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Scottish Witchcraft: Background and Practices

Carolyn Emerick writes about the history, myth, and folklore of Northwestern Europe.

 A Visit to the Witch, by Edward Frederick Brewtnall, 1882

A Visit to the Witch, by Edward Frederick Brewtnall, 1882

Healers and Midwives

Thousands of people were accused of witchcraft in Europe from the Middle Ages into the Early Modern Era. The majority were women, but many men were also accused.

Analyzing the reasons for the accusations can be complicated, as there are various theories, and the reasons behind the accusations could vary by region and by individual case.

We do know that, while many people were accused for reasons unrelated to anything they were actually doing (such as an accusation spurred by a jealous or malicious neighbor for example), some of the accused were singled out due to certain practices or professions.

Midwives and healers were especially vulnerable to accusation. It is not that they were targeted by witch-hunters, but rather this profession opened them to accusation due to their perceived power over life and death.

Distraught mothers who were devastated due to a stillborn birth might accuse the midwife of infanticide. Those with the powers to heal were thought to also have the power to harm.

So a mysterious death or a sudden illness after an argument with a neighbor who knew the ways of plants might cause the herbalist to be accused of murder by means of witchcraft.

A peasant woman and child. Healing techniques were often passed down from mother to daughter.  Art by William Bouguereau.

A peasant woman and child. Healing techniques were often passed down from mother to daughter. Art by William Bouguereau.

Three generations of Scottish women, plus their pet cat. Detail from David Allan's "Scottish Highland Family."

Three generations of Scottish women, plus their pet cat. Detail from David Allan's "Scottish Highland Family."

Cunning Folk

The term "cunning folk" refers to the "wise people" of the community. These were usually people who provided services to the community such as healing, midwifery, and divination.

Healing practices differed by practitioner, but methods included the use of herbal and animal substances, as well as "magical" means such as transference (the act of transferring the illness to another), spells and charms, and energy work.

Witch hunting became intensified in many parts of Europe during the Protestant Reformation, and especially so in Scotland. Where the Catholic Church had turned a blind eye to folk practices, and in many cases even accommodated local beliefs into Church festivals, the Protestant reformers had a zero-tolerance policy toward any practice they deemed incompatible with their view of Christianity.

Therefore, people who attracted attention or were well known for beliefs considered questionable by the new church authorities were especially vulnerable to witchcraft accusations.

Again, it's not that cunning folk were targeted per se. The authorities did not necessarily go out looking to arrest cunning folk willy nilly. But, if the healer attempted to help an ill person and that person quickly took a turn for the worse, the patient's family could point the finger at the healer. Or if a particularly zealous religious authority caught wind of healing practices that smacked as pagan or demonic, then the person in question could be arrested for questioning.

Photo by Shane Broderick. Used with permission.

Photo by Shane Broderick. Used with permission.

Young peasant woman in tartan. Art by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Young peasant woman in tartan. Art by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Accused Witches Were Pagan?

It is also important to point out that the notion that all accused witches were pagan "wise people" is a myth. Most were ordinary people with no healing skills whatsoever. Even among the healers, just as there are both good physicians and quacks today there were legitimate herbalists versus charlatans selling nothing but superstition and snake oil back then as well.

And, although the Protestant leaders saw paganism everywhere they looked, the witch trials took place about one thousand years after Britain's conversion to Christianity.

Yes, the common folk retained their beliefs and customs long after the aristocracy converted and many pre-Christian customs remained. But, by this point in time, these people had a strictly Christian self-identity, even if some of what they were doing was thought of as pagan by the church authorities.

The term "old religion" referred to Catholicism during this period (the 16th and 17th centuries), not paganism. Although, Catholicism was synonymous with paganism in the minds of the Protestant reformers.

The term for this mixture of belief systems is "popular religion." It refers to the beliefs and practices of the common folk as opposed to the officially sanctioned beliefs of the Church.

Just as you see a heavy influence of indigenous belief mixed with Catholicism in places such as Mexico today, there would have been a mix of indigenous practices seen in the form of Christianity practiced by Scots at the time of the Reformation.

So, while I stress that the individuals in question were not pagan, some of their practices did have pagan roots. And, that is what got them in hot water with the church.

Photo by Shane Broderick. Used with permission.

Photo by Shane Broderick. Used with permission.

Photo by Olivier Pichard.

Photo by Olivier Pichard.

Plants and Herbs

Now that we have discussed who and what the accused witches were, let us explore the practices of Scottish healers.

Like most of Europe, Scotland had access to some level of merchant trade even in ancient times. Certainly, by the 16th and 17th centuries, Scotland received merchant vessels in her port cities, so foreign herbs and spices would have been available for purchase. Native plants, of course, would be easier and cheaper to obtain.

