The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft
February 20, 2006 5:01 PM   Subscribe

The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft: A searchable database of people accused of witchcraft in Scotland between 1563 and 1736. Currently, 3,837 people have been identified, 3,212 by name. 113 cases involved fairies, 74 had a known political or property motive, 70 involved some aspect of "white magic". This is the real, and utterly fascinating, history of a hysteria that griped a country and a continent for more than a century. Religion, folk belief, fear and local relations all played out in witchhunts - and we still do not really understand why, why they started or why they ended. Projects like this one are invaluable to help us begin. (Co-developed by mefite Flitcraft)
posted by jb (16 comments total)
Show data using interactive map (option temporarily unavailable)

Damn, I was hoping they had this feature, too bad it doesn't work. Still a great link.
posted by fire&wings at 5:11 PM on February 20, 2006

Nobody expects the smell of Edlerberries! Ni!
posted by Balisong at 5:54 PM on February 20, 2006

Interesting site. I'm suprised that there was only one case of Possession (and that was used in defence), I would have thought it would be high up on the rankings - 'the devil made me do it'.
Flitcraft - there's an error [Invalid list index 2] if you choose Glossary from the text area on the search page (under the year inputs).
posted by tellurian at 7:25 PM on February 20, 2006

Where is the good stuff--the accusations, the spectral evidence, the grisly descriptions of torture? Am I just using the database incorrectly?
posted by LarryC at 8:29 PM on February 20, 2006

I, too, feel that I am not able to find the juicy bits.
posted by Citizen Premier at 9:31 PM on February 20, 2006

no testimony?
posted by amberglow at 10:05 PM on February 20, 2006

I don't know enought about Scottish court records of the time to know if any verbatim testimony would be recorded. But the information seems to be split between trials and "cases" (light blue background). There is more detail on the case page, but it seems that the full details are only in the original sources - from one case
" Characterisation: Complicated case involving numerous accusations of murdering children through magical strangulation and possession of several children. Much of the evidence was derived from the testimony of children who claimed to be possessed and tormented by witches. But there was great concern over the murdered children and a murdered minister. The record describes the physical torment of the possessed children in great detail. An extraordinary document!"
Transcriptions take forever, so I can understand why they aren't there.
posted by jb at 1:30 AM on February 21, 2006

Yep the full details are in the original sources, the database extracts the salient features of the cases, so you can track the patterns and occurences of things like who is accused, where, of what and by whom. and it will give you the references back to the original sources so you can go look those up.

You wont find much in the way of grisly physical torture because there wasn't much in the way of grisly physical torture. Confessions were mostly extracted by 'watching and warding' ie.sleep deprivation as torture. There were only a handful of cases involving more 'traditional' physical instruments. Pricking for the devils mark was quite common though.

Similarly you'll be disappointed if you're looking for the 'weighs the same as a duck' sort of thing. One of the things the study did was debunked the old notion that Scots were 'swimming witches' - dunking them in water to see whether they sank or floated to tell whether they were witches. We found this was only ever used in one set of cases in 1597 and was swiftly debunked and discarded.

This is the key thing about the site - it looks fairly unglamorous but it actually helped debunk a lot of myths about the Scottish witch hunt - see the introduction here.

Something non-historians might like though, is my favourite search. Go to the database, go in under date and characterisation and you'll come to this page - search for cases of witchcraft, - check out the searches for ritual objects, calendar customs, non natural beings and demonic pacts. If for instance you highlight 'cat' (amusingly you'll find it under ritual object - you'll see why). hit search and you'll find all the witch cases in Scotland involving a cat - and there are some juicy details! But I don't recommend 'roasting four or five kittens and used the drippings to rub a sick person'. I think the post of witch's cat was much over-rated!

By the way, I get 79 records searching under demonic possession as a characterisation. Possession cases come very late (almost all after Salem - and possibly influenced by that given Scottish links to America in the period). If you use the page I've linked to and select only demonic possession and hit 'search cases' they should come up for you.

I'll pass it on about the glossary error.
posted by Flitcraft at 5:01 AM on February 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I like the checklist of the Isobel Gowdie case:

Witches' meeting: Yes
Devil present: Yes
Maleficium: Yes
Communal sex: Yes
Dancing: Yes

Everything you need for a successful coven! (I've always found it ironic that on the one occasion when the Scottish judicial system actually succeeded in catching a genuine witch, nobody could believe it.)

An excellent resource which I hadn't come across before -- the introduction is particularly useful in debunking popular myths about early modern witchcraft. But it's more of a finding-aid for the serious researcher (who will then trudge off to the Auchtermuchty kirk session records, or whatever, and look at the details of the case for themselves) than a comprehensive database. Perhaps it can be expanded at some stage to include transcripts from the original documents -- I certainly hope so.

