Between March and October 1597 a series of witch trials took place in Scotland. Over 400 people were put on trial for witchcraft and about 200 were executed. Unlike other Scottish Witch Hunts, the trials of 1597 were conducted by local courts under the supervision of royal commissions, and so were often not as well documented as previous or latter ‘hunts’. The first of the recorded cases took place in Aberdeenshire, with one of the largest being against Janet Wishart, who was accused of thirty-one incidents of witchery spreading over a twenty-four year period. She was put on trial along with her husband John Leys, their son Thomas, three daughters, and one named associate, Isobel Cockie from Kintore.
During the trial it was claimed that among other things, Janet had used a cantrip (spell) to cause one victim to alternately shiver and sweat, bewitched other victims so that they died or nearly died, raised storms via the throwing out of live coals, used “nightmare cats” to inflict horrible dreams, and dismembered a corpse hanging at the gallows.
More specifically, one of the earliest accusations referred to an incident in May 1572 when five men, three of them students, caught Janet creeping out of the yard of Adam Mair, her neighbour, at two o’clock in the morning. The men immediately woke Mair’s wife and told her what they had discovered. Furiously, Janet said, ‘Weill haif ye schemit me. I sail gar the best of yow repent’. Whereupon, that same day, between 2 and 3 in the afternoon, two of the youths were drowned in the Auld Wattergang in the Links, where they had gone to wash themselves.
A much later occurrence of witchery took place during Halloween 1596 when, along with her son Thomas, Janet met with other witches at the fish cross in Aberdeen where they danced, played music and reputedly met with the devil.
Whilst imprisoned and awaiting their trial, Janet and her son were said to have been visited again by the devil. They asked ‘What will become of us?’ The Devil answered, ‘Deny everything’, and then promised to return later. He never did.
Evil spirits were said to have entered the family home just before Janet’s trial and again just before her execution; and from his prison-cell, Thomas gave Elspeth Reid, the woman with whom he was living, instructions on how to banish an evil spirit.
Violet (Janet’s daughter) was accused of going to the city gallows at midnight, cutting down the corpse, removing parts of the body, and burning the rest. Elspeth, too, was included in the general accusation of witchcraft and sorcery levelled against her family, but her dittay does not seem to have survived and so further details are missing.
Janet was found guilty of eighteen of the thirty-one accusations of witchery and executed by burning at the stake, along with Cockie, on 17 February. The cost of the execution was eleven pounds and ten shillings, for the “peat, tar barrels and coals,” and the executioner’s fees.
Later Janet’s son Thomas, who had named other witches, was also burnt to death, however her husband and daughters were found innocent, but subsequently banned from the city due to their association with Janet and Thomas.
Two more Wishart witches were sent for trial in 1644 (Christian Wishart from Orkney) and 1662 (Margaret Wishart from Collessie, Fife) however their eventual fates are not currently known.