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North Berwick, Scotland
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