The ‘Aberdeen Witches’ trials in Scottish history is likened to the famous Salem Witch Trials in America. It was a time of persecution, accusation and terror for women who were practitioners of healing, those who had lived to old age or those that simply ‘looked like a witch’. Mass hysteria, gossip and finger-pointing meant that anyone vaguely considered to be dabbling with witchcraft faced a very uncertain future.
From 1563, it became a criminal offence to practice witchcraft; as well as being illegal, there was a strange fascination surrounding the subject, famously by King James, who had an obsession with witchcraft, so much so he went as far as to write a book on the subject which he called ‘Daemonologie’; he developed a compulsion for hunting witches and rallied groups of witch finders to help in his quest. These witch hunters consisted mostly of ministers and elders of the reformed church, along with general citizens who became embroiled in the craze.
Many of these so called "witches" were, in truth nothing more than elderly women. People did not generally live as long as they do today back in the 16th century, and longevity was seen as being achieved by magic. Other women such as midwives and village healers were also taken for trial. The charges they faced ranged from casting spells on animals, turning milk sour and using enchanted foods to entice young men into their grasp, to creating violent storms with the intent to destroy crops and homes. It was very much a case of ‘your word against theirs’ when it came to their trials; who would the public believe – a highly respected minister or an old woman?
Many of the accused women actually "confessed" to the charges of witchcraft, simply because the punishment was easier to take than the methods of torture the witch hunters used to get the information. Thumb screws, the ducking stool and red hot leg-irons were some of the reputed instruments they had to face. It was a terrifying time for everyone, let alone the witches' families; nobody knew who would be charged with being a witch next.
Even if someone was arrested on suspicion of witchcraft and was eventually found not guilty the damage would have been done; they would still be branded with the mark of the witch and be banished from Aberdeen. The ones found guilty by whatever bogus methods the witch finders could exploit were first hanged and then burned on the renowned ‘Heading Hill’ where many criminals came to their end. In fact, there is still a version of a guillotine there today.
A total of at least twenty-three women and one man - Colin Massie, who was accused of being a warlock - were charged with and executed for witchcraft during this time. Countless others would have been captured if they hadn’t been able to escape into the surrounding area. It is a famous and dark period in Scottish history, but gives insight into the mindset of the day.