During the late 16th to early 18th centuries, Europe was gripped by paranoia about witchcraft and demonology, fearing the presence of Satan around every corner. No other country in Europe responded to this threat with greater gusto than Scotland, where it is estimated that around 4,000 individuals1 (80% of them women), were accused of witchcraft and/or consorting with the devil. We have to work with estimates of the sheer numbers of the accused, as records have been destroyed over the years and very little remains in print. The “around 4000”, is based on named individuals, but there are many more who have not been named.

Of these unfortunate women and men, it is thought around threequarters of the accused were tried and found guilty. It is known that various forms of State-sanctioned physical and mental torture were used on the accused, in order to obtain a confession. This satisfied the judiciary of their guilt and they were condemned to death by strangulation at the stake, and their bodies burnt, to erase all trace of the individual and their contaminating ‘sin’.

How did it come about? In the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 was enacted, led by the new Protestant church, but it resulted in few accusations and trials compared with what was to come

In 1590 during the reign of James VI a ship carrying James and his bride Anne, was caught in a storm returning to Scotland from Denmark2. The finger was pointed at several North Berwick women who were accused of using witchcraft to prevent the king’s return. They were tortured into confession and executed. Their deaths mark the start of the paranoia which began to spread across Scotland. It was compounded after James VI published his book Daemonology in 1597, and by 1600, the Scottish Witchcraft Trials had taken off in earnest.

Across Scotland, Parish Ministers of the Reformed Church were called on by the Crown and General Assembly in Edinburgh, to root out and eradicate witchcraft and demonology in all its forms. The ensuing Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1649 reads like a modern Human Resources manual, giving clear guidelines, and policies and procedures, on how this should be done.

It is a fact that of the 4000 accused, very few would have been practicing what we today understand as witchcraft. The rest were caught up in the hysteria through no fault of their own and were entirely innocent of the deranged claims which were made against them. No-one was safe from accusation, whether adult or child.

This dreadful period in Scottish history lasted into the 18th century, until the madness petered out with the Enlightenment. From then, the history has been buried and suppressed, with Kirk records ‘disappearing’. Some of the accused became part of local folklore, like Isobel Gowdie of Nairn, Bessie Dunlop of Dalry, Bessie Graham of Kilwinning, and Margaret Barclay of Irvine. But for the rest, there was silence and their names and fates vanished like smoke.


North Ayrshire did not escape the purge, and the first known victim was Bessie Dunlop of Dalry, who was sent to Edinburgh for trial and executed on Castle Hill in Edinburgh in 1576. After her, the records show that between 1649 and 1683, eighty-five women and six men from North Ayrshire were accused of witchcraft, arrested and tried. Of this number, thirty-two women and three men are known to have been executed, including one girl of 10 years, known only as “Damsel Wallas of Irvine”. There are several groups of unnamed individuals, so these numbers could be considerably higher.

Irvine Presbytery

The church was the key instigator in the witchcraft trials and Irvine Presbytery, was the nerve centre for the whole of the Lands of Cunninghame. It had governance over the Parishes and towns of Dreghorn, Irvine, Kilwinning, Saltcoats, Ardrossan, Dalry, Kilbirnie, Beith, Kilbride (now West Kilbride), and Largs. Also, during the 17th century, Irvine Presbytery jurisdiction included Dunlop, Kilmaurs and Fenwick, which although now in East Ayrshire, are included in these North Ayrshire records. There are accounts of witchcraft trials in every town listed above, aside from Beith. Bell (or Isabel) M’Ghie of Beith, came much later, and although known famously as “The last of the Ayrshire witches”, she died aged seventy-six in 1836, but was never tried.

Very few Presbytery records from the time still exist, but ten records of Presbytery meetings during the Witchcraft Trials of 1650, have miraculously survived. They were published in The Scottish Journal of Topography etc in 18483. They show the callous disregard by the clergy for the accused women and men brought before them, who were all blameless, God-fearing parishioners. Somehow, these individuals found themselves being accused of “…renouncing of their baptism, copulation with the devil, taking a new name from him, and several apparitions of the devil to them”.

The accused were not permitted to defend themselves at trial, and anyone else who tried to defend them was immediately arrested and accused of witchcraft themselves. For example, after Barbara Montgomerie of Irvine was tried in June 1650, James Robertson and his wife wrote her a letter telling her not to confess. They too were arrested.

The Mechanism of Conviction: the 5 point plan

There were two stages of conviction: the local trial by the clergy, who rooted-out suspects, got them to confess and made recommendations for what should happen next. This was followed by a more formal trial, known as an Assize. The following steps include some examples from the Minutes.

