Introduction – Witchcraft persecutions began during Elizabeth I's reign - around 1563, which was actually much later than other areas of Europe... Witch hunts in southern France and Switzerland began as early as the 14th century.
In early modern tradition, witches were stereotypically women. The common belief was that these women would make a diabolical pact with evil spirits and appeal to their intervention. They were seen as operating an organized threat to Christianity, rejecting Jesus and the holy sacraments.
In the 17th century, the frenzy inspired by accusations of witchery resulted in barbaric imprisonments and executions. The fear incited by public trials and executions spurred many people to accuse their neighbours in order to avoid being accused themselves -'Wikipedia'
Approximately 20-25% of those executed for Witch-craft in Europe were male. It is estimated there were approximately 40,000 - 60,000 executions in Europe between 15th-18th Centuries. In Scotland there were approximately 205 executions. (There is an interesting site if you want to know more about facts and figures) - http://www.shca.ed.ac.uk/Research/witches/introduction.html
Many people are intrigued by the legends of the Witches of Queensferry. One man, William Wallace Fyfe, wrote "Summer Life In and Around South Queensferry" in 1851. In it, he tells of the Witch Trials in Queensferry. The following extracts are condensed from his book. However there is much mystery, confusion and intrigue in the story of the 'Witches of Queensferry'.
On 1st September 1641, Mr Ephraim Melville became the Pastor of the people of Queensferry, until 1650. He was intent on reforming the evil-doers of the town and it wasn't long before he brought witches to the stake on Ferry Muir, ¼ mile above the town on the way to Dundas. In the time of Mr Ephraim Meville, people were superstitious, and the fearful accusation of Witchcraft may have abounded in Queensferry, through gossip. The Kirk Session, encouraged by the Parish Minister, searched the Town for evidence against suspects. The people of the Town openly expressed resentment against the Minister, members of the Session and the two Bailies of the Burgh who held the power to commit suspects to prison.
After a confession was obtained, by means of torture, such as solitary confinement and deprivation of sleep, looked over by "Watchers" who were paid to ensure they were kept awake, the hunters needed permission from the law to take action against the Witch, because witchcraft was categorized as a crime.
Those accused of witchcraft were prosecuted by ecclesiastical and criminal courts in Scotland, but Burghs were invaluable to witch-hunters as a civil power which could incarcerate suspected witches, accommodate the court or judicial commission which tried them, and carry out the execution (which in Scotland was normally strangulation followed by burning). Families had to pay for the burning and many were made bankrupt.
William Lowrie, who built the house, Black Castle, in Queensferry, in 1626, was a Mariner and Exporter. On 6th April 1643, Marion Little, his Sister-in-Law, confessed to paying Marion Stein, a beggar witch, to make a storm to sink Williams ship, laden with corn for the Soldiers in Ireland, and drown him and his crew. Both were later burned as witches.
On 21st July 1643, James Lowrie was charged to pay for his wife Marion Little and her accomplice, Marion Stein, to defray the expense of putting them to the flames. The costs of burning Catherine Logie were to be taken from her assets and if not enough, James Lowrie promised to pay the shortfall, he also was to pay for someone to attend to these transactions should he be absent. (It is not clear what part Catherine Logie played in this intrigue). All three were burned together in December.
10th December 1643, Helen Young registered a complaint against Helen Dauline who had called her a witch. Both were apprehended. Margaret Dauline and Catherine Thomson were also apprehended, as were Janet Mowbray, and Marion Dauline who were named by three confessing witches, namely Janet Lowrie, Elspeth Cant and Helen Thomson who were burned together on 20th December. Helen Hill and her daughter Isobel Young were also burned together.
Of these unhappy women several seem to have been branded with the stigma of witchcraft by universal consent, as Lowrie, Hill and Thomson. Of the Dallings, it appears to have been imputed wholesale as a family concern. Helen Young was ultimately seized seemingly on no better pretext than because she was old.
John Young, by 20th August 1644, appealed repeatedly to the Session, for his daughter Margaret, who had been imprisoned for being a witch, since April, most likely accused unjustly. John Young and his Son were warned about speaking out too freely of the burning of Helen Hill and her Daughter, Isobel Young (probably John's own Daughter in Law) and it is possible Margaret was arrested in retribution. If there had been a shred of evidence against the girl, she would never have had the dread sentence of fire, reduced to banishment. The Session agreed she should be banished out of Queensferry, and if she should return, be found guilty and burned. On 22nd September she was set free and told if she was not gone after 14 days, she would be delivered back to prison by her Father, who would be fined £40. On 20th October as they had defaulted, John Young was told to produce the £40 and his daughter was to be put to death. 29th October, John Young was under threat of imprisonment until he could find the £40. It is not clear if Margaret was put to death or imprisoned, or indeed if John managed to find the £40.
The people of Queensferry had erected over their heads a terrible tribunal of dread and doom. When the appointed Sessions, which included Ephraim Melville, were going through the town and gathering evidence against the accused, the excitement must have nearly attained its height.
It did not last long. Queensferry's last batch of witches were executed in 1644.
(Witches Well, a Memorial well in Edinburgh, near the entrance to the Castle, a cast iron wall fountain which commemorates the spot where over 300 women were burned at the stake accused of witchery.)
"Janet Horne and her daughter were arrested in Dornoch in Scotland and imprisoned on the accusations of her neighbours. Horne was showing signs of senility, and her daughter had a deformity of her hands and feet. The neighbours accused Horne of having used her daughter as a pony to ride to the Devil, where she had her shod by him. The trial was conducted very quickly; the sheriff had judged both guilty and sentenced them to be burned at the stake. The daughter managed to escape, but Janet was stripped, smeared with tar, paraded through the town on a barrel and burned alive.
Janet (or Jenny) Horne was also a generic name for witches in the north of Scotland at the time and this makes it difficult to determine what the real name of this woman may have been. Contemporary writers may have called her 'Janet Horne' simply because her real name was unknown or because the name was reported as 'Janet Horne' and they were unaware that this was a generic name. Some sources give the date of the Dornoch execution as June 1722" - Wikipedia
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