Witch-hunting in Lanarkshire: part 1

This step introduces you to the conventions of early modern Scottish handwriting in extant church court records.

At the end of each week you will uncover and explore an alleged case of witchcraft in seventeenth-century Lanarkshire.

Each step will reveal more about the case as you improve your reading skills.

Week 1 will consider the case in context, week 2 the records and week 3 transcription.

The Case in Context

Daemonologie image An illustration of witches from James VI’s Daemonologie (1597) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Witchcraft in early modern Scotland

After the official sanction of the Reformation in 1560, an act of parliament was passed in 1563 which criminalised ‘the h[e]avy and abominabill superstitioun’ of witchcraft, sorcery and necromancy.

The punishment was death.

Between this act and its repeal in 1735, well over 3,000 people are known to have been accused of witchcraft and almost half that number executed. 84% were women.

For more information, see Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, 1563-1736, eds. Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin, Joyce Miller and Louise Yeoman

Christina Larner’s landmark study of Scottish witch-hunts identified five peaks in 1590-91, 1597, 1628-30, 1649-50 and 1661-62. The records used for this case study are part of the national panic in 1649-50, when over 500 people were investigated for alleged witchcraft.

The 1649-50 witch-hunt

In 1649-50 the Covenanting regime was in power. The leaders believed they were advancing the so-called ‘Covenanted Reformation’ by passing an array of legislation which would secure Scotland as a godly commonwealth.

On 1 February 1649 the Scottish Parliament ratified the witchcraft act of 1563 and added consulters with devils and familiar spirits to the list of those liable for punishment.

During this period the kirk sessions, and the church courts which oversaw them, the presbyteries, met frequently to monitor the behaviour of men and women. The removal of bishops from the church in 1638 gave the presbyteries an unprecedented level of oversight.

The kirk sessions were usually the first to hear of complaints about suspected witches, with this information then sent to the relevant presbytery for further consideration.

Lanarkshire in the seventeenth century

The historic county of Lanark (Scottish Gaelic: Siorrachd Lannraig; Scots: Lanrikshire) in the central lowlands was one of five shires in the south-west notable for its support of the Covenant:

Lanarkshire map Lanarkshire County. Abigail Brady (Own work) CC A-S A 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The presbytery of Lanark comprised the parishes of Carluke, Carmichael, Carnwath, Carstairs, Crawford, Crawfordjohn, Douglas, Lanark, Lesmahagow, Pettinain and Wiston.

While kirk session minute books survive for all but Carnwath and Crawford, only Carluke covers the period under investigation. Thankfully, however, the presbytery records survive in full from 1623 to 1717.

Next week we will continue the development of your palaeography skills by looking at how the witch-hunt unfolds in the records.

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This article is from the free online course:

Early Modern Scottish Palaeography: Reading Scotland's Records

University of Glasgow