Fordell Castle in 2017
Fordell Castle, Fife as it was in 2017. The ancestral home of Margaret Henderson, Lady Pittadro’s family, her lands of Pittadro were subsumed into the surrounding Fordell estate some time after her death.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Henderson, Lady Pittadro, Pittadrow or Pittathrow, a member of the Scottish elite, was accused of and then incarcerated for witchcraft in 1649. Imprisoned in the Edinburgh Tollbooth for several months, she died before her case went to trial.

The precise cause of her death is unknown; it may have been from natural causes or suicide. She is buried in Inverkeithing Churchyard, but her interment brought a severe chastisement from the General Assembly to the presbytery of Dunfermline, as the bodies of witches were meant to be burned.

Only a handful of high-status women faced sorcery charges during the Scottish witch-hunts and, as in the case of the wealthy heiress Euphame MacCalzeanWealthy Scottish heiress and member of the gentry convicted of witchcraft. A key figure in the North Berwick witchcraft trials of 1590–1591.Wealthy Scottish heiress and member of the gentry convicted of witchcraft. A key figure in the North Berwick witchcraft trials of 1590–1591., a key figure in the North Berwick witch trialsSeries of Scottish witch trials held between 1590 and 1593 of 1590–1591, feuds over money or property with other interested parties may have influenced the actions taken once any accusations were made.

Personal life

Margaret Henderson was one of the seven daughters and four sons of James Henderson of Fordell and his wife Jean Murray, daughter of the tenth baron of Tullibardine. James Henderson was well connected, and a favourite of King James VI.[1] Three of Margaret’s brothers were knighted,[2] and several of her sisters married into other prestigious local families. In 1597 Margaret married William Echline of Pittadro.[a]Spelling was erratic in the 17th century;[3] Pittadro is used by Louise Yeoman;[4] Stuart Macdonald uses Pittadrow;[5] and Christina Larner spells it as Pittathrow.[6] Their marriage, signed off by the earl of Mar, brought a dowry of 4,000 merks.[7][b]A Scots merk was equivalent to 13 shillings 4d.[8]

The couple had two children: a son, Henry, and a daughter, Grizell. Margaret was a widow by 1623, the year in which she purchased land for her daughter, despite her late husband William having lost most of his lands by 1615 to pay off his large debts.[7]


In the mid-17th century Scotland was in a period of turmoil from economic, political and religious unrest. The radical Kirk party attempted to create a godly society, seeking out witches and other offenders. Ministers and presbyteries were commanded by the General Assembly to actively pursue any transgressors.[9] Margaret’s estate of Pittadro was situated to the north of the Forth, near Inverkeithing,[10][c]The Pittadro estate lay adjacent to her father’s Fordell estate; some time before the end of the 19th century the Pittadro lands were subsumed into Fordell,[2] where the minister, Walter BruceScottish minister at Inverkeithing and Rosyth who played a significant role in the witch-hunt of 1649–1650., was zealous in his endeavours to uncover witches.[4] But Bruce was criticised by the presbytery for delivering a sermon and reciting prayers at a witch’s execution on 23 March 1649. The presbytery went on to instruct that confessions should be elicited from those “incarcorat suspct of witchcraft” at Inverkeithing on 13 April, following a complaint to the Synod of Fife from the bailies in Inverkeithing, who were attempting to bring several accused witches to trial.[11]

Like Lady Pittadro, Bruce belonged to a higher-status landed family.[7][d]Educated at St Andrews University, Walter Bruce was a younger son of Sir John Bruce of Kincavil and Jean Drummond.[12] A controversial figure, despite being a minister, he was involved in several business ventures, including shared ownership of a ship; participation in commercial dealings was considered inappropriate for members of the clergy. The Dunfermline presbytery later demoted Bruce for “gross neglects of the special duties of his ministry”.[13][e]He appealed and the General Assembly permitted him to resume preaching in December 1652.[12] He was also chastised for using indiscreet language during church services.[12]

