The European witch-hunts that took place from 1400 to 1800 were complete monstrosities of justice, but the brutality seemed to have been concentrated more in certain parts of Europe than other parts. This is especially true in the British Isles during the witch trials of 1590-1593, where Scotland, a country with a fourth of the population of England, experienced three times as many executions as them. Before these particular trials, England and Scotland were both only mildly involved in the hunts, but a Scottish witch’s confession in late 1590 unveiled a plot to kill King James VI by creating a storm to sink his ship. This confession led to the implementation of others and quickly festered into the widely publicized hunts throughout Scotland in the late 16th century.
The Scottish witch-hunts of 1590 began in Tranent, a city just outside of Edinburgh, with the accusation of a maidservant named Geillis Duncane. Duncane was a kind hearted woman who used her vast knowledge of medicinal herbs and healing techniques to “[take] in hand all such as were troubled or grieved with anie kinde of sickness or infirmitie: and in short space did perfourme many matters most miraculous (sic).” Her ability to cure illness caused her master David Seaton, a deputy bailiff, to become suspicious of her. He was a callous and unsympathetic man who could not comprehend why someone would continuously go out of their way to help others. He was also wary of how a woman in such a humble position had acquired such an extensive knowledge of medicines and healing. Seaton’s suspicions seemed to be confirmed when he found Duncane sneaking out of the house late at night. When she was unable to answer where she was at night and how she gained her power to heal, she was immediately accused of consorting with the Devil. When she refused to confess to the crime of witchcraft, Seaton had her tortured.
There was a plethora of torture devices used on those accused of witchcraft in the 1500’s, Duncane was fortunate to only have experienced a few. The first device used on Duncane was a vice called the pillwinkles, also known as thumbscrews, which crushed the bones in her fingers. When that did not work, her head was “thrawed”, which consisted of it being bound with rope or cord, then twisted and wrenched savagely. When she still would not confess, a diligent search of her body was conducted where the Devil’s mark was found on her throat.