North Berwick Witch Trials

In modern day North Berwick, most people only dare to fear witches on Halloween, however, during the 16th century, it was commonly believed that witches lived amongst the local people, practicing in the Auld Kirk, based on the shore of the quaint seaside town.  In 1595, a well published witch trial took place, after a group of witches were accused of attempting to kill Kind James VI and his new bride on their voyage from Denmark by possessing the seas with a vicious storm.

The town’s suspicion of the witches is said to have originated from the abilities of a poor maid from Tranent, Gelie Duncan, a servant of Chamberlin David Seton.  The poor maid was blessed with the exceptional ability to comfort the sick and heal the wounded, provoking Chamberlin Seton into accusing her of witchcraft.  After being brutally tortured by her master, Gelie Duncan was forced to confess and was thrown into a prison cell as a result.  Under such cruel interrogation, Gelie Duncan admitted that she was one of over 200 witches, who gathered in the Auld Kirk on Halloween in 1590 and who were met by the Devil himself who preached to them a sermon from the pulpit, while the sorcerers danced wildly and sang to his words.

It was not long, before the King ordered all those suspected of witchery to be tortured and then killed.  Another innocent victim accused was Agnes Sampson who was fastened to the wall of her cell with a four sharp iron prongs forced into her mouth, pressing against her tongue and cheeks.  With a rope thrown around her head, Agnes Sampson was kept without sleep and forced to admit to her dealings in witchcraft, after which she confessed to the fifty-three accusations against her.  The national terror provoked by the witch trials was stopped in 1735 with the repeal of the Witchcraft Act due to religious tensions in England during the 16th century, ultimately resulting in the peace and tranquillity of North Berwick today.

(article supplied by Alison Wright, NBHS Pupil ©2011)