The story of the Aberdeen witches is a sad example of what can happen as a result of superstitions, gossip and insecurity. Innocent people were put to death because of unproved suspicions that they were practicing witchcraft. Common practices like using herbs as medicine or in food led to many people being accused of witchery and killed ruthlessly. Needless executions were carried out in a quest to purge the society of witches. False accusations were levied against innocent people, leading to unnecessary death.
From 1563 to 1736, the practice of witchcraft in Scotland was a criminal offence. The church was given the responsibility of hunting witches, and its ministers and elders were in charge. The King of Scotland at the time, King James VI, was at the forefront of the campaign against the practice of witchcraft, and the church had a mandate to purge heresy and treason against God and the King.
In Aberdeen, North eastern Scotland, twenty-four men and women were burned because they were accused of being witches. They were accused of dancing with the devil, causing married men to become adulterous, bewitching animals, causing milk to go sour, and making love charms. They were even accused of casting spells which caused illness and death. Some were accused of provoking storms, mutilating corpses and removing body parts to use in witchcraft.
Those who were accused of being witches usually confessed to the crimes they were accused of. The torture that they had to undergo was immense and for many, confession was the easy way out. Others even killed themselves. Men and women were hanged and then burned.
Many of the accused were elderly women and men but even the youth were not spared. A young man was hanged for poltergeist tricks. Isobel Gowdie was killed after being accused of being a common sorcerer and a witch and even had to name others who were then accused alongside her. Even those of unsound mind who confessed to practicing witchcraft were killed. Others, like Allison Peirson, were killed because they were accused of being members of a coven (an assembly of witches consisting of 13 members).
During the period of the Aberdeen killings, King James VI, King of Scotland, played a major role in the quest to rid the community of witches. He accused certain women of conjuring a storm that caused him to have a rough journey with his new wife from Denmark. He was convinced of the existence of witches and was also convinced that witches should be killed. He wrote a book in 1597, “Demonology”, which spread the hatred for witches throughout his country, causing even more people to be killed.
The church at the time was on a mission to purge the country of anyone who practiced heresy in any way and was in charge of the prosecutions of those who were accused. Seven women who had been accused of witchcraft were tried and found guilty. They were tied to stakes, strangled and their bodies burned. These women were; Janet Wishart, Helen Rogie, Margaret Ogg, Isobel Cockie, Isobel Strachan, Isobel Ritchie and Isobel Ogg. They had been accused of using black magic to murder, taking body parts from the dead persons, raising storms, casting spells on animals and giving young men magical foods.
Most of those who were accused were found guilty. Few were found to be not guilty. In this case, they were banished from living in Aberdeen and were forced to move away.
The story of the witches of Aberdeen is a sad one. Superstitions, insecurity, gossip and imagined happenings caused the deaths of many innocent people. Those who were accused usually ended up confessing under duress to crimes they had never committed. They suffered torture and death at the hands of their fellow countrymen and women. No one was safe because no one knew when someone would mention their name in connection to witchcraft.