The occult and fear of the
unknown has been with man from time immemorial and has bred many cults
with strange practices that continue today. A feature picked on by critics
of the Protestant Reformation is the allegation that it was responsible
for witchcraft in the century and a half after the Reformation in Scotland
took place (1560).

It is a rash and sweeping generality to claim that, let
alone to studiously avoid comment on the actions of the
Inquisition since its inception in 1184 AD
and the burning of alleged heretics., or
the institution of the law in 1401 of the Ex
Officio Statute
(De heretico Comburendo). The first legislation
against witchcraft was the Witchcraft Act 1541 – before the Reformation
took place when England was dominated by the Catholic Church.
The number of witches burnt in Europe during the seventeenth century
amounted to over a thousand; in Scotland some twenty five were executed in
the same period. The Inquisition killed hundreds of thousands of people because of religious bigotry and intolerance
– for daring to think for themselves. Who then is the bigger user of fear
as a weapon, who then the bigger murderer ?

In isolation it may be fair to comment on the tactic of using fear for
political purposes. Here it is applies in the very narrow context of the attitudes
displayed by the zeal of some of the early Presbyterians, such as
Andro Knox, the Papist catcher
or indeed the great John Knox, Samuel Rutherford, Alexander Peden and
James Renwick
But it
must be remembered that these people lived, breathed, believed,
and were utterly committed to their religion. The “transport of joy ” of
Covenanters when about to receive the Martyr`s Crown on the scaffold is an
alternate reflection of their sheer passion.

We should not judge with
hindsight what were legitimate expressions and arguments for and against
beliefs some four hundred and fifty years ago. It was  legitimate
then to use a frisson of fear to achieve an objective (Reformation) while
the Roman Catholic Church held out Purgatory and damnation for non
believers and turned to the Inquisition to enforce their intolerance of
others.  Is it any worse than modern morally bereft politicians who
lie about the reasons for declaring war on another nation that results in
the deaths of tens of thousands of non combatants ?  But then
conversion to Roman Catholicism does perhaps offer to the conscience
stricken apostate the hope of forgiveness via the earthly Confessional.

The following extract
is from The Church of Scotland by R M Stewart , Alexander Gardner,

” In the new religion now professed in Scotland stress must
be laid upon the element of fear as the prevailing
ingredient. Proof of this is to be found in the extraordinary mania of
witchcraft which for about a century
and a half after the Reformation

took unaccountable possession of men’s minds. This moral epidemic was
directly traceable to the vast powers now ascribed
to the enemy of
mankind, and it seemed as if evil had really acquired an extraordinary
hold over men.

Scarcely any prosecutions for witchcraft are recorded prior to
the Reformation. The single
exception occurs in the reign of

James III, when his
brother, the Earl of Mar, was convicted

of consulting with witches
to procure the King’s death. But
the beliefs, or
if we choose to call them so, the superstitions of the earlier times were
genial and beautiful, not inhuman and
morose. The extraordinary craze of witchcraft had its rise
in the
virtual omnipotence and omnipresence now ascribed to Satan. Such powers as
he possessed could not be allowed to slumber, but must make themselves
felt. In 1563 an act was passed by the
Estates, on the recommendation of Knox,
against using ” any manner
of witchcraft, or using an help, response,
or consultation with the users or abusers of witchcraft.”
statute became the basis of the subsequent prosecutions for this offence.
Suspicions and accusations of witchcraft in

