Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Scottish Witch Panic of 1597

This post started with a monumentally annoying article in the Times, in which the writer bemoans that nobody remembers the persecution of Scottish witches. This is, for some reason the author does not explain, a very bad thing to forget. And maybe it would be, if anyone had actually forgotten it. I have found that the persecution of witches is one of the most widely known things about European history; I have personally never encountered a freshman who had not heard of it, and I have met freshmen who did not know that princesses had arranged marriages.

But that inane piece linked to a cool interactive map posted by the University of Edinburgh that shows all the well-documented witch trials in Scotland. Perusing this map, I noticed that the obscure town of Kirkcaldy had 34 known witch trials. Clicking on the little blue woman, I found that many of those cases were from a single year, 1597.

That started me searching for information on the Scottish Witch Panic of 1597. Scotland, it turns out, had five major waves of witch burning, in 1590-1591, 1597, 1628-1631, 1649, and 1661-1662.  The 1649 panic is fairly famous because it was by far the biggest and took place in the middle of the British civil wars, and the 1590-1591 comes up because King James VI/I wrote a book about it, and it is supposed to have inspired Shakespeare to write Macbeth. But I never heard of the 1597 panic.

Historians like to explain things. For example, the 1590 witch panic followed a disastrous harvest and was personally pushed by the king, and the 1649 panic followed the victory of the godly "Kirk Party", who tried to turn Scotland into a Puritan state. But nobody has any idea why there was a witch panic in 1597. Sometimes, it seems, things just happen.

During this year, at least 400 people were tried for witchcraft in Scotland, and more than 100 were executed. The exact number of deaths is hard to pin down, because from this period a lot more indictments survive than verdicts.

As to why there were so many trials in Kirkcaldy, that is an interesting tale. It resulted from the arrest of one woman, Margaret Aitken, in the nearby hamlet of Balwearie. Balwearie had been a place of sinister reputation since the time of medieval scholar Michael Scot of Balwearie, remembered in Scottish folklore as a mighty wizard. Anyway when Margaret Aitken was arrested and put to the torture, she told the judges that she had been to a sabbath in Atholl with 2,300 other Scottish witches, and she started naming names.

She quickly ran through all of her neighbors, several of whom were also tried. Aitken kept the judges listening by saying that she could identify other witches by a look or sign in their eyes. Feeling like they had finally had a stroke of luck in their long battle against Satan, the judges carted Aitken around eastern Scotland for four months, letting her identify other witches, some of whom were also tried. People started calling Aitken the Great Witch of Balwearie.

According to a pamphlet written afterwards, Aitken was eventually exposed as a fraud. A skeptical judge brought some people to before her for her verdict on whether they were witches, then brought them back the next day in different clothes, whereupon Aitken gave different verdicts. The exposé, people say, brought that wave of witch persecutions to a close. Whether that is true, I have no idea; as I said there is only one source and it sounds an awful lot like a folktale. But somehow or other the authorities turned against Aitken and had her executed, and somehow or other the persecution did end. For a few years, anyway.

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