3 MIN READ TIME
For almost two centuries, Scotland was in the grip of a dangerous epidemic. Not the plague or a swarm of locusts, but a crippling fear of sorcery and black magic.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, frenzied witch hunts were taking place across the country, searching for people believed to be causing disasters such as shipwrecks, blights and disease.
Fife might be a small county, but it carried out some of the fiercest witch hunts. Fishing communities were already deeply superstitious, so it’s no surprise that those on the Fife coast paid a higher price than most. The majority of those accused were female, many of them elderly and widowed. They were easy targets for the authorities, people already on the fringes of society and without the power to defend themselves.
Suspected witches were accused of being in league with the Devil, tortured until they screamed out whatever their captors wanted to hear. Their confessions often condemned other members of the community, causing a witch hunt to spread like wildfire. Once admittance of guilt had been confirmed and as much information as possible extracted, the broken prisoner was put on trial before being strangled and burnt at the stake.
In recent years, the tragic story of these innocent victims is being more widely told. The glaring omission around the country however has been a lack of representation of these accused witches in monuments or memorials. That is finally beginning to be remedied, with the Fife Witches Trail taking people from Culross through Valleyfield to Torryburn while drawing attention to this horrendous chapter of history.
There were dozens of witch trials in Fife, but the most famous case is undoubtedly Lilias Adie – The Torryburn Witch. She was at least in her 60s when she was arrested and put on trial in 1704. Originally, the accusations against her weren’t taken seriously. It seemed clear that her neighbour was trying to blame the elderly woman for her hangover.
However, when Lilias had the finger pointed at her for a second time, the authorities felt compelled to investigate. She was subjected to weeks of interrogation, torture and sleep deprivation. Her recorded confession explained how she had met with the Devil, describing him in detail. He had made Lilias renounce her baptism, putting one hand on her head, the other on her feet before declaring that he now owned everything in between.
Like many recorded confessions, Lilias claimed to have had carnal relations with her satanic master. She told them how they would meet with large groups of other witches, and this is where the authorities were most interested. It was the easiest way for them to root out what they believed was widespread witchcraft in their community. Under torture, many victims would point the finger at anybody if it helped to ease their pain.
It’s often claimed that Lilias refused to implicate any others. She is said to have told her interrogators that all other witches present were wearing masks to hide their identity. Most of the names given up were those already convicted and executed, people who couldn’t be hurt any further. In reality, Lilias did name some local women during her torture, but they were fortunate enough to escape with their lives.
Either through mistreatment or by her own hand, Lilias died in prison before she could be taken to trial. The people of Torryburn then had a dilemma of what to do with her body. Lilias had already confessed, and they were absolutely convinced that she was a witch, but she hadn’t been found guilty by trial yet.
Storytelling by Scotland's Stories