Witchcraft accusations

The Inverkeithing minister played a significant role in what was to develop into the witchcraft panic of 1649 to 1650. By July 1649 he was involved in accusations of witchcraft against at least twenty-three locals.[4] A number of executions had already taken place by the beginning of June.[14] During July, nineteen Inverkeithing residents were named as witches in the confessions of those appearing in court. Lady Pittadro was named as the ringleader of the band of witches. One of the group, Margaret Blaikburn,[f]sometimes given as Blaikburne elaborated in her confession that Lady Pittadro had summoned them to a meeting to lodge complaints with the Devil about Walter Bruce.[15] Testimony given to Bruce in one of the confessions asserted that Lady Pittadro wanted help getting retribution from the Devil against the minister, as he had purchased the house he was living in when Lady Pittadro had wished to buy it for her daughter and son-in-law.[4] Several of those executed for witchcraft identified Lady Pittadro as attending multiple witch meetings, and claimed that she had “abominable societie with the devill.”[2]

John KincaidProfessional witch-finder or pricker of witches based in Tranent, East Lothian. , the notorious Scottish witch-pricker, was active in the area at the time. He is recorded as pricking Bessie Mortoun in December 1649;[16][g]Bessie Mortoun was soon after executed.[16] the Devil’s mark was found on various parts of the body of Marjorie (or Marion) Durie.[17]

Learning of the accusations of witchcraft being levelled against her, Lady Pittadro fled from Inverkeithing to Edinburgh. She was soon captured and imprisoned in Edinburgh Tollbooth in July to await trial on witchcraft charges.[18][19] The General Assembly were keen to have her brought to trial insisting “this land and city may be free of her, and justice done upon her”; it instructed the King’s advocate, Thomas Nicolson, to proceed with action against her, and if she was found guilty to “convict and condemn her, pronounce sentence of death against, cause strangle her, and burn her body, and do every requisite in sic cases.”[20]

Death and burial

Some five months later, on a morning in mid-December 1649, Lady Pittadro was found dead in her prison within the tollbooth while still awaiting trial; why the trial was delayed for so long is unclear.[21] The cause of her death is uncertain, as she was reported to be in good health the previous evening.[20] She may have died of natural causes or committed suicide;[13] other reports suggest she was poisoned with a substance administered either by herself or on behalf of her relatives, or that she was strangled.[10][20]

Lady Pittadro’s relatives secured permission from some members of the Kirk session for her body to be buried in the church cemetery in Inverkeithing.[22] The burial immediately sparked controversy, as the General Assembly considered that as she was facing trial for witchcraft her body should have been burned. They sent a notice to the presbytery at Dunfermline indicating their displeasure at the “manner and place” of her interment, and instructing that their disapproval should be relayed to those responsible.[23]

Modern interpretations

The 21st-century academic Stuart Macdonald considers that the cases at Inverkeithing in 1649 were unusual: the questioning of Beatrix Thomsone, Katherine Grieve and Margaret Blaikburn, who named Lady Pittadro, concentrated on the number of witch gatherings, names of attendees and identification of the ring leaders. Sparse attention was given by the inquisitors to any evil deeds the accused might have carried out.[15]

The historian Louise Yeoman has suggested a pattern in which many of the accusations of witchcraft against wealthy women may have been rooted in feuds over money or property, with relatives or other interested parties.[24] Records do not indicate that the Inverkeithing minister was in debt.[13] Like Euphame MacCalzeanWealthy Scottish heiress and member of the gentry convicted of witchcraft. A key figure in the North Berwick witchcraft trials of 1590–1591.Wealthy Scottish heiress and member of the gentry convicted of witchcraft. A key figure in the North Berwick witchcraft trials of 1590–1591., Margaret was a wealthy woman, possibly arousing jealousy from male contemporaries in property disputes;[25] the line of female inheritance may have also been a factor as the last records of Margaret’s son Henry, a soldier fighting in Flanders, are from before 1623, when his mother bought land for his sister.[7]

Macdonald suggests that the presence of the witch-finder, Kincaid, was more likely to be a means of speedily persuading anyone who was dubious about whether the accused were guilty, rather than contributing significantly to events.[17] Yeoman attributes the significant role in proceedings to the minister of Inverkeithing, Walter Bruce, describing him as “the key figure in a virulent witch-hunt”.[7]




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