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Book of the Month

August 2000

Newes from Scotland

Declaring the damnable life of Doctor Fian a notable sorcerer, who was burned at Edenbrough in Ianuarie last. London: 1591

Sp Coll Ferguson Al-a.36

Newes from Scotland is the earliest tract on Scottish witchcraft. It claims to give a true account of a famous trial of alleged witches in North Berwick which had far reaching effects due to the fact that King James VI himself played a prominent part in it, giving credence to the existence of witchcraft and setting the standard for later trials.

Beginning of text (folio A3r)

Woodcut (folio B4v)


Our copy is from the library of John Ferguson (1837-1916), a bibliographer and Regius Professor of Chemistry at Glasgow University. He knew of only four copies of this edition, two of which were in his own collection. The work was published in England shortly after the trials took place and is illustrated with two woodcuts.

This tale of supposed witchcraft began with the arrest of a maidservant named Geillis Duncan who was suspected by her employer, David Smeaton of Tranent. His reasons for suspicion were the fact that she would secretly go out at night and that this Geillis Duncane took in hand to help all such as were troubled or greeued with any kinde of sicknes or infirmitie: and in short space did perfourme manye matter most miraculous.  It was not unusual during the times of the witch hunts for suspicion to fall on midwives or people who appeared to be able to heal others. 


Preface (folio A2r) 

Confession of Geillis Duncan (folio A4r)

Geillis Duncan was tortured with the pilliwinkes on her fingers and by binding or winching her head with a cord or roape. She did not confess until her tortures declared they had found her "devil's mark"- it being believed at that time that by due examination of witchcraft and Witches in Scotland, it hath lately beene founde that the diuell doth generally marke them with a privie marke.

Once Geillis was committed to prison it did not take her long to accuse others of witchcraft. These people were Agnes Sampson, Agnes Tompson, Doctor Fian, alias John Cunningham, Barbara Napier and Effie MacCalyan, to name but a few. In all around 70 people were implicated in this case.


Agnes Sampson was arrested and eventually confessed under torture to being a witch and implicating all the others.

 Agnes Tompson's confession was a highly colourful story which detailed a coven with as many as 200 other witches that had met the devil in the kirk of North Berwick and how he had instructed them to use spells and throw a dead cat into the sea to create a great storm which was intended to waylay King James' ship as he travelled back from Denmark with his fiancee, Anne. Apparently the Devil had told the witches that the king is the greatest enemie hee hath in the world.

Confession of Agnes Sampson (folioB3r) 

Woodcut (folio C2v)

James Fian, the schoolmaster at Saltpans, was also questioned and would not confess until he had been dreadfully tortured. He later confessed that at the generall meetings of those witches, he was always present: that he was Clarke to all those that were in subjection to the Diuels service, bearing the name of witches, that always he did take their oathes for their true service to the Diuell, and he wrote for them such matters as the Diuell still pleased to command him. He then told a farcical tale regarding a love spell he tried on a local gentlewoman that had taken his fancy. The story was that he had approached this lady's brother and asked him to obtain some hair from her when she was asleep so he could work his magic spell. The brother was thwarted in this by his sister waking up and calling for her mother. The mother managed to get the full story from the boy and apparently suspected witchcraft. She decided to play a trick on Dr.Fian so she collected some hairs from the udder of a cow and gave them to her son to give to his schoolmaster. Dr. Fian worked his spell and was very surprised to be then followed everywhere by a lovesick cow.  This story is very comical until one remembers that a man was horribly tortured and ultimately executed on the strength of this kind of "evidence".

James VI obviously believed in the existence of witchcraft and took a personal interest in the story that these "witches" had conspired to kill him by magic but even he found the stories exaggerated as is shown when "his Maiestie saide they were all extreame lyars". He later changed his mind when Agnes Sampson took him aside and apparently told him the exact words of his conversation with his new wife on their wedding night. This was seen by the King as irrefutable proof that witchcraft had been performed against him.

Poor Doctor Fian was put to more torture but would confess nothing more even though his legs were totally crushed in the "bootes". The King and his Council then decided that he was to be made an example of to remayne a terrour to all others heereafter, that shall attempt to deale in the lyke wicked and ungodlye actions, as witchcraft, sorcery, conjuration and such lyke. Dr. Fian was burned at Castle Hill in Edinburgh in late January, 1591.

It is not recorded what happened to all the accused persons but certainly Agnes Sampson and others were condemned and burnt as witches. At the time Newes From Scotland was published they were still languishing in prison. King James VI was so concerned about the threat that witchcraft posed for himself and his country, that he undertook to study the subject in some depth and published his results in his book Daemonologie, published in 1597. On the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, he became King James I of England and ruled both countries jointly until his death in 1625. One of his first acts as king in England was to tighten the Witchcraft Act (1563). At that time in England, hanging was the punishment if it could be proved that use of witchcraft had caused death, but James changed the sentence to hanging for any form of witchcraft confessed or proved. Witchcraft trials continued unabated during his reign and only started to trail off in the early eighteenth century. The last recorded burning of a witch in Scotland took place in Sutherland in 1722.

Dr Fian's sentence (folio C4r)

An interesting footnote for those who think that trials for witchcraft were confined to our superstitious ancestors long ago; In 1944, Helen Duncan (1898-1956), a Scottish medium, was the last person to be jailed under the 1735 Witchcraft Act. A court was told she claimed to have conjured up the spirit of a sailor killed on HMS Barham during World War II. The sinking of this ship was supposed to be a military secret and the British authorities decided to prosecute because they reportedly feared that Helen Duncan might reveal plans for the D- Day landings. She was convicted of "pretending to raise spirits from the dead" and sentenced to 9 months in prison. The 1735 Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1951.

Other items of interest

There is another copy of Newes from Scotland located at Ferguson Al-a.30: it lacks the title-page, but has an extra copy of the first woodcut bound in at the beginning.
There are several copies of James I Daemonologie: see, for example,  Ferguson Ag-d.13 (Edinburgh, 1597) or Ferguson Ag-d.50 (London, 1603)

For more items on witchraft from the Ferguson collection, see the online The Damned Art exhibition


Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page

Niki Pollock August 2000