What were more frightening - bootikins and pilliwinks or witches on broomsticks? Well, the first two were gross pieces of torture equipment and the latter didn't exist. The bootikins and pilliwinks, though, were used to force confessions out of the poor wretches accused of being in league with the Devil during the Great Scottish Witch Hunt that reached its zenith 350 years ago.
It's curious the way the most hideous devices were sometimes given the most innocent of names, and the most innocent of people were made to suffer the worst of agonies. Another favourite for use on witchcraft suspects was the pear of anguish (insert in any orifice then expand to destruction).
This was all stuff that I came across while helping the Edinburgh Dungeons research their special Halloween show called War on Witches. It's loosely based round the North Berwick witchcraft trials of the early 1590s. These saw James VI himself take part in the interrogation of the doomed souls accused of using magic to stir up a sea storm intended to sink the ship on which he was sailing.
Since then I've got genuinely intrigued by just what was going on in Scotland in the 16th to the early eighteenth centuries, when witch hunts seemed to be at their worst. So many of the stories are frankly weird from a 21st-century perspective - the Leith kirk minister who was caught having women rounded up and tortured. Was he punished ... absolutely not, he was a man of God. But one of his victims, Marion Mure, who had been kept in chains ended up being executed by the authorities.
For many of the 4,000 known to have been accused of witchcraft during this period there was a good chance of being put to death. That frequently meant being taken somewhere like Castle Hill in Edinburgh to be publicly strangled, with the corpse then being burned to prevent its resurrection by coven colleagues.
Oddly enough, despite a level of persecution that sometime reached the scale of low level warfare, there was no enemy. Accusers often really, truly believed they were fighting the Devil and his disciples but there is no evidence of any actual witchcraft cult. So people mostly got picked on for being a bit different, slightly bonkers, or due to greed and envy.
Despite all this it seems that the non-existent witches actually won. The beliefs that drove the persecutions are now discredited and look barbarous rather than righteous, but occasions like Halloween have become national celebrations of the safely scary. And so it is that Agnes Sampson, tortured and killed at the instigation of James VI, has become the central character in the Dungeon's War on Witches show, and the names of those who bolted the witch's bridle to her head are long forgotten.
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