7 Deadly Witch Trials That Didn’t Take Place In Salem

Published October 24, 2023
Updated October 26, 2023

How A King Caused The North Berwick Witch Trials In Scotland

North Berwick Witch Trials

Public DomainA depiction of “witches” meeting with the Devil in North Berwick.

The Valais witch trials emerged from a perfect storm of religious and political pressure. But the next witch trial on our list was arguably the work of one man: King James VI of Scotland.

In 1589, James set sail to Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne of Denmark. During the voyage, however, a terrible gale set upon James’ ship, and the shaken king emerged from the experience convinced that it had been the work of witches. Specifically, he came to suspect that he’d been attacked by witches from the tiny Scottish town of North Berwick, whose seaside location would have been advantageous for conjuring sea spells.

At least 70 accused witches were arrested and interrogated, per Historic UK. Some women fell under suspicion for merely having red hair or being left-handed. Other women who worked as healers or midwives were also accused of being witches.

King James VI Of Scotland

Public DomainKing James VI was obsessed with eradicating witches and even wrote a book encouraging witch hunting called Daemonologie.

The women in North Berwick were tortured until they confessed. To make the abuse stop, the women admitted to digging up and dismembering corpses, tying the disembodied limbs to dead cats, and throwing the gruesome mess into the sea in order to conjure the storm that delayed King James VI.

To date, it’s unknown how many people were executed during the North Berwick witch trials, but the accused ranged from women like Agnes Sampson, a midwife, and Gellie Duncan, a healer, to members of the Scottish nobility. What’s more, the witch trials in North Berwick started a trend that tore across Scotland. Some 3,000 and 4,000 accused witches were killed in the country between 1560 and 1707.

But perhaps the greatest impact the North Berwick witch trials had was on the theater. Word of James’ crusade against witches quickly spread, and many believe it inspired William Shakespeare as he wrote Macbeth around 1606. In the opening scene of the play, one of the witches cries: “But in a sieve, I’ll thither sail / And, like a rat without a tail / I’ll do, I’ll do, I’ll do.”

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "7 Deadly Witch Trials That Didn’t Take Place In Salem." AllThatsInteresting.com, October 24, 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/witch-trials. Accessed May 29, 2024.