We recently heard the story of the Pendle Witches from Lancashire (UK) and read about how girls were subjected to “witch tests” so as to determine their crimes. It was whilst digging deeper that stories from all over Great Britain came to light, and with spooky goings-on just around the corner, it seemed fitting to share them. Through these stories we discover the horrors girls faced daily 300 – 500 years ago.


A woman in handcuff on trial for witchcraft.

A woman in handcuff on trial for witchcraft.

The Witches of Antrim 1711
We start in Ireland, where there were actually very few trials for witchcraft, even with the passing of a witchcraft statute in 1586. It was actually Scottish settlers who brought over the idea of a “dangerous witch”. The origins of the Antrim Witch Trials go back to 1710 when 18 year old Mary Dunbar arrived in Islandmagee to stay with her cousin. Misfortune had recently struck when her cousin’s mother-in-law suddenly died Рmany believed through witchcraft. This was confirmed when Mary herself started the show signs of demonic possession with a sudden change in personality. Mary started threatening people, shouting and swearing, blaspheming, and going into fits whenever a clergyman went near her. She then claimed to have seen eight local women in spectral form. For the trial itself, this was crucial evidence. Yet, Mary would never have seen these women before, having only just arrived in the area. The other evidence given against these women was their inability to say the Lord’s Prayer and the results of the “touch test” conducted by the authorities. The tests involved blindfolding Mary and a line of suspected women were asked to touch her. Many believed this would bring on demonic fits if the victim was touched by a witch. Mary picked out eight women from the parade and they were further accused of consuming alcohol, swearing, and smoking tobacco. All of which were characteristics considered unwomanly to locals.

What happens to both parties is unknown. It is, however, clear that the women accused were much older than Mary and did not seem to fit the expectations of the community. In fact, many convicted of witchcraft were those outside the normal connotations of beauty and how women should conduct themselves. It did not help that the 1586 Act would in fact stay in the statute books until 1821, when it was finally repealed.

You can read more about the Antrim Witch Trials here.



A contemporary pamphlet depicting the North Berwick Witches meeting the Devil in the local kirkyard.

The Witches of Berwick 1590
Scotland was one of the worst places for witch hunting with some 3,800 people being prosecuted there. More than three-quarters of those accused were burned at the stake or strangled. Our story of the Witches of North Berwick starts in 1590 when King James VI and his bride, 14 year old Anne of Denmark, were caught in a terrible storm on their way home. It was clear to the King that witchcraft was at play and suspicion fell on Geillis Duncan, a local healer. It was whilst she was being tortured that proof of her being a witch was found when “the Devil’s mark” was discovered on her neck. Geillis had no choice but to implicate three others and accuse them of witchcraft. More accusations followed during torture and many, if not all, confessed to witchcraft. It was believed that a man dressed in black had asked the witches to kill the King and an oath was sealed. The man was thought to be Satan himself and to fulfil their oath the witches conducted rituals to complete their mission. Those who confessed recounted acts such as throwing a cat out to sea to prevent the safe return of the ship, making a wax likeness of the King to aid the plot against him, and poisoning the King with the venom from a toad. Even with connections to high individuals in their communities, these women met their end at the hands of the hangman.

To find out more about Scotland’s infamous Witch Trials, click here.


Suspected witches being hanged for the crime of witchcraft.

Suspected witches being hanged for the crime of witchcraft.

The Case of Gwen Ellis 1594
Gwen Ellis was the first person to be executed for witchcraft in Wales. She was a woman in her early forties who had made a living from making herbal medicines for sick animals and giving out healing charms to cure illnesses. When a charm was found in the home of magistrate Thomas Mostyn, Gwen was accused of putting it there to bewitch the magistrate, instead of cure him. At the trial witnesses claimed that she had a bad temper and a sharp tongue and from there the accusations flooded in. It was not long before she was accused of murdering Lewis ap John using witchcraft. Gwen was found guilty of her crimes and sentenced to death. The Gwen Ellis case was in fact one of about thirty four prosecutions for witchcraft in Wales. This was a considerably low number in comparison to other countries. Yet, it so happened that the trial occurred just as witch trials were at their peak in England.

Learn more about Britain’s worst witch trials here.

-Claire Amundson
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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