Geillis Duncan, a teenage girl was only a few years old when she was taken into custody in 1590 for witchcraft. 

The girl was unable to stop crying and pleading innocence. However, Tranent’s deputy bailiff, who lives east of Edinburgh and his team brutal interrogators did not show mercy.

First, Geillis’s fingers were crushed using ‘pilliwinks’ — a form of thumbscrew — until they splintered.

She was ‘thrawed with’ a rope that was twisted around her neck, and then stripped naked. Her head and body were shaved. She claimed that her torturers had found the “Devil’s Mark” on her throat.

More than 4,000 people were arrested, and 2,500 were executed, in a wave of satanic panics in Scotland from the passing of the Witchcraft Act in 1563 to its repeal in 1736. Now, more than 400 years later, a campaign to clear their names is gathering momentum

From the 1563 Witchcraft Act’s passing to its repeal, 1736, more than 4000 people were taken into custody and 2500 were executed. This was part of a wave satanic panics across Scotland. Now, more than 400 years later, a campaign to clear their names is gathering momentum

Geillis finally broke, and they received the information that they wanted: A long list of names indicating who was allegedly part of a demonic gathering where a man wearing black ordered the witches to execute the king. 

Agnes Sampson (an elderly woman) was among those taken into custody.

In the meantime, she was pinned to her cell’s wall by a witch’s bridle’. This iron contraption forced four prongs into her mouth.

Schoolmaster Dr John Fian was also involved in the witch-finding madness. Iron pins were used to replace his fingernails. 

He also had his fingers crushed by pilliwinks, and his legs caught by “the boot”, a steel frame that was designed to crush the shinbone. It is often used red hot.

They were all executed on January 15, 1591. Their bodies were burned to the ground in front of hundreds of people jostling for space at Castlehill, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. 

Now, more than 400 years later, a campaign to clear their names — and those of more than 2,500 others executed in a wave of satanic panics in Scotland from the passing of the Witchcraft Act in 1563 to its repeal in 1736 — is gathering momentum.

Geillis Duncan was just a teenager when she was arrested in 1590 and accused of witchcraft. The poor girl's screams and pleas of innocence must have been heartrending, but the maidservant was shown no mercy by the deputy bailiff for Tranent, a town east of Edinburgh, and his team of brutal interrogators. (Above, Duncan played by Lotte Verbeek in Outlander on Sky TV)

Geillis Duncan, a teenage girl was only ten years old when she was taken into custody in 1590 for witchcraft. Poor Geillis Duncan’s cry for help and pleas for innocence were heartbreaking. However, Tranent was the town east of Edinburgh and the deputy bailiff. The brutal interrogators showed no mercy to the maidservant. (Above, Duncan played by Lotte Verbeek in Outlander on Sky TV)

Claire Mitchell, QC co-founded Witches Of Scotland. The petition was sent to the Scottish Parliament. It indicated that it is open to considering legislation comparable to England’s Turing Act. This retrospectively allows men convicted or cautioned for having same-sex relationships to be granted amnesty.

Mitchell asks for an official apology for the accused and the convicted to be sent in March for International Women’s Day. A national monument in their honor would be a great idea, too. 

She says, “The witches who were tried and convicted of crimes against humanity are still being tried today.” 

“It’s an error in justice. We should, just like with all other errors of justice.

Three of those unfortunates were Duncan, Sampson, and Fian, who were all caught in the North Berwick witch trial, which was one of the worst bouts of satanic panic to grip Scotland for nearly two centuries.

It is hard to imagine the magnitude of what occurred, yet it is well-known beyond its borders.

We all remember the Salem Witch Trials of colonial New England one hundred years ago. Around 300 were charged with witchcraft, and 19 were executed. 

A total of nearly 4,000 people in Scotland were captured and executed in an extremely brutal manner. The bodies of the victims were attached to stakes on top of a fire pyre and garrotted.

The bodies of the victims were burned and buried.

A few more were also burned to death. Almost half of those accused were women.

Mitchell states, “If you were charged with witchcraft, then you would have to be taken into custody. You would also be subjected to torture while you sleep.”

“It was not enough to just confess to yourself. You would also have to admit who was there with you. The interview would be followed by naming others so that the total number would increase exponentially.

Incidentally — and astonishingly — the same thing is still happening in parts of the world.

The UN adopted a resolution last July calling for countries to respond to accusations that witchcraft is being used as a means of persecution.

Mitchell says that “Unfortunately because of the pandemic witchcraft allegations are on the increase,”

In Scotland, thousands accused of witchcraft were executed in a most gruesome fashion. Their broken bodies were tied to a stake on top of a pyre, where they were garrotted. Their bodies were then burned, so there was nothing left to bury. An even more wretched few were burned alive. Most of the accused were women, but around one in six were men

In Scotland thousands of witchcraft suspects were executed in the most horrific manner. The bodies of the victims were then tied to stakes on top of a fire pyre and garrotted. They were then burnt to ensure that there would be nothing else. A few more were also burned alive, making it even worse for the victims. Almost half of those accused were women.

This follows an historical pattern. Witchcraft trials tended to happen at time of difficulty — during war or famine — when people were looking for someone to blame.’

In the early years after the Witchcraft Act was passed by the government of Mary, Queen of Scots — which made witchcraft a capital offence — witches tended to be identified one by one, as individuals responsible for some kind of harm within the community.

These women were often midwives or healers. A midwife could be believed to have caused the birth of an enchanted child. However, suspicion can fall upon anyone. An argument with your neighbor whose crops are failing or the death of cattle might attract suspicion.

One thing could not prove to be essential, but if there was a consistent pattern of poor things occurring, people would suspect it, says Julian Goodare (director of Survey of Scottish Witchcraft) at Edinburgh University.

The Reformation and Counter-Reformation are upon us and Catholics, Protestants, and others are working together to demonstrate that each is more Godly than the other.

‘People believe the world will end soon. It’s in the Book of Revelation.

They felt they had nothing to lose. The Devil could get you if you were not on your side.

They believed the Devil was actively working in the world to devastate society, recruiting witches and other agents. Witches, therefore, are an enemy.

The first, large-scale hunting down of witches — in North Berwick — was prompted by King James VI of Scotland (who became King James I of England and Ireland following the union of the crowns in 1603).

Many believed that the end of the world was near. The Book of Revelation reveals this. It was true that they believed the Devil was in control of the world and trying to devastate society by recruiting witches into their ranks. The enemy is the witches.

He sailed from Copenhagen to Denmark in 1590 to wed Princess Anne, his sister. The ship had to be rescued in Norway several weeks after being hit by horrible storms on its return trip to Scotland.

James was in Denmark while the Trier Witch Trials were taking place in Germany were often discussed. 

Admiral of Denmark’s fleet attributed James’s storm to a group Danish women, who had confessed that they used black magic and summoned devils to sink his ship.

James determined that witches were also at work in Scotland and established a tribunal. More than 100 suspects were rounded up within weeks.

Professor Goodare says that authorities began to see this as a demonic conspiracy consisting of worshippers of the devil who did it in groups.

“So, what do you have? An underground secret conspiracy. Not just one witch can be found, but you must find more. Then you will need to bring in other people, torture them, and create a snowball of power that is able to roll on and on.

Geillis Dunstan, who had no luck and was later immortalized in Outlander as a time traveller character.

Duncan served as a maid to David Seton (a local bailiff). Seton was surprised to discover that her young maid could heal sickness and alleviate pain, even though she did not have a formal education.

He also heard that she was seen leaving the house at night and was not known by anyone.

Seton, his son and other leaders in the fight against witchcraft would be Seton. The idea of Seton harboring a witch beneath his roof was intolerable.

Seton initially imprisoned and tortured her. She eventually admitted to meeting the Devil and creating the storms that had beset the king’s ship — as part of a plot to kill him. 

Agnes Sampson (one of the woman she identified as a accomplice) said that she was a part of a satanic ceremony at a Church on Halloween. The king sometimes interrogated these initial suspects.

Lilias Adie (reconstruction above), from Torryburn, on the Fife coastline, was accused of casting a spell on a neighbour who woke with a headache after a night's drinking in 1704. After a month of interrogation, she confessed that the Devil had appeared to her in a cornfield, wearing a hat, and that he had 'lain with her carnally' and made her renounce her baptism

Lilias (reconstruction below), a Torryburn woman, accused of placing a spell over a neighbor who had suffered from headaches since 1704. She confessed to the Devil that he appeared in a field wearing a hat and had visited her with a number of other people over the course of a month. He also made her abandon her baptism.

Sampson claimed to have retold the story of a conversation that took place between the King and his Bride during their wedding night. It was a confirmation of his belief that she had magic powers.

The seriousness of being accused of plotting the murder of the king is a matter of grave concern. However, as the witch hunt became more chaotic, women began to be arrested and tortured for trivial reasons. 

Isobel Young was accused by a stable boy of being shape-shifted into an Owl. He was executed in 1629.

Neighbors also joined the chorus, alleging Young used spells to bring down bad luck. She was later denounced and accused by her husband of trying to kill him during an argument with a houseguest.

Lilias Adie, whose name is sometimes listed as Lilly in records, hails from Torryburn on Fife’s coast. She was suspected of casting a curse on her neighbour, who suffered a headache following a night out in 1704.

After one month of interrogation she admitted that the Devil appeared in a cornfield wearing a hat to her and had made her repent her baptism.

She would see the Devil at her place ‘like a shadow.

Not just finding one witch, but you also need to locate their accomplices. So you bring more people along and torture them until you get even more names. The snowball can continue to roll. 

This story is likely a result of hallucinations due to lack of sleep. However, Adie kept her cool in one aspect: although she confessed she attended mass gatherings with witches, she claimed she couldn’t name any other women as they were wearing masks.

Although she wasn’t convicted for witchcraft, she was tortured to death. It is an indication of her fear that witches were present at the time she was buried at Torryburn shoreline in a wooden box, weighed down with a large stone slab so she wouldn’t rise from the grave.

Her grave location was significant as well. She was laid to rest in the middle of land and sea because she believed it to be a netherland, which spirit could not traverse.

Such deep-seated beliefs — in God, in the Devil, in the visceral, daily fight between good and evil — underpinned the crusade against witches.

It is clear that interrogators, regardless of the cruelty they used, were sincere. 

Some even considered themselves scientists. “Pricking”, a procedure in which the skins of suspected witches were punctured using a needle, and their guilt determined by how many times they bled was performed by consultants.

Mitchell states that they believed people were scientific and rational. They lived in another time, had different beliefs, and were highly educated. However, they were no different from people today.

Goodare says it’s also important to remember these ‘witches’ were tried in criminal courts — in front of a jury. “There were acquittals.”

He adds that in most cases, interrogators use torture to get their answers. The witches were summarily convicted after they received the answers. Their pleas were ignored.

Little wonder the dank, granite walls of Castlehill, where the execution of witches took place, still seem to ring with their screams of terror — and the stench of burning flesh. Their spirits are now finally resting.