The Names of Witches in Scotland, 1658 collection, digitised from original records held by the Wellcome Library, holds the names of both women and men who were accused of witchcraft during a period of Scottish history in which persecution of supposed witches was rife.
The passing of the Scottish Witchcraft Act in 1563 made witchcraft, or consulting with witches, capital crimes in Scotland. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 women were publicly accused of being witches in 16th and 17th century Scotland, a much higher number than neighbouring England. As revealed in these records, some men were also accused of witchcraft during this period. However, the number of women persecuted was far larger.
The outbreak of witch-hunting in the years 1658-1662, the period in which this list of names was created, is generally seen to represent the high water mark of persecution of accused witches in Scotland.
But these people were not actual witches. Rather, people accused of being a witch were in many cases healers, part of a tradition of folk medicine. Their treatments sometimes helped poor communities but accusations of witchcraft could crop up if they didn’t work.
“This manuscript offers us a glimpse into a world that often went undocumented,” says Dr Christopher Hilton, Senior Archivist at Wellcome Library. “How ordinary people, outside the mainstream of science and medicine, tried to bring order and control to the world around them. This might mean charms and spells, or the use of healing herbs and other types of folk medicine, or both. We’ll probably never know the combinations of events that saw each of these individuals accused of witchcraft.
“It’s a mysterious document: we know when it entered Henry Wellcome’s collections, and a little about whose hands it passed through before that, but not who created it or why. It gives us a fleeting view of a world beyond orthodox medicine and expensively trained physicians, in which people in small towns and villages looked for their own routes to understanding the world and came into conflict with the state for doing it.”
Along with the names and towns of these accused, there are also notes of confession. About a Helene Minhead of Irongray, Dumfries, it is written: “Her Confessione Is In The Hands Of Mr. Patrike Cuamlait Minister At Irongray”.
Other notes give small insights into the lives of those accused. Jon Gilchreist and Robert Semple from Dumbarton are recorded as sailors. It’s also recorded that the spouse of Agnes Watsone of Dumbarton is “umquhile” (deceased).
And, mysteriously, a James Lerile of Alloway, Ayr, is noted as “clenged”, in other words cleaned or made clean. While it’s unclear what James’ fate was, it likely meant banishment or death.
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