St Andrews Day: The Witches of Fife


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MacDonald, Stuart. The Witches of Fife: Witch-Hunting in a Scottish Shire, 1560-1710. John Donald, 2002; 2014.


This was one of those books I was excited to read before I actually read it. I had (as most of you probably know by now) lived in St Andrews for six years and St Andrews was the primary town in Fife, even during the town’s low point in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today is St Andrew’s Day, the day for the saint who gave his name to the town for reasons rather legendary and complicated (they involve a shipwreck with the saint’s bones and a saint who may never have existed named “Regulus”).

St Andrews was a major hotbed for witchcrazes in the 16th and 17th centuries. According to MacDonald, over a thousand people (most of them women and most of them by burning) were executed for witchcraft in Fife over the course of about a century and a half, and a total of over three thousand were accused, some of them by “dying witches” who were either delusional or vengeful. Those are the low-ball numbers. We don’t know the real count.

Religious authorities were heavily involved, though local nobility participated. The rocky relationship involving the slow and not-so-willing union with England under one king (still nominally Scottish) turned the screws. But MacDonald tends to agree with other historians of the period that the witchcrazes in Scotland were mostly about “hunting women.” Can’t argue with that.

When I was in the Mediaeval History program at St Andrews, the Scottish History department was totally separate from us. Despite being right across the hall and up the stairs, they did an excellent job of utterly ignoring us. Something-something about us not being Scottish and being a bunch of total nutters. The upshot is that while I picked up a lot of local popular history and had chats with some notables like Peter Maxwell-Stuart, I got most of my impressions about the history of the Fife witchcrazes from looking around town.

What I found was bloody and ugly and scary. The Covenanters under people like John Knox who launched the religious sect of Presbyterianism had a passionate and stirring dream of a new society completely reoriented to God. Too bad that dream was twisted and fundamentalist and truly misogynistic to the core. MacDonald actually compares them at one point to the Taliban and that is not an exaggeration.

The Covenanters covered the Reformation period in Scotland in blood and no more so than in Fife (probably because St Andrews had been the ecclesiastical capital under the previous religious regime). The presbyteries of Scotland enthusiastically used accusations of witchcraft and the process of witchfinding to suppress all religious dissent. There is literally one woman in the book who was accused because she cursed out the minister and his wife. In another case, a man was convicted in the presbytery court of violating the Sabbath because he was riding on a Sunday to seek a pardon for his wife who was a convicted witch.

And a lot of people who weren’t quite accused (or whose accusations didn’t rise to conviction and execution) were denied the sacrament of Communion for years at a time by petty and spiteful religious authorities. Other people were “watched and warded” (a sort of torture that wasn’t actually considered torture in which people were kept awake and isolated from their families for days or weeks at a time) until they confessed, then executed within days of their trial with no appeal. The sheer viciousness, pettiness and self-righteousness of the Covenanters would be breathtaking if it weren’t repeated in so many situations and cultures over the course of history. Nothing scarier than a sadist who thinks God is on their side.

The scars of both the Reformation (when mobs stripped churches of their vestments and icons and even damaged the buildings) and the witchcrazes are visible in St Andrews to this day. There is what used to be a walled off area that had been a tidal pool for recreational swimmers. It’s near the St Andrews Aquarium, next to West Sands. The legend was that back in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was called “Witch Lake.”

Women were taken down there and “dunked” (in this case, tossed into the water with a thumb tied to the opposite toe). If the woman drowned and sank, it was assumed she was innocent (oh, well!), since witches floated and could not be drowned. If the woman managed to survive and float, she was dragged out and up to a nearby hill known as Witch Hill (also, Martyrs’ Hill, as some Protestant martyrs had previously been burned at the stake there) to be burned alive. Charming.

Unfortunately, one of the limitations of MacDonald’s book, which is rather short, is that it restricts itself to taking cases in Fife from a massive, country-wide compilation of cases created in the late 1970 called A Sourcebook of Scottish Witchcraft (1977). MacDonald himself admits that it doesn’t always deal with the most local cases, let alone the extra-legal executions, so we only get to hear about one such lynching from near the very end of the period, in 1710. No confirmation one way or the other about Witch Lake/Hill. So, that was disappointing.

Another disappointment was that MacDonald seemed to do a lot more scene-setting than he did actual analysis. Sure, I get that it’s an academic book (that’s why I bought it), that it’s got a specific focus and that we’re missing a lot of information about the cases (including, for many of the accused, whether or not they were ever executed). Even so, I felt he got bogged down in the geographical studies early on and rushed the general analysis of motivations and patterns at the end. I felt it would have worked better if he’d flipped that around and and that he chickened out a bit on extending his analysis as far as the information could have borne.

I also felt he left out a lot of potentially important context. If you didn’t know about Scottish history, and especially if you’d never been to Fife, you might well get very lost with this book. Even knowing about the period and having lived there for six years, I felt there were points where MacDonald could have fit his localized analysis into a more in-depth framework. I kept wondering what effect James I/VI’s obsession with witches had on the Fife witchcrazes, but found MacDonald’s suppositions too vague and unsatisfying. He seemed uninterested in looking too much at the few cases with lots of detail, with the excuse that we don’t have enough information on enough cases in general to tell if these more-famous cases were typical or not. This struck me as a cop-out. Nobody’s asking to invent information, but get wacky and take a risk or two, son. Come on.

I also found his conclusion that the witchcrazes fell apart in Fife because the coalition of religious and secular authorities responsible for them collapsed was too Captain Obvious. Well, duh, but surely, the repression of the Covenanters in the 1680s following the Restoration of Charles II had something to do with the timing of that collapse. Their successors called it the “Killing Time” because, like all fanatics, they would have to cast themselves as the victims, wouldn’t they, not all those poor women they burned? But their repression was a natural result of a bigger bully coming in and smashing the previous bully. Both the Covenanters and the lairds who supported them were crushed or at least diminished by the increase of English power over the country, so there went the coalition that created recurring witchcrazes.

I’m no fan of the English takeover of Scotland following the reign of James I/VI, but in this case, it appears the English invaders may have done the poor women of Scotland a favor.


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