that troubled society became common, they were bandied about against
persons of every rank of life, wherever there was malignant hatred, or
idle gossip, or blind unconscious ignorance, or any event which
transcended common experience, or even any extraordinary skill in treating
and curing disease, there were to be found the germs of a charge of
witchcraft. The details of these cases are often so heart-rending and
horrible, and yet so grotesque, that they form a mine of interest and
study to the psychological enquirer not yet perhaps fully explored, and
may find their probable explanation in the law that as famine and
pestilence frequently visit localities ignorant or careless of the
commonest rules of sanitation, so an epidemic of superstition and cruelty
may be permitted to visit a society given over to its own impulses and to
a religion of misanthropy and gloom. Two famous cases occurring in the
latter half of the 16th century may be cited as best illustrating the
nature of the popular hallucinations. In the first instance a poor married
woman, Bessie Dunlop, who had just risen from childbed, confessed to
having made the acquaintance of one Reid, a soldier, who had been killed
in the battle of Pinkie some twenty years previously, and whom she had
never seen, and by him of having been introduced to a company of visionary
guests from elf land who desired her to accompany them, which however, ”
as she dwelt with her ain husband and bairns,” she declined to do. With
the assistance of her ghostly friend, she was as she stated, enabled to
put many persons in the way of recovering stolen goods, and to work
remarkable cures, but nothing of a malign tendency was laid to her charge.
Dunlop was clearly the victim of hallucinations arising from diseased
conditions of mind and body, yet on the above grounds she was found guilty
of sorcery and consigned to the flames.

Another trial
which occasioned great excitement at the time, and in which the pitiable
King, then in search of materials for his work on Demonology took a part,
was one involving persons of various ranks, Finn, a schoolmaster at
Prestonpans, Agnes Sampson, “a grave matron-like person,” Barbara Napier,
wife of an Edinburgh citizen, and Euphemia MacCalzean, daughter of a
deceased judge. These persons were charged with sorcery at the instance of
one Seaton of Tranent, who had suspected his servant maid of a
supernatural power of curing sickness, and having subjected her to
torture, extorted a confession of her own guilt and that of her
accomplices. Fian admitted under torture only that he had had conferences
with the devil, and attended various meet­ings of witches at North Berwick
hirk, where he had acted as Registrar or Secretary of the proceedings,
that he had been one of a party of witches from Prestonpans, who, by
night, had sunk a ship by their incantations, had chased a cat at Tranent
which he designed to cast into the sea with the view of raising storms for
the destruction of shipping, etc. Fian contrived to escape from prison,
but, being recaptured, altogether denied his former confession, and though
tortured in the most fearful manner, his nails being torn with pincers,
needles thrust up his fingers, and his legs crushed in boots, persisted in
his retrac­tation of his former confession. The King and others were only
the more convinced that the devil had entered into his heart, and he was
condemned and burned. Against Sampson, the charges were cures, or attempts
to cure, or predictions of events which came to pass, which, through
Satanic agency, she was able to make. The articles of accusation were
founded on confessions extorted from her by torture of a rope twisted
round her head, which she is said to have endured for an hour unmoved. She
was accused of having, to effect her cures, uttered incantations in rhyme,
but these seem to have had nothing magical in them, but were merely a
rough version of the Apostles’ Creed, while another ran as follows :—

All kinds of ills that ever may be,
In Christ’s name I conjure thee ;

I conjure thee baith mair and less, With all the
virtues of the Mess.”

On other
occasions something like mesmerism seems to have been exercised. Being
called to see a sick boy at Prestonpans, she only “graipit him,” i.e.,
felt him over, and he was healed. The 35th indictment against her charges
her with curing one Kerse in Dalkeith, who was heavily tormented with
witchcraft and disease by “ane westland warlock, which sickness she took
upon herself.”

The convention of Witches at Berwick for the purpose of doing homage to
their Satanic master and receiving his behests, is a remarkable one, from
the fact that the names of a hundred persons, seemingly simple villagers,
are connected with it as being present, and raises the question, was there
any basis of fact for the statements made, or were they merely the
fabrication of malice or of gossip, or the creation of a diseased fancy.
Further, did the alleged witches really seek to compass death or injury to
any one? Only in the trial of Napier does the additional statement appear,
that wax pictures of the King were to be made, and given to the Devil to
be enchanted, and employed magically for the King’s destruction. This
traitorous device was, according to one confession, the instigation of the
Earl of Bothwell, who, on this charge, was committed by the King to ward,
but managed to escape. Sampson was condemned to be strangled at the stake
and her body burnt to ashes. Napier was sentenced to death, although
acquitted of the graver charges, to the intense annoyance of the King, who
came to preside in person at the trial of the jurors for wilful error,
when they managed to escape his wrath by throwing themselves on the royal
mercy. The execution of Napier was delayed on account of pregnancy, and in
the end she was released, to the extreme chagrin of the ministers, who
reproached the King with his undue leniency. Of all the parties in this
frightful tragedy, the unhappy Euphemia M’Calzean suffered the severest
penalty, to which it is possible her profession of the proscribed religion
contributed, being burnt alive on the Castlehill, on June 5th, 1591, and
meeting her fate with the greatest con­stancy. All had not the good
fortune of Bothwell, to escape from the tortures which the imbecility or
malignity of ” the wisest fool in Christendom” had designed for them, or
the wit like that Earl to turn aside the charge of complicity with Satan
with the ready answer that the devil was a liar from the beginning.