Flitcraft: the notes on the Gowdie case say 'see folk culture section for details'. Where is this? I can't find it on the site.
posted by verstegan at 5:59 AM on February 21, 2006

I blame Shakespeare.
posted by Atreides at 7:14 AM on February 21, 2006

Verstegan it's just underneath the section you were looking at - you just need to scroll down a bit more

She confessed to mixing the body of an unchristened child with nail trimmings, grain and cole-wort and chopping it all up very small and used it to take away the fruit of a man's corn. Described night flight and flying on straw and a broom. Said she used shot to send a soul to heaven but the body remained on earth. She met the Queen of Fairy in the downie-hill and was given meat. In the fairy hill she saw elf-bulls. Took away milk using a tether (could restore milk by cutting the tether). Did all this in the Devil's name. She made an image of the Laird of Park to destroy his children (with others). Detailed description of how the image was made. Nearly the same description given by Janet Braidheid of the wax image! She confessed to shape-changing with others- she was a kea (jackdaw) and the others were a cat and a hare. They tied a thread with three knots and did something widdershins. They raised the wind with a wet cloth and a beetle and specific words. Their spirits can raise the wind. She linked the elves and the Devil by saying that the Devil gave elves instructions on how to use and make elfshot and that they fire the shot in the Devil's name. Special ritual described for shape-changing. Had different words for each animal (cat, hare, crow, horse. She lists different verbal charms to use for healing various ailments (bone-shaw, fevers). For her first 'voyage' she went to the plough lands and shot a man and they made a potion by boiling ingredients and saying words they learned from the Devil.
posted by Flitcraft at 8:05 AM on February 21, 2006

Many thanks, Flitcraft -- I didn't realise it was a different section on the same page, I thought it must be a different page somewhere else on the site.
posted by verstegan at 9:15 AM on February 21, 2006

I couldn't find any reference to Kate McNiven, the witch of Monzie. I don't think there is an official record of her but it does seem likely she existed and was one of the last women to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. There is an interesting story about the curse she put on her accusors and the stone she gave to one of my ancestors who tried to save her. Allegedly.
posted by rongorongo at 9:23 AM on February 21, 2006

She isn't in because she is a famous legendary witch who belongs to folklore and poetry going back to the 16th century. The first reference to her is in 1508 as a legendary figure in a poem by Dunbar. She's not a real person as that web page asserts. The mention in the John Brughe case is like saying that you got your witchcraft from the queen of the fairies.

This particular story appears to have been embroidered from older folklore by the Grahams of Inchbraikie long after witch burning ceased (sorry rongorongo!). I actually catalogued what's left of their papers and saw their 19th century version of the story which I compared with the earliest printed account of the tale (1845). Every source that tells it gives a different date but they all give the same implausible story that the witch was being burned on the laird's lands quite informally without his consent. I could go into detail about what is wrong with this story from a 17th century point of view, but take it from me, the wannabe witch-combusters would have been up in front of the Privy Council before you could say 'witch-trial without a licence'.

In the era of Walter Scott, it became fashionable for the landed families whose ancestors were on the justice commissions trying witches to make up romantic stories to try to show themselves in a good light and this is an good example. (Another one is the famous case of Maggie Walls, the witch of Dunning - she seems to be a later myth too, and her famous monument on the lands of the Rollos of Duncrub is 19th century, though there were real 17th century witches burned in that area).

Another famous Scottish witch/warlock you won't find in the database is Major Weir, that favourite of ghost tours, because he was actually convicted of bestiality, incest and adultery, not witchcraft, but you will find his poor sister Jean who was executed as a witch. I really hope the Scottish Tourist Board never catch up with us or we're in big trouble :-)
posted by Flitcraft at 11:13 AM on February 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

By the way, I get 79 records searching under demonic possession as a characterisation. posted by Flitcraft
Well that's weird, I'm sure I was able to search on 'Possession' yesterday which turned up one case only.
That is, 'Possession' - the accused witch claimed to be possessed by the Devil. Not, 'Demonic Possession' - the witch was accused of causing someone (a victim) to be possessed by the Devil.
posted by tellurian at 3:33 PM on February 21, 2006

Ah I see the search you did - that was under the demonic pact field, as she was claiming to be possessed, rather than others claiming that she had caused them to be possessed. That's the Janet Fraser case and it's amazingly weird. She was an extreme Presbyterian prophetess at the time when the Presbyterians (Covenanters) were being persecuted by the Episcopalians. She belonged to the very radical group of Presbyterians called the Cameronians. What happened when the Glorious Revolution came and the Presbyterians got into power was that they disowned their radical wing (and vice versa, the radicals accused them of selling out). She was one of the casualties as the newly re-established Presbyterian church turned on her and threatened to try her as a witch, if she didn't disown her visions and prophecies and say they came from the Devil, so she tried possession as a defence. She's one of four female Calvinist prophetesses I've worked on and the only one to be accused as a witch.
posted by Flitcraft at 4:55 PM on February 21, 2006

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