Witchcraft pamphlet: News from Scotland, 1591


This item is a limited edition facsimile reprint from 1816 of the witchcraft pamphlet Newes from Scotland, originally printed in London in 1591. It contains accounts of three women accused of witchcraft and tried before King James VI of Scotland, one of whom was said to be using her witchcraft against the King himself. James caused the pamphlet to be printed as part of his attack on witchcraft. The woodcut illustrations depict scenes from the alleged acts, including the casting of spells over a cauldron.

The first witch was Geillis Duncane, who used to sneak out of her master’s house at night to heal the sick. Her master became suspicious and tortured her. He also searched her body for a devil’s or witch’s mark – a mark on the body believed to be a sign of contact with the devil and thus proof of being a witch. When he found one (unsurprising given that birthmarks, scars, warts, moles and blemishes could all be interpreted as such), Duncane confessed to witchcraft and was put in jail. She in turn accused around 70 other people of witchcraft, including Agnis Sampson/Tompson and Doctor Fian.

Sampson/Tompson confessed to witchcraft under torture and after revelation of a mark. She described attending a Sabbath of over 200 witches where the devil spoke against King James. She also gave gruesome details of using witchcraft to attempt to kill the King and to attack his ship from Denmark, including by attaching parts of a dead human body to a christened cat and throwing it into the sea. Some of her witchcraft included sexual acts. Sampson convinced a sceptical James of her powers by recounting a private conversation he had held with his wife on their wedding night.

Doctor Fian confessed (under torture) to causing the madness of a love rival and attempting to bewitch the object of his affections – although this went wrong and due to the trickery of the woman’s mother (also a witch) he ended up bewitching a cow. Fian was found guilty and executed by burning. The others were still in prison when the pamphlet was written, but they probably faced the same fate.

Witches in early modern Scotland

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have identified over 3,800 cases of witchcraft accusation in early modern Scotland between 1563 and 1736, its peak between 1590 and 1662 when there were five large-scale witch hunts. This is a much higher rate than in England. 84% of those accused were women, and half of those whose ages are recorded were over 40, but contrary to popular belief the majority weren’t particularly poor, nor were they healers or midwives. The outcomes of many cases are unknown, but the tentative estimate is that two thirds of accused witches in Scotland were executed.

Full title:
Newes from Scotland, declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian, a notable sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Januarie last, 1591.
1816, London
Book / Quarto / Illustration / Image
Henry Freeling [editor], James Carmichael [attributed]
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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