Witch Hunters


The crime of witchcraft was abolished in Scotland in 1736. Witchcraft formed a part of the old peasant belief system. The community generally believed magic and supernatural powers were a good explanation for unusual events. They lived in a rural society which suffered from mysterious animal deaths and unexpected illness. It was commonly old, single women who were accused of witchcraft, perhaps due to their perceived threat to the traditional paternalistic order of society. As much as 85% of those accused were women and there was often an implied or stated link with deviant sexuality. There was a fear amongst men of the special knowledge held by women, midwives were often accused. Anyone found guilty of forging a demonic pact at trial was executed.

The common pattern would be to torture the accused in order to obtain a confession. If one witch was found it was assumed that there would be more. The witch hunters would not rest until they were all uncovered. Witch hunters were mainly local lairds, landowners, parish ministers or church elders. After a confession was obtained the hunters needed permission from the law to take action against the witch, because witchcraft was categorized as a crime.

The accusations tended to centre around the idea of witches Sabbaths. These Sabbaths were gatherings of witches and demons for music, dancing, drinking and of course sex with the devil. It was supposed to be the opposite of the moral piety shown by the church congregation. There were few accounts of the devil given and little detail about the supposed actions of the witches. Generally the belief witches could fly was held on the continent, but remained rare in Scotland.

The serious witch-hunting began in the 1590's. The acquittal rate was generally quite high, at around 50%. Although during panics a higher percentage of the accused were charged and executed. There were national witchcraft panics in Scotland in 1591, 1597, 1628-30, 1649 and 1661-62. Perhaps 4,000 people were accused of witchcraft, with 1,500 of them being found guilty and executed. The last execution of a witch was in Dornoch in 1727.

The destruction of evil in the form of witchcraft was a useful tool for any regime requiring legitimacy. Witches provided them with a specific and limited threat which could not retaliate. A witch-hunt also made them appear more devoted to religion and serious about upholding the law. Witches could be made scapegoats for the poor morals of society by an increasingly invasive state.

Over time doubt began to arise over the existence of witches. Of course many people never took the claims seriously and the hunts had gradually begun to generate controversy rather than consensus. The central courts became more and more reluctant to convict witches. The Lord Advocate, Sir George MacKenzie referred to the hunters as "villainous cheats". He made it difficult for witches to be convicted or tortured and so there were more acquittals.

Towards the late 17th century the upper classes withdrew from popular culture. The climate was changing and the Scottish enlightenment loomed on the horizon. As education and developments in science and literature became more important, so superstition and backward beliefs began to decline. By 1736 when witchcraft was officially abolished as a crime, there had not been an execution for nine years.