Margaret Aitken or Atkin (died Fife c. August 1597), known as the great witch of Balwearie, was a pivotal figure in the great Scottish witchcraft panic of 1597. After being accused of witchcraft she confessed, and then identified hundreds of other women as being witches to save her own life.
On the basis of Margaret’s claims that a large convention of thousands of witches was being organised to be staged in Atholl, King James VI approved the establishment of a special commission of prosecutors. They took her to towns throughout Scotland to pinpoint those who were witches.
Margaret was exposed as a fraud a few months later and was burnt at the stake. Her actions and false accusations effectively ended that series of witch trials.
It is recorded that King James V had a nightmare in 1539 that the laird of Balwearie’s son, Thomas Scott, visited the king “in the company of devils”. The 13th-century physician, Sir Michael Scott of Balwearie, had long since entered folklore as being a wizard.
Great Scottish witch-hunt of 1597
Margaret Aitken or Margaret Atkin[a] was accused of witchcraft and arrested on suspicion of that crime in Fife around April 1597. Under the threat of extreme torture and to spare her own life, during her confession she claimed to be able to recognise other witches, by a special mark in their eyes.
In May 1597 Margaret claimed to know of a convention of 2300 witches in Atholl. A special commission was formed as a result, with the approval of James VI, and prosecutors took her from town to town to detect witches. During 1597 the only other witch finder used in witchcraft cases was Marion Kwyne who featured in the cases brought against two men and thirteen women in Kirkcaldy; academic Stuart Macdonald speculates this may have been Margaret under an assumed name.
In addition to Margaret looking into the eyes of those accused of witchcraft, the commission also employed the swimming testMethods used to identify witches. – almost the only occasion this test was used in Scotland.
When Margaret reached Glasgow, the minister John Cowper condemned many innocent women to death on her testimony. Any woman suspected of witchcraft was cast into prison and subjected to torture – under which most of them confessed. They would then be brought to trial and executed. The exact number of executions carried out by the commission is unknown, but is thought to have run into hundreds.
Margaret’s short-lived success also led to imitators such as Anne Ewing who, after identifying witches in large-scale witch hunts in Kirkcaldy, was loaned by the magistrates of that burgh to their contemporaries in Inverkeithing on condition that she was to return to her home area once her mission was accomplished.
An English ambassador to Scotland wrote to Lord Burghley in August 1597 that the King was “much pestered with witches, who swarm in thousands”.
Around 1 August 1597, Margaret was exposed as a fraud. A sceptical prosecutor took some of those declared guilty and brought them back to Margaret the following day in different clothing. When she declared them innocent, her role as witch-finder was irretrievably undermined and the witch trials stopped.
After this disastrous episode, James VI revoked the existing commissions on 12 August 1597 via a proclamation by the privy council at Falkland. The outcry over the Aitken affair meant that Scotland would not see another panic for another three decades, but James VI’s confidence in pursuing offenders was undiminished. The publication of his dissertation, Daemonologie, not long after shows how deeply concerned he was with the problem.
The king had his mind only bent on the examination and trial of sorcerors, men and women.