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date: 01 July 2022

North Berwick witchesfree

(act. 1590–1592)

North Berwick witchesfree

(act. 1590–1592)
  • L. A. Yeoman

North Berwick witches (act. 1590–1592), were a group of about sixty people accused of witchcraft in Haddingtonshire, Scotland. Of this group, most is known about the five men and women of relatively high status: John Cunningham [alias Fian, Sibbet] (d. 1591), schoolmaster, Agnes Sampson (d. 1591), midwife, Barbara Napier (c. 1554–1592x1600), former lady-in-waiting to the countess of Angus, Euphame MacCalzean (d. 1591), daughter of a senator of the college of justice, and Ritchie Graham (d. 1592), magician. They were tried in central courts in the course of perhaps the most extensive outbreak of witchcraft prosecutions in Scotland (1591–7), for an alleged conspiracy to assassinate King James VI, described in the pamphlet Newes from Scotland (1591). They were supposed to have raised by witchcraft a magical storm in an attempt to sink the king's ship as he and his bride, Anne of Denmark, returned from their Scandinavian honeymoon to Scotland in 1590. According to their confessions these deeds were done at witches' conventions attended by the devil. One of these took place at the Old Kirk in North Berwick—hence the naming of the group as the North Berwick witches, when in fact none of them lived there.

In fact the outbreak centred geographically on Tranent, Haddingtonshire, where Fian was schoolmaster. Tranent, an inland village between Edinburgh and North Berwick, featured in all the major witch-hunts of the period, and was the scene of a significant case as late as 1659. As elsewhere in the county, there was an uneasy co-existence of Catholicism and protestantism across all social groups, and tensions had been increased by dearth and by outbreaks of plague, including a prolonged epidemic between 1584 and 1588. The village also provided the most zealous local witch-hunters of the 1590–92 episode: David Seton, bailie to the recusant Lord Seton, and Bailie Seton's son David Seton the younger. Bailie Seton was the employer of a maidservant, Geillis Duncan, whom he tortured privately on suspicion of witchcraft. It was Geillis who implicated Agnes Sampson, a respected local midwife and magical healer, as a witch. Barbara Napier was one of Agnes's higher status clients—which later led to her implication. At a later stage Geillis also seems to have implicated Euphame MacCalzean, Seton's own much richer sister-in-law. There is some evidence that family tension may have led to this accusation; perhaps it was done in the hope of seizing Euphame's considerable estates of Cliftonhall. It is about these two high-status female accused witches that we know most. Of the others we know little beyond their confessions.

Euphame MacCalzean was born before 9 November 1558, the illegitimate daughter of Thomas MacCalzean, Lord Cliftonhall (c.1520–1581), senator of the college of justice and from a famous Edinburgh legal family. Her life seems to have been characterized by riches and friction. She was legitimated by her father in 1558 and inherited estates and money worth thousands of pounds Scots. As a condition of marriage in 1570, her husband, Patrick Moscrop, adopted her surname, becoming Patrick MacCalzean. The relationship was unhappy and she was later accused of trying to kill him. The marriage produced three heiress daughters but apparently no surviving sons. Euphame's attempts to marry her daughters into the local élite created conflicts with Sir James Sandilands, a royal favourite. She also had to go to court against relatives to protect her estates. These factors may have been crucial in her accusation as a witch in a hunt started by her brother-in-law.

Barbara Napier, daughter of Alexander Napier of Ingliston (b. before 1529, d. 1572) and Isobell Litill (d. in or after 1578), came from a family of Edinburgh burgesses. She had married her first husband, George Ker, an overseas book dealer, about 1572. After his death at La Rochelle in September 1576, she married, probably in 1578, Archibald Douglas, brother to the laird of Corshogill. She and her husband had been in service to the countess of Angus, Lady Jean Lyon, at Smeton, Dalkeith. Anxieties over the health of her husband and children and the favour of her mistress led her to consult Agnes Sampson for charms. In consequence of a dispute with her employer, Barbara was dismissed and there was a wrangle over a pension. She thus lacked high-level support from that quarter when Sampson denounced her. It may be, however, that when accused she sought alternative patronage from Francis Stewart, fifth earl of Bothwell, who had just been made lord lieutenant of the borders. She knew Bothwell's wife and had met the earl himself while she was in service to Lady Angus.

The initial accusations against the lower ranking men and women seem to have been part of a local witch-hunt which had begun in early 1590, but at some point treason accusations were made, which led to central involvement by the king himself in late November 1590. Once the accusations reached the royal court, they became part of a power struggle in which factions tried to persuade the tortured witch-suspects to incriminate political rivals. This finally led in April 1591 to the earl of Bothwell being called before the privy council to answer accusations of being the ringleader of the witches' conspiracy. His connections with two of the accused witches, Barbara Napier and Ritchie Graham, were used in evidence against him. Bothwell was warded in Edinburgh Castle but escaped. Those mentioned above, however, were not so lucky. All were tried and, despite MacCalzean's lawyer kin, all were executed in 1591 or 1592 (Ritchie Graham) with the possible exception of Barbara Napier.

Barbara was tried on charges of witchcraft, treason, and consulting with witches. She was found guilty only of the last charge and was sentenced to death for it at the king's behest. This was the first time the crime, though theoretically a capital one, had ever been punished by execution. The king then launched an assize of error—a legal move to cancel her acquittal on the other charges by establishing that the jury of Edinburgh burgesses had wilfully erred in finding her innocent. It is not known what happened to Barbara but the existence of a second escheat for her estate in 1594 may point to her death by then; her husband was described as deceased. She was certainly dead by 1600 when her daughter tried to establish rights to her pension. It is likely that she was burnt, but where is unknown.

The trials of the North Berwick witches had marked a watershed. It was last instance of such prosecutions being subordinated to a political intent, the first major trial of witchcraft under criminal law, and the first occasion on which continental witch theory was deployed. The wave of prosecutions came to a sudden end in 1597 when the king, whose interest in the phenomenon of witchcraft had helped to stimulate them, published his attack on sceptics, Daemonologie, but also revoked witchcraft commissions.


  • L. Normand and G. Roberts, Witchcraft in early modern Scotland (2000)
  • NA Scot., CC 8/8/6, 14 October 1578; CC 8/8/35, 6 Feb 1601 [Moscrop]
  • NA Scot., GD 16/41/112
  • NA Scot., RH 6/2262
  • NA Scot., PS 1/63, fol. 23
  • NA Scot., PS 1/67, fol. 16
  • G. Brunton and D. Haig, An historical account of the senators of the college of justice, from its institution in MDXXXII (1832)
  • Register of the great seal, 4, no. 1313
  • C. Larner, Enemies of God: the witch-hunt in Scotland (1981)
  • J. Wormauld, Court, kirk and community: Scotland, 1470–1625 (1981)
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National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh
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J. B. Paul, ed., , 9 vols. (1904–14)