Orkney to get memorial for island witch trial victims

Women put on trial for witchcraft on Orkney will soon have a permanent memorial in their name some 400 years after many were strangled and burnt to death.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 14th August 2018, 6:27 pm
Updated Tuesday, 14th August 2018, 6:38 pm
At least 19 women and one man were accused of witchcraft on Orkney with most  of those found guilty burnt and strangled in Kirkwall. PIC: pixabay.
At least 19 women and one man were accused of witchcraft on Orkney with most of those found guilty burnt and strangled in Kirkwall. PIC: pixabay.

Records show that at least 19 women and one man went on trial in Orkney accused of witchcraft between 1594 and 1645 with just under half of them (nine) executed by burning and strangling.

Others were banished with one woman branded after being found guilty of using charms.

The introduction of the Witchcraft Act in 1563 made witchcraft and consulting witches a capital crime. More than 4,000 people were accused of witchcraft with torture used to extract confessions and secure guilty verdicts.

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Calls for a memorial were led by a group on Orkney with stonemason Colin Watson, who worked at St Magnus Cathedral for more than 30 years, now working on the design.

It is understood the memorial, to be placed at Gallow Ha’, where many of the executions took place, will include the words ‘they wur cheust folk’.

One particularly grim case on Orkney led Alesoun Balfour of Stenness to be implicated in the murder plot of Earl Patrick Stewart.

His servant Thomas Papley was accused of the killing and kept for 11 days and 11 night in the cashielaws, an iron framt which was gradually heated up to burn skin and draw out a confession, according to heritage site orkneyjar.com

After being stripped and lashed with ropes, Paplay named Alison Balfour as an accomplice.

Balfour was seized and tortured by Henry Colville, the parson of Orphir, and Earl Patrick Stewart’s close friend.

She was taken to Kirkwall Castle where her legs were put in the caschilaws, according to accounts

Without any confession after 48 hours, her husband, then aged 81, and two children were brought in and tortured infront of her.

According to orkneyjar.com, her husband was placed in the ‘lang irons’ in a bid to crush him with fifty stones of weight placed on top of him. Her son was placed in torture boots where his feet were battered with mallets and her seven-year-old daughter had her fingers crushed in the piniwinkies, or thumscrews.

It was at this point that Balfour broke - and confessed to witchcraft.

She was sentenced to die at “Heiding Hill” - presumably Gallow Ha’ - in Kirkwall on December 15, 1594.

Here, she withdrew her confession but the execution went ahead and she was strangled and burnt at the stake.

Two years later, John Stewart, Master of Orkney, was charged with “Consulting with witches, for [the] destruction of [the] Earl of Orkney”.

He was tried in Edinburgh but acquitted. The evidence used against Alison Balfour was thrown out of court on the basis it had been obtained under torture.

According to the Scottish Witch Survey, other known Orkney people put on trial for witchcraft were:

Katherine Bigland - 1615

Tried in the Court of the Bishopric of Orkney, strangled and burnt

Helen A Wallis - 1616

Tried at Orkney Sheriff Court, punishment unknown

Marable Couper - 1624

At first banished, but then strangled and burnt

Katherine Cragie - 1640

Strangled and burnt

Janet Drever - 1615

Ordered to be ‘scrudgit’ - or beaten- from one end of Kirkwall to the other and then banished

Katherene Grieve - 1633

Branded and warned she would be burnt if caught again using charms

Helen Isbuster - 1635


James Knarstoun - 1633

Tried in sheriff court, punishment unknown

Marion Layland - 1633

Strangled and burnt

Jonet Reid - 1643

Found guilty of charming, but still executed

Jonet Rendall - 1629

Tried at sheriff court, punishment unknown

Elspeth Reoch - 1616


Effie Rosie - 1658

Banished after being found guilty of local session at Burray

Margaret Sandieson - 1635

Tried at sheriff court, punishment unknown

Geillis Sclaitter - 1616

Tried at sheriff court, punishment unknown

Bessie Skebister - 1633

Strangled and burnt

Anie Tailzeour - 1624

Strangled and burnt

Agnes Tulloch - 1616

Tried at sheriff court, punishment unknown