1. Firstly, an accusation about an individual would be referred to the Parish Minister. This could be for something we would find trivial or unremarkable. Some examples: a row with a neighbour, where the neighbour was taken ill and died a few days later, as in Bessie Graham of Kilwinning in 1649; or was perceived as a troublesome member of society, like Isobel Allan of Kilwinning in 1650, who was already guilty of repeated fornication (a big issue within the church); or Samuel Elves of Irvine in 1650, who is described as “a common beggar”. To the church, there was the implication of Satanic intervention.

2. The Parish Minister would have the accused arrested by the Bailie, who incarcerated them somewhere safe. The Minister would then proceed to interrogate them along with other worthies of the Parish. It is known that John Stewart of Irvine was incarcerated in Irvine Tolbooth [pictured] in 1618 (where he committed suicide) as also was Bessie Graham of Kilwinning in 1650. It is likely that many others from across North Ayrshire were imprisoned here too.

3. It was essential to get the accused to confess their guilt by any means available. Sometimes it was mental torture from sleep deprivation and being interrogated through the night. At other times the Parish Minister would employ specialists in physical torture, as in the case of Margaret Barclay of Irvine, who was interrogated using “soft torture”, where iron bars were placed on her shins until she capitulated. Once a confession had been obtained, there was no going back, as in the case of William Semple and Agnes Houston both of Kilbirnie, who are sent to Assize “for acknowledging witchcraft before witnesses” in May 1650.

4. Next, on Saturdays, all the Parish Ministers would attend specially convened meetings with the Moderator of Presbytery, probably in Irvine Tolbooth. Here, all the cases of accused witches were discussed, and the next course of action decided. The Moderator exhorts the other Ministers present to gain confessions from those who have been arrested and are under suspicion, like the un-named of Dalry “who continued still impenitent” in April 1650; and to deal with some un-named persons from the Parish of Dreghorn “for bringing them to ane confession” in May 1650.

Presbytery records show the decision to recommend conviction of the accused and their execution, happened in nearly every case. Among others, the following were “Put to Assize”: Margaret Couper and Catherine Montgomery both of Saltcoats in April 1650 (both known to have been executed) along with an un-named group from Largs: “that so the land may be purged of that abominable sin”, and Geiles Buchanan and Janet Hill of Ardrossan in May 1650. In the records available, only Isobel Allen of Kilwinning gets a temporary reprieve, when a decision is postponed, as she is “great with child &c delay proceeding in the meantime”. Though I am almost certain she was convicted and executed in the end.

5. The Assize in North Ayrshire in 1650 was almost certainly adjudicated by Alexander Montgomerie, 6th Earl of Eglinton. He is recorded as officiating at the second trial of Bessie Graham of Kilwinning in 1650, where he is listed as Commissioner and Investigator. Given his status, he doubtless signed-off on all Irvine Presbytery recommendations.

In 1658, Irvine Presbytery sends all those accused at the time, to a mass Assize at Ayr on 6 April, where around sixty women and men from across the whole of Ayrshire, were tried at the same hearing. The accused were forced to walk there, from wherever they lived or were incarcerated. However, Margaret Cumyngham, Violet Guillieland and Jonet Hamiltoune all of Dunlop, (tried first by Irvine Presbytery) are listed on Ayr Court records as “Not to be found” and it’s possible they managed to escape during the walk to Ayr.

The Burning Site

It is not known for sure exactly where executions were carried out. A number are reported to have taken place in Irvine, and while Gallows Knowes has been suggested as the site, I am not convinced. A Presbytery minute of 7 May 1650 shows that four executions were to take place on the same day the following week. These are thought to be Maal Montgomery, Janet Hill and Isobel Mailshead all of Largs and Margaret Isset of Kilwinning. The resulting stench, with ash blowing on the wind, and feral dogs scavenging over the remains, would I think, rule out Gallows Knowes. It is far too close to the Earl of Eglinton’s property at Seagate Castle. John Strawhorn4 has suggested a site near Town End/Mill Road corner, close to where Malcolm Gardens now stands. This site would be sufficiently far from the town centre and a straightforward walk from the Tolbooth.

Towards the end

Towards the end of the century, there were some happier stories. The last known trials from the Lands of Cunninghame were at an Assize in Ayr in May 1683, when Catherin Lorimer of Irvine was found Not Guilty. Her grave is in Irvine Old Parish Kirk graveyard5, Hopkin of West Kilbride was also Acquitted; as were Janet Fisher of Largs; and Jonet Losk of Largs/Greenock, who lived in an area of Largs where the Parish boundaries between Largs and Greenock were fluid.


