Edinburgh’s Witches & Wizards
14 October 2021
Edinburgh may be well known for its associations with a certain wand-waving Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry pupil, but if you look deep enough, you’ll discover stories of double, double, toil and trouble all over the city…...
The “Satanic Panic”
(Image Credit: Capital Collections)
Accusations of witchcraft were common in Scotland in the 16th century. The Scottish Witchcraft Act, which came into effect in 1563 saw many of those accused to be convicted, strangled to death and then burnt at the stake.
The hysteria and obsession with finding and punishing witches - also known as the 'Satanic panic' – was largely sparked by King James the VI of Scotland who not only considered himself an expert in witchcraft, but also believed he was the Devil's greatest enemy on earth. After his boat was beset by storms during a crossing from Copenhagen to Scotland (which he claimed was witchcraft) in 1590 he oversaw the first major Scottish witch hunt - the North Berwick Witch Trials, which ran for two years and implicated over 70 people.
But who were these people? Most, but not all, were women and contrary to popular belief, they were not grotesque-looking creatures who rode on broomsticks who worshipped the devil. Instead they were normal looking women often targeted as they had a known reputation for herbal remedies, folk medicine and healing. If a harvest had failed, or if someone became ill or suffered misfortune after a quarrel, the source of the problem was often thought to be a witch.
In Scotland in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, between three and four thousand people were tortured, convicted and executed as witches.
The most common form of torture was sleep deprivation. Crushing, pulling out nails, thumbscrews and branks (an iron muzzle) were also used. Professional Witch Prickers were also hired to prick suspects with a needle until they found a spot which did not bleed. Stripping and examining the body for any “witches mark” was also common.
It's thought that hundreds of those convicted of witchcraft were strangled and burnt at the stake on Edinburgh Castle’s esplanade. As you enter, make sure to look for The Witches' Well, a cast iron drinking fountain, which pays tribute to those who perished during this terrible time. Commissioned by local philanthropist Sir Patrick Geddes in 1894 the fountain was designed by artist John Duncan. A plaque above the well was erected in 1912 and reads:
“This fountain, designed by John Duncan, R.S.A, is near the site on which many witches were burned at the stake. The wicked head and serene head signify that some used their exceptional knowledge for evil purposes while others were misunderstood and wished their kind nothing but good. The serpent has the dual significant of evil and of wisdom. The foxglove spray further emphasises the dual purposes of many common objects”.
The last witch to be tried an executed in Scotland was Janet Horne in 1727, in the Sutherland town of Dornoch. In 1736 the Scottish Witchcraft Act abolished the crime of witchcraft – it was replaced it by a new crime of 'pretended witchcraft' and the maximum sentence on conviction was one year’s imprisonment.
Recently, there has been calls for a pardon, apology and a national memorial to mark those who were persecuted – read more here
Some of the women persecuted as witches in Edinburgh include:
Margaret Burges (c. 1579 – January 1629), also known as Lady Dalyell.
A well-off middle-class lady, Margaret rented property to several tenants and employed a number of people. Accused of witchcraft after falling out with several people over rent payment, Margaret tried to clear her name by pursuing a slander case. However, this failed. After her teenage servant testified that Margaret had kissed her repeatedly on many occasions, and that there was a 'devil's mark' on her leg, she was convicted of witchcraft, strangled and burnt on the esplanade.
Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis (1495 – 1537)
The sister of Archibald Douglas, who became the stepfather of King James V, Janet’s life was made fraught with danger by James who had hated his stepfather, and thus anyone who bore the Douglas name.
Filled with anger, James accused Janet of treason and witchcraft and managed to gather evidence against her by torturing her servants, who confessed, falsely, that their mistress was involved with witchcraft. Lady Janet was subsequently burned at the stake at Edinburgh Castle. She is now said to haunt her family home, Glamis Castle.
Agnes Finnie (died 6 March 1645)
An Edinburgh shopkeeper, said to have with a foul temper and often fell out with her neighbours. Thought to have been in cahoots with the devil, she was executed on Castle Hill
Agnes Sampson (died 1591)
Found guilty as part of the North Berwick Witch Trials, she was tried and executed in Edinburgh.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the people known to have been accused of witchcraft in the 16th – 18th centuries, The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft is a fascinating website compiled by The University of Edinburgh’s School of History and Classics.
Major Thomas Weir, the Wizard of West Bow
With it’s gently sweeping curve, cobbled streets and colourful shop fronts, it’s easy to see why many people many believe Edinburgh’s West Bow and Victoria Street were the inspiration behind Diagon Alley. But this ancient, busy thoroughfare was once the home of a respected Major and his sister, both of whom were said to have made a pact with the devil and were into all kinds of sorcery and witchcraft.
Major Thomas Weir was a Covenanter soldier and strict Presbyterian, who was a well-respected member of Edinburgh society and was appointed commander of the Edinburgh Town Guard in 1650.
However, he fell ill in 1670 and from his sickbed, confessed, unexpectedly, to various terrible offences, including witchcraft. Jean, his sister, backed up his claims, adding that she too was guilty of numerous acts of satanism, sorcery and witchcraft.
Weir was held at the Canongate Tolbooth after his arrest. The little door to the side of the entrance is said to have led to one of the prison cells.
Both were executed for witchcraft that year and their house on West Bow lay empty for over a century. It was widely believed that the house was demolished some time during the 19th century to get rid of the stigma attached to the building, but it now seems that some parts may still exist, hidden in the Quaker Meeting House on the upper terrace. Visitors at the Quaker Meeting House have reported seeing Weir’s ghostly figure walking through walls, more than 300 years after his death…...
If you’re looking for different ways to have a wizard-inspired day in Edinburgh there are several spellbinding attractions to give a whirl:
The Cauldron Bar offer a Wizard Afternoon Tea, a immersive, interactive and magical experience which is suitable for both adults and children. Guests have the opportunity to brew exciting teas using a working magic wand, while interacting with an experimental cake stand topped with a pulsing dragon egg!
Can you collect the prophecies The Dark Lord has scattered throughout the Department of Magic? Or how about brewing up a magical experience for you and your wizard friends? Try them all at this exhilarating escape room for budding wizards.
And every budding wizard needs a comfortable space to lay his head at night. With rooms taking inspiration from the Gryffindor dorm and common rooms, guests staying at Canongate Luxury Homestay will feel as though they have just stepped through the doors of Hogwarts!
[Image Credit: Edinburgh Evening News]
Can’t get enough of Harry Potter? get a real sense of Hogwarts and the Wizarding World, right here in Scotland's capital in our Ultimate Harry Potter Guide to Edinburgh>