Accused Witches of Fife: Margaret Hutton
Updated: Sep 8
Wife of a magistrate and burgess of Culross, accused witch - arrested, released, re-arrested, tried and executed in 1643.
Culross, in the Presbytery of Dunfermline, was made a royal burgh in 1588. It was a port township located on the Firth of Forth, some nine miles south-west of Dunfermline. It had important religious connections as early as the 6th century. The Cistercians built Culross Abbey in c. 1217, and five centuries later a parish church was erected on the original site.
Iron-working, salt extraction, and coal mining made Culross a prosperous town, with the latter industry stretching back to Cistercian monks who first mined the mineral along the shores of the Forth. The Moat Pit mine at Culross in the 16th century had a mine shaft that extended under the seabed with direct transferral of coal from the mouth of the shaft.1 The town also had a spinning industry and fishing fleet.
In the year 1625, the population of Culross was about 600.
1643-1644: the deadly witch hunt in Culross
In February 1643, Culross Kirk authorities raised the alarm about the growing trend of witchcraft and sorcery in the community and its sinful nature. The clergy thought it necessary to prepare the church steeple for an expected overflow of prisoners from the Tollbooth, which was the town’s municipal courthouse (Figure 2). The prison area of the church was a large room on the first floor of the steeple below the clocktower.2
In the same month, Kirk Session records indicate there were 36 Kirk elders in Culross Parish: 19 for the rural parts of the parish and 17 for the town. In addition to a minister, having elders that ‘ruled the church’ was a Presbyterian model. George Bruce was Provost (i.e. senior administrator) in Culross.3
The year 1643 and the one following, would be the longest and most-active of witch hunts ever undertaken in Culross and surrounding towns, with many atrocities committed against the accused, and an enormous increase in cases:
1643 - About this time many witches are taken in Anstruther, Dysert, Culros, Sanctandrois, and sundris uther pairtis in the coast syds of Fyf. They maid strange confessions, and war brynt to the death.4
Defining the types of torture the Church used to acquire a confession is important, especially if we are to understand the level of brutality and suffering these unfortunate souls went through in this era. There were six main types:5
physical torture – the application of ‘legal’ judicial torture such as beatings, removal of clothes, body searches, Boots, Bridle, swimming, and use of tacks, manacles, weighted hoops;6
witch-prickers were employed to find the ‘devil’s mark’ with long, sharp implements – called brodding;
sleep deprivation – called warding, where the accused was kept continually awake for days to bring on delirium, thereby making it easier to extract a confession;
harsh jail conditions – poor treatment by guards, cold and damp confines, lack of food;
the execution itself – strangulation and burning.
The expense of trials and executions was taken from the sale of victims’ houses and property (if they had any) or paid by widowed spouses. Otherwise, the cost was extracted from church coffers. The costs: executioner/hangman/witchburner- £8,14s; rope – 6s; hemp coat - £3,10s; tar barrel – 14s; 10 loads of coal - £3,3s,8d.7 Execution spots (gallows and stake) where victims were first strangled and then burned, were always well outside the town proper so that the devil could not find his way back. These were areas of land known as the ‘witch loan’, ‘witch knowe’ or ‘witch brae’. It is not clear where this area was in Culross.
Margaret Hutton (c.1588-1643)
Margaret Hutton lived in Culross, Fifeshire. Her family ancestry is sketchy, but there is a possible paternal connection to David Hutton/Huttone (1560-1619) of Dunfermline, and sibling connections to Isobell, Jonet, Thomas, James, Jhone, and Jean Hutone of Culross.8 Margaret’s date of birth could not be accurately ascertained but she may have been born c. 1588 in nearby Dunfermline.
However, we do know for certain that Margaret was married to Edward Ezatt/Eizatt, a burgess and baillie of that burgh.9 Also living in Culross at this time, were Thomas Eizatt, Isobell Eizat, and James Eizatt – the name being a derivative of Ezatt, and therefore assumed to be kin.
Wife of a Jewish burgess and magistrate
Margaret Hutton was a burgesses’ wife which meant her husband, Edward Ezatt, was a free man or citizen of Culross and held a good degree of privilege and social standing in the town. As a burgess, he was a member of either the Guild of Merchants, or Guild of Crafts with substantial rights and privileges. Members were known as Guild Brothers. My assumption is that he was associated with the prestigious Guild of Merchants (i.e. a professional in law or businessman).10 Unlike their craft brethren, the Merchant Guild held more influence in the community and could read and write. As well as being a property owner, Ezatt was a baillie (i.e. magistrate who served in local government).11 Edward and Margaret Ezatt would have enjoyed a comfortable life of ‘middling’ status.
Those were uneasy times (especially since the Reformation) and there is no doubt, a man such as Ezatt, would not have wanted the disgrace of having one’s wife accused of a crime, especially for the ‘horrid and abominable crime of witchcraft’. Loss of reputation, position, and social standing would have been foremost in Edward Ezatt’s mind. In fact, there was a £100 fine payable to the Guild if a burgess did something hurtful to sully its name.12
High-status witchcraft cases were rare in Fife: four widowed burgesses’ wives were ‘escheated’ during the decade 1622-32 (meaning they had their lands confiscated and handed to the Crown) but kept their life. Similarly, during 1640-50 another four burgesses’ wives suspected of witchcraft were escheated.
