Witchcraft in East Lothian

Everyone knows that witchcraft in East Lothian was once endemic! The stories of the persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries are part of our inheritance and have been told and retold in the years since – with varying degrees of accuracy!

Georgian impression of Agnes Sampson, the Witch of Keith

Georgian impression of Agnes Sampson, the Witch of Keith

The county is often cited as one of the centres of the persecution of presumed witches in the Scotland during the burning times: the web is full of accounts (Google gives over a million hits!). The number of victims over all Scotland cited often reaches into the thousands – a seemingly incredible number given the population of the country in these centuries. Determined academic efforts to quantify the scale of the ‘burnings’ run into the buffer of fragmentary records of courts held at differing places and under varying authorities. Evidence for many of the more extreme cases peter out when put to the test – very often no conclusion can be drawn one way or the other as to their veracity from the records that survive. Julian Goodare et al of Edinburgh University traced just under 4,000 people accused of witchcraft across the whole of Scotland but could only determine the result of 305 trials. Of the 205 people thus convicted and who were to be executed – well, their careful phrasing suggests the authors’ uncertainty in how many sentences were carried through.

Nonetheless, a considerable number of cases were tried to the bitter end. David Robertson’s volume Goodnight my Servants All – The Sourcebook of East Lothian Witchcraft mines the primary sources to open a window on actual cases where sufficient evidence exists to build a story. Well worth reading, it reveals a society where jealousies and intrigues went hand in hand with folk medicine and magic charms. The culturally accepted reasons for disease and ill-fortune escalated quickly into the realm of the supernatural and were seen as sufficient justification to bring prosecutions. But antagonisms over land, resources and relationships are also revealed when the witness accounts are read with a dispassionate eye. Equally revealing from the historian’s point of view are many instances of how day-to-day life was conducted.

And it’s clear that day-to-day life still involved many pre-Christian beliefs, despite the best attempts of nearly a millennium of the Catholic Church’s teaching. In fact, it is possible that the then recent transition to the Protestant and Calvanistic church of the Reformation might have been a direct cause of the events. Certainly, presbyterys, ministers and Church Courts were heavily involved in many cases. But anyway, reading the witness statements often reveals that ‘magic’ of many forms was universally accepted. In some instances those that had sought magical help later gave evidence against the user – often when something had gone wrong or the magic had not worked. It’s also pretty plain that ‘known witches’ were tolerated in communities for considerable periods – until something happened to turn the community against the accused.

Amongst this train, there was a youthful quean.

Comely, dark-featured, called Isobel Young,

Who vow’d revenge on one, whose scandalous tongue

Had done her injury, named ” Crazy Greorge !”

(James Miller, Verses on Dunbar Collegiate Church)

Dunbar Collegiate Church

Dunbar Collegiate Church

Issobell Young was a such a case – we’ve put an account on a separate page. Issobell was the wife of George Smith, a portioner (feuar, in this instance, of farmland) of East Barns. She was indicted during 1629 but the evidence related to matters from many years before – disputes with a miller (Crazy George, above), squabbles with neighbours and extended family, imagined slights and real injuries.  Issobell faced 24 counts; her defence – three of her sons and two eminent Edinburgh advocates – presented her case as the natural squabbles of a small community and were able to have her acquitted on half. The trouble was the remaining half were enough to have her executed – and so she was.

Other women (and men) from across the county faced similar ordeals and paid with their lives for incautious words, failed (or successful) attempts at cures for people or beasts, or for having reputations as being troublesome, disputatious, or having downright cantankerous natures. Intriguingly, there are also revealed charms, magic tokens and symbols or rites to effect cures or actions – many of these clearly universal, habitual and sometimes apparently satisfyingly effective when used for good but at other times, when used for ill, taken as clear evidence of witchcraft.

Under the surface the evidence of the trials reveals a lot about the tensions within rural communities. But what of the burghs?

Well, when Issobell was young kindreds within Dunbar were at the throats of their neighbours too. They just went about it more directly: in 1585 the Humes had to pay Violet and Christine Kellie 20 marks each yearly for the slaughter of their father, a settlement that was enforced by the remaining male Kellies!  And although associated with the burghs, accused witches were seldom resident. Indwellers could be more closely monitored – they were right under the eye of the Church and magistrates. For the rural community the burghs were places of imprisonment and authority –  but at a remove. Things could happen out of sight for a long time.

Both communities were riven by concerns over family success or failure in both economic and health terms, concerns over competition with neighbours for land and resources, concerns over rights and status. Issobell’s 24 charges break down into clearly linked groups that show squabbles festering over decades and down the generations until it all got too much. Her accusers were well known to her and her family and were often linked by marriage or common economic interests. And when the authorities got called in and the formal process of evidence taking got underway, connections could be made between events and Issobell’s actions that damned her.

Green man carving, table stone, Tranent kirkyard

Green man carving, table stone, Tranent kirkyard

Looking further than witchcraft, the evidence for non-Christian beliefs in East Lothian appears elsewhere. It is in the very landscape and in the artefacts and buildings of the past. Just wander through the older parts of many kirkyards. Once the eye is tuned in, the evidence peeps out everywhere: little faces spouting foliage tucked away in the decoration on older gravestones. They’re the Green Man, a pan-European theme.

Elsewhere, given the astonishingly large stock of very old buildings in the county, experienced craftsmen know to look out for Witch bottles under lintels and doorways or cold iron or copper coins placed under window frames. Just a little precaution against evil crossing a threshold or gaining access to a building. (Some of these finds have made their way into the Museum Service Collections). Even within old buildings curious discoveries can be made. Famously, a painted ceiling of national importance was discovered during the renovation of Prestongrange House (of such importance that it was re-installed in Merchiston Castle, now part of Napier University in Edinburgh). The account of the ceiling given in the Transactions of the East Lothian Antiquarian Society (copies can be consulted at the John Gray Centre) fully explores the character and origins of the other-worldly figures in the painting.

There are Fairy Castles, fairy bridges, wishing trees, the (Hob)Goblin Ha’, ghostly hares and even the spirits of the dead manifesting themselves. Many of these tales can be explored further using the resources here at the John Gray Centre – our collection of maps, books, articles and pictures can take you far into a different and strange time in the past beyond your doorstep.




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