28 October 2021


Lizanne Henderson. Witchcraft and Folk Belief in the Age of Enlightenment, Scotland, 1670-1740. Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic. Palgrave Macmillan. (Paperback) 2020.

George Orwell once wrote that history, as he was taught it as a small boy, seemed to consist of rigidly separated eras. 'For instance, in 1499 you were still in the Middle Ages, with knights in plate armour riding at one another with long lances, and then suddenly the clock struck 1500, and you were in something called the Renaissance, and everyone wore ruffs and doublets and was busy robbing treasure ships on the Spanish Main.' 
Writers on the start of the Age of Reason, which in Scotland they date to 1660, have tended to give a similar impression. It appears that when the Scots went to sleep on New Year's Eve 1659, they were still stuck in the sloth of superstition, but on New Year's Day 1660 they awoke to find themselves rational.

Henderson, unsurprisingly, finds this picture an oversimplification. "Despite what 'enlightenment' terminology might imply, Scotland did not emerge overnight from some sort of preternatural gloom to the dazzling light of a new day."

She observes that it is very difficult to define what a witch is. Much of the problem is that the word has been used to mean a wide variety of different things. The only one that may cover them all is the rather vague 'A woman believed to possess supernatural powers'. I would note that, in this period, the term 'witchcraft' was often used to mean 'belief in the supernatural', not practising it. Hence, John Wesley's assertion that "giving up witchcraft is giving up the Bible".

A number of unconvincing theories have been advanced to account for the rise of the Enlightenment, and consequently the decline of witch persecution. Max Weber speculated that the “decline of magic began with the Protestant Reformation.” This is far too early, and anyway the Protestants were as keen on witch-hunting as the Catholics. (They did reject some Catholic superstitions, but not that one.) Another author traced it to the aftermath of the 1745 Rebellion, which is far too late – the last execution had been in 1727, and witchcraft ceased to be a capital offence in 1735.

The Italian historian Carlo Denina (1731-1813) stated that "Scotland for a long succession of ages had hardly given birth to one author of eminence", and that the Enlightenment was there essentially a foreign import, perhaps from England. Henderson observes: "This suggestion does not explain, however, why Scotsmen should have suddenly taken an interest in continental intellectual ideas at that moment in history." Also, if it were true that it did not start in Scotland, the question would remain as why it did start in England or Europe.

In England, confessions were rarely made in witchcraft cases, whereas they were quite common in Scotland. It is generally recognised that this was due to torture. In Britain generally, torture was only permitted by Royal Warrant. This was never granted in witchcraft cases in England, and only twice in Scotland. But there is evidence that the Scots frequently did employ torture anyway, though they were somewhat coy about it. In one notorious case, a woman's legs were crushed by heavy metal weights; the court recording this as "a most safe and gentle torture".

Moreover, there were three things that were not counted as torture, and so were permitted: witch-pricking, starvation, and sleep deprivation. The theory behind pricking was that every witch had a 'devil's mark' which was insensible to pain and would not bleed. So the suspect was pricked with a long needle. When she bled and was in obvious pain, they concluded that this spot was not her devil's mark, and did the same thing in another part of the body ... and again ... and again ...

Starvation was easily achieved with a woman in prison, by simply not giving her any food. Sleep deprivation would necessitate someone to stand by to ensure that she stayed awake. Often, after five days without sleep, she would say whatever was required of her.

It may have been the Enlightenment that made people more cautious. "Calling someone a witch without adequate proof to substantiate the claim was taken very seriously in this period." She gives the example of James Smith of Dumfries, who called a woman named Jonet Edgar and her daughter witches. He was not believed, and it was Smith himself who suffered punishment: he had "an iron collar put around his neck and attached by a chain to a wall", then forced to make a public apology in church.

One wonders what was considered 'adequate proof'. If a man died, it might be suspected that he was a victim of a curse, but it would surely be impossible to prove this, unlike when a man was, say, found with a knife stuck into him, in which case the cause of death was certain. Still less could it be demonstrated that the curse had been laid by a particular woman. They must have been able to overcome this difficulty, however, given that over a century and a half they managed to burn four thousand people for such offences.

The witch-hunters did, though, have tests that they considered reliable. The anonymous tract Witchcraft Proven, 1697, listed six: their inability to drown when submerged in water; their inability to cry; inability to repeat the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer and the Confession of Faith; 'serpentine sight', something like the Evil Eye; the habit of urinating when salt was burned; and an evil odour.

In a few cases, though, it seems fairly certain that the accused had indeed engaged in occult practices. In 1682, at Irvine, some silverware was stolen from the wife of Major-General Robert Montgomerie, and a servant girl accused of the theft. Eventually the girl came to the couple 'as pale as death', and told them that she had just called up the Devil in the cellar, in order to question him as to the whereabouts of the missing items. They were found in the place she described, but she was imprisoned and tried for charming and devil-raising. Unfortunately the outcome of her trial is not known.

There were also women known as 'charmers', though in some other places they might have been termed ''white witches'. They could, for example, recite charms to cure an illness, and they often practised divination. Midwives, in particular, would recite charms to ensure an easy birth. In these cases there were normally witnesses to what she did, but the authorities, whilst disapproving, treated it much more leniently, perhaps prescribing penances.

The Enlightenment did not convert everyone. The Rev. John Mill, a minister in Shetland from 1740 to 1803, not only saw the devil, but was overheard holding conversations with him in an unknown language, possibly Hebrew. He also exorcised possessed women. He summoned a midwife to the birth of his second child, "but the ignorant creature having taken a table knife, and made crosses over the bed after the childbirth, according to her superstitious custom – the remains of Black Popery …" As Henderson comments: "The midwife's customary behaviour, variations of which were once practised throughout Scotland, was not a particularly Catholic custom such as Mill derides, but was done to protect mother and child from the influence of malevolent forces such as witches or fairies."

Henderson wonders why only six percent of Scottish witchcraft trials were in the Highlands of northern Scotland, even though there was just as strong a belief in witchcraft in those parts as there was in the Lowlands. She offers various possible explanations, but I can think of another: in the Lowland cases she describes, the accusations of witchcraft usually grew out of quarrels between neighbours. But in the Highlands one's nearest neighbour would be so far away that the opportunity for a quarrel would seldom arise. Henderson says that many of those that did occur were in coastal areas (which could still be classified as Highland), where people probably lived closer together.

One question she does not address, still less answer, is why, when the witch-hunting era produced, in England, a large number of books and news pamphlets, in Scotland there was almost complete silence in print until the very end of the seventeenth century. Then, in 1697, the trial and execution of six people accused of witchcraft by a girl named Christian Shaw was written up in Narrative of the Sufferings and Relief of a Young Girl, and Relation of the Diabolical Practices of the Witches of the Sheriffdom of Renfrew, after which several other works were printed. A great deal has subsequently been written about witch trials from before 1697, but this has been entirely based upon surviving trial records which were not published at the time.
  • Gareth J. Medway

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