Some of the herbs recorded in such places as Scottish witch trial records and folklore include anise seed, foxglove, plantain, St. John's wort, and ragwort.

Plants could be consumed, applied as a poultice or salve, or even used as a talisman. When made of stone, bone, or wood, talismans would have served a psychological role as a visual aid to give comfort and reassurance to their wearer.

But when a pouch filled with fragrant herb was worn or carried, the scent would have strengthened a talisman's psychological potency. And, we know that certain scents have emotional, psychological, and sometimes even medicinal effects. Indeed, aromatherapy is quite popular today.

Although there is the obvious chemical role played by medicinal herbs, many plants were assigned roles that were strictly magical. Rowan, for instance, was said to have the power to counteract the evil eye.

Oak and hazel trees were also revered. The oak tree's association with pagan ritual and the druids is well known. But oak leaves and bark had healing properties as well. Some of its uses were to treat such afflictions as diarrhea and dysentery, hemorrhage, sore throat, and bleeding gums.

A woman gathers wildflowers in a field. Art by Hans Dahl.

A woman gathers wildflowers in a field. Art by Hans Dahl.

Merseburg Incantations manuscript.

Merseburg Incantations manuscript.

Spells and Charms

The word "spell" brings about images of hocus pocus and Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo. In actuality, the use of words was, and still is, used as one of many methods to bring about a desired effect.

Charms were used from the pagan era straight into the Christian era. With the conversion to Christianity, we have direct evidence that certain charms that once contained the names of pagan deities were still in use with the pagan figures swapped for Christian ones. One example of this is the Merseburg Incantations, found in Germany.

You may wonder what German charms have to do with Scotland. Well, Lowland Scotland was heavily Anglo-Saxon, whereas the Gaelic culture was found mostly in the Highlands. There were strong similarities in culture between the Anglo-Saxons, Scandinavians, and Germans on the continent.

Also, this kind of thing was very common in all areas where a foreign religion was superimposed over the indigenous belief, so it surely happened with Gaelic traditions as well.

Pagan charms were morphed into Christian charms in the same way that pagan gods were morphed into Catholic saints. We know that the Irish goddess Brigid was transformed into the Catholic Saint Brigid, for example. And these transformations occurred at all stratas of pagan belief from pantheons to personal practice.

The use of charms was so common that cunning folk were often referred to as "charmers." Often, the charmer would use Christian prayer or blessings to heal their patient. Not unlike the so-called "faith healers" that are seen today.

The Sorceress by Bartolomeo Guidobono, circa 1690

The Sorceress by Bartolomeo Guidobono, circa 1690

St. Angus' Stone. Photo by John Salmon.

St. Angus' Stone. Photo by John Salmon.

Magical Stones

Items containing magical properties were common. In some cases, a healer's abilities were derived from a magical stone in their possession. Sometimes the item was a gift from the fairies, other times the item was found at random by the healer. If the stone was lost, the healer lost their magical ability.

Large stones could be places of pilgrimage for their healing properties. Just as holy wells were converted from pagan sacred places to Christian ones, certain stones in Scotland were associated with Celtic saints and known for their magical potency.

One such example was St. Angus' Stone in Balquhidder Kirk. Superstition surrounding this stone was so ingrained in the public that the church actually had it removed.

Stones were also used as instruments of magic. This was a widespread phenomenon which surely occurred in Scotland, but the best examples we have were preserved from sources in neighboring England where lapidaries written in Middle English have survived.

Today the term lapidary refers to an artisan who works with stone, but in the Middle Ages the word referred a sort of encyclopedia of stones and their magical properties.

One such lapidary describes the use of agate to elicit the truth out of someone. It instructs the practitioner to place an agate stone under the pillow of the person whom they wish to question. It says that "if the stone be good" she will answer the truth to all that she is asked.

Stone dust could also be used as an ingredient in a potion, another term for simply a medicine mixed from a recipe.

Agate stone. Photo by Lech Darski.

Agate stone. Photo by Lech Darski.

Walpurgisnacht by Adolf Munzer for Jugend magazine.

Walpurgisnacht by Adolf Munzer for Jugend magazine.

Putting Witchcraft in Context

European witchcraft is a complicated subject. Not all of the people who practiced these techniques were considered witches by their communities. And, vice versa, many those who were accused were not involved with any magical practices at all.

With the invention of Wicca in the 20th century, many modern neopagans proudly identify themselves as witches as they attempt to revive these age-old practices. But, the healers and cunning folk of the past certainly did not consider themselves to be witches. In fact, they often advertized their skills to combat witchcraft.