This dark feature of Scottish post-Reformation life goes on intensifying
in horror and darkness during the Century after the passing of the Act of
1561, during the season of the great Presbyterian revival and Covenanting
enthusiasm in the next century, until it reaches its climax in 1661. The
Mania of witch-finding and witch-hunting became a passion among the
people, the punishments increased gradually in atrocity.    At first the
witch was only strangled then burned, latterly she was burned alive. The
most horrible preliminary tortures were employed to extort confessions.
The iron collar or witch’s bridle with four points or prongs forcibly
thrust into the mouth, secured by a padlock and fixed by a ring, by means
of which the witch was attached to a staple in her cell, was a favourite
instrument of cruelty. Hanging by the thumbs and crushing the fingers by
the “thumb-screw” were also common appliances, the witch-pricker who ran
pins into the witch’s body, on pretence of discovering the devil’s mark,
belonged to a profession. The privation of all sleep by being awakened by
a skilful Watcher appointed for the purpose, produced a delirium in which
from weariness of life the victim made the required confession, as
in­stantly revoked when torture was removed. In consequence of this
infamous system hundreds of hapless men and women were mercilessly put to
death for an imaginary crime. Between 1640 and the Restoration no fewer
than thirty trials appear on the Record, but those persons tried before
the Court of Justiciary were a very small proportion compared to those who
were tried and condemned by the Lords of Regalities, Baron-Bailies, and
other local authorities. No fewer than fourteen Commissions granted by the
Privy Council to private courts consisting of “understanding gentlemen ”
and ministers to try alleged witches were granted in one day, November 7,
1661, and no doubt many unrecorded executions for the crime of witch­craft
took place about this period. During the time of the Commonwealth, when
the power of the Ministers was in abeyance, there was a cessation of the
witch-finding activity, as

the English judges appointed by Cromwell refused to countenance these
prosecutions, but at the Restoration the mania assumed new dimensions. In
1661 seventy persons were condemned by the Justiciary Court for
witchcraft. In these proceedings the Protestant preachers were ever the
indefatigable agents. They were the foremost in instigating prosecution,
in assisting at the preliminary precognitions or examinations, and in
clamouring for extreme measures if any sign of leniency was manifested. It
was as we saw upon the recommendation of Knox that the original statute
against witchcraft was passed, as early as 1563 the Ecclesiastical
Superintendent of Fife is found delating four women for witchcraft, and
the Assembly of the Kirk is urgent in calling upon the civil power to act.
The zeal of the ministers in adding to the agony of the victims by their
exhortations and reproaches was the occasion of complaint even from those
who were engaged in the prosecution of those disgraceful trials,* and when
in 1715 the laws against witchcraft were repealed, the one protesting
voice was that of a Presbyterian Church Court who enumerated the repeal
among the national sins.

Such are some of the
aspects of Scottish Life, on the morrow of the Reformation, and it can
scarcely be maintained in the face of these facts that any special
advantage had been gained by displacing the ancient rites in favour of a
religion of faith without works, of election without holiness, of
profession without charity. Rather we are here confronted by a vast
national disaster, the religious revolution of the 16th century effectirg
the like injurious effects on the national progress and culture  which
had been previously effected by the English wars and invasions of the 14th
and i5th centuries. An epidemic of religious intolerance and bigotry,
combined with the hatred, jealousy and suspicion now prevailing in
Society, of which the prosecutions for witchcraft were the outward and
visible sign, further to depress and darken the national life.”