Accused Witches of St Andrews
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
Mia Kellner is a fourth-year English student at the University of St Andrews. In summer 2021, she worked with a team of students to identify hidden histories in St Andrews and highlight those stories that have been excluded from mainstream narratives, as part of the Summer Teams Enterprise Programme (STEP), run by the Centre for Educational Enhancement and Development (CEED) at the university.
Here she shares the names and stories of some those executed following accusations of witchcraft.
Bessie Mason, died 1644
Bessie Mason was one of the many women executed for the crime of witchcraft in St Andrews during the 17th century. We know little about her other than that she was married, had an affair, confessed and was executed for witchcraft.
Following her affair, she was arrested in Kilconquhar on February 21, 1644, implicating her lover, Alexander Beaton in her crime. Mason claimed that Beaton enticed to committing “that fearful sin of witchcraft,” through adultery, with their affair being the beginning of her practicing witchcraft.
Beaton was supposed to answer this accusation and implication in witchcraft by Mason under oath, but promptly fled to Edinburgh until her sentence was fulfilled. Bessie Mason was found guilty of witchcraft and executed in St Andrews in 1644.
Her descendant, Leonard Low, is a Fife-based author who has written many books on the history of his local area, like St Andrews’ Untold Stories. Low has also extensively researched and written about Fife’s witch trials, for example, in his book about those women and men executed for witchcraft in Pittenweem in the 17th century, in his book The Weem Witch.
Bessie Mason’s story shows the stark gender inequalities that led to the disproportionately large number of women accused in the witch trials, as although both her and Alexander Beaton technically committed the same crime, he was able to escape his verdict, while she suffered the fall for their affair.
Unknown witch, died 28th April 1572
We do not know her name, age, or marital status, but through piecing together information from archival sources, I have uncovered a wealth of information about this unknown woman executed for witchcraft in St Andrews on the 28th April 1572.
No exact dates are available for the date of her arrest, but we can infer that she was accused of witchcraft sometime at the beginning of 1572.
Also in this year, before her execution, was her involvement with John Knox, notable leader of the Scottish Reformation, and founder of the country’s Presbyterian Church. She was set up at a pillar before Knox in church, while he preached against her from his pulpit. No positive outcome was gained from this historical sermon.
The woman was initially confident that she would be able to use her magic to resist strangulation or the flames. When asked to forgive a man that “had done her some offence,” as she claimed, she refused. Upon being told that this refusal would cause God to not forgive her, she refuted the predominant Christian ideology, openly exclaiming, “I pass not whidder I goe to hell or heavin!” and uttering many other “execrable words.”
Her hands were then bound, the Provost of St Andrews lifted up her clothes to search her for the Devil’s mark (a permanent marking of the Devil on his initiates to seal their service to him) or to check for a magical talisman. The idea that witches were able to protect themselves using magical talismans was common at the time, and one was eventually found: a white cloth like a neckerchief between her legs, with many strings attached, each string carrying a large number of knots.
... she did not go passively to her death, but held strong and steadfast in her beliefs until her brutal end.
When her talisman was found, the woman was distraught, and cried out in defeat, “Now I have no hoip of myself!” After the cloth was taken from her, this unnamed woman was executed for witchcraft in St Andrews on the 28th April 1572. While her name remains unknown, her story stands as a reminder of the defiance of those accused and tried for witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries in Scotland: she did not go passively to her death, but held strong and steadfast in her beliefs until her brutal end.
Janet Lochore, Elspot Gilchrist, Agnes Melville, all died 10th September 1595
These three women were executed on the same day, and probably together at the same time in St Andrews, on the 10th of September 1595. Not much is known about their lives apart from the fact that their witchcraft conviction stems from the practice of folk healing.
From the records of the St Andrews Kirk-Session, we know that Jonet Lochore was “fetched” by James Chaplain to cure John Richard’s wife in Strathkinness, an act which he was punished for with “public humiliation.”
