#Halloween, witches… and the wise?


This blog is by Nancy Jardine.

Being an author of Celtic/ Roman historical adventures, I’ve tended to write about the Celtic festival of Samhain (what became the Eve of all Hallows Christian festival)  at this time of year… but here’s something just a wee but different.

Hallowe’en stories of witches have been told around the firesides for many generations – and none more so than in the place where I live in Scotland. My village is Kintore, in Aberdeenshire, and one claim to fame is that Kintore was the home of a famous witch named #Isobel Cockie who met a sad demise in 1597.

From James VI’s Daemonology

There have been many great Witch Hunts in the past in Scotland but one of the greatest was the one of 1597. The witch trials took place all over Scotland and it’s believed that some 400 people were brought to court, around 200 of whom ended up being tied to the stake and burned as a witch (some male, though most female). The one consolation appears to be that the condemned was probably strangled first, though that can’t always be corroborated. BTW: It cost 4 shillings for “four fadome of Towis”  which I understand to be lengths of rope. Currently about 24 US cents! The hangman-Jon Justice (what an appropriate name)-  was paid about 43 US cents to execute each person.

Reasons for Isobel Cockie being hanged varied from stopping cows from producing healthy milk and making it poisonous; stopping a woman from being able to churn her milk into cream, butter or cheese; making people that she had ‘bad words’ with fall ill with fevers- some of the victims not surviving; robbing people of the power of speech and having the ability to return it via potions and drugs when pressed to do so; and other such instances.

a pamphlet of c. 1591

A particularly bad accusation for Isobel was encountering Thomas Makkie ‘Reader of Kintore’ one dark night. It’s said she laid her hand on the shoulder of his five year old horse and it promptly fell down and died. The ‘Reader of Kintore’ was an alternative name of the era for the schoolmaster (Thomas Makkie was Maister of the Inglis Scuill in Kintore) and as such would have been a respected worthy of the village and someone whose testimony would have been well received. Note: The school lessons were conducted in the King’s English (Inglis) rather than the local Doric dialect.

Dancing with the devil, and especially on Hallowe’en, was the most damning indictment for a witch but it appears that the bold Isobel Cockie from Kintore went one better than that. She was said to be part of a witches coven who met regularly in the nearby city of Aberdeen – 15 miles away and presumably nothing for a witch to fly, but a long walk to undertake for a dance! Isobel, also known as “Tibby” was dancing along with her fellow witch cronies at the Market and Fish Cross, also at the Meal Market, between 12 and 1 a.m. on the Halloween of 1595 betuixt tuell and ane houris at nycht, to the mercat and fishe croces of Aberdene, an meil mercet of the sam”.

The Devil was playing his ‘Trump’ (I kid you not, that’s what they called it – it was a form of Jew’s Harp) but ‘Tibby’ didn’t think too much of his unmelodious playing and snatched the instrument from his mouth, after which it seems she played it herself. In the quhilk danse, thow was the ring ledar, next to Thomas Leyis: and becaws the Dewill playit nocht so melodiousle and weill as thow crewit, thou tuik his instrument (Trump) out of his moutht, than tuik him on the chaftis therwith, and plaid thi self theron to thi hail cumpanie” My translation of ‘took him on the chaftis therewith’ stretches to she slapped him on the cheeks, but please don’t quote me on that one since it’s the only translation I can find, and although I’ve lived in Kintore for 28 years I still ‘canna ‘spik a’ Doric’!

Other reasons for being found guilty of witchcraft that year included murder by using magic; poisoning meat; making wax images to create a storm and removing body parts from the dead to use in witchly potions (fingers, toes and genitals being popular). More information can be read HERE.

So, why were so many witches burnt at the stake in 1597? Well, the answer is that was a particularly bad year but there were others nearly as dire before, and also, after that one. Witch trials had occurred more sporadically over the centuries but by the 1590s it became a serious cause for complaint.

James VI – Wikimedia Commons

The Scottish king of the time was James VI, the son of the famous Mary Queen of Scots. He is also the James known in more modern times to many around the world as having sponsored the translation of the bible which became known as the ‘Authorised King James (VI)  Version of the Bible’ of 1611. (NB- He also became King James I of England in 1603 and afterwards King of Great Britain)

And…James VI was very interested in witchcraft…

James VI’s curiosity about all things witch like was probably kindled after his visit to Denmark, the home of his young Queen Anne. In 1589, after a betrothal by proxy, the 14 year old Anne set out to sail to Scotland but it seems she ended up in Norway. On hearing of the plight of his newly betrothed, James VI set off himself to fetch her.

After a wedding in Oslo he spent around a month celebrating in Denmark and learning about all sorts of things of interest to him before they both returned to Scotland. Storms are a frequent occurrence in the North Sea but for some people of the time, natural weather systems were just a bit too ordinary.There were some who believed that witches’ spells had caused the winds to blow the ship off course- but which ship? Sources vary as to whether it was the ship Anne was on that was blown off course and ended up in Norway, or that it was the ship carrying both of them on their return to Scotland. Whichever, it seems a furore happened! Many were accused of the witchery. (Denmark being a country familiar to witch-hunts probably meant James VI had learned a lot of trial techniques while he was there.)

