See caption
Euphame MacCalzean was tied to a stake and burned alive on 25 June 1591
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Euphame MacCalzean (born before 9 November 1558 – died 25 June 1591) was a wealthy Scottish heiress and member of the gentry convicted of witchcraft. A key figure in the North Berwick witchcraft trialsSeries of Scottish witch trials held between 1590 and 1593 of 1590–1591, among the charges brought against her were using witchcraft to perform acts of treasonable conspiracy against King James VI and attempting to murder others, including her own husband, by magic.

After a trial lasting several days, Euphame was declared guilty on ten items of consulting with witches, using witchcraft, murder and attending conventions with treasonable intentions, for which she was sentenced to death. In Scotland, convicted witches were usually strangled before their bodies were burned, but Euphame was tied to a stake and burned alive. Her execution took place at Edinburgh’s Castle Hill on 25 June 1591.

Personal life

Born out of wedlock sometime before 9 November 1558, Euphame MacCalzean’s[a]The spelling of her name in contemporary sources has many variations: Effie Mccalÿan, Ewfame Mcalÿane, Ewphame Mccalÿeane, Euphame Maccaillion or Effe Machalloun.[1] In Scotland and England during the sixteenth century spelling was haphazard leading to many words, places and names having several variations. Modern-day texts often use an anglicised version, in this case MacCalzean.[2] exact date of birth is unknown; her father, Lord Cliftonhall (Thomas MacCalzean) had her birth recognised as legitimate in November 1558.[3] Lord Cliftonhall was an influential advocate with a vast fortune;[4] Euphame was his only child and sole heir.[5]

During 1570 Euphame and her father faced court action initiated by Archibald Ruthven, son of Patrick, the third Lord Ruthven, and the brother of William, the fourth Lord Ruthven and first Earl of Gowrie. Ruthven was seeking action regarding a breach of promise concerning his marriage to Euphame.[6] Evidently the action proved unsuccessful, as Euphame married Patrick Moscrop that year.[3] He was the son and heir of a friend of Lord Cliftonhall, fellow advocate John Moscrop and his wife Katherine Litill, the heads of another eminent and wealthy family.[4][7] Under the terms of their marriage agreement, her husband, who was also a prominent member of the legal fraternity, assumed the MacCalzean surname.[3][8]

The couple’s marriage was unhappy from the outset;[9] Euphame, a belligerent character who leaned towards being a shrew-like harridan, attempted to poison her husband less than twelve months into their marriage.[10] Her efforts were not as successful as she hoped; the potion she administered caused him to break out in spots all over his face and body but, due to his overall youthful vigour, the toxin was quickly eliminated from his system.[11] She continued to make home life miserable for her husband, so he moved to France to get some temporary respite. But Euphame’s feelings towards him remained unchanged after his eventual return to the family residence, so she resumed her efforts to be rid of him, resulting in her husband being seriously ill for several months.[11]

The couple’s affluence enabled them to employ several servants including a nurse to tend to their needs.[12] When Joseph Douglas, the Laird of Pumpherston, became the focus of Euphame’s extramarital affections, she had her servants take him valuable gifts in an attempt to lure him away from his fiancée. Changing tack after her advances were rejected, she again used servants as intermediaries, sending them to convince the Laird’s intended spouse that she should not marry him, because he was infected with a venereal disease.[11]

Despite the couple’s turbulent relationship, Euphame bore five children to her husband: two boys who died in infancy and three daughters.[13][b]One of the boys was named Thomas; the girls were Martha, Elizabeth and Euphame.[13] The births of the boys were not easy, so Euphame despatched her nurse to get help in relieving her pain and the discomforts of childbirth from a well-established midwife and cunning woman, Agnes SampsonScottish midwife, cunning woman and healer; central figure in the North Berwick witch trials..[14]

Euphame’s quarrels were not restricted to those she had with her husband; she also clashed with her extended family and members of the local elite.[3] Conflicts arose with her uncle, Henry MacCalzean, who had hoped that as he was Lord Cliftonhall’s brother he would inherit her father’s substantial fortune; after Euphame acceded to the estate following the death of her father in 1581 she continued to have bitter exchanges in the courts over the estate and lands with her uncle.[4]

Further acrimony existed with her brother-in-law, David Seton,[c]Some sources use an alternate spelling of his name, Seaton. who was an appointed magistrate of Tranent. Seton was married to Katherine Moscrop, Euphame’s husband’s sister.[4] In 1584 when the Moscrop’s mother died, she left 3,400 merks to the already affluent Euphame and Patrick while the Setons, who were always in severe financial difficulties, received 560 merks.[15][d]A Scots merk was equivalent to 13 shillings 4d.[16]

Witchcraft accusations

In November 1590, David Seton questioned his young maidservant, Geillis DuncanYoung Scottish maidservant suspected of witchcraft by her employer in November 1590. After being tortured, the initial testimony she gave led to the start of the North Berwick witch trials. , as he suspected she was involved in witchcraft. After being tortured Geillis confessed and went on to name several others, triggering what was to become known as the North Berwick witch trials, the first major Scottish witch-hunt and the inaugural large witchcraft trial under criminal law.[3][17]

