IN the final years of the 16th century, and indeed for several decades beforehand and afterwards, Scotland was engulfed by fear and loathing. The reason was the national obsession with witchcraft.

It was not unique to Scotland. Many countries in Europe hunted witches and usually burned any convicted of witchcraft – the belief back then was that an immolated body could not rise again on Judgement Day. Tens of thousands died across Europe from the 15th to the early 18th century, and the number killed in Scotland may have been as many as 4000.

Scotland’s culture of burning people – almost all of them women – as witches came from the very top of Scottish society, namely King James VI himself, though the Act of Parliament that made witchcraft, sorcery and necromancy a capital offence was actually passed shortly after the Reformation under his mother Mary’s rule in 1563. Having been tutored to be a strict Presbyterian by the likes of George Buchanan, James had a literal interpretation of the Bible and was particularly aware of the strictures against witchcraft and mediums in both the Old and New Testaments.

He was particularly fond of quoting Exodus: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

Always paranoid about plots against him, James early developed a fear of witches and blamed witchcraft for some of the problems he faced in life. That happened most notably when he went to fetch his wife Princess Anne from the Royal Court of Denmark and violent storms almost shipwrecked them in 1590. Two women were burned at the stake in Denmark after confessing under torture that they had been using witchcraft against the princess, and that led to James starting his own inquiry. The persecution centred around North Berwick and the two main figures were Agnes Sampson and local schoolmaster John Cunningham, known as Doctor Fian. The latter was tortured until he spouted a “confession”, after which he was strangled and burned at Castlehill in Edinburgh. Agnes Sampson was stripped, shaven all over to find the Devil’s Mark – it was “found” on her private parts – and she too was duly garrotted and burned in Edinburgh.
From North Berwick the witch hunts spread across Scotland and Glasgow was not spared. The hunts peaked in the year 1597 when a series of witch trials took place across Scotland.

READ MORE: Times Past: Sir George Elphinstone of Blythswood - from court favourite to pauper

The source of trouble was once again James VI – and it may all have been connected with his troubles with the Church of Scotland, which was becoming more and more regimented against James’s favoured episcopacy. Never slow to be paranoid, James was fascinated by the 1596 case of Christian Stewart who confessed to killing Patrick Ruthven with a “blak clout”. She, too, was strangled and burned.

It was after this case that James VI began to compile his famous, or infamous, work Daemonologie, In Forme Of A Dialogue, Divided Into Three Books: By The High And Mighty Prince, James &c. He would get plenty of source material in 1597.

The first witch to be brought to trial was Janet Wishart – who was accused, tortured and executed in Aberdeen in March of that year. James VI went to St Andrews to learn more about the prevalence and practice of witchcraft and set up royal commissions to go to Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, Fife, Stirling and Glasgow.

We do not know exactly what happened at all these trials because records were not kept of them, funnily enough. Some say 400 people were accused of witchcraft that year and half of them were executed by being strangled and burned. In Glasgow, however, the witch hunt met its nemesis.

In what was one of the darkest periods in Glasgow’s history, an extraordinary heroine emerged whose great Glaswegian good sense led her into a confrontation that should be remembered to this day. It is a genuine mystery to me why the name of Marion Walker is not trumpeted across Glasgow and Scotland on a regular basis for she truly was a quite remarkable woman.

King James’s commission to hunt for witches in Glasgow was enthusiastically taken up by a local Kirk minister, John Cowper. He had fallen under the spell, so to speak, of Margaret Aitken, known as the Great Witch of Balwearie in Fife.

She had been accused of witchcraft in April 1597, and to save herself from the stake she claimed that she had a gift of being able to tell whether someone was a witch by identifying a secret mark in their eyes.

She made outlandish claims of there being witches’ gatherings of thousands of people, and Cowper not only believed her but begged for Aitken to be brought to Glasgow so she could identify witches, quite a number of whom just happened to be Cowper’s personal enemies and critics – he was not a popular man.

Thanks to the research of Dr Daniel MacLeod of the University of Manitoba, we know that Aitken claimed to see the “devil’s mark” in numerous eyes and her evidence was all that was needed for Cowper and his commissioners. We do not know how many died after being accused by Aitken but it probably ran into the dozens, all of them tortured, strangled and burned.

It is not known who on the commission had the idea of testing Aitken, but very cleverly, some people who had been accused by Aitken were brought back the following day and she declared they were innocent. The Balwearie “witch” confessed she had made up the stories and identifications, and was thus was exposed as a complete fraud. Cowper, his commissioners and Glasgow Presbytery now had a serious problem – they had killed innocent people.

Marion Walker discovered that Aitken had confessed and began to spread the story around the city. She personally stood up and accused Cowper, so he and his allies brought in a new ordinance threatening anybody who slandered them with the “branks”, a steel gag worn around the head to shut people’s mouths.

Walker was having none of it. She obtained a copy of Aitken’s confession and true whistleblower that she was, made sure that plenty copies were distributed. The citizens of Glasgow and elsewhere were shocked by the discovery that judicial murder had taken place on the word of a fraudster.

READ MORE: Ninth outbreak of plague to hit Scotland proves huge blow for Glasgow trade

James VI reacted by stopping the witch hunt commissions. Cowper was allowed to stay in his post, but Margaret Aitken was one of the last people to be burned in that year of witch hunts. Marion Walker features in our story next week – that of John Ogilvie, Scotland’s only post-Reformation saint.