"By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes!" - “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare, Scene IV, Act I
In the early modern era, Scotland was a hotbed for witch-hunting activity, particularly in the lowlands. 6,000 people were tried in Scotland under accusations of witchcraft, six times the European average. If you have even a basic knowledge of the Scottish witch-hunts, you have likely heard of these two local women, both from Fife — first, Lilias Adie, a woman from Torryburn who was accused of witchcraft and fornication with the devil. Second, Margaret Aitken, or the great witch of Balwearie, from the Abbotshall parish of Kirkcaldy, who helped to identify several witches before being exposed as a fraud and effectively ending the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597.
However, we do not have to go all the way to Kirkcaldy to discover an immensely rich and terribly dark history of witchcraft; our own St Andrews was not immune to the craze of the early modern witch-hunt. If you walk along The Scores near the St Andrews Aquarium you will spot a tidal pool previously known as the Witch Lake. Accused witches were taken down to this lake and submerged, with their thumb tied to the opposite toe. If the accused drowned, they were innocent, if they survived, they were dragged to Witch Hill, now Martyrs’ Hill(where Martyrs’ Monument is located) to then be burnt at the stake. The University of Edinburgh’s interactive map of accused witches in Scotland shows the names of 23 St Andrews residents, recorded as being accused of witchcraft, although we know there were more whose names have been lost to history.
In 1572, John Knox, famed leader of the Scottish Reformation and a University of St Andrews graduate, was famously known to have spoken against an unnamed, accused witch, in St Andrews, prior to her execution. One of the pieces of evidence against the woman was her unwillingness to forgive a man who had previously wronged her, as well as her declaration that she, “pas not whidder I goe to hell or heawin” (“cares not whether she goes to hell or heaven”). This woman was searched for a witch’s mark and a white cloth was discovered which was noted as a “collore craig” and marked her guilty. What exactly a “collore craig” is, historians do not know. It could possibly refer to an animal neck wrapped in cloth or a collar that could go around someone’s neck. Why this ensured her guilt, we do not know, but we do know that she was accordingly condemned and executed.
Four years later, Marjory Smyth was accused of having put her hands on a woman giving birth and consequently making her ill. Smyth was called on to touch the sick woman again and when the woman suddenly recovered, Marjory Smyth was subject to even deeper scrutiny. She was also reported to have harmed a cow who “gaif na milk” (“gave no milk”). Smyth does not appear to have been executed. Bessie Robertsoune was also accused of witchcraft in 1581, due to her consistent failure to attend church service or take communion. Her punishment was a warning from the reader in the church during that coming Sunday mass session, but no further minutes on her case can be found.
Perhaps the most interesting recorded case was described by Leonard Low in his book St Andrews’ Untold Stories, that of Alison Pierson and Agnes Melville. In 1588, the Archbishop of St Andrews, Patrick Adamson, fell into poor health. Adamson was elderly and had a growing list of ailments. Doctors eventually attempted to bleed him or cut his veins, in order to drain the “bad blood” in his system. However, unsurprisingly, this process only made him weaker. Now desperate, one of his ministers and good friends, James Melville of Anstruther, offered the help of his niece, Melville, who was known to have a gift with herbs and other medicinal cures.
Calling on Alison Pierson to assist her, the two were able to nurse the archbishop back to health, using the flower of foxglove to treat him. Following his return to health, Pierson asked for a payment in return for her treatment — her fatal error. Furious at this, the archbishop accused the pair of witchcraft, throwing them both in jail. They were accused of taking the illness from the archbishop and transferring it to his horse, who died a while after. Anybody who had previously aided Pierson was publicly whipped down the streets of St Andrews “for the actions of consulting the condemned”. Pierson was tortured before being found guilty and burnt to death. Melville was luckier due to her uncle's relationship with the archbishop and his position as a minister, so she was let off with a flogging. However, the accusation permanently tarnished Melville’s good name. She was unable to return to Anstruther and reportedly wandered between Berwick and Lundin Links. Years later, in 1595, after Melville’suncle died, she was spotted near her family home in Anstruther and accused and arrested on witchcraft charges once again. She was eventually burnt at the stake along with Elspot Gilchrist and Jonet Lochequoir.
While the vast majority of the recorded cases in St Andrews cases describe accused women, there are some that record men being accused of witchcraft. In 1569 and 1645, Nic Neville and Andrew Carmichael were accused of witchcraft. While the former alleged warlock was executed, the latter was freed after his brief incarceration in St Andrews, being cautioned that he would be reincarcerated if he were to be accused again. William Stewart, Lord Lyon King of Arms, was also hanged on charges of witchcraft — this is particularly interesting, not just because of his sex, but because of his high societal rank.
A major hunt afflicted St Andrews from 1643 to 1645. Beginning in Dunfermline, the craze spread throughout Scotland, but predominantly remained concentrated in Fife, eventually reaching St Andrews. During this period, three members of the presbytery were appointed as delegates to negotiate with the judge and bailies of Anstruther, in order to delay the execution of “some witches” so the men could speak to the witches and gain information. For weeks, delegations of three were sent to Anstruther to confer with the accused witches, attempting to make them confess and gain information on other witches in the area. These delegations spoke to the accused, aided in gaining confessions, and attended the executions of the witches.
According to historian Stuart McDonald, author of Witches of Fife: Witch-hunting in a Scottish Shire, 1560-1710, “by early September, the presbytery of St Andrews was involved in a full fledged witch-hunt, a witch-hunt which while not begun by the presbytery, clearly had its support and interest. The continual sending of a delegation to try to bring witches to confession and/or give advice as to whether or not there was enough evidence demonstrates this interest.”
These stories are just some of those recorded from St Andrews’ brutal witch history. One has to wonder how many more stories like those of Pierson and Melville, or Smyth and Robertsoune have disappeared from the history books.