North Berwick with trials 1591

The North Berwick Witch Trials of 1590 implicated 70 people, some of whom were high born (5th Earl of Bothwell), and ran for two years. It’s documented that James VI was personally involved.

Being an avid scholar, he deemed the study of witchcraft and demonology a branch of theology. The interest in witch hunting continued for James VI and in 1597 he wrote a treatise in 3 books called ‘Daemonology’ in which he laid out the principles of Witchery (as he saw it) and the reasons for the church needing to be thorough in stamping out the practice.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daemonologie ) – p.s. there are some inconsistencies in the sites available on the internet with information on JamesVI.

But back to Kintore’s Isobel Cockie…It’s not documented where Isobel Cockie’s remains were interred after her burning at the stake but earlier this year (2016) some 900 skeletons were found under St. Nicholas Kirk in the centre of Aberdeen. This was the very place where those accused of witchcraft in 1597 were chained to the walls while awaiting trial. Is Isobel one of them? We’ll probably never know but no doubt detailed examination results on the skeletons will follow later.

I think on the Hallowe’en of 1597, the witches covens in Scotland must have been very quiet affairs!

Whatever, and however, you may be celebrating this Hallowe’en make sure not to play the devil’s ‘Trump’ (NB: statement not meant to be political) .  

Nancy Jardine writes about Celtic Festivals like Samhain (Halloween) in her Celtic Fervour Series of Historical Romantic Adventures.

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19 thoughts on “#Halloween, witches… and the wise?

  1. Wow Nancy! There’s some really interesting stuff here! Thanks for sharing some creepy things about condemned witches and how they were dealt with. The video is particularly scary – to know that so many people were persecuted and killed for the crime of witchcraft and that there is evidence to support the grisly punishments. Glad you shared this just in time for Halloween!


    1. Hello Salpa58 I agree to all of the above. The masses were kept in fear – mainly by religious pressure. Many people were literate in Scotland at that time BUT only to a basic level for most children, since few went on at school beyond 11-12 years… And at that time,although school was available in my village (academic stuff to boys only and basic reading skills for females), it wasn’t compulsory and was paid for by the parents. Superstition was rife because some of the ‘old Celtic’ beliefs were clung onto, those traditions which hadn’t already been assimilated into the local version pf Christian doctrine. Happy Halloween to you, too.


    1. Thank you, Abbie. I’ve a feeling the US witch trials came later than 1597 – the most famous (Salem) a whole century later. Happy Halloween to you, too! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember reading books as a youngster about the Salem witch trials in America — maybe one reason I don’t care for dark or horror fiction anymore! What a TERRIBLE way to die! Shiver me timbers!! A very interesting, and very sad, post, Nancy — thanks for sharing more about your country’s history!


    1. Gayle- I think it’s fair to say that any witch trials in the US were probably influenced by those ‘trialled’ for centuries before in Europe.


  3. That is very interesting, and terrible to contemplate. I’m thinking many of those witches may have been mentally ill. And surrounded by superstitious people. I am intrigued by the fact they found infants’ bodies. Were some of the witches pregnant, or gave birth while awaiting their trial? I would think the trials were expedient. Anyway, that was difinitely a timely Halloween story. I admire your research!


    1. Good points, Neva. I’m guessing that you’d be correct in that some of the infant skeletons were of mothers who were possibly wrongly accused, yet due to a protracted trial the infants were born in the ‘kirk’ jail. Superstition was such that if you were vaguely different from the norm then you were deemed to be ‘of the devil’. I’ve read that it was often the case that the victims languished (or more likely were tortured) for many months in jail. Think ‘Spanish Inquisition’ and it’d be pretty similar. James VI was Protestant and anyone who didn’t toe the protestant line was suspect- especially anyone who adhered to the old Celtic way of life.


  4. Great stories. Thanks for the translation I would never have figured it out, even though I have recently found out I’m 7 % Scott-Irish, I’ve never met anyone from that area. America had some horrible Witch Trials too. Cher’ley


  5. Great stories. Thanks for the translation I would never have figured it out, even though I have recently found out I’m 7 % Scott-Irish, I’ve never met anyone from that area. America had some horrible Witch Trials too. Cher’ley


  6. I’ve always wanted to visit Salem and learn more about the witch trials. I’ll be heading to Boston in a week and hope I can squeeze in a visit to Salem. I’ve never thought about similar witch executions elsewhere but of course it would happen first in Europe. Thanks for an interesting post!


  7. That’s a lot of interesting information. We celebrate Halloween here with friends. We park our chairs at the end of the driveway, hand out candy, and chat with the neighbors


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