Another point worth mentioning is that some of the practices used by cunning folk and healers in the past, which I did not explore here, were ridiculous superstitions of no medicinal use whatsoever. Some wise people prescribed cures that involved walking backwards so many paces, touching the hand of a corpse, passing a shoe around the belly of a cow three times, and so forth.

Many so-called cures involved cruelty to animals. One common practice involved supposedly transferring a disease onto a rooster or garter snake, putting the animal in a bottle or sack, and then burying it alive. The cruel use of live animals in superstitious remedies features frequently in the folklore of Scotland as well as other areas.

There is a trend to idealize witches and witchcraft today. While many healers may have been legitimate herbalists, and others used techniques that are believed in today such as energy work, faith healing, and the power of suggestion, still others were no better than con artists preying on desperate people.

That said, witchcraft is really a synthesis of the magical and the medicinal. It often synthesizes an understanding of science and the metaphysical. Then and now, witchcraft is the attempt to elicit change by transmuting spiritual energy.

Whether or not one believes in witchcraft or not, the fact that so many people desire to reconnect with the beliefs of their ancestors is encouraging. All people of the world, including ethnic-Europeans, must nurture ties to their ethnocultural roots if they wish to maintain thriving and healthy cultures. Ethnic-Europeans seeking out and embracing their ancestral traditions can only be a good thing in my book.

Photo from the 2014 Halloween Festival in Youghal, Ireland,  by Shane Broderick. Used with permission.

Photo from the 2014 Halloween Festival in Youghal, Ireland, by Shane Broderick. Used with permission.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2015 Carolyn Emerick


TheKeeper on September 17, 2020:

First, thank you for this article! This was a great article that helped me help a friend figure out where to start on her path in Scottish Witchcraft. I don't suppose you'd be adverse to writing a follow-up article to help those who wish to pursue a path in Scottish Witchcraft? It seems like good information on this subject just seems to be lacking severely.

Thank you, again, for the article! Much appreciated!

Fiona on July 13, 2018:

Very interesting and well written article, certainly gave me some facts that I was not aware of.

condreth ruthenberg on August 15, 2016:

i enjoyed reading the page. it is very interesting as in Asian countries, we also believe in faith healers. based mostly on faith. through Jesus Christ... at the Church of the catholic churches. we believe in the purity of faith as the saying goes, faith can move mountains. while some people just have a lot more faith in them as they helped people heal. and with the doctor and medicine of course. we also believe doing good to others, and honest is the best way. respect people so they wont get disappointed and wont harm them. all these things are very common sense though. but I do get interested in your books.

Valerie Vasiliou on October 28, 2015:

Well written article. Enjoyed the read. I recall reading about one member of the church who had a healer brought in to heal him, which she did and then he had her burned as a witch. Cruel times in which to live. I think it was harder for women than men, especially widows who spurned an offer of marriage. I mean, based on how men treated women then, why would they want to remarry? I'm glad some of the information survived. Thanks for the article.

Linda Robinson from Cicero, New York on October 09, 2015:

Good Morning Carolyn this was such a fascinating hub from the first word until the last not wanting to stop reading, so much terrific intriguing information, just amazing. I really loved it and happy to meet you and to be following you. Linda

Chazz from New York on October 08, 2015:

Very interesting and well-written -- a pleasure to read! Looking forward to reading your other hubs as time allows.

Bill on August 22, 2015:

You have some wonderful articles written here in these Hub pages. This article is especially interesting to me, as I have learned to control a few former health issues with natural medicines/herbs.

TM Wright from U.S. on July 16, 2015:

Very well put together article. Fantastic job.

Christy Nicholas on June 27, 2015:

Fantastic article!

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 20, 2015:

My pleasure Carolyn. I know spam when I see it. I had one on my poetry hub this week too. I hope HP keeps an eye on spambots here.

Carolyn Emerick (author) on June 20, 2015:

Thanks Kristen, I marked it as spam :-)

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 20, 2015:

Geetha, you've spammed Carolyn's hub with your link--it had nothing to do with Scottish witchcraft.

Christine from Arizona on June 18, 2015:

I really enjoyed this article. Great photos!

mikeydcarroll67 on June 17, 2015:

It almost seems that most of the ideas and religions between the European cultures are very similar. I notice that there are many recurring themes and this might be due to the fact that many of the cultures may have had plenty of contact over time.

Selers from United Arab Emirates on June 17, 2015:

woww fantastic

Melissa Orourke from Roatán, Islas De La Bahia, Honduras on June 15, 2015:

This was an interesting and informative Hub. I didn't know about the, "Old Religion!" I learned something!