Ezatt’s ethnicity is Jewish. Jewish migration throughout Europe occurred in a number of waves. Jews were in France from as early as 135AD and came to England with William the Conqueror, entering Scotland between 1100-1350AD; and again, from the Iberian Peninsula after they suffered persecution in the Pogroms of 1391. Many Scottish clans including Bruce, Campbell, Fraser, Douglas, Kennedy, Gordon, Forbes and Stewart, can trace their roots and DNA back to migratory Judaic branches.13
On arrival in Scotland many Jewish immigrants settled in Aberdeen due to its port facilities and location on the North Sea and shipping routes to The Baltic, where they carried on trade and commerce with France, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Russia and Poland.14 Ezatts were amongst those living in Aberdeen in the 1600s.
Just how did Edward Ezatt with his Jewish blood, become a Scottish burgess? The short answer is, by one of the following channels:
being married was compulsory;
marriage to burgess’ daughter;
payment of £67;
through lengthy and loyal service to a master following the completion of an apprenticeship;
or ingratiation of oneself to a town magistrate who would give several free burgess tickets each year to worthy applicants.15
Persecution of women accelerates
By March 1643, the Culross church steeple was already crowded with witchcraft suspects. The Church had renewed their commitment to outlaw those who practiced witchcraft and they intended to throw every resource they could find at the problem, but they were running out of manpower. Such was the number under arrest that the following plea for assistance was issued:
Culross, May 21
Because that some wemen of the land were taken suspect of witchcraft and sorcerie, the toune desyrt that the gentleman of the Land would be pleased to concur with them and to keep watch, as they should be advertised, and contribute for their necessity which they willingly undertook, and promised to discharge accordingly.16
Fast forward to May… Marion Thomson (case #3182) was arrested and interrogated on 14th. A fortnight later, Margaret Hutton (case #3184) came under suspicion herself, and was brought before the Kirk to answer charges. Both women had the same accuser - Isobel Eizatt.17 It is highly likely that this woman was related to Margaret’s husband – a sister, mother, or daughter? The Ezatt family had lost Helene Ezatt to witchcraft execution in Culross twenty years earlier – on 30 March 1623.18 (Circumstances must have been very grim, if Isobel was a daughter who had informed on her mother.19)
Three days later, Grissel Morris (case #2458) was burned in Culross. A fortnight later, five witnesses appeared against Marion Thomson and she was sent to trial, found guilty and executed. Elspeth Shearer (case #3183) shared the same awful fate. Marion Burgess (case #3185) escaped from the tollbooth and fled to her mother’s place in Stirling – a distance of 16 miles. Unfortunately, John Kincaid, witch pricker of infamous repute, was charged with finding her and returning her to Culross, with a known fate awaiting her.20
Culross was not a large town, Margaret Hutton would have known most/all women that were imprisoned and burned at this time. But fortune smiled on Margaret in May because she was released. This was most likely because of her husband’s social standing in the community and position of magistrate; he more than likely advocated for her. There are one or two indicators in her records that confirm Margaret was given some preferential treatment, and this is one. As a baillie he would have had access to colleagues and friends in high-enough places to at least get a hearing. This time Margaret was indeed lucky.
Margaret’s second arrest
We do not hear of Margaret Hutton again for five months. In that time, there was a systematic and shocking persecution of women on witchcraft charges in Culross. In nearby Dunfermline, ‘a great many shrivelled up old women were rounded up. Two died in prisen and six were hung and burnt at the Witch Knowe.' And further:
‘…witch-watchers and witch-catchers had been appointed early in 1643 to seize and put in ward (prison) all reputed witches, in order that they might be tried for their “horrid and abominable crime of witchcraft.” Accordingly, a great many old shriveled-up women, with woe-begone countenances, were warded, and if any of them used the long staff in walking, so much the better for the catchers.’21
In early October 1643, Margaret Hutton (case #1437) was arrested and warded again. The first course of torture she suffered would have been sleep deprivation, possibly followed with brodding by a witch pricker. She confessed to witchcraft. On 12 October she was granted a commission to appear before a justice court in Culross made up of provost and bailies of Culross (her husband’s name does not appear). Interestingly, these commissioners were ordered to report before pronouncing sentence, which did not normally occur – the second indication of preferential treatment, undoubtedly due to her husband’s status as a burgess and magistrate.
On 25 October, the justiciary found Margaret guilty of witchcraft. Her Privy Council record reveals ‘the report’ had been produced, but hers was to be ‘an ordinary sentence’ and on 7 November 1643, she was sentenced to execution:
‘Doom to be pronounced on Margaret Hutton, spouse of Edward Ezat, burgess of Culross who has been found guilty of witchcraft.’ and ‘…according to the laws of the kingdom and see the same put to execution.’22
Remembering Margaret Hutton
Many women accused of witchcraft did not identify as witches. Some, after being tortured, did come to think that they may have unknowingly practiced witchcraft. These people were not witches, they were real people - victims, who had been branded with a crime they could not defend. Margaret’s husband was a magistrate, capable of advocacy and mounting defence positions, but even he could not save her, which reveals the power and reach of the Church in that era.
