Scotland Series: Post #2
The Witchery Tour became our first Edinburgh experience. We decided to participate in this tour to get a taste of what Edinburgh has to offer us for the next two weeks. The tour was remarkably interesting and this post only talks about one topic: witches and witch hunts in Edinburgh.
The Witchery Tour
Here we are, ready to start our Witchery Tour. We already checked in, settled in our room, had dinner. We were informed to assemble in front of The Witchery by the Castle at Castlehill by 7 pm. This is my first ghost tour and the beginning of an addiction of mine for days to come.
As we waited for the group and the guides to arrive, we had a chance to immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of Castlehill at night. There were not many people around. Perhaps some of them were enjoying meals at The Witchery by the Castle restaurant and/or other pubs.
The magnificent Edinburgh Castle with lights on has a different feel. Sadly, my skill in the low-lighted environment is almost nil. We waited quite a while, it seemed that we’re the first ones to arrive at this spot. So, I took this opportunity to take photographs in low lights. As guessed, not many can be categorised as successful.
The Witchery Tour was guided by a ghost (of course) named Adam Lyal (deceased) and his wacky monk friend. Mr Lyal was very adamant that his title was deceased and not diseased.
The approach to this guided tour was totally new to me, but I am hooked as Adam Lyal showed up dressed in costumes and whatnot. He was in character pretty much the whole time. I remembered the guy at the shop told us that there are several tour packages, including gory stories about the plague and all the misfortune events that befell Edinburgh; and another one exclusively for Greyfriar’s Kirk and Kirkyard. I guess, since we’re with Adam, it means that we took the Murder and Gore package.
Adam Lyal, he said, was a reformed highway-robber. Wonder what made him quit robbing people on the highway… As for the wacky monk–I have nothing to say. He didn’t talk much. He was mostly running and jumping around, or if he was talking, I couldn’t hear the Scottish accent perfectly behind that mask.
The tour started with a harrowing story of witch hunts in Scotland, marked by the Witches Well, next to Tartan Textile Mill shop at the foot of the Esplanade. The Witches Well is a cast-iron fountain and plaque installed by Sir Patrick Geddes in 1894 to honour the Scotsmen and women burned on a stake under allegations of witchcraft between the 15th and 18th centuries.1
Witch—a topic dear to my heart, and that are ripe in Scotland. I am aware of this beforehand and very much intrigued by what these eccentric guides are going to tell me about witches in Edinburgh.
Witchcrafts in Scotland
Witch hunts were at height in Scotland between the early 16th century to the mid-18th century. There were significant series of witch hunts happening all over Scotland where most of now nameless people fell to alleged connections to witchcraft and got severely punished.
A law was passed during Mary, Queen of Scot’s reign, ruling that the practice of witchcraft and consultation of practitioners of witchcraft as capital crimes.
The most famous episode of witch hunts in Scotland was the North Berwick witch trials in 1590 when James VI accused several individuals causing difficulties during his voyage when picking up his bride, Princess Anne of Denmark, from Copenhagen. But interestingly (well, at least I just found out), there was an earlier episode happened in the eastern part of Scotland between 1568-1569.
This not-so-famous episode was a part of the campaign of “The Good Regent” James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, brother to Mary, Queen of Scot. He launched a justice ayre along the east coast of Scotland in the late spring 1569. During this campaign, hundreds of people were accused of witchcraft and about ten of them were executed.
One of which was Sir William Stewart, Lord Lyon, who was accused to have used witchcraft against Regent Moray himself. This episode is considered as unsuccessful in securing witnesses and convictions (Wasser, 2012: 17-33), but it did start something that’s going to claim lives of nearly four thousand people or even more. James Stewart was later assassinated in Linlithgow by James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh and was buried at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh.
Witchery Cases of Edinburgh
Survey of Scottish Witchcraft recorded sixteen individuals accused and tried of witchcraft in the burgh of Edinburgh from 1613-1679 alone. Preferred methods of execution in Edinburgh are burning, strangling and burning, or beheading. Yummy. Among the names were Margaret Burgess burned at Castlehill; Annas Erskine, Issobell Erskine, and Robert Erskine beheaded at Mercat Cross; and Alexander Hamiltoun, strangled and burned at Castlehill.2
Agnes Finnie of Potterrow, known as a foul-mouthed woman who was always in dispute with her neighbours. She was married to James Roberstone and had a daughter, Margaret.3 She was accused of witchcraft because she “caused harm” to every party in the dispute with her.
One story noted when she was quarrelling with Bessie Currie, and her husband fell ill. In another instance, she had a verbal joust with Beatrice Nisbet about a loan, and she caused Beatrice to lost the power of speech (Seafield, 2002: 108-110).
I don’t quite understand if this refers to Beatrice losing her voice due to heated argument or was she simply was left speechless. Agnes fought with several other community members, and then rumours started to spread around. People started calling her a witch and the label sticks until she was imprisoned in Tolbooth on July 1644. She was tried at Tolbooth on 18 December 1644 and was given the guilty verdict.4 Agnes’ sentence was execution by strangling and burning which was carried out at Castlehill on 6 March 1645.5
Our friendly and deceased Witchery Tour guide, Adam Lyal, noted that it’s easy to use allegations of meddling with witchcraft if you want to discredit or get rid of someone you dislike. Just call them a witch and the Commission will do the rest for you. You just have to hope that the trick doesn’t backfire, otherwise you’d either be burned, beheaded or strangled then burned. So, if you are in a dispute and utter a curse or words taken as a curse and then something bad happen to the other party of the dispute—you’re a witch.
Even if you didn’t utter any curse-y words, you can be called a witch because you silently cast the evil eye upon the other party (Seafield, 2002: 32). Based on this premise only, I’d be categorised as a witch and most probably get burned on a stake. May I choose the hanging method instead, please?
One is more likely to be accused of witchcraft if one is poor, middle-aged woman with a quick temper, and a foul mouth. Yep, yep. I am going to be burned on a stake, fosho. The night is young, and The Witchery Tour continues with another subject Edinburgh is famous for.
1. The Witches’ Well. Atlas Obscura.
2. Goodare, J., Martin, L., Miller, J. & Yeoman, L. 2003. The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft. (archived January 2003, accessed ‘4 November 2020’).
3. Agnes Finnie, Personal Details, Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database.
4. Agnes Finnie, Case Details, Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database.
5. Agnes Finnie, Trial Process Details, Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database.
6. Goodare, J., Martin, L., Miller, J. & Yeoman, L. 2003. The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.
7. Seafield, L. 2012. Scottish Witches and Wizards, Geddes & Grosset: Scotland.