"it was believed all over the country that his mother was a witch"

The Sabbath of witches, 1797-8
Public DomainThe Sabbath of witches, 1797-8 - Credit: Francisco de Goya
Fear of witchcraft ran riot in early modern Scotland, as it did across the whole of Europe. These were very superstitious times and sorcery and supernatural powers were generally assumed to be at the root of any unusual event. Witches were believed to be in league with the devil and when Scotland established an independent parliament in 1563, witchcraft became a capital offense. This led to thousands of people, the majority of whom were women, being accused of black magic for offenses ranging from brewing up home-remedies to the possession of a black cat. A recent research project has identified 3,837 people who were accused of witchcraft, a significant number of whom were subsequently executed. The favoured method was strangulation, after which the corpse was publically burnt so that it could not be reanimated by demonic forces.