Tales of some Witches

The Steering Group of the registered charity, Remembering the Accused Witches of Scotland (RAWS) welcome the historic decision of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on Tuesday 24 May 2022 to "acknowledge and regret the terrible harm caused to all those who suffered from accusations and prosecutions under Scotland's historic witchcraft laws, the majority of whom were women, and apologise for the role of the Church of Scotland and the General Assembly in such historical persecution"
Church of Scotland Twitter feed #GA2022 24th May 2022.
The General Assembly has accepted a new motion brought forward by Rev Prof Susan Hardman Moore (as pictured below) to "acknowledge and regret the terrible harm caused to all those who suffered from accusations and prosecutions under Scotland's historic witchcraft laws, the majority of whom were women, and apologise for the role of the Church of Scotland and the General Assembly in such historical persecution"
It comes in response to a request made by RAWS (Remembering the Accused Witches in Scotland) in 2021, when the group contacted the Church to seek an apology for its involvement in the prosecution and persecution of those accused of practising witchcraft in Scotland in the witch trials of 1563-1735. The request prompted the Church, via the Theological Forum, to reflect on the issues that this call for an apology had raised.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced on 8th March 2022 that she was willing to give an apology to all the individuals accused in Scotland under the historical witchcraft acts.
RAWS considers it imperative that the Church also acknowledges the historic injustice that took place, resulting in the accusation, persecution and execution of over 4000 people, mainly women, who were accused of being witches.
The legacy of these events was far-reaching and intergenerational. It was not uncommon for several people within the same family group to be accused. The witch hunts caused many of those accused or suspected of practising witchcraft to be banished from their home, village or town and displaced elsewhere. We cannot change what happened in the past; the culture, laws and traditions were of that time. However, we at RAWS believe that the Church apology provides an acknowledgement of the harm experienced by those accused and their families and communities.
This historic decision provides an important recognition that those accused of witchcraft in Scotland were treated unjustly and inhumanely, and that the church, as a body, is publicly acknowledging this.
Witch Prickers were professional witch finders paid a substantial amount of money to find witches. They used long steel needles, which they pushed into the poor woman’s body to try to discover a part which was insensible to pain, this was known as the “Devils Mark”, and they were wise enough to know that repeated poking in the same spot would render that spot insensible.
In the small village in West Fife, named Torryburn, the Reverend Allan Logan the local minister was famed throughout Scotland for his skill in the detection and hunting down of witches. During his communion services he would suddenly glare fiercely down at his assembled congregation then, pointing his finger, would loudly and dramatically shout : ‘You witch – wife, rise from the Tables of the Lord. “So confident was his accusation that on almost every occasion some terrified old woman would instantly hurry from the church to be met and arrested outside by the local bailie and his armed men.
In 1636 in the month of November, William Coke and his wife, Alison Dick, were condemned to death for the crime of witchcraft. This particular execution took place at KIRKCALDY in Fife and it was apparently the normal practice here for witches to be placed, dressed in rough coats of hemp, inside tarred barrels to facilitate their burning. In this case the costs of the execution were shared by the Kirk and the town council.
10 Loads of Coal - 3 pounds 6 shillings and 8 pennies
Tar Barrel - 14 shillings
Hangman’s rope - 6 shillings
Hemp Coats - 3 pounds and 10 shillings
Making above - 8 shillings
Expensed incurred in bringing judge - 6 shillings
Executioner – for his pains - 8 Pounds and 14 shillings
Executioner’s expenses - 16 shillings and 4 pennies
In the small village of Torryburn in the West of Fife in the year 1704, an old woman, Lillias Adie, was accused of bringing ill health to one of her neighbours, a certain Jean Nelson. Summoned before the ministers and elders of Torryburn church, poor old confused Lillias confessed that she was indeed a witch. She told the grim faced committee of church elders that she had met the Devil in a cornfield and had accepted him as her lover and master. The terrified woman described how she and the devil had led many others, whom she named, in a wild heathenish dance. According to Lillias a strange blue unearthly light had appeared and had followed the dancers round the cornfield, her tales grew wilder and wilder and were eagerly accepted as proof of her dealings with the Devil. Lillias was, according to the official records, “burnt within the sea mark”.
Recent information has quashed the claim she was burnt at the stake. She died in prison, however, before she could be tried, and probably sentenced and burned at the stake.
More information on New Evidence regarding Lillias.
In the year 1704 a small, sleepy fishing village in Fife became the scene of perhaps one of the most notorious cases in the history of Scottish witchcraft. The savage brutality meted out to the victims was incredible, even for those dark days. The tragic tale began when Beatrix Laing asked the 16 year old son of a local blacksmith in Pittenweem to forge her some nails. The boy, Patrick Morton, explained that he was busy on an urgent job but would make the nails as soon as he had finished the work he was engaged upon. Beatrix Laing went away muttering under her breath and the young lad was convinced that she was threatening him with evil.