Sometime after her initial questioning, Geillis implicated Euphame,[3] although the suggestion of Euphame’s connection with witchcraft does not appear in the official records until the pre-trial examination of Agnes Sampson during January 1591.[18][e]The precise date of the document is unknown, only that it was January 1591; it must have been before 27 January.[19] In the final days of January sworn statements were taken from several people, including Euphame’s servants; they claimed she was present at witch gatherings held at Acheson’s Haven and North Berwick the previous year. Donald Robson, Janet Stratton and Geillis Duncan alleged she handled a waxen image of King James there while she hinted that a new sovereign would be the Earl of Bothwell,[20][f]A first cousin of the King,[21] Francis Stewart, the Earl of Bothwell, was previously declared guilty of treason in 1589 but treated leniently by the sovereign for it.[22] King James continued to maintain his distrust of the Earl.[23] with whom she had close connections.[24] Euphame was in attendance when the statements were transcribed so was personally identified by the witnesses; she vehemently denied any involvement.[20]

Contemporary sources indicate that investigations were ongoing although official documents covering the start of February until 4 May 1591 have not survived.[25] Robert Bowes, the English diplomat who was Ambassador for Scotland from 1577 until 1583,[26] noted that another of the accused witches, Robert GriersonNamed by several accused of witchcraft during the North Berwick witch trials, Grierson died whilst being tortured during his interrogation., was tortured and died on 15 April.[27] The diplomat’s correspondence also shows earnest moves to further connect the Earl of Bothwell’s involvement in treasonable acts of witchcraft during April after statements taken from a known associate of Bothwell, Ritchie GrahamSorcerer, necromancer and wizard. Executed on the last day of February 1592 as part of the North Berwick witch trials, he was an associate of Francis Stewart, fifth Earl of Bothwell. , a well-established magician and necromancerForm of magic in which the dead are re-animated and able to communicate with the sorcerer who invoked them, just as they would if they were alive. who had been imprisoned since November 1590, implicated him to a greater extent.[28][29] The Earl was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle by the Privy Council on 15 April;[30][31] Euphame’s affiliations with Bothwell were progressing her towards facing charges of treasonable witchcraft.[28]

By 7 May records indicate Euphame was incarcerated; together with her servants she was being quizzed about letters and food she sent to others involved while they were held in custody.[28]

Trial and execution

Euphame’s trial started on 9 June 1591.[32] In contrast to the earlier hearings against others tried in this series of cases, such as John FianSchool teacher convicted of witchcraft in 1590, a central figure in the North Berwick witch trials and Agnes Sampson that were each heard in one day, Euphame’s was argued for several days through to 11 June with six eminent advocates presenting her defence.[33] On 12 June the panel of notable landed gentry declared her guilty of ten of the twenty-eight charges listed in her indictment including that of “being a well-known witch”.[32][34] She was also convicted on two counts of attending meetings of witches.[34]

The sentence of death by being burned alive and the forfeiture of all her estates was handed down on 15 June.[32] In Scottish witchcraft cases, the death sentence was routinely carried out very quickly after the verdict was declared,[35] usually within a few days;[36] often this was on a specific day of the week – in some areas of Scotland Wednesday was a particularly popular day – as officials wished to draw large crowds to witness the event.[37] Euphame’s execution was however delayed as she tried to adopt the same tactic employed by Barbara NapierWoman accused of witchcraft and conspiracy to murder during the North Berwick witch trials., that of claiming pregnancy to stave off the death penalty;[32] nevertheless Euphame was transported to Castle Hill, tied to a stake and burned alive on 25 June 1591, still maintaining her innocence.[38]


On 4 July, less than a fortnight after Euphame’s execution, Donald Robson and Janet Stratton recanted their assertions that she had attended the witch meetings or had anything to do with the waxed effigy. Robson further clarified that he had not seen, nor had any knowledge of Euphame, until he encountered her when making his previous statement.[39] Similarly, six months later, at the time of their execution on 4 December 1591, Geillis, together with another of the alleged witches named in her first statement, Bessie Thomson, both made lengthy statements retracting their accusations against Euphame and Barbara Napier of being involved in witchcraft.[40] When questioned as to why they lied in their confessions both declared they were forced into it by David Seton, his son and others whose names were not revealed.[41]

After Patrick MacCalzean paid 5,000 merks to recover the lands,[42] King James eventually reversed the forfeiture of Euphame’s property and estates to the Crown by passing an act in June 1592, returning her lands to her daughters.[13] The Cliftonhall estate was specifically excluded from the properties reinstated; after the forfeiture the sovereign had gifted it to Sir James Sandilands and it remained in his ownership.[43][g]Sir James Sandilands, a favourite of King James,[43] was the brother of the Laird of Pumperston’s fiancée, Mary Sandilands, by marriage as the pair had wed on 15 July 1586 despite Euphame’s efforts to prevent it. Academic Peter Maxwell-Stuart suggests the King may have felt allowing the Sandilands to retain possession of the estate was “a form of poetic justice”.[44][45]

