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Scottish witches ‘fly’ online for Halloween

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By | From the Collections, In the Library

We’ve recently digitised a 350-year old manuscript. Nothing very unusual in that, but this one is really rather special.

Black book binding

Manuscript 3658 – register of Names of the Witches (Scotland), 1658. Wellcome Library.

MS 3658 is a record of men and women accused of witchcraft in Scotland in 1658, at a time when the persecution of witches was rife. The handwritten register contains details including the names and towns of the accused, as well as notes about their ‘confessions’.

A page from Wellcome Library reference:

A page from the register of witches. Wellcome Library reference: MS 3658.

Following the passing of the Scottish Witchcraft Act in 1563, witchcraft and consulting with witches were made capital crimes. It has been estimated that some 3000-5000 women were publically accused in Scotland during the 16th and 17th centuries. Whilst some men were accused, the rate was far higher for women. Accusations were also much higher in Scotland than in neighbouring England during the period (arguably due to the number of larger witch-hunts which took place in Scotland)

V0025910 Three witches: Joan Flower and her two daughters Margaret an Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Three witches: Joan Flower and her two daughters Margaret and Philipa; depicted with a cat, a dog and a bird. Engraving, 1600/1700. 1600-1700 Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Three witches with a cat, a dog and a bird. Engraving, ca. 1800, after a woodcut, 1619. Wellcome Library reference no. 562370i.

As with many items in our collections, we know when it was purchased and a little bit about its provenance, but we don’t know who created it, or why. The register was created at the peak of the witch-craze across Europe, but on the whole many of the accused probably weren’t actual witches. People accused of witchcraft were in some cases healers, part of the folk medicine tradition. Often their practices worked to good effect: when they didn’t some critics were not averse to accusing them of witchcraft.

We worked with Ancestry to give their subscribers access to the register along with many other genealogical resources. The the register and a transcription are also available online on the Wellcome Library website.

witches in 17th century scotland

An extract from the transcription at the end of the digital copy. Wellcome Library reference: MS 3658.

For more details on the study of witchcraft in Scotland check out ‘The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft‘.

Phoebe Harkins

Phoebe Harkins is Library Communications Co-ordinator at the Wellcome Library.

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