Tag Archives: Scotland

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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Halloween in North Carolina, All Souls’ Day: Bonus Round #2: Scottish Ghosts (1999)


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Seafield, Lily. Scottish Ghosts. Lomond Books, 1999.


So, as promised, I’ve continued my reviews through All Souls’ Day (today), but with the twist that the last two days, since they’re in November, are reviews of ghost stories from other regions than North Carolina. But possibly, these are regions that may have influenced or have similar tropes to what you find in NC.

I picked this one up at the bus station in Glasgow almost two decades ago. It’s one of several books I have of Scottish folklore. The cover above is very nice, but the edition I picked up actually looks like this:

Kinda cheesy, I know. The apparent editorial excuse is that this edition is for kids. It might be a bit too creepy and historical for American kids, though.

Also, for such a short book, it has a whole lot of stories in it – over 150. Each one is maybe a page or two, though the entry on Second Sight in the “Signs, Prophecies and Curses” section is (appropriately) several pages long, as Second Sight is a major part of Scottish folklore. With most entries, the author gets in, gets out, and then moves on to the next, grouping them thematically into several sections, such as “Military Ghosts,” “Fairies, Green Ladies and Devilish Struggles,” and “Poltergeists.” The stories are sometimes sad, sometimes horrifying, sometimes educational. But they’re also mostly fun.

My favorites, of course, tend to be about St Andrews, where I lived for six years. Alas, there are really only two stories (for some reason, the very haunted St Andrews Castle didn’t make it into the “Ghostly Castles” section). St Andrews Cathedral, for example, has a Lady in White and a ghostly monk who haunts St Rule’s Tower. The late-11th century St Rule’s Tower is the tallest (and probably oldest) building in St Andrews. It’s pretty much the only remaining intact structure for St Andrews Cathedral. It’s a bit of a hike that I’ve done a few times, but sadly (or not?), I’ve never seen the monk.

Stories range from the humorous to the creepy to the quite-disturbing. One of the funniest is the large “Demon Crab” of Dundee that crawls out of a drowned ferryman’s coat after he washes up on the beach. The Devil doesn’t last long in that guise, as he is quickly snatched up by a fishwife who happily cooks him for her dinner. One of the creepier ones is a story of a pair of eyes (just eyes) haunting a room in Crail, down the coast from Dundee, in the section, “Ghosts in the House.” And then there’s the scary tale from the “Mind How You Go” section of the Big Grey Man who haunts the mists of Ben MacDuibh in the Cairngorms (Scotland’s mountain range) and attacks anyone who visits it.

The witchcrazes of the 16th and 17th centuries hit Scotland especially hard. It’s believed that thousands were accused and over a thousand executed (by burning at the stake) as a result. You can see the scars of that and the rest of the Covenanters’ repressions to this day on the Scottish landscape (never been fan of John Knox).

The author is sympathetic to the doomed accused witches. She discusses the witchcrazes in her introduction, but also writes about some witch tales more sympathetically than how they appear in North Carolina folklore. The interesting thing is that you can see some Scottish influence (North Carolina has had quite a few Scottish settlers in its early history) on NC folklore.

For example, the famous tale of “The Miller’s Wife” ends fatally in North Carolina lore, with the blame clearly laid on the witchy wife (despite the Miller character being kind of an idiot). In Scotland, you get “The Cursed Mill.” In this story, set near Newtonmore in the Highlands, an old woman curses a miller and his mill. It’s never stated what the insult was, but you start to get some clues as the story progresses.

The first miller dies in a fire. The one after him contracts a fatal illness and the mill burns down. After the mill is rebuilt (because mills were critical to a town or village’s life), the witch relents a little and changes the curse. People can now use the mill for all except one day of the year. The mill runs well once subsequent millers follow these instructions.

However, long after the witch dies, the mill comes into the hands of an ambitious, grasping man who believes the curse is just superstition. So, he uses the mill on that one forbidden day of the year. Predictably, the mill grinds to a standstill. The miller tries again the next year, but this time, rats eat up all his corn. He gives up and sells the mill, but has no fortune in his business ventures thereafter and dies of a wasting illness.

The mill then goes to another man who is kind and gets the mill working again with the help of a young Traveler boy he adopts. After the man dies, the Traveler has to be recalled to get the mill working again. Once he dies, it falls apart for good.

This tale bears a lot of resemblance to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, but in this instance, the sin is a refusal to observe a single Sabbath day of rest in the year. We humans just can’t resist crossing boundaries we just shouldn’t cross and that we don’t need to cross. There is also a clear subtext that when the mill is run with kindness rather than covetousness, all goes well. It’s only when the mill is run meanly, with greed, that everything comes to a screeching halt. Here, you can see the mill as a metaphor for Scottish society.

This indicates that the witch’s original grievance was a sound one and the curse not due to an evil nature. It also shows the witch as a productive member of society who brings necessary justice to those who transgress by treating others badly (very different from how witches were perceived back in the Convenanters’ day!). Scottish folklore often shows a balance in the Scottish cultural psyche between great generosity of spirit and the kind of miserliness for which the Scots have too-often become famous (even when it wasn’t true) worldwide. This story is a classic example.

The plan from here on out is to continue reading NC folklore and reviewing the books, just at a slower pace and over on Patreon. If you found these enjoyable, and want to follow my research plans, you can do so there. I’ll still be posting stuff here (including my Supernatural recaps and possibly reviews), but it will involve another one of my projects this month (likely, my mom’s family cookbook). I got a lot done on the NC folklore stuff in October and now that I am thoroughly creeped out, I need to do some other stuff.


Did you enjoy this review? You can help keep the project going by contributing monthly via Patreon (which includes perks), making a one-time donation through Paypal, or buying us a coffee. And don’t forget to check out my ghostly folklore notes all month on Patreon!