Witch hunting came to Scotland in the 16th Century, some time after the original witchhunts of central Europe began in the 14th Century. The offence of witchcraft, known in Scotland as malefice, came into force in 1563. The law also banned the consulting of witches. Both offences were punishable by death.
Most condemned witches were women; only a fifth were men. Due to the Scottish habit that married women kept their maiden name it is difficult to ascertain whether the men accused were married or related to the female witches, though it seems probable. Women had few rights; a special law was passed to allow their testimony in court in 1591 - but only in cases of malefice.
After 1597 only the Justiciary Court - later to become the High Court in 1672 - could try a witch. The Justiciary Court was reserved for cases in the King's Writ:- treason; the four pleas of the crown (robbery, rape, murder, arson); and latterly malefice.
Various methods were employed to find witches. In 1597 one Margaret Atkin accused of witchcraft in Glasgow told her accusers she had a gift for spotting witches. She picked several innocent women who were executed as witches. Margaret Atkin survived. Often in Scotland the accusations were made by the extended family and in-laws.
The prevailing theory linked witchcraft to satanism. The devil would bite a witch but that mark would not bleed. This give rise to the profession of witchprickers; usually men who would shove brass tacks into the witch's body. Witchprickers became astute fraudsters. They understood the principle of confused sensation, acupuncture points and which parts of the body would yield the best results. As late as 1699 the Glasgow synod still believed in the profession, wanting to hire practioners. A baker's widow Jean Hadron and merchant's widow Margaret Duncan were tried in Glasgow in May 1700.
Usually confessions were extracted. Physical torture was not the norm in Scotland as opposed to the rest of Europe. Use of any apparatus was rare. Regrettably Scots probably pioneered mental torture, in particular sleep deprevation. From around 1662 any torture was frowned on. A comission of 1677 advised Dumbarton's witchhunters: "If found guilty without the use of torture hindering them to sleep or other indirect means, then justice may be adminstered upon them."
Witch hunting was a pursuit of the ruling classes. James VI wrote 'Daemonologie' in 1597. Scotland was to have 5 great outbreaks:- 1591 when James VI first looked into sorcery; 1597 on the Edinburgh publication of his treatise; c.1629 as part of a European panic; c.1649 on the Covenanters rise; and c.1661 on Charles II restoration. I.M.M. Macphail's A short history of Dumbartonshire notes one such case in the European panic: "In 1628 there were as many as three women lodged in Dumbarton Tolbooth as suspected witches, Marion Mackintosh, Margaret Hamill and Janet Donald, the last being executed." Janet Donald was the wife of Humphrey Colquhoun, a clan at the time no strangers to malefice. Originally Janet Neill, wife of the burgess William Corruth, and Marion Mackintosh were held on the 20th November 1628. Both women denied the accusations and their hair was shorn and a witchpricker admitted. The next year we find Janet Neill, Margaret Hunter and Janet Donald have their punishment decided, it seems purely on the basis of overcrowding:- Margaret is admonished with a caution but Janet Donald is strangled and burnt at the stake. Her baby daughter is given to a wet-nurse. Janet Neill was burnt later. In the Dumbarton Common Good Accounts of the period, the burning of Janet Neill cost 57 shillings for coals and peats. Alan Allison who provided the ropes, bound and strangled witches received 10 shillings and 4 pence. The executioner David Glen was also paid in 1632. A slightly later case is in the entry for the Colquhoun family. In 1644, a Bessie Bargillie was similarly accused and executed. It took five loads of coals, seven loads of peats and two barrels of tar to finish the job. In the 1650s a John McWilliam was also found guilty and executed.
By the late 17th Century the European outbreaks had ended. (However Poland still had intermittent cases caused by the rise of the Jesuits and Europe's last execution was there in 1793.) The notorious 1692 outbreak in Salem, Massachusetts, USA can be viewed as a European extension. Scotland had its own Salem; the last main witchhunt in Europe - it took place near Erskine, Renfrewshire in 1697. Christian Shaw, the 11 year old daughter of the laird of Bargarran, accused a number of tenants and servants of bewitching her. The girl suffered from fits and twenty people were arrested on her evidence. After trial, seven people were executed but cases were still pending in 1699, two years later. One of the accused Mary Morrison plead mitigation by her continual adjournment and that her character was by now indelibly stained. She was released. Reputation intact, Christian Shaw later founded the Bargarran threadmill.
Later malefice cases in Scotland as elsewhere were sporadic. In 1705 Edinburgh acquitted Janet Cornfoot but on her return to Pittenweem was stoned to death by locals. In 1727 Janet Horne was burned in her home for allegedly turning her daughter into a pony. She was so senile that she thought the fire was built to warm her. It was the last execution for witchcraft in Scotland. The crime of witchcraft was repealed in 1736.