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Scottish Witch Trials Resources

Would you like to investigate accused witches in your area? We've created a short guide to getting started on your own research, as well as a full list of resources. Please get in touch if we can support you.

Getting Started

  • Carry out an initial search on the University of Edinburgh's Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database. This is a great resource where you can search by name, place and date and/or characterisation. Cases where several people were accused are linked together, and you can also view details of commissioners. Be aware: the survey was completed in 2003 and has not been updated since. It is not extensive and key pieces of new research are missing. The project team is also aware of some errors which may be corrected in the future.

  • In 2019 the University of Edinburgh created an interactive map based on the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database. It is an excellent visualisation which shows the spread of the trials across Scotland. Check out what is listed in your local area.

  • Search online - Google is your friend here! We have a starting list of websites to browse on our Recommended Reading page. Be aware that not all information presented online will be accurate or true. Check that the website has credible references to primary sources, and be critical - watch out for bias or hidden agendas.

  • Read widely and engage with existing research and literature on the topic. We've gathered some key books on our Recommended Reading page. Many will be available online to purchase, or to borrow from your local library. Some will be available to preview or read through Google Books and Google Scholar. Credible books will list references - check these sources and follow the thread to continue your own research.

  • Get in touch with local museums and archives. They may have relevant materials in their collection, or can connect you with other researchers who have been working on a similar topic.

  • Follow the trail of old folk tales and legends from your local area. These may have been passed down from generation to generation, and originally based on a grain of truth.

  • Take a look at old maps of your town or village. Look for unusual place names (the Witches Hill etc.) which may indicate that an accused witch lived in the area. The National Library of Scotland's map collection and ScotlandsPlaces are incredible resources.

  • Engage with primary sources (kirk or justiciary records, letters and other correspondence, town council minutes and bookkeeping etc.). Many of these will be available to access through national and local archives, some online. ScotlandsPeople has created this guide to accessing Church Court Records, and a more general guide to virtual volumes.

  • Engage with the community. Research can be difficult and frustrating work. Take encouragement from the many others who are also working hard to recognise, remember and document the accused witches. Join our Facebook group, or seek out other researchers in your local area.

The Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563

​The Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563 made the practice of witchcraft and consulting with witches, capital offences. This Act remained on Scottish statute books until its repeal by a House of Lords amendment to the bill for the post-union Witchcraft Act 1735. Records indicate that around 4,000 prosecutions were instigated under this legislation (around 85% of whom were women), with approximately 3,000 individuals convicted and executed. However, the records are incomplete and many other individuals were persecuted in ways that were never formally recorded, making the impact and horror of the witch-hunts more widespread.


Researching Your Own Family Tree

The easiest place to start is with yourself and your immediate family. By using three documents you will have a great start on the road to finding those long lost ancestors.

Birth Certificates 

  • Gives date, place, time of birth

  • Parents names & occupations (where possible)

  • Details of parent’s wedding (where applicable)

  • Name variations may occur when checking other documents, e.g. Elizabeth, Elisabeth, Eliza, Betty, Liz, Lizzie

Pre-1855 Birth Certificates

  • Found further back in the Old Parish Records (OPR’s)

  • It may be the Date of BAPTISM rather than Date of BIRTH that is given OR it may show both dates.

  • Several children may be baptised together

  • May just state if child is male or female, no name of child given.

Marriage Certificates

  • Gives date, place of Wedding (older documents may also give date of Banns)

  • Home address of both spouses

  • Parent’s names & occupations

  • Ages and occupations of both spouses

  • Witnesses

Death Certificates

  • Gives date, place, time of death

  • Home address, age and occupation

  • Parents and spouse’s details, also states if they are deceased

  • Cause of death

  • Details of who reported the death

Other Documentation - great sources of information for making sure you have the right person

  • Adoption papers

  • Divorce decrees

  • Forces Discharge Certificate

  • Change of Name

Scottish Name Variations

  • Marion, Morag, Sarah

  • Donald, Daniel

  • Henrietta, Euphemia

  • Janet, Jessie

  • Eliza, Isabel

  • Agnes, Ann, Hannah

  • Henry, Hendry, Hendrie   

  • Magnusson, Son of Magnus


General Tips for Research

  • Keep a meticulous record of your sources, both primary and secondary. Your research is only credible if you have the sources to back it up.

  • Keep your notes and documentation organised. Some people have all documentation for each individual person collated together. Others sort each type of certificate together.

  • Be methodical. Find a system that works for you.

  • Where possible use free sources to find basic details, and paid sources (e.g. ScotlandsPeople) only to confirm these.

  • Use wide, general search terms. Using specific terms may lead to useful information and documents being omitted.

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