Agnes Sampson: Who was the famous East Lothian midwife, and how was she accused, and then murdered, for witchcraft in Scotland?
One of the most tragic and barbaric witchcraft trials – and the case of one of the most famous ‘witches’ in Scotland – stemmed from accusations and torture in East Lothian, and left a legacy of blood and violence in the country that still hasn’t healed.
It started with a storm
When King James decided to marry the 14-year-old Princess of Denmark, Anne, the wedding was arranged, and a proxy stood in James’ stead for the ceremony.
Anne’s attempts to join her new husband across the ocean were marred by dangerous and life threatening storms, so he decided to join her instead.
After another wedding ceremony, which the King had actually attended, the couple decided to head home to Scotland, with yet another storm plaguing their journey.
Witchcraft trials had already begun in Denmark, and the King had taken note, so when it was reported to him that witches in East Lothian conspired to cause the treacherous weather that threatened not just his life, but that of his child bride, he believed.
The first woman, Geillis Duncan
David Seton, representative to the local estate owner Lord Seton, resided in Tranent, and began to feel that his maidservant Geillis Duncan was far too a talented healer for his liking.
He also decided that she had been sneaking out of the house at night, and duly interrogated her.
When she protested her innocence, he used thumbscrews and brutally tortured her until she ‘confessed’. Geillis was stripped and her body searched for the ‘devil’s mark’ which was found.
She was imprisoned, and implicated several neighbours across East Lothian, including Agnes Sampson, “the eldest witch of all dwelling in Haddington.”
Agnes Sampson was known locally as a healer and a midwife. She had cared for, and successfully cured, many neighbours of ailments throughout her life.
She was a widow with several children, living close to poverty in East Lothian. She had been suspected, and investigated for witchcraft before, and so there was no surprise locally that her name was given.
After she was named, Agnes was duly captured, and like Geillis, protested her innocence.
The Newes from Scotland, an English written pamphlet written in London from around 1591, says that Agnes was shaved, and each part of her body ‘thrawen’ with a rope for hours, causing intense pain.
The Devil’s mark was ‘found’ and she duly confessed, saying that she, and other witches, attended North Berwick Kirk on Halloween night to meet with the Devil.
She ‘confessed’ that there were hundreds in attendance.
She was placed in front of the King, and to prove her magical powers, she told him the exact words that had passed between him and his new wife on their wedding night.
Agnes’ trial was presided over by a judge, with a jury of 17 men from East Lothian, many of whom would have know Agnes personally.
After hearing the ‘evidence’, they found her ‘fylit’ – guilty- of 49 out of 51 charges.
Among the accusations she was found guilty of, were:
Curing the wife of a Sheriff in Haddington who had been bewitched by the wind Curing Alison Ker after another witch cursed her Healing John Duncan in Musselburgh Curing the wife of Cameron ‘who had walked with crutches since birth’ Healing Lady Kilbabertoune when she was seriously ill Curing a seriously ill child
In January 1591 she was taken to Edinburgh Castle and strangled to death, with her body then being burned at the stake.
All her belongings she had left behind were “forfeited for our Sovereign Lord’s use.”
The North Berwick witchtrials
Agnes and Geillis were only two of over 100 people arrested, questioned and accused during the North Berwick witch trials, with many confessing during brutal and prolonged torture.
Several different plots were ‘unearthed’ which eventually lead to the King’s cousin, Francis Earl of Bothwell being tried for treason in connection with the North Berwick ‘witches’ though he was aquitted.
February 1591 saw several more people executed in either Edinburgh or Haddington with one, Robert Grierson from Prestonpans, dying in custody.
The legacy of witch trials in Scotland
It is estimated that somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 people were accused of witch craft in Scotland through out the late 1500s and 1600s.
Although exact numbers of executions and torture are hard to determine, it is thought around 1,500 people were killed by the state, with most of them being strangled, then their bodies burned.
Helen Duncan was the last woman in the country to be charged and imprisoned for witchcraft. She was arrested by police in January 1944.
Zoe Venditozzi from Witches of Scotland has been campaigning for a legal pardon for all those convicted of witchcraft between 1563 and 1736.
She explained that’s it’s important that, as a society, we still keep talking and learning about the victims of the witch trials.
"We’re just not taught properly about our history in school.
"I grew up in Fife and I didn’t know anything really about it.
"It was huge amounts of people who were accused, given the population of Scotland at the time, it’s a high percentage.
"Also, 85% of the people accused were women, so we still believe this is also a feminist issue.”
The group Witches of Scotland are asking the Scottish Government to issue an apology on International Women’s Day 2022 for all those convicted of witchcraft in Scotland.