After decades of the accused being erased from history, the situation changed dramatically in the 21st century. Firstly in 2003, when University of Edinburgh published its online Witchcraft database and interactive map6 and secondly in 2005, when Larner et al published their Sourcebook of Scottish Witchcraft7. Since then, appalled at the horror of the burning times, various action groups in Scotland have mushroomed, focusing on naming the accused and giving them the justice which was absent in their lifetimes. Four key Action groups are:

Witches of Scotland on Facebook and www.witchesofscotland.com; Remembering the Accused Witches of Scotland (RAWS Charity Reg Sc051010) on Facebook and www.raws.scot/; Witches of the West of Scotland on Facebook; The Creative Coven: weaving creative threads in Remembrance on Facebook.

In 2022, the efforts of Witches of Scotland resulted in Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister, issuing “a posthumous apology to the thousands of people persecuted as witches in Scotland8” at Holyrood.

From 2022, RAWS has been working to establish a memorial to all the accused across Scotland. This is a huge project, requiring discussions with landowners, health & safety issues, parking and the like.

In 2024, The Creative Coven are holding a National Day of Remembrance to be held on 4 June 2024 (and thereafter annually) on the anniversary of the signing of the Witchcraft Act of 1563.

In North Ayrshire, Bessie Dunlop of Dalry has been memorialised by ByPass Art of Dalry, who in 2023 created an audio-book version (a radio play) of Bessie Dunlop The Witch o Dalry written by local author John Hodgart9. In 2023, Creative Scotland funded North Ayrshire artist Tara M Dakini of Witches Stitches (www.mistressofstitch.com), to work on a community project titled Pockets of Love, commemorating all the accused women of Scotland. A commemorative pocket for Jonet Boyd of Hawkingcraig will be featured in an exhibition to be toured in 2025.

Over the years, it has been fascinating to see how individuals from all over Scotland are beginning to research the accused witches in their own neighbourhoods. Some exciting projects are emerging!

Author Notes – Heather Upfield writes

After I researched and published my booklet on The Five Women of Kilwinning in 2020 (available from Kilwinning Heritage shop), I went on to lobby for a street name memorialising Bessie Graham of Kilwinning, to be included in a new housing development off Dalry Road. In 2023, when the houses had been built, the sign was installed.

The artwork ‘The Five Women of Kilwinning’ was painted for me by Aberdeen artist Ivo von Engine and was installed in the Abbey Tower Heritage Centre in 2022.

Heather Upfield is a member of Kilwinning Heritage, RAWS, Witches of Scotland, Witches of the West of Scotland and The Creative Coven.

As well as writing about the Kilwinning accused and creating a database of all the accused witches of North Ayrshire, she was interviewed in 2021 by Claire Mitchell KC, founder of Witches of Scotland, for a recorded Podcast number #27. Also in 2021, she advised on a research project led by Professor Nicola Ring of Napier University Edinburgh, investigating healers among the accused witches; and in 2024 was interviewed by Professor Margaret Malloch of Stirling University, researching “Memorialising Injustice and the Historic Witchhunts”.

© Heather Upfield, Kilwinning, 14 April 2024

Photography Heather Upfield.
Irvine Tolbooth: unknown author, Public Domain

  1. Scottish Witchcraft Database, Edinburgh University. https://witches.hca.ed.ac.uk/ Accessed 09 April 2024 ↩︎
  2. National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh https://www.nls.uk/learning-zone/literature-and-language/themes-in-focus/witches/source-1/ Accessed 09 April 2024 ↩︎
  3. The Scottish Journal of Topography, Antiquities, Traditions Vol 1, 1847-1848. https://archive.org/details/scottishjournalo12edin. Accessed 10 April 2024 ↩︎
  4. Strawhorn, J (2006) History of Irvine, p44 ↩︎
  5. Author correspondence with Billy Kerr, Irvine historian 2020 ↩︎
  6. Scottish Witchcraft Interactive map. https://witches.is.ed.ac.uk/. Accessed 10 April 2024 ↩︎
  7. Larner C, et al (2005). A Source-book of Scottish Witchcraft, Glasgow ↩︎
  8. The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/mar/08/nicola-sturgeon-issues-apology-for-historical-injustice-of-witch-hunts. Accessed 10 April 2024 ↩︎
  9. Ardrossan Herald. https//www.ardrossanherald.com/news/23616392.ayrshire-dalry-witch-bessie-dunlop-story-now-audio-book/. Accessed 10 April 2024 ↩︎