Geillis Duncan, also known as Gillie Duncan, a young Scottish maidservant, was suspected of witchcraft by her employer, David Seton. In November 1590, after being tortured, the initial testimony she gave initiated the North Berwick witch trialsSeries of Scottish witch trials held between 1590 and 1593 . She went on to name several others involved in magical practices, including some of the high society of Edinburgh. King James VI took a personal interest in the ensuing trials after allegations surfaced that a coven of witches was plotting against his life. He commanded that she be taken before him to demonstrate how she played the Jew’s harp, the first person named as performing on the instrument in historical records.
Duncan was frequently re-questioned following her first arrest until May 1591, but was not mentioned again in the surviving records before her execution on 4 December 1591. The pamphlet, Newes from ScotlandPamphlet describing the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland detailing the confessions given by the accused witches before the King., printed in London while the trials were taking place, gave an account of her circumstances.
Modern-day academics have described Duncan’s initial examination as tantamount to rape, and a reflection of the worst extremes of a patriarchal society.
Geillis[a] Duncan’s age is unknown, although it has been argued by modern-day academics including Michael Wright that she was young, probably in her early to mid-teens, despite being portrayed as an old women in the only illustration of her. She was employed as a servant in the household of an appointed magistrate of Tranent, David Seton,[b] whose suspicions were aroused when she started to be absent from his house on alternate nights. Although uneducated, she had quite suddenly acquired a reputation as a healer, leading him to consider that witchcraft may have been involved. Seton and his son, also named David, had a reputation locally as fervent witch hunters. Belligerent and in severe financial difficulties, Seton was convinced that his problems were the result of others committing ungodly acts against him.
When she was first questioned in November 1590, Duncan was unresponsive when Seton interrogated her about his suspicions concerning her involvement with witchcraft. Dissatisfied, together with some associates he proceeded to torture the girl. According to the contemporary account given in Newes from Scotland, she was tortured using pilliwinks[c] and by twisting and tightening some rope round her head. Only after her tormentors claimed to have found the Devil’s mark on her throat did she finally confess to being a witch; she was then incarcerated and over a period of time proceeded to name many others involved in witchcraft.
Those named by Duncan included Agnes SampsonScottish midwife, cunning woman and healer; central figure in the North Berwick witch trials, an elderly woman from Nether Keith, near Haddington, who had a reputation as a midwife and healer, and Doctor FianSchool teacher convicted of witchcraft in 1590, a central figure in the North Berwick witch trials (alias John Cunningham), a schoolmaster from Prestonpans.[d] Women with a high status among Edinburgh society such as Barbara NapierBarbara Napier or sometimes Barbara Naper (c. 1554 – sometime between 1592 to 1600) was an Edinburgh woman accused of witchcraft and conspiracy to murder in the series of trials from 1590 until 1592 that become known as the North Berwick witch trials. , whose husband Archibald Douglas was a burgess of Edinburgh, and Euphame MacCalzeanWealthy Scottish heiress and member of the gentry convicted of witchcraft. A key figure in the North Berwick witchcraft trials of 1590–1591., daughter of Lord Cliftonhall were also implicated, and all were subsequently arrested.
About sixty people were accused during this two-year period of witchcraft persecutions.[e] Of those named by Duncan, only MacCalzean had previously been suspected of using witchcraft to cause harm for several years.
The first recorded confession from Duncan that survives is undated, but academics place it prior to December 1590 based on information provided in Newes from Scotland. It opens with the words: “Gillie confesses that in the midst of the firth they met with the [blank: witches?] of Coppenhown’ (Copenhagen).”[f] Over the course of several statements she gave detailed testimony of meetings and incidents that were corroborated by Agnes Sampson. In a confession transcribed on 15 December 1590 Duncan claimed that witches met in an Edinburgh house owned by Napier; while there the coven were attempting to bring about the death of King James. A large assembly of the witches involved took place at Acheson’s Haven[g] on 31 July 1590.
Duncan said she had frequently been on a boat called The Grace of God with the Devil and other coven members; they had drunk wine and been entertained, sometimes remaining at sea for two days.
After disembarking from the boat, the festivities continued with singing and dancing. According to a confession made by Sampson, on Halloween 1590 at North Berwick church Duncan led the procession playing tunes on a Jew’s harp.[h] When King James learned about this detail in the confession he insisted Duncan be brought to him so he could witness her playing.
Although Duncan described acts carried out by others which were deemed to be witchcraft, she only confessed to a single incident of using magic herself, casting a spell A spell is a verbal charm to be spoken or chanted, sometimes a single magic word such as Abracadabra or the Renervate encountered in the fictional Harry Potter series of books. on a hat belonging to the laird of Balnaird. Duncan was repeatedly interrogated from November 1590 until May 1591, but was not mentioned again in the surviving records until she made a statement on the day of her execution.
No trial records have been discovered for Duncan, although she was convicted of witchcraft. On 4 December 1591 Duncan, together with another of the alleged witches named in Duncan’s first statement, Bessie Thomson, was taken to Castle Hill in Edinburgh for execution. Both made lengthy statements retracting their accusations against MacCalzean and Napier of being involved in witchcraft. 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.
MacCalzean had been executed almost six months earlier on 25 June 1591. Napier’s fate is unclear; she may have been executed at Haddington in the second half of 1591 together with five others[i] but this is uncertain.
Montague Summers, an eccentric scholar who wrote about witchcraft, demonology and the occult, considered Duncan’s nocturnal absences from Seton’s house could be attributed to her working as a prostitute. The torture inflicted on Duncan by the group led by Seton at the outset was illegal, but there are no records of anyone being censured for carrying it out. Historian Peter G. Maxwell suggests this offence was ignored because Duncan’s confessions quickly resulted in the revelation of crimes against King James.
To facilitate the search conducted by the group of men to find the Devil’s mark, Duncan had been stripped, shaved and then subjected to a physical examination that the academic Susan Dunn-Hensley describes as being “tantamount to rape”. She also considers Duncan’s treatment as mirroring the “most extreme and brutal form” displayed against women in a patriarchal society.
Scholars Samuel Pyeatt Menefee and Michael Wright conclude that the ritual dances constituted the passage between the normal world and the supernatural. In all the historical records so far discovered pertaining to Jew’s harps, Duncan is the first person who is identified as playing the instrument. Wright questions whether Duncan would have been capable of performing on the trump for King James after her fingers were crushed during her torture using pilliwinks.
- Sometimes, as in for instance the court documents, her first name is spelt as Gillie, which is the shortened version of Geillis.
- Some sources use an alternate spelling of his name, Seaton.
- Pilliwinkes or thumbikins are similar to thumbscrews.
- Doctor was the term used for a schoolmaster.
- Numbers vary; for instance, academic Bengt Ankarloo states: “More than a hundred suspected witches in North Berwick were arrested.”
- In Denmark during May that year a woman named Anna Koldings had been executed after she confessed to acts of witchcraft which included summoning storms to delay the convoy of ships carrying Princess Anne of Denmark to Scotland after her proxy marriage to King James. In the ensuing few months, several other women were convicted in Denmark as being involved.
- Acheson’s Haven was later known as Morrison’s Haven; situated in Prestongrange it is now buried under reclaimed land.
- A Jew’s harp is also known as a Jew’s trump or, especially in Scotland, as a trump.
- Napier was known to be alive but probably incarcerated in June 1591.