These people were not witches, they were real people - victims, who had been branded with a crime they could not defend.
Like many of the 5,000 or so accused-innocent in Scotland, we cannot verify Margaret’s date of birth or family background, or even what her specific crime was. 350 years later we are horrified and sickened that even one woman suffered death by such cruel means, let alone thousands. It behoves us to remember our history and these terrible injustices, and to honour the memory of voiceless, executed victims like Margaret Hutton.
By Janet Schipke
1. Adamson, D 2008, ‘A coal mine in the sea: Culross and the Moat Pit’, Scottish Archaeological Journal, Vol. 30, pp.161-162, Websource, http://www.engineeringhalloffame.org/assets/files/Coal%20Mine%20in%20the%20Sea.pdf
2. Beveridge, D 1899, ‘Kirk Session Records’, Culross and Tulliallan: its history and antiquities, Vol. 1, p. 202.
3. ‘Culross and Tulliallan’, The Kirk-Session Records from 1640-1646, Ch. 7, Websource: https://electricscotland.com/history/culross/chapter07.htm
4. Beveridge, D 1899, ‘Kirk Session Records’, Culross and Tulliallan: its history and antiquities, Vol. 1, p. 204.
5. Macdonald, S 1997, ‘The role of torture in the witch hunt in Fife’, Threats to a Godly society: witch hunt in Fife 1560-1710, Ch. 6, p. 223, The University of Guelph.
6. Judicial torture went back to Greek and Roman law. England outlawed its use and consequently had far less witch hunts.
7. Stewart, G 2018, ‘The witch trials of Dunfermline’, Secret Dunfermline, pp.41-45, Amberley Publishing.
8. ancestry.com.au; derivatives of the surname Hutton – Huttuon, Hutone, Huton.
9. The name ‘Ezzat’, does not immediately strike one as having Gaelic roots, so I investigated the surname and found the most fascinating and intriguing information – may I recommend the book, When Scotland was Jewish (Hirschmann, EC and Yates, DN 2007, When Scotland was Jewish, McFarland & Co, North Carolina, Websource, https://electricscotland.com/history/WhenScotlandWasJewish.pdf)
10. Interesting reading on Guilds – Merchant and Craft Guilds: history of Aberdeen incorporated trades, Ebenezer Bain 1887. Digitised 2007, https://www.tradeshouselibrary.org/uploads/4/7/7/2/47723681/small_~_merchant_and_craft_guilds._a_history_of_the_aberdeen_incorporated_trades__~_1887.pdf
11. Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database, Culross: Margaret Hutton, Websource: http://witches.shca.ed.ac.uk/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.accusedrecord&accusedref=A/EGD/1267&search_string=lastname
12. McMillan, JK 1984, ‘A study of the burgess community and its economic activities 1600-1680’, Ch. 1 p. 16, University of Edinburgh.
13. Hirschmann, EC and Yates, DN 2007, ‘DNA and surnames’, When Scotland was Jewish, pp. 88-96, McFarland & Co, North Carolina, Websource, https://electricscotland.com/history/WhenScotlandWasJewish.pdf
14. Hirschmann, EC and Yates, DN 2007, ‘The Judaic colony at Aberdeen’, When Scotland was Jewish, Ch. 9, p. 152, McFarland & Co, North Carolina, Websource, https://electricscotland.com/history/WhenScotlandWasJewish.pdf
15. McMillan, JK 1984, ‘A study of the burgess community and its economic activities 1600-1680’, Ch. 1 p. 15, University of Edinburgh.
16. Black, GF ‘A calendar of cases of witchcraft in Scotland 1560-1710’, Witchcraft in Scotland, Vol. 7, p. 181
17. Macdonald, S 1997, ‘The witch hunt in the presbytery of Dunfermline’, Threats to a godly society: the witch hunt in Fife, Scotland 1560-1710’, Ch. 7, p. 177, The University of Guelph.
18. Scottish Survey of Witchcraft Database, ‘Culross: Helene Ezatt 1624’, Websource: http://witches.shca.ed.ac.uk/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.accusedrecord&accusedref=A/EGD/947&search_string=lastname
19. Disclaimer: caution urged, unproven family connection.
20. Macdonald, S 1997, ‘The witch hunt in the presbytery of Dunfermline’, Threats to a godly society: the witch hunt in Fife 1560-1710, Ch. 5, P. 177, Thesis, University of Guelph.
21. Electric Scotland, ‘Annals of Dunfermline 1601-1701’, Ch. 7, Part 4, Websource: https://electricscotland.com/history/dunfermline/chap7part4.htm
22. Register Privy Council (RPC) Scotland, Culross: 7 November 1643, 2nd Series, Vol. 8, p. 12 (source: e-file purchased from Tanner Ritchie Publishing, Ontario, Canada, 05/12/2020)