At a later Edinburgh witchcraft trial, that of Isobel YoungScottish woman tried, convicted and executed for witchcraft in 1629. Her case gives an almost unrivalled glimpse into 17th-century proceedings in witch trials. from East Barns near Dunbar on 5 February 1629, prosecutors argued that Euphame’s trial had set a precedent. They maintained women and socii criminis were permitted to provide evidence in witchcraft cases.[46][47][h]Isobel Young (born in the 1560s) was found guilty of witchcraft and executed in February 1629.[48]

Modern interpretations

The narrative constructed in Euphame’s indictment characterises her as a spiteful, disrespectful wife;[12] in the mid-twentieth century, the medical historian Meredith H. Armstrong Davison[49] described Euphame as a “thoroughly vicious woman”,[50] and others used similar descriptors, such as “strong-minded shrew”.[10] The belief that witches could cause harm was common among all social groups in early modern Scotland;[51] the scholar Peter Maxwell-Stuart highlights that once the suspicion of witchcraft was directed towards someone, minor deeds, such as Euphame patting a child’s face with a small cloth, in the indictment was transformed into an accusation of having caused the girl’s death because she later died following a fall near Euphame’s house.[52]

The academics Lawrence Normand and Gareth Roberts conclude that the statements given by Robson and Stratton recanting their previous testimony, which were both taken on the same day by David Ogilvy, Euphame’s son-in-law,[i]David Ogilvy was married to Martha MacCalzean, Euphame and Patrick’s eldest daughter.[13] were to elicit the return of her wealth from the crown to the family.[53] They also suggest the possibility of it being a move towards exonerating Bothwell.[54]

Historian Louise Yeoman has suggested a pattern of how many of the wealthy women accused of witchcraft may have a basis in feuds over money or property with relatives or other interested parties. Maxwell-Stuart advocates that whilst David Seton may have welcomed the chance to implicate Euphame to his personal benefit, it is a side issue and “a long way from saying he engineered a sub-plot [ … …] and used the treason trials as a cover for personal pursuit of financial gain.”[55]




Cowan, Edward J. “Darker Vision of the Scottish Renaissance: The Devil and Francis Stewart.” The Renaissance and Reformation in Scotland: Essays in Honour of Gordon Donaldson, edited by Ian Borthwick Cowan and Duncan Shaw, Scottish Academic Press, 1983.
Davison, M. H. Armstrong. “The Fate of Eufame MacCalzean.” British Journal of Anaesthesia, vol. 22, no. 3, July 1950, pp. 176–82,
Green, Thomas. The Court of the Commissaries of Edinburgh: Consistorial Law and Litigation, 1559-1576. University of Edinburgh, 2010.
Holmes, N. M. McQ. Scottish Coins in the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh. Edited by Elina Screen et al., Published for the British Academy by the Oxford University Press, 2006.
Larner, Christina. Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland. Chatto and Windus, 1981.
Levack, Brian P. The Witchcraft Sourcebook: Second Edition. Second Edition, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.
Levack, Brian P. Witch-Hunting in Scotland. Law, Politics and Religion. Routledge, 2007.
Macdonald, Stuart. “In Search of the Devil in Fife Witchcraft Cases 1560–1705.” The Scottish Witch-Hunt in Context, Manchester University Press, 2002, pp. 33–50.
Martin, Lauren. “The Witch, the Household and the Community: Isobel Young in East Barns, 1580–1629.” Scottish Witches and Witch-Hunters, edited by Julian Goodare, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 67–84.
Maxwell-Stuart, P. G. Satan’s Conspiracy: Magic and Witchcraft in Sixteenth-Century Scotland. Tuckwell Press, 2001.
McGladdery, C. A. “Bowes, Robert (d. 1597).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Online, Oxford University Press, 2004,
Normand, Lawrence, and Gareth Roberts. Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland: James VI’s Demonology and the North Berwick Witches. University of Exeter Press, 2000.
Padfield, Adrian. “Dr Meredith Henry Armstrong Davison.” Royal College of Anaesthetists, Accessed 19 Jan. 2020.
Paterson, Laura. “Executing Scottish Witches.” Scottish Witches and Witch-Hunters, edited by Julian Goodare, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 196–214.
Pitcairn, Robert. Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, Vol I, Part II. William Tait, 1833.
Stafford, Helen. “Notes on Scottish Witchcraft Cases, 1590-91.” Essays in Honor of Conyers Read, edited by Norton Downs, University of Chicago Press, 1953, pp. 96–118, 278–84.
Yeoman, Louise. “North Berwick Witches.” The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Online, Oxford University Press, 2004,
Yeoman, Louise. “Hunting the Rich Witch in Scotland.” The Scottish Witch-Hunt in Context, edited by Julian Goodare, Manchester University Press, 2002, pp. 106–21.