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The Witchcraft Act 1735 (9 Geo. II c. 5), sometimes referred to as the Witchcraft Act 1736 owing to dating complexities,[1] repealed the earlier statutes concerning witchcraft throughout Great Britain including Scotland, which had its own legal system. It reflected a change of emphasis towards the pretence of fortune telling, sorcery and witchcraft and away from their practice.[2] During the 18th century prosecutions under the new Act were rarely if ever undertaken in Scotland, as the facilities to implement the punishments laid down did not exist.[3]

The case against Jean MaxwellA Scottish cunning woman convicted of pretending to practise witchcraft , the Galloway sorceress, who was prosecuted and convicted under the Act in June 1805 at Kirkcudbright, is one of the first records of the statute being implemented in Scotland.[4] A cunning woman, she was sentenced to be confined in the town tollbooth for a year, the maximum allowed for. During the term of her imprisonment she was to be taken to the market place every three months and put into the jugs or pillory for an hour.[5]

Scholar Malcolm Gaskill describes the conviction of Helen Duncan, a Scottish born medium who was tried under the Act in 1944, as the “most famous and influential of a handful of prosecutions”.[6] The eight-day trial at the Old Bailey commenced on 22 March with three other people accused of the same charge. Found guilty, Duncan was sentenced to nine months imprisonment while her travelling companion was incarcerated for four months and the remaining two accused were bound over. Duncan was released after serving six months.[7]

Duncan was the last person to be jailed under the Act,[8] but the medium Jane Yorke was the last person to be convicted under it. She was arrested on 10 July 1944, but the Director of Public Prosecutions delayed the case against her until an appeal against Duncan’s judgement was heard. The appeal being unsuccessful, Yorke  was convicted at the Old Bailey on 12 September, but perhaps because of her age – she was seventy-two years old and disabled – she was not imprisoned but bound over for three years.[9]

The Witchcraft Act was repealed by the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951; witchcraft was no longer a crime for the first time since 1547, when King Edward VII had repealed his father’s Act of 1542.[10][11]



Davies, Owen. “Decriminalising the Witch.” Witchcraft and the Act of 1604, edited by John Newton and Jo Bath, Brill, 2008, pp. 207–32.
Devine, Michael. “Treasonous Catholic Magic and the 1563 Witchcraft Legislation: The English State’s Response to Catholic Conjuring in the Early Years of Elizabeth I’s Reign.” Supernatural and Secular Power in Early Modern England, edited by Marcus Harmes and Victoria Bladen, Routledge, 2016, pp. 67–92.
Gaskill, Malcolm. “Duncan  [Née MacFarlane], (Victoria) Helen McCrae (1897–1956).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Online, Oxford University Press, 2011.
Gaskill, Malcolm. Hellish Nell: The Last of Britain’s Witches. Fourth Estate, 2001.
Gaskill, Malcolm. Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction. Ebook, Oxford University Press, 2010.
Gibson, Marion. Witchcraft and Society in England and America, 1550-1750. Continuum, 2006.
Goodare, Julian. Response to Scottish Parliament Petition PE1128. Scottish Parliament, 4 Apr. 2008,
Henderson, Lizanne. Witchcraft and Folk Belief in the Age of Enlightenment Scotland, 1670–1740. Palgrave MacMillan, 2016.
Larner, Christina. Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland. Chatto and Windus, 1981.