Prick which witch ?
of the stranger activities in Scotland between 1550 and 1700 was
the witch hunt. Belief in the supernatural and spell casting had
been part of everyday life up until this time and witchcraft had
been seen as just superstitious beliefs of peasants, but now those
who practised it were thought to be in league with the devil. Theologians
against the practise imagined a world where witches sold their soul
to the devil and held witches’ sabbaths - a kind of anti-Christian
service. The educated elite of society began to fear that the so-called
peasant superstitions,were, in fact a plot by the devil against
In 1563 witchcraft
became illegal in Scotland. Local lairds and kirk elders were against
the practice and enforced tight local discipline, particularly in
areas of strong government control, so there was little witch hunting
in the Highlands.Witch prickers were employed, named after the way
they pricked the body of someone accused of witchcraft. If the person
didn't bleed, they used this as evidence to convict them and and
compiled a case for the local courts to try the accused.
For those accused
of witchcraft ,sleep deprivation was used to entice them into answering
questions about their practice. After three days of being awake,
hallucinations would set in and the will to resist crumbled. The
confessions extracted from them often revealed bizarre hallucinogenic
scenes such as flying, changing into animals, meeting the devil
and taking part in witches’ sabbaths.
None of which were real, but where enough on their own to convict
a witch, especially during times of panic.
The panics came
in waves, at times when Scotland was undergoing a crisis. In other
years there was only a few cases, but in a panic year the accused
were far more likely to be convicted and executed. In total, 1,500
people were executed for witchcraft, out of a total of about 3,500
accusations. The majority of them were women, who already had a
local reputation for witchcraft. Most males convicted were the husbands
The Witch hunt
declined after the 1660’s when the elite of society began to take
a more rational view of the world. As a result, the witch prickers
were exposed as frauds and the legal system began to reject evidence
from them. The last witch was executed in 1727 and the law was finally
abolished in 1736.