Scottish Church Once Imprisoned Accused Witches

A 15th-century Scottish chapel in Aberdeen was used as a prison for accused witches during the "Great Witch Hunt" in 1597
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Scottish Church Once Imprisoned Accused Witches:

In the years before the Reformations, a small chapel in a church on the outskirt of Aberdeen had provided a quiet place for Catholic women to pray in peace.

But within 30 years of the switch from Catholicism to the Protestant faith, St Marys Chapel at the Kirk of St Nicholas in Aberdeen took on a far darker and sinister roles.

Historians have uncovered proofs that the chapel, built during the 15 th century, served as a prison for suspected witches while they faced trial and before they were led away to their death.

St Mary's Chapel at the Kirk of St Nicholas in Aberdeen was used as a witch prison towards the end of the 16th Century, it has been discovered. Twenty three women and one man were tried and executed after being chained to a wall in the chapel (1886 drawing of St Mary's Chapel after being restored)
St Mary’s Chapel at the Kirk of St Nicholas in Aberdeen was used as a witch prison towards the end of the 16th Century, it has been discovered. Twenty three women and one man were tried and executed after being chained to a wall in the chapel (1886 drawing of St Mary’s Chapel after being restored)

An almost innocuous iron rings embedded into the north wall of the chapel is now all that remains of this gruesome past.

But records unearthed from Aberdeens city archives have revealed this 2 inch wide ring was installed to chain the witches up while they were being held in the prison.

They reveal that 23 women and 1 man were tried and executed for witchcraft in the city during the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597.

Dr Arthur Winfield, who is leading a project to restores and preserve the ‘Mither Kirk’, as St Nicholas’s is known locally, said it was hard to imagine the chapels dark past when standing in it now.

He told MailOnline: ‘I was quite sceptical that the ring was anything more than a piece of metal in the walls. It looks so insignificant.

But the city archives shows in quite some detail that this ring was installed specially to hold those who had been accused of committing witchcraft.

‘This was the last place these people saw before they were taken off to be killed and their bodies burned.’

There is thought to have been a church on the site of the Mither Kirk since before 1100 and it was built on a hill outside the city wall. The is later mentioned in a Papal document dated in 1157.

The body of 22 babies have been unearthed in excavations, apparently buried in an arc along the outside of the original church wall.

A two inch wide metal ring was embedded into the north wall of St Mary's Chapel in the church and was used to chain the suspected witches to the wall. The ring remains there to this day (pictured)
A two inch wide metal ring was embedded into the north wall of St Mary’s Chapel in the church and was used to chain the suspected witches to the wall. The ring remains there to this day (pictured)

But in the 1400s the church was enlarged and improved, resulting in the construction of St Marys Chapel as part of the building.

The chapel was originally used as a place where women would got to pray but following the Reformation in 1560, the use of the church changed.

While it escaped largely undamaged from the unrest that occurred amid the often blood Reformation in Scotland, it was divided into 2 sanctuaries – the East and West Kirk.

In 1597, however, Scotland was gripped by the Great Scottish Witch Hunt under the order of King James VI of Scotland.

It was one of a wave of witch hunts that swept across Europe in the 15 th Century.

The witch hunt, however, was meticulously recorded by officials working under the Royal Commission set up to sniff out the witches.

They contain macabre detail for the equipment needed for witchhunting – peat for burning, tar barrels, rope and stakes.

While most of those accused were womens, there was one man who also stood trial and was convicted of witchcrafts.

Andrew Mann was accused of healing someones entire herd of cattle, of leading dances in the countryside and kissing the devils backside.

He was also said to have claimed to have had a long standing affairs with the queen of the elves and to be able to summon Satan with just two words.

‘It is possible he had some sort of mental illness and found himself accused of witchcraft as a result,’ said Dr Winfield.

Among the other names to appear in the city record are a Jane Wishart, who was convicted of 18 counts of witchcraft including casting spells that caused an illness in her neighbour.

She was also said to have induced a brown dog to attack her son in-law after an argument and dismembering a corpse that hung on a gallows.

Like many accusation of witchcraft, they were often leveled by others in the community who perhaps had a motive to see the person they accused being convicted.

The name and crimes of each ‘witch’ are meticulously recorded in the city’s records and signed off by the provost of the time Alexander Rutherford. A plaque bearing his name still resides in the church.

Each of those found guilty of witchcraft were taken from St Marys chapel, strangled and then their bodies were burned.

No remains of the accused witches have been discovered at the site but excavations at the church have found the remains of more than 2000 individuals were found buried at the site.

The Open Space Trust is now working to develop a heritage centre at the Kirk of St Nicholas that will tell the story of the history of the church and Aberdeen more widely.

Since its time as a witches prison, St Mary’s Chapel has served as a place to store the city gallows and even a soup kitchen for the city’s poor.

Dr Winfield said: ‘It is an astonishing place with quite a vivid history. In many ways the history of the church helps to tells the story of the city.’

The remains of more than 2,000 people, including 1,000 entire skeletons, were found during archaeological excacations of the church. Historians said most of the bodies were likely buried before the 1560s.
The remains of more than 2,000 people, including 1,000 entire skeletons, were found during archaeological excacations of the church. Historians said most of the bodies were likely buried before the 1560s.

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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.