Scotlands History

North Berwick witch trials

In 1590 James VI presided over a witchcraft trial.

James became personally involved in this particular trial because he believed that Francis Stuart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, had plotted with a coven of witches to bring about his destruction. While sailing to Scotland to marry James, Anne of Denmark’s ship had met with trouble and James went to rescue her.  On their return, their ship was nearly capsized in stormy seas. This was said to have happened while a coven witches gathered on the Auld Kirk Green in North Berwick.

A confession from a Prestonpans schoolmaster named John Fian implicated Bothwell. This was enough to convince James that there had been a supernatural plot to raise a storm and kill him and his bride to be. It seemed that the Devil himself wanted the King dead.

Fian’s confession was extracted under torture. When he finally faced execution, John Fian recanted. He took back everything he had confessed, saying he only told the tales for fear of torture. King James personally questioned some of the accused men and women. He later wrote a book about magic, sorcery and witchcraft called ‘Daemonologie’.

This very high profile trial reinforced the existing anti-witch sentiments of the time and sparked a wave of similar trials throughout Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries. At least 3,837 people were accused of witchcraft. Many of these were tortured and up to 70% were put to death. 

It is thought that William Shakespeare wrote his famous play ‘Macbeth’ when James became King of England. It is a tale of witches, Scottish kings and murderous plots.

  • Woodcut of the North Berwick Witch Trials of 1591

Click on the image to view a larger version.