The following day the boy saw her throwing hot embers into a basin of cold water and was immediately convinced that he was being bewitched. In a few days he had lost his normally healthy appetite and, not surprisingly, eventually became so weak that he fell ill and was confined to bed. As days passed Patrick became subject to fits, his stomach became swollen and he had great difficulty in breathing. In his weakened and feverish condition he became subject to strange and frightening hallucinations and was firmly convinced that Satan himself kept appearing at the foot of his bed.
The local minister a certain Reverend Patrick Cowper, regularly visited the sick boy and appears to have played upon his already overworked imagination by recounting lurid tales of witchcraft and spell casting. Eventually, with, it appears, suitable help from the minister, the young boy accused Beatrix Laing of being a witch and of having cast an evil spell upon him. In addition he also gave the minister several other names of local villagers and declared that they were also in league with the Powers of Darkness.
Eager to play his part in fighting the forces of the Devil the minister immediately summoned the members of his presbytery and soon
convinced them that Beatrix Laing and her unholy accomplices should all be brought to justice. Although the accused woman was an important person in the village, being the wife of the former village treasurer, she was immediately arrested, as were the other suspects. Before a committee could even be organised to examine them the bailie of Pittenweem placed them in the local gaol and deputised the worst drunkards in the village to guard them.It appears that although it was common knowledge that the deputised guards were not only drunkards but men of extremely low character, the minister himself ordered them to submit the women to every kind of disgusting degradation possible, including the vilest forms of cruel torture. Beatrix Laing was forced to stay awake for five days and nights and eventually confessed to being a witch. He also named Isobel Adam, Janet Cornfoot and a Mistress Lawson together with several others as being followers of the Devil.
When the unfortunate woman was released from the torturers she immediately retracted her forced confession, and this infuriated the minister who instantly had her beaten then locked in the village stocks. With the hysterical behaviour of the local minister and other members of the council as an example, it is hardly surprising that the rest of the inhabitants of Pittenweem promptly followed suit and subjected the poor woman to further savage indignities. When she was eventually released from the stocks Beatrix Laing was thrown into the thieves’ hole, a dungeon in the local gaol which had neither windows nor any form of lighting. She spent the next five months in solitary confinement.
The remainder of the accused were each brutally tortured until they had confessed to their wicked crimes. The so called trial dragged wearily on for months and during this time one of the accused, Thomas Brown, starved to death in his dungeon. Some of the more intelligent and enlightened members of the community tried to persuade their fellow commissioners that the accused should be set free and that the only real crime committed had been the stupidity and brutality of the villagers of Pittenweem. Eventually it was agreed that Beatrix Laing and one or two others should be fined the sum of five shillings and set free. Hardly had the prisoners been set free when a mob chased Beatrix Laing from the village and Patrick Cowper, the minister, immediately brought fresh charges against the ones still in custody. Beatrix Laing managed to reach St. Andrews but died in a few months as a result of her ill treatment while in captivity.
Janet Cornfoot, however, was tortured again and Patrick Cowper himself administered a number of brutal floggings in order to extract a confession. A few days later Janet Cornfoot managed to escape from prison and took refuge with one of the families in the village. When news of her escape became known, the inhabitants of Pittenweem became mad with rage and every house was frantically searched until she was discovered. The terrified woman was dragged to the beach, her hands and feet were tightly bound and a long rope was fastened to her waist. One end of the rope was attached to a ship lying offshore and a crowd of men held the other end. Urged on by the minister she was swung backwards and forwards in the sea until she was almost drowned. Eventually the hysterical mob dragged her onto the sand where blows were rained upon her helpless body by everyone who could get close enough to touch her. A heavy wooden door was placed on top of her and then piles of stones and boulders were heaped upon the door until she was literally pressed to death. Even then the bloodthirsty mob was not satisfied and a horse and sledge were ridden backwards and forwards several times over her body. The local authorities refused to intervene and as a final indignity Patrick Cowper refused to give the dead woman a Christian burial. Incredible though it may be, no action was ever taken to bring any of Janet Cornfoot’s murderers to justice, even after Patrick Morton had confessed that his accusations had been totally false.
Visit Survey of Scottish Witchcraft for more information and a good database to search.


