A 15th-century chapel in the Scottish city of Aberdeen was equipped as a prison for accused witches snared during the city’s “Great Witch Hunt” in 1597.
July 19, 2016
An iron ring set in the stone pillar of a 15th-century chapel in the Scottish city of Aberdeen may not look like much, but historians say it could be a direct link to a dark chapter in the city’s past — the trial and execution of 23 women and one man accused of witchcraft during Aberdeen’s “Great Witch Hunt” in 1597.
“I was skeptical, to be honest — the ring is not all that spectacular, but it is actually quite genuine,” said Arthur Winfield, project leader for the OpenSpace Trust in the United Kingdom, which is restoring the chapel as part of a community-based redevelopment of the East Kirk sanctuary at the historic Kirk of St Nicholas, in central Aberdeen.
Winfield told Live Science that two places within the kirk (the Lowland Scots word for “church”) had been equipped as a prison for witches snared in the Aberdeen witch hunt: the stone-vaulted chapel of St Mary, and the tall steeple of the kirk, which was at that time the tallest structure in the city. [See more photos of the “witch prison” in the Scottish church]
Winfield said that neither location would have been warm in the winter of 1597, when those accused of witchcraft awaited trail, and likely their execution: “In the winter nowadays, the temperature gets down to 3 degrees [Celsius] in St Mary’s Chapel, and I guess it would be even colder up in the spire.”
Witch hunting in Scotland in the 16th century was not carried out by mobs with pitchforks, but by royal commissions at the orders of the king. As a result, Aberdeen’s city archives today hold meticulous original records of the witch trials and executions in 1597, including payments to a local blacksmith for the iron rings and shackles installed to imprison accused witches at the Kirk of St Nicholas.
The city records also detail the costs for the rope, wood and tar later used to burn the convicted witches at the stake, at Castle Hill and Heading Hill in Aberdeen, before large crowds of onlookers. As a small mercy, most of the condemned were strangled to death before their bodies were burned, according to the University of Edinburgh’s online Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.
The Great Witch Hunt
Chris Croly, a historian at the University of Aberdeen, told Live Science that Aberdeen’s Great Witch Hunt of 1597 was one phase of a wave of witch persecutions across Scotland sparked by the witchcraft laws of King James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England in 1603).
“It is often said that Aberdeen burned more witches than anywhere else — that may not be entirely accurate, but what is absolutely accurate is that Aberdeen has the best civic records of witch burning in Scotland, and so it can appear that way,” Croly told Live Science.