Regarding herbs, so many are mentioned in the Bible. Wormwood, for one.

It's a shame some people throw out the baby with the bathwater!

Thank you for sharing your wealth of information!

MG Singh emge from Singapore on June 15, 2015:

very interesting hub. there are lots of witch practices in India as well and some I find are common, maybe because witchcraft is universal

FlourishAnyway from USA on June 14, 2015:

What a comprehensive and well written hub. The original photos that you used with permission were really beautiful as well. My great great grandmother used to bottle and sell her own potions although not witchcraft. It was more old wives quackery. I can imagine how people in their grief would turn on the healer.

DebMartin on June 14, 2015:

Fascinating read. Must get Words, Stones and Herbs. As I love all 3, it will be a fascinating read. You've written a good educational piece here. Thanks.

Carolyn Emerick (author) on June 13, 2015:

That attitude is still held today by certain segments of "born again" evangelicals. In the witch hunt era it was the Protestants who held that view. They considered the veneration of Mary and the saints to be polytheistic, and the practice of depicting them in statues as idolatrous. I personally know some Christians who call Catholicism a pagan religion today.

Kara Skinner from Maine on June 13, 2015:

This is a really interesting hub. I didn't know Catholics were considered synonymous with Pagans by some people. It's almost hard to imagine with the religions so different.

Nancy Graham on June 13, 2015:

The original painting of the Young peasant woman in tartan, hangs in the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa Oklahoma. I liked it so much that I have a copy in my living room.

Summer LaSalle from USA on June 13, 2015:

What a great hub! I did my thesis in college on the Salem witchcraft trials, and then I went through a period where I became a full fledged Wiccan (or also known as recovering Catholic, lol). I found the pure pagan rituals absolutely beautiful and spiritual if one follows the mantra 'Do no harm.'

Great read- voted up and marked beautiful.


Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 11, 2015:

Carolyn, this was an interesting hub from you on Scottish witchcraft. I've learned something new. Voted up!

Carole Lane on June 11, 2015:

Interesting as usual. Thank you

Meaghan Zarb on June 10, 2015:

Fantastic read! I loved the pictures too. Really interesting. Thanks :)

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 10, 2015:

This is a very interesting and attractive hub, like all your other articles, Carolyn. The relationship between the two Brigids has interested me for some time, so I was happy to see the reference to the deity to saint phenomenon.

Carolyn Emerick (author) on June 10, 2015:

@Alan, I've written two articles on James and witch hunting, but that information was new to me, thanks! I had seen in a documentary on him that his obsession with witchcraft became an embarrassment when he inherited the English throne, as the Scientific Age was in early stages and witch hunting was seen as backward.

@RoadMonkey, yep! People are often confused about that. Christianity was in Britain very early under Rome. The first waves of conversion of the Celts was organic and not forced, as the church didn't have that kind of muscle in the earliest days. There are a lot of modern myths about that. Violent forced conversions are seen later on the Continent, first with Charlemagne and later with the Baltic and Wendish Crusades. By the witch hunts, Britain had been Christian for 1,000 years! The Old Religion might make more sense to mean paganism in the 6th century, but I think they simply used paganism and Heathenry.

RoadMonkey on June 10, 2015:

I did that play for 'O' level too! That was a very interesting Hub, and didn't realise that "The old Religion" was not paganism!

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on June 10, 2015:

"When shall we three meet again,

in thunder, lightning or in rain?"

"When the hurly-burly's done,

when the battle's lost, and won!"

[We did 'Harry Lauder'* in the English Lit. exams at art school back in 1964, along with Dickens' Pickwick Papers', didn't like either].

Shakespeare wrote the 'Scottish Play'* to commemorate the succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne as James I. The ingredients in the witches' cauldron were reckoned by Englishmen at the time to be what Scotsmen ate and it was mickey-taking on a grand scale. The earnest James didn't realise it, being busy with his hysterical witch-hunting. He was reckoned to have written more books about it than anyone else including monarchs, and burnt more 'witches' than the Inquisition burnt heretics.

In England at the time Matthew Hopkins appointed himself 'Witch-finder General' and made a nice living out of it in East Anglia for a while (he was already sick in the head and died at the age of 27 in 1647, possibly through VD). The concentration of hard-core Protestants in East Anglia aided his cause, although some claimants were calculating on acquiring the properties of the accused as reward. It was a lucrative business.

*Actors don't like calling it by its real name out of superstition, too many 'accidents' associated with it.

Pollyanna Jones from United Kingdom on June 10, 2015:

I really enjoyed this read. You make a good point about folk remedies using animal parts. Not all practices were "nice", but they were believed to work. Sharing this article, and looking forward to more.