Caught by the River

Brighter Later

Brian David Stevens | 14th August 2012

6. Lothian

Brighter Later is a journey around Britain looking out to sea from each coastal county

About half an hour to the east of Edinburgh lies North Berwick in the county of Lothian, it’s been there for at least 2000 years and was first recorded as Northberwyk in 1250.

It’s a pretty place now occupied by Edinburgh commuters rather than fisherfolk and you’re more likely to come to a early demise being hit by a golf ball than out on the open seas.

North Berwick was home, surprisingly enough, to the North Berwick witch trials in 1590, the trials held on the harbour side Auld Kirk ran for two years and implicated seventy people. More than a hundred suspected witches in North Berwick were arrested, and many confessed under torture to having met with the Devil in the church at night, and devoted themselves to doing evil, including poisoning the King and other members of his household, and attempting to sink the King’s ship.

One of the accused in particular, Agnes Sampson, was examined by James VI at his palace of Holyrood House. She was fastened to the wall of her cell by a witch’s bridle, an iron instrument with 4 sharp prongs forced into the mouth, so that two prongs pressed against the tongue, and the two others against the cheeks. She was kept without sleep, thrown with a rope around her head, and only after these ordeals did Agnes Sampson confess to the fifty-three indictments against her. Just to be on the safe side she was finally strangled and burned as a witch.

This was the first major witchcraft persecution in Scotland, and began with a sensational case involving the royal houses of Denmark and Scotland. King James VI sailed to Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne, sister of Christian IV, King of Denmark. During their return to Scotland they experienced terrible storms and had to shelter in Norway for several weeks before continuing. The admiral of the escorting Danish fleet blamed the storm on the wife of a high official in Copenhagen whom he had insulted. Several nobles of the Scottish court were implicated, and witchcraft trials were held in both countries.

Legend has it that “Satan himself” attended a ritual in North Berwick in 1590, although it is more likely that Satan was “played” by Francis Stewart Hepburn, 5th Earl of Bothwell. Maybe he wore a tail or something but his disguise is sadly lost in the mists of time.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 accused witches may have been killed in Scotland in the years 1560-1707, and nearly 2,000 witchcraft trials survive in the Scottish archives, all from around 1620-1680. Although barbaric, these trials have ensured a witch-free Scotland ever since.

A five mile tramp round the coastline, gives me a location, where I dither about whether to include the Bass Rock in the shot. The Bass Rock is a steep-sided volcanic rock a few miles off the coast, currently home to a large colony of gannets. The rock is uninhabited, but historically had been settled by an early Christian hermit, and later was the site of an important castle, and a prison. The island was in the ownership of the Lauder family for almost six centuries, and now belongs to Sir Hew Fleetwood Hamilton-Dalrymple. A lighthouse was constructed on the rock in 1902, and the remains of a chapel are located there.

Shoot over I wander back into town, stopping to get a witches breakfast at the local cafe, it’s delicious.

Brian David Stevens