    1. Thank you Derek, the info I have on the site was taken from a book and has been up nearly 20 years. I have altered it to suit recent findings.TM

  1. As part of a wonderful project called the Medicine Spoon Memorial, I have been given the name of Margaret Cunningham. All I have so far discovered is that she came from Dysart and the trial was in 1644. Can anyone help me find out more information about her please? Advice on where to look would be gratefully appreciated.
    Thank you.
    Sarah Snow

    1. It’s a long shot but I know of Cunninghams in Beath. Coalminers – ancestors of William Adamson MP 2.4.1863-23.2.1936. His mother was Flora Cunningham.

      1. I am from Dysart and there was a Butcher’s shop called Cunningham’s when I was growing up.

  2. Most of them were just healers they should not have been treated like that cruel dam way its terrible , people had to heal themselves in that manner in those days by herbs, plants that they knew healed people, those church elders had no business to take it into their own hands to kill especially a woman in any manner without utmost proof of these acts, it should have been dealt with by courts , they just thought they were the law could do as they wanted with people, im totally disgusted by it all, if you were kept locked up and other torture things done to you you would say you were a witch you would have just wanted to be dead than this cruelty and terrible painful acts put on them church elders were not the law by no means, I do not believe there was such a thing just healers and gypsies , they were notorius healers they had to you still got illnesses back then think what it would be like to put up with arthritis then they called it rheumatisum , it was terrible pain, and treating cuts that had got infected and burns , how else could they treat them by being a healer but its disgusting if a woman was found out for helping a person, my hubby also said that if youre hubby died and the next door wanted youre property without buying it they made out you were a witch to gain youre land, thieving gits, that is what happened no witches just healers so many were killed terrible deaths because of scared elders mouths no proof so there you go , im disgusted at the amount of women who were wrongly accussed xxxxxxxxxx

    1. At church last Sunday, a woman I had never met was seated a few feet along from me. I had just returned from singing with other women in the church, it was the church’s 16th anniversary celebration. As soon as I returned to my seat, this woman along from me sidled closer and said, ‘I watched you on the stage. You have psychic eyes. Are you a clairvoyant.. she then proceeded to ask my birth month and birth sign . Normally I would have been able just to shrug this off, but I’m currently attempting to write a falsely accused witch story based on the terrible horrors experienced by innocents in my home Town.and County and immediately this woman’s unexpected and uncomfortable line of questioning reminded me of the witch trials I had been researching. It hit me so hard in my spirit that if the above incident had happened in the 16th/17th centuries, I could possibly have been wrongly forcefully arrested, confined, tortured and executed. I’m thankful to Almighty God for the recent Rightful Church and Government apologies due all wrongfully accused of witchcraft and subsequently, ignorantly, cruelly murdered.

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