Popular Conceptions of Witchcraft in Scotland

Shakespeare's three Scottish witches

Conceptions of witchcraft led to a number of persecutions of witches in pre-modern Scotland. This article examines the popular view in Scotland.

The popular culture in Scotland consisted of the common folk. These were the less-educated citizens who also were a part of the lower socio-economic class. Their beliefs in witchcraft helped justify the misfortunes that occurred in life. Based on irrational fears and a persecuting frame of mind, pandemonium ran rapid throughout Scotland in which deviant, foul-mouthed common women were being accused while upstanding, law-abiding common folks were considered the accusers. Thus, conceptions of witchcraft and witches were formed and developed and led to a number of prosecutions and executions of witches in pre-modern Scotland.

Isobell Gowdie

Insight into the early modern mind on their perspective of witch beliefs in popular culture can be seen in the confessions of Isobel Gowdie. Confessing to interludes with the Devil, charms, curing diseases by enchantments and other unnatural powers, Isobel Gowdie shocked her strict Scottish neighbors by freely confessing to witchcraft. Her account as indicated in Confessions of Isobell Gowdie, spous to John Gilbert, in Lochloy, provided understanding to the undergoings of witchcraft and gave validation of a covenant between witches and Satan.

“The quhilk day, in prefence of me, Johnne Innes, Notar Publict, and Witneffes abownamet, all vnder fubfcrywand, the faid Issobel Gowdie, appearing penitent for hir haymows fines of Witchcraft,and that tho haid bein ower lang in that fervice; without ony compulfitouris, proceidit in hir Confessione,in maner efter following, to wit. As I was goeing betuix the townes of Drumdewin and the Headis, I met with The Devil, and ther covenanted,in a maner, with him;” (Pitcairin,602)

One of the elements of popular culture as presented in Isobel Gowdie’s confession is involvement with the Devil. Within the popular culture there was an underlying belief that witches made an agreement with the devil. “Sixteenth and seventeenth century discussions of witchcraft by educated commentators (both in the European Continent and in England) always insisted that a pact with the devil lay behind witchcraft…” (Sommerville, 2)

Another popular concept was the belief in fairies and other supernatural folk. Both considered good and evil, fairies were a host of supernatural beings. Isobell Gowdie admitted to having frequent deeds with fairies.

“The Qwein of Fearrie is brawlie clothed in whyt linens, and in whyt and browne cloathes, &c.; and the King of Fearrie is a braw man, weill favoured, and broad faced, &c. Ther wes elf-bullis rowtting and fkoylling wp and downe thair, and affrighted me.” (Pitcairin, 606 )

The emphasis on fairy superstition and contact with fairies are evident in her confessions and were brought up in the witch trials. However, author Brian Levack in his book Witch-hunts and Popular Cultures notes that regarding fairies, “although the elites seem to have been aware of some of the folklore concerning these creatures, their response was often to integrate them into the framework of demonology or ignore them altogether when they emerged in interrogations and trials for witchcraft.” (p. 96)

Overall, the Scottish society was brought up in the popular culture. Levack and other historians have revealed that unprinted witchcraft confessions add insights into the popular culture. The belief in fairies, the supernatural and Satan are popular signs of how Scotland saw the world around them.


  1. Levack, Brian. Witch-hunts and Popular Culture. London: Longman, June 16, 2007.
  2. Pitcairn, Robert. Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland: compiled from the original records and MSS, with Historical Illustrations, etc., Vol. 3 Part 2. Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, 1833, 602-616.
  3. Sommerville, J.P. “Witchcraft”