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30 Nov 2022

Gladstone’s Land and a conspiracy of witches

Written by Anna Herbert
A black and white line drawing of a witch trial. A group of women stand behind a man writing notes at a desk. In front of them a black figure seems to be emerging from a barrel. In the background, a ship is in difficulty at sea and another group of women are stirring a pot over a fire.
Newes from Scotland describes the North Berwick witchcraft trials of 1590 | Image: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Witchcraft had long been feared in Scotland. But when James VI came to the throne in the late 16th century, he brought a renewed zeal to eradicate witches from society.

King James VI’s fanaticism brought about a series of witch trials that saw prosecutions and executions across Scotland. An estimated 4,000–6,000 people were ‘tried’ in Scotland, with around 1,500 executed. The vast majority of those found guilty were women. The trials were both religious and secular, and were often officiated by clergymen.

William Struther lived at Gladstone’s Land during the early 17th century, while he worked as a minister at St Giles’ Cathedral. He was a pious and relatively wealthy man – upon his death in 1633, he left around £16,000 in various bequests, one of which was to support students of divinity at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities. He published several works during his lifetime, and was brought before the Lord High Commissioner in 1617 for arguing that Parliament should not recognise the royal supremacy of the king over the Church. He received a pardon after admitting his guilt.

However, it seems that another of Struther’s duties as a clergyman was to officiate at witch trials. Alongside a minister from Leith, his name is cited as an investigator in the 1631–2 trial of Marion Mure. Marion is recorded as the widow of George Brown, and was living in Leith at the time of her trial. She confessed herself to be a witch at the Leith Kirk Sessions, and was subsequently arrested by the secular authorities.

A black and white line drawing showing a group of smartly dressed 16th-century men standing around a very large fire. The man at the front is poking the fire with a long stick.
A woodcut showing a witch trial | Image: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Marion willingly confessed again that she was a witch, that she had renounced her baptism and that she had made a pact with the Devil and been renamed as Katherine by him. As was customary in many witchcraft trials, Marion also denounced two other women as witches: Helene Hamiltoun and Marioun Lumisden. It was believed that witches acted in groups and conspired to commit their crimes.

Unusually, during Marion’s trial process, a doctor was called to consult and offer a diagnosis. He declared that she had ‘symptomes of hypocondriack distraction’ and advised that she seek a remedy from an apothecary. She neglected to follow his advice, and the court later found her guilty. She was executed on 23 February 1632, after spending more than a year under investigation. It is likely that Marion was strangled at the stake before being burned. Helene Hamiltoun was tortured for a period of time to elicit a confession. She must have confessed, as her trial was set for 7 March 1632. Likewise, Marioun Lumisden’s trial was set for two days after Helene’s. Sadly, we do not know the outcome of either.

This research was carried out by Marcela D’Elia.

Gladstone’s Land is a traditional 16th-century tenement building at the heart of the Old Town in Edinburgh, on the Royal Mile. It has witnessed momentous social and political change. We have completely reworked how the property is experienced so that people can hear about some of the people who lived here over its long history.

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