Friday 13 October 2023

The Real Witches of North Berwick


In my fiction collection – The Crow Witch and Other Conjurings – my story, The Malan Witch – takes place in a remote corner of England and features some of the most evil long-dead witches you could ever (not) wish to meet. But in reality, most accused of witchcraft were actually ‘wise women’, condemned because of fear, ignorance or because they had managed to upset one of their neighbours – and it went on the length and breadth of the British Isles.

When tourists come to Edinburgh Castle, they often admire the pretty flowers at the well. They don’t generally notice the detail of the design on the wall, but if you take a close look: 

See it now? Witches - and they are certainly not happy and sparkly. During the 17th and 18th centuries, more than 3800 so-called witches were killed in Scotland – by strangling, drowning, hanging or burned alive at the stake. This makes that country the biggest persecutor of witches in Europe.

The first major witch trial took place in 1590 and was presided over by the King of Scotland himself – James VI, later to become James I of England. He believed witches were out to kill him. He based this reasoning on an incident that took place a couple of years earlier when his new bride – Anne of Denmark – was on her way from her home country to Scotland, following her proxy marriage to the king. Fierce storms blew up from nowhere, forcing her ship to put into a safe harbour in Norway. James did the gallant thing and set out to bring her back. The treacherous journey saw them buffeted by three consecutive storms, which nearly wrecked the ship. If it had, it is almost certain the king and his new bride would have drowned.

At that time, James learned of a coven of witches operating at the Auld Kirk Green in North Berwick, East Lothian. He believed they had vowed to assassinate him and, in order to do so, had conjured the storms. The king was assisted and encouraged in his beliefs by his wife. She, her family and many members of the Danish nobility attributed the near death of a relative to witchcraft, while, in Denmark itself, witch-hunts were rife. Now James was convinced he too was a victim. He set out on a holy crusade to rid the land of witches by any means - including barbarous torture.

Suspicion and fear became rife in North Berwick as the inhabitants speculated on who was and who wasn’t a witch. One man - David Seaton - reported his maid, Geillis Duncan. The poor woman had been rash enough to help sick people get well. She was arrested but refused to confess. In jail, torturers discovered a witch’s mark – a mole or similar blemish which, when poked with a sharp implement, didn’t bleed.

Terrified out of her wits, Geillis accused a long list of others in the neighbourhood, totalling more than 70 men and women.

One of the accused – Agnes Sampson – was shackled to the wall of her cell. A witch’s, or ‘scold’s’, bridle was secured to her head. This contained four sharp prongs which pierced her cheeks and tongue. Perhaps not surprisingly, the woman confessed to being a witch and implicated others. A lot of others. She said that around 200 witches had met with the devil at the coven on Auld Kirk Green and summoned the violent storms to kill the king.

For her co-operation, Agnes was granted the mercy of being strangled before being burnt as a witch.

James decided to make a further example of accused schoolmaster, James Fian, who had initially confessed, following hideous torture, including the infamous, bone-crushing boot, accompanied by having his fingernails pierced by needles and then torn out by pincers. Bloodied and maimed, he later retracted his confession, but James was having none of it. The schoolmaster was burned to death on the esplanade at Edinburgh Castle in January 1591.

In all, the trials of the North Berwick witches lasted two years, resulting in multiple executions – the exact number of which is unknown. We can probably assume that the overwhelming majority of those brought to trial would have been condemned to die.

James’s experiences led him to believe he was now an expert on witchcraft, He wrote his treatise, Daemonologie, which was published in 1597. The Scottish witch-hunts had begun in earnest.

Of course, as far as the witches and other less savoury characters contained with the pages of The Crow Witch and Other Conjurings are concerned, they failed to be deterred. As you will see. Oh, and do be sure to read the first story – The Crow Witch – before you embark further on your journey to the other side. The dark side…

As the nights draw in and the temperature plummets, beware the witch's curse. And stay out of the shadows, for far more lurks there than you could ever imagine...

Two witches, burned for their evil centuries earlier, now hellbent on revenge. A woman who seems to step out of an old Hollywood movie, and a castle with a murderous past. A seer whose lost and deadly prediction was hidden away for a future generation. A mysterious portrait that is far more deadly than mere paint and canvas. An old woman only the foolish would ridicule, for she knows the secrets of the land and how to harness its power.

All these and more abound, and you would do well to remember…

When the seeds of revenge are sown, beware the harvest.

The Crow Witch and Other Conjurings is a feast for fans of dark tales and adult-aimed fairy tales. “ – Daniel Robichaud, Considering Stories

“Each story brought its own level of terror” – Erica Robyn Reads

“This collection is perfect for an evening as you await the witching hour or a banging on your door. Full of tricks but in itself a treat of good supernatural horror. Highly recommended for the season of the witch!” - Runalongwomble

The Crow Witch and Other Conjurings

Available here:


Weird House Press



Cyrus Wraith Walker and Weird House Press



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