Witch prickers and bootikins – hunting the ‘enemy within’

The truth about witch hunts - warts and all
Too many witches spoil the broth?

By Johnny Campbell
Edinburgh Dungeons General Manager

All through history there has been a terror of the enemy within. They look and act like normal members of society, but hold strange beliefs and are secretly dedicated to the destruction of all that is decent and proper.

From reds under the beds to witches on broomsticks these most fiendish of foes have been pursued with zeal by the righteous. The fact that they were often more imagined than real meant that innocents were punished for umpteen vile and never-committed crimes.

This year is the 350th anniversary of the peak of the Great Scottish Witch Hunt, when one such outpouring of fear, hatred and persecution reached its zenith. It was something I had heard about, but didn’t appreciate just how vast it really was, until we started researching for the Edinburgh Dungeon’s special Halloween show called War on Witches.

A look at the University of Edinburgh’s  Survey of Scottish Witchcraft database identifies 404 women and men accused of witchcraft in 1662 alone (doubtless a major underestimate as many records have been lost or destroyed). Delving further, the numbers turn into people. For example there were Bessie Hendersone, Agnes Murie and Isabel Rutherford, three women caught up in the first of that year’s trials in the Crook of Devon. Their cases were heard by 15 respectable local landowners who lapped up the forced confessions of meetings with Satan and found in favour of ludicrous denunciations.

Bessie, Agnes and Isabel were ordered to be “taken away to the place … of their execution … and there to be stranglit to the death by the hands of the hangman, and thereafter their bodies to be burnt to ashes …” At least eight others followed from this small community alone.

Our own show is based on an earlier spike in the witchcraft frenzy, the North Berwick trials of the early 1590s which saw King James VI himself taking part in the interrogations. Here was someone with a childhood terror of the supernatural taking charge of investigations into an alleged Halloween plot to whip up sea storms to sink the ship on which he and his new bride were sailing. Probably not a blueprint for justice.

At another level, here was the ruler of a small and vulnerable northern realm which had undergone a Protestant reformation, had deep political and religious divisions, and faced all sorts of jitters about civil war, rebellion and invasion. It’s hard to imagine that anyone sat down and thought “hmmm, clear need for internal unity, let’s trump up a major Satanic plot against the monarch to unite everyone”. However, it’s always interesting to see how some ideas gain ground at particular times and others don’t.

What amazed me was just how many interests could be served by making someone else suffer. There might be a personal grudge – one man denounced a woman who wouldn’t sleep with him any more after he refused to support her when she became pregnant. Alternatively a condemned “witch” might be kept alive by the authorities in return for ”identifying” others of their kind.

Then again, there were the witch prickers who could make £6 per conviction and used the equivalent of stage daggers to make it look like Devil-protected witches were being stabbed with long needles but felt no pain. In another instance sixteen men from the Elcho area were called to Edinburgh for imprisoning, torturing and executing women they suspected of being witches. They were reprimanded.

Once caught up in the official processes many horrors could take place. And it’s hardly surprising that with few rights, little education and almost no hope, the wretched suspects would admit to almost anything. With bootikins (devices where wooden wedges were hammered into iron boots to crush the bones) on your legs it would be very tempting to agree that you had once used faerie charms to heal a sick child.

Oddly enough, the witch hunters did their job too well. The persecutors wanted everyone to know about the enemies within. So cases like those of Agnes Sampson, part of the supposed North Berwick coven, were made famous while the moral values of their killers have been truly buried. Barely had the ashes of her burned corpse ceased blowing through Edinburgh but scandal sheets were regaling an eager audience with tales of her grim Satanic rituals involving cats and the severed body parts of a dead sailor. In fact there are stories that her bald ghost (she was shaved in search of the Devil’s mark) still wanders the Palace of Holyrood House where she was royally interrogated.

Perhaps it’s the fact that we recognise that the real evil that stalked Scotland in the days of the witch hunts was purely human that has allowed us to elevate the black-hatted, rotten toothed Halloween witch into a figure of scary fun. That and the fact that deep within us there is still a primitive fear that makes us squirm delightedly at horror movies and ghost stories. Perhaps we also love the Halloween witch because ultimately she is safe. We’d much rather take our chances with the cackling crone with a potion than with the government official brandishing bootikins.

● War on Witches takes place between 8-31 October.