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An introduction to Orkney witches

In Scotland witchcraft became a criminal offence in 1563. From then until 1736, when the law was repealed, hundreds of innocent men, women and children were falsely accused, tortured and burnt or 'worried' at the stake.

Before the law was passed, making witchcraft a crime against the church, witchcraft was generally a pastime exercised by some of those with wealth, status and power. It was associated with politics and was often used to overthrow opponents.

After the law was passed churches and their ministers became more 'vigilant' in putting 'friends of the devil' on trial. The greatest number of prosecutions and executions for witchcraft took place between 1590 and 1680.

Prosecutions were most frequent in the east coast of Scotland, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Ayrshire and Orkney. These were the areas of Scotland which were fully administered by the Kirk Session, Secular Courts and Presbyteries.

These educated men were eager to believe that human beings could turn themselves into 'familiars' (animals), fly on broomsticks and raise storms. Witchcraft was a sin against God and the church and so these 'good' men saw it as their Christian duty to identify as many witches as they could.

Because of the strength of superstitions and ancient beliefs, Orkney had a terrible reputation as being a haven for witches. Hoy had many witches as they liked to perform rituals in the shadows of hills. Of course, Hoy – being the 'high' island because of its hills – was an idea spot for a bit of night-time dancing and spell-making.

There were many signs to look out for to prove that someone was a witch or warlock. Here are just some of the signs that the men of the church would search for:

  • The ability to fly
  • The inability to shed tears
  • Being able to turn themselves into an animal (a cat was a firm favourite)
  • The possession of a third nipple or teat, so they could suckle the devil
  • Having red spots, similar to flea bites
  • Parts of the body which were sunk in or hollow. These were usually in secret places and sometimes the clergy had to be particularly vigilant in seeking these places out. The sign might be among the hair, in the eyebrows or hidden under the arm pit. Very clever witches might have the mark hidden within the mouth or in private places
  • Moles which did not bleed when pierced by a brass pin
  • The inability to feel pain
  • Being unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer all the way through without making any mistakes.

With all those to choose from it is hardly any wonder that so many people were accused of witchcraft.

Between the years of 1596 and 1615 no less than 47 witches from Orkney were put on trial. Some were taken to Edinburgh to stand trial whilst others were put in Marwick’s Hole in St Magnus Cathedral before being tried.

Some cases accused the victim of 'taking the profit' – this was when a cow might stop giving milk, or a churn might stop producing butter. They might be held responsible for the crops failing or animals becoming sick.

Another common accusation was that they had healed someone who was sick – perhaps by using potions of by transferring the illness to another.

If found guilty they would be led to Gallow Hill and tied to a stake. If they were lucky the hangman would strangle them before the flames had a chance to burn them alive.

You can read about some of the Orkney witches in this section of the website.