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  • Writer's pictureM.B. Thurman

The Forfar Witch Trials

Part of the Summoned storyline was influenced by the witch trials of Forfar, Scotland. One of my main characters' ancestor was executed during the trials, which sets off a chain of events over 350 years later. After researching the horrific events of the trials, I wanted to share this bit of history with you. But my desire to share this story isn't just to enrich your reading of Summoned. I wanted to bring light to a very dark topic of humanity's past -- a history that saw thousands of women killed, simply because of prejudice. If you're anything like me, this history will make you angry. But remembering these women is important. They deserve to be remembered. They deserve to have their stories told.

Unsurprisingly, this history lesson begins with mankind willfully misinterpreting the teachings of religion in order to persecute the poor and vulnerable -- healers, midwives, and the people who were deemed strange in some way. Perhaps one of the most dangerous examples of this being put into practice began with King James VI of Scotland and his interpretation of natural events. King James experienced difficulty bringing his bride, Anne of Denmark, to Scotland in 1589. When a powerful storm at sea caused the crew to seek early landfall, James sailed to Norway to bring Anne home with him to Scotland. And after another tempest plagued them on their joint venture home, James was convinced witchcraft was to blame, which led to a fervent hunt for the perpetrators.

Reports vary on the number of victims in James's witch hunt, though it's widely believed that at least 70 people (though possibly up to 200), mostly women, were accused of witchcraft in North Berwick. Confessions were forced through gruesome torture, and many were put to death. James's obsession with witches only grew after these events, prompting his release of Daemonologie. This thorough account of his position on the subject describes magic, witchcraft, and its variations in depth, along with its dangers. It instructs the reader how to determine if a person is of the craft and and an enclosed article details the persecution and conviction of "witches" from the North Berwick trials.

So, what does this gruesome history have to do with Forfar in 1661? James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) poisoned the minds of many under his rule, leaving behind a terrible legacy of torture, persecution, and murder. The seeds were sown. Even in 1661, years after James's death in 1625, skepticism was lingering under the surface. The year 1661 saw a zealous witch hunt in the small burgh of Forfar, Scotland, where 22 women were convicted of the crime of witchcraft and paid the ultimate price.

The event that seemingly prompted this hunt? Isobell Shyrie, a poor woman unable to pay her taxes, received a visit from Baillie George Wood to collect property for her outstanding debt, at which time she cursed him. When George suddenly died shortly after this encounter, Isobell was suspected of witchcraft. It was believed that a witch was identified by being called a nickname other than their baptized name, having a mark on their body that is impervious to pain, and by practicing malefice. Isobell was accused of malefice, and she was sent to the dungeon of the town's tollbooth, where she suffered torture until the witch hunters could procure a confession. She was ultimately convicted and murdered.

The burgh's new minister was a zealous witch hunter, who sought support from the town council in order to locate other witches in the town. Over the course of a couple years, around 40 people were accused and, at the very least, thoroughly interrogated. Helen Guthrie, a friend of Isobell's and a healer, was also accused of witchcraft and taken to the tollbooth for questioning. Her teenage daughter was also accused, simply for being her daughter - guilty by birth. Determined to save her young daughter, Helen attempted to remain useful to the witch hunters, knowing that as long as she assisted their captors, she and her daughter would both stay alive. And with this decision made, Helen implicated many others, detailing various crimes they allegedly committed. She ultimately outlived her purpose and was executed. The fate of her daughter is unknown. Records suggest that she might have been freed five years after her capture, but we may never know for certain.

Though many were murdered, two women were instead banished - driven from the town to an almost certain death of cold and starvation. And though it was a harsh sentence, these women likely endured a less painful existence than others who shared the alternative fate. To die as a witch in Forfar meant strangulation and burning in hot tar. Captives were tortured until a confession was procured. Their captors used devices like the witch's bridle (an iron device that fit around the victim's head, with an iron prong that protruded into the mouth and suppressed the tongue, making it impossible to talk or eat). Add cold, unsanitary conditions, sleep deprivation, starvation, merciless questioning, and it's no wonder prisoners confessed to unbelievable stories. Confessions ranged from meeting with the devil, turning into a pig to terrorize the neighbor's crops, and poisoning a man with "two toad's heads mixed with a dead man's skull and flesh, which the devil perfumed." Other confessions included being kissed by the devil, drunken dancing under the moon with the devil himself, and even murder... they'd confess anything to end the torture.

As the fervor of the witch hunt diminished, Forfar moved forward from its horrible past, though not without bumps. Those released would still face the stigma of being branded a witch, while fear and prejudice would bubble just under the surface for many years.

Though witch hunts are thankfully a horror of the past, it's important to recognize and remember the cruelty of what was done to innocent people. It's also important to recognize the strains of prejudice still in existence, and to understand, when left unchecked, serious persecution arises in societies around the world today. Many accused witches (there were thousands persecuted in Scotland alone) came from a vulnerable population, such as those who were widowed, poor, disfigured, those simply viewed as odd, or women considered too brazen. Women who wanted to serve others as healers and midwives were also at greater risk.

And though you might believe this is a thing of the past, vulnerable populations are still at risk of harm or persecution. I think about it like this - the poor have less access to healthcare and education in many societies. Far too many women are still stripped of their rights, raped, or forced to obey the clandestine rules of males in their society. You get the idea. In some instances, vulnerable populations are still at greater risk of death - and in other instances, suffer physical or mental trauma. Though the sting of the organized witch trials are over, injustices rage on, and our fight still lies ahead.

* Though accounts range on details and some accounts seem borderline unreliable, I attempted to only record what is known fact in this post. Though I did visit Forfar, Scotland in 2017, the archives were closed while we were there, and we had very little time on that trip. I hope to return in 2021 (the plan was 2020, but alas - foiled by Covid-19).

If you're interested in learning more about the Forfar witch trials, you'll find a video and links to several resources below. I've considered writing posts on various trials around the world, so if you'd like a more comprehensive post on the Scottish witch trials at large, or posts about trials in other countries, let me know!

Though records are sparse, I've compiled lists of those persecuted at North Berwick and Forfar (at least, that I could find). As there were at least 70 people at North Berwick and 40 people at Forfar who were accused and interrogated, this list is woefully short. Some were tortured and killed, while others were tortured and freed - but ultimately forced to live their lives branded as a witch. Let them not be forgotten:

North Berwick:


  • Isobell Shyrie

  • Helen Guthrie

  • Girzell Simpson

  • Janet Bertie and Helen Alexander (both banished from the burgh)

  • Elspeth Alexander

  • Janet Stout (assumed executed)

  • Janet Howat

  • Agnes Spark

  • Isobell Smith

  • Elspeth Bruce

  • Marjorie Bruce

  • Helen Cuthill

  • John Tailzeour

  • Katherine Porter

Additional reading:

The Scotsman:

The Courier:

The Royal Burgh of Forfar: A Local History - Alan Reid

Revealing Women: An Exhibition Produced by the Angus Archives

A few interesting blog posts, though I can't guarantee the accuracy of all information:

Scotland's Salem: The Forfar Witch Trials

The Forfar Witches:

The Forfar Witches

North Berwick trials:


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