Plaque installed to remember the ‘witches’ of Corstorphine

Between 1563 and 1736, around 4,000 people were accused of witchcraft in Scotland – the highest persecution rate in Europe.

Last week, a plaque was unveiled in Corstorphine, Edinburgh, commemorating seven locals accused on charges of witchcraft in the late 17th century – three of whom were executed.

While exploring the history of witch trials in Scotland, Emma Cowan, a resident of Corstorphine, was introduced to the research of historian Norah Carlin, who over the past 30 years has investigated the devastating stories of locals charged under Scotland’s Witchcraft Act of 1563.

Cowan approached The Corstorphine Trust, who decided to fund and install a memorial plaque dedicated to the victims of the Corstorphine Witch Trials.

From left to right: Rev Moira McDonald, Minister of Corstorphine Old Parish Church; Norah Carlin, historian; Emma Cowan, local resident; Claire Mitchell QC; Frances MacRae, Corstorphine Trust Archivist. Image: The Corstorphine Trust.

It has been erected in St Margaret’s Park, beside a pinnacle from the Old Parish Church where Beatrix Watson, one of the accused, was held. Watson later hanged herself while imprisoned in Corstorphine Kirk Tower.

The other wrongly accused locals – charged between May and September of 1649 – were Margaret Bell, Katharin Gib, Margaret Baillie, Marion Inglis, Elizabeth Scott and her uncle William Scott.

Accusations included charming and harming by magic, having an ‘evil eye’ (the power to inflict suffering by a mere glance), and bearing a ‘witches mark’ on their body. Several supposedly confessed to having made pacts with the devil and named other residents as part of their coven.

The main source used by Carlin during her research was the parish Kirk sessions minute book in the National Archives of Scotland. ‘This gives a very detailed account for each case, including the stories brought in against the suspects by the local accusers and the confessions that were supposedly extracted,’ she said.

One of the most common methods of coercion used by witch hunters was to keep the accused awake for long periods – a torture used during the cross-examination of 80-year-old Katharin Gib, who died of sleep deprivation.

According to the records, Margaret Bell and William and Elizabeth Scott were executed. Margaret Baillie and Marion Inglis were released after imprisonment.

Illustration showing witches being tortured at trial from Daemonologie (1597), a book written by James VI of Scotland concerning matters of the occult. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, the Scottish Parliament’s Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee considered a petition brought by the group ‘Witches of Scotland’ as part of a campaign seeking a pardon, an apology, and a national memorial to those tried and executed as witches.

Between 1563 and 1736, around 4,000 people, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft in Scotland – the highest persecution rate in Europe.

Claire Mitchell QC, who lodged the petition, said: ‘Each of the Committee members expressed a view that they wished to take the matter forward and are now seeking more information from us and from the Scottish Government about the mechanics of pardoning those convicted.’