Similarly, Elspot Gilchrist was accused of witchcraft on the charge of healing, for attempting to “cure” the deceased woman Janet Horsburth in Balmungie. John Weddell suffered “public humiliation” as punishment for “fetching” her. This is possible a more serious crime than Lochore’s, as Gilchrist attempted to heal a dead person – which could have been interpreted as necromancy, surely an activity believed to be performed in conjunction with the devil in 16th-century Scotland.
Finally, Agnes Melville was also executed on the charge of healing, but as a considerably more popular healer, being consulted by two people: Isobel Annell, to cure her spouse Patrick Wylie, and Isobel Simpson, who sought her to cure her dead spouse, John Black. Again, as Melville was caught trying to cure a dead man, this could have been viewed as necromancy. Both Isobel Annell and Isobel Simpson faced the same “public humiliation” – the according punishment for those who consorted with witches in the 16th-century. There is no further information about what this “public humiliation” entailed, however.
Nic Neville, died 1569
Little is known about Nic Neville, other than that they were a woman who was taken to trial and executed for witchcraft in 1569.
There is some confusion concerning Neville’s gender and means of execution, with some sources calling her a man who was hanged, while others state that she was a “notable sorceress,” who was burned to death.
Nic Neville is also not the real name of this accused woman, as it is a form of the Gaelic nickname “Nicneven,” meaning little saint’s daughter, a sobriquet used by multiple accused witches at the time.
William Stewart, Lyon King of Arms
William Stewart was the Lyon King of Arms before his execution in St Andrews in 1569. This role meant he was chief herald in Scotland, responsible for issuing new grants of arms, and serving as the judge of the Court of the Lord Lyon, a relatively important position of authority.
In the year 1569, he was arrested on the charge of “conspiring or concealing a conspiracy to slay the Regent Murray,” with this charge later being switched to sorcery. Stewart was most likely tried before a civil court in Edinburgh, as his trial is not mentioned in the Kirk-Session of St Andrews.
He was held prisoner in Edinburgh Castle before being brought to St Andrews and executed, sparking the localised witch-hunts of 1568-69 in Fife.
As one of the only men killed for witchcraft in St Andrews, Stewart’s case is highly unusual. Although 15% of those accused of practicing witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries were male, it seems unconceivable that an upper-class man would be accused of a crime usually reserved for poorer, low-status women.
... it seems unconceivable that an upper-class man would be accused of a crime usually reserved for poorer, low-status women.
One source writes that Stewart was hanged “for diverse points of witchcraft and necromancie,” but certain scholars, like Charles James Longman, believe that accusations of witchcraft and sorcery were used by his enemies in order to get rid of him, an easy method at the time to abolish someone perceived to be a political threat.
Bannatyne, R. Journal of the transactions in Scotland, Edinburgh, 1806
Black, Cases of Witchcraft in Scotland, 1510-1727.
Calendar of State Papers Relating to Scotland, Edinburgh, 1936.
Chambers, R. Domestic Annals of Scotland from the Reformation to the Revolution, Edinburgh, 1874.
Diurnal of Remarkable Occurents, Maitland Club, Edinburgh, 1833.
Larner, C., Lee, C. and McLachlan, H. A source-book of Scottish witchcraft. Glasgow. 1977.
Maxwell-Stuart, P.G. Satan’s Conspiracy: Magic and Witchcraft in Sixteenth-Century Scotland, Tuckwell Press, East Lothian, 2001.
Pitcairn, R., Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, Vol. 1, p.510, Edinburgh, 1833.
Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, 3rd Series, Vol. 2, Edinburgh, 1877-1970.
Register of St Andrews, Edinburgh, 1889-90.
Rentale Sancti Andree, being the chamberlain and granitar accounts of the archbishopric in the time of Cardinal Betoun, 1538-1546.
Selections from minutes of Synod of Fife, 1611-1687.