By Gwen Sinclair
James VI of Scotland/James I of England
The reign of James VI (1567-1625) was not only the longest reign of any previous Scottish monarch, but an exceptionally dark and trying time for people all over Scotland – with Dundonald being no exception.
The Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563, which originated with leaders of the Protestant church, agreed during the reign of James’ mother, Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1567) – who appears to have done so under duress given that she was under pressure to make settlement about the status of the protestant religion. It then became enshrined in law that both the practice of ‘witchcraft’ and consulting with ‘witches’ became a capital offence. However, It wasn’t until the period during which James VI began investigating and writing about the subject that it became one of the most despicable acts of parliament of all time…
James’ interest in the subject is often thought to have stemmed from the time of his marriage to Anne of Denmark in 1590 when his ship was put at grave risk in a severe storm – and it was suggested that dark arts were being used to whip up a peculiar wind and prevent him returning safely to Scotland!
In 1591 the Bailiff of Tranent, David Seaton, accused a local healer, Geillis Duncane, of practicing evil magic, and under torture, she provided the names of a few other poor souls – escalating to three hundred Scottish ‘witches’ being tried for plotting the murder of James VI – who is said to have suffered from a morbid fear of death, or Thanatophobia. However, rather than assisting him to feel more at ease, this attempted eradication of the source of his fear seems to have heightened his anxiety and stimulated him to spend years in study of the subject which resulted in the publication of his book Daemonologie in 1597.
Divided into three sections, Daemonologie appears to have intended to convince sceptics of the reality of Witchcraftis, Sorsareis and Necromancie – or predicting the future by communicating with the dead. It also shows the convoluted intellectual rationalisations implemented to justify barbaric witch hunts, and contains historical accounts of ‘witch’ persecutions – which led to 1300 deaths and thousands of others from neglect, suicide and torture whilst in imprisonment.
James VI is remembered as the most notorious royal witch-hunter of all time and when he also became king of England in 1603, less than two years later, on 5th November 1605, he faced the infamous Gunpowder Plot as an attempt to assassinate him.
Beyond ecclesiastical functions it was the duty of the church to maintain responsibility for crimes ranging from murder to witchcraft with wide powers of punishment. Serious convicted offenders were delivered to the magistrates.
Parish records for Dundonald show the accusations for witchcraft that took place – such as Jonet Hunter from Dundonald accused of being an accomplice to Partick Lowrie from Highlees who on 28th July 1603 was charged with incantation, sorcery and maleficium – having been accused of turning cow’s milk to blood, striking someone blind, causing illness to humans and animals, damaging crops, causing land infertility, and transferring disease. Evidence suggested that he had taken part in specific rituals such as exhuming bodies from a grave yard, being presented with a belt made of hair in the shape of a devil’s claw from a woman named Helena McBurnie – who was said to have been a spirit.
He was also accused of being seen practising witchcraft at Loudoun Hill, on the sand dunes near Irvine beach and in the Kirk yard in the company of other witches and the devil himself!
Patrick was a recognised healer of animals and people – said to have done so by the use of the ‘laying on of hands’ and was known to have even travelled as far as Glasgow to provide healing.
Partick Lowrie complained about unlawful pursuit, and requested a trial with impartial judges, but was found guilty at a trial in Edinburgh on 23rd July 1605 and was executed in Edinburgh by strangulation and burning 4 days later.
Other accused ‘witches’ from Dundonald were Margaret Duncane, who was “implicated by another witch” when Patrick Lowrie said it was she who was presented with a hair belt (in the shape of a Devil’s claw) and was tried on the same day as Patrick. It is not clear what happened to Margaret.
Katherine McTeir, a farm servant from Highlees, was called before the Dundonald Kirk session accused of being ‘ane notit witch’ for practising folk healing, maleficium and being involved in a neighbourhood dispute in early 1602, together with her mother, Gill Goddie. Katherine was also accused of being presented with the hair belt in the shape of a devil’s claw by Helena McBurnie, and for attending the meeting with the devil at Loudoun Hill, at Irvine shore and at the Kirk yard. She was accused of ‘quarrelling’ and ‘cursing’ as well as ‘small-scale healing of animals’ – all mentioned when she appeared at the 1602-1604 Kirk sessions records, until she was recorded has being dead in 1605.
Jonet Hunter and Katherine McTeir were also both accused in the Kirk session of being seen practicing witchcraft at Dundonald Castle!
How did witch-hunting come to an end?
The lawyers in charge of the central courts gradually became less convinced that the evidence given in witch trials could really prove guilt. They questioned the validity of confessions made under torture, and between 1661-2 there were (proven) miscarriages of justice which led to the tightening up of procedures. After England’s Glorious Revolution in 1688 which led to the curtailment once and for all the of the absolute power of the monarchy, and which replaced the Stuart dynasty with the Hanoverians, the state became more secular and no longer required to prove godliness by executing ‘witches’. However, some local prosecutions continued with the last being in 1727.
The Scottish Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1736 when the British Parliament elected to repeal the parallel English Act. This meant the crime of witchcraft was abolished but was replaced by a new crime of ‘pretended witchcraft’ with a maximum penalty of one year’s imprisonment.
10% of the cases of witchcraft accusations would have been sent to the Justiciary Court in Edinburgh, with the rest being ‘tried’ at a local court by the Commission for Justiciary – find out more about the procedures which were under taken in order to ‘ascertain’ the ‘crime’ of being a ‘witch’ and the reasons behind the trials of the ‘witches’ of Dundonald from the latest talk from our monthly talks series entitled ‘Fairies, Farm and Family: Witchcraft in 17th century Dundonald’ given by Ashlyn Cudney, a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh – now available on our YouTube Channel:
If you would like to find out more about it, you might also like to visit our temporary exhibition entitled ‘The ‘Witches’ of Dundonald’, taking place until 30th November at Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre Museum-open daily 11am-4pm.
If you would like to find out more about ‘witch’ trials in Scotland there is a podcast dedicated to the subject by Claire Mitchell QC and Zoe Venditozzi:
Dundonald Castle archive material
Daemonologie By https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/59/a6/92d258a32bd08dfb39aa410b1ec8.jpgGallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/M0014280.htmlWellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-30): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/vz9mfer6 CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36364716
James VI by attributed to John de Critz Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org
North Berwick witches by